As interests realign, a third major political party could emerge in the U.S., says Presidential historian Jeffrey Engel

“The fact that we have violence inside the U S Capitol is actually not unprecedented,” Mr. Engel says.

Updated - January 13, 2021 09:57 am IST

Published - January 12, 2021 08:24 pm IST

Jeffrey A. Engel, head of the Centre for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.

Jeffrey A. Engel, head of the Centre for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.

Jeffrey A. Engel, who heads the Centre for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University analyses the attack on the U.S. Capitol , its significance and consequences. Edited excerpts:

Some historians have compared the violence that happened in at the Capitol last Wednesday to violence that happened in the wake of the Reconstruction, where the majority group tried taking over the democratic machinery by force when things looked like they were not going their way. What historical parallels can you draw two last week storming of the Capitol?

Jeffrey A. Engel: The historical parallel I've been playing with is the Boston Massacre from the American revolution in 1770. British troops opened fire on American protesters, who frankly were being violent, throwing snowballs and rocks and whatnot at them. And the significance was not that several people died. The significance was that that moment crystallised the break for both people on both sides of the Atlantic, crystallised that we had reached a moment of genuine violence that requires new attitudes and new assessments. So I really that the attack on the Capitol, more than Reconstruction, which was essentially the broad process of how to reintegrate the South into the country after the Civil War… and the pushing back against civil rights, the pushing back against equal rights for African-Americans in particular… but that didn't happen in the Capitol.

The fact that we have violence inside the U.S. Capitol is actually not unprecedented. There have been numerous occasions where we've had Congressmen and Senators beat each other up on the floor, pull guns, etc. This is still America. But we've never seen anything like thousands upon thousands of people trying to not just attack a branch of government, but to disrupt the constitutionally mandated democratic process. This really was a seditious insurgency. There's really no other way to describe it.

So it's a moment of reckoning for the country and there's going to be a before and an after. Is that correct?

I think so, because I don't think anything really has changed since last Wednesday, except people's realisation that a line has been crossed. You know, President Trump has been saying seditious things for weeks and weeks now. But there wasn't any follow up. And President Trump says, frankly, lots of things which never come true. In fact, President Trump rarely says things that are true, to be honest. And what we saw last Wednesday was the general public, for the first time, seeing with their own eyes the consequences… Americans are going to recognise that yes, we do in fact need boundaries on what is, and is not acceptable in conversation and political behaviour.

To the extent that it's possible to get into the President's mind, did you think he was actually expecting this to happen?

Let me say again, I have no idea what's going on with President's mind, but it does seem that he had become so delusional in believing his own lies that he thought that this group going to the Capitol — I don't know that he necessarily thought that they were going to break in, though press reports suggest that he was actually quite pleased while watching that on TV. But I do think that he was expecting this show of force to stop the vote that would, of course, give Joe Biden the presidency. I find that delusional — that that would have happened, but again, I'm not within President Trump's mind. I think what that tells us is he is not only fabricating any number of conspiracy theories since November about the election, he's starting to believe them as well.

Also read: U.S. Capitol breach | Justice Department indicts 15 over Capitol violence

President Trump has said he is not going to attend the inauguration. The last time this happened was when Andrew Johnson boycotted Ulysses S. Grant's inauguration in 1869. Has this been considered by any other President in recent history?

I don't believe so. This is actually an important symbolic moment in American history. We pride ourselves — or used to — on the peaceful transfer of power. This is the moment that we show the world and show the American people pictures of one person handing power to another. So every President since 1869 has shown up at their successor's inauguration, whether they like them or not. Some of those Presidents handed things off to an ally, or even to a Vice-President (in the case of Reagan and George H.W. Bush) and some of those Presidents and incoming Presidents couldn't stand each other. The best example, I think, is in 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt took over for Herbert Hoover in the middle of the Great Depression. The two men couldn't… wouldn't… talk to each other, they despised each other so much.Yet they rode in the same car together to the Capitol. In fact, it was so cold, they actually rode underneath the same blanket with each other to stay warm. They wouldn't talk to each other, but they did know that both of them had to be respectful visually to the other, to show the American people, that this is the transfer of power. Frankly, it shows on the part of the outgoing Presidents, especially those who've lost their elections, an appropriate sense of maturity.

Listen: The significance and consequences of the attack on the U.S. Capitol | In Focus podcast

Do you think Vice-President Pence could fill that role and fill it adequately? Would protocol allow him to fill that role, and if he were to fill it, would it send as effective a message?

No, I think this is something that the President does. Vice- President Pence will be there because I think he's an adult, and I don't have to agree with anything that Vice-President Pence says or thinks or believes, to have faith that he understands that elected officials have constitutional duties that rise above our own personal feelings, and the handover of power is exactly one of those. So unfortunately, we're just not going to have that this time because we don't have a mature enough President.

Over this past week, there seems to have been a shift in how critics of Vice-President Mike Pence think of him and history is probably going to judge him much more kindly now. Would you agree?

I suspect history will treat him kindly, but for an entirely unimpressive reason. I have been amazed since last Wednesday, how much praise the Vice-President has received for doing the bare minimum, for doing what the constitution requires. Usually we think of political courage as requiring some innovation, some insights and willingness to break with, if not tradition then break with norms, in order to clear a new political path. That's not what the Vice-President did. His role was ceremonial and he conducted a ceremonial role. Doing what you're required to do, I think, is not bravery. It's rarely praiseworthy yet it shows how unusual a time we are in that simply doing the bare minimum was able to get Vice-President Pence praise and, as you said, probably a nicer critique from history.

Also read: A day after violence, Trump says he will focus on 'smooth, orderly, seamless' transition

While there's resistance from Senate Republicans to convict Trump, if he is impeached by the House there is also an opportunity for them here to prevent him from holding future office and free themselves from repeatedly having to make a choice between Trump and the Republican party?

I can't predict anything as well as anyone else, but I have not been impressed by the idea that President Trump was going to run again for President in four years.To be completely blunt, the actuarial tables suggest that he's probably not going to be physically able to do it, or frankly, if you really believe the actuarial tables there's a not insignificant chance that he will not survive the next four years — I'm not saying anything about him personally — just because of his lifestyle, because of his weight, because of his age, et cetera. So I have not been impressed that he's going to run again, but I do think it's clear that he's not going away in terms of being a force within American politics, or at least a loud voice within American politics. So I don't know, the Senators are necessarily thinking that they need to impeach the President in order to keep him from running. But I think there are some who are saying that.

But I do think that what they want to do is impeach the President frankly, because he has attacked them. Let's remember, the Constitution is set up to have three co-equal branches of government. And what we actually just witnessed here is one co-equal branch violently attack, not just with words, but with actual deaths, violently attack members of another co-equal branch. I don't see any reason why the constitution architects wouldn't want the Congress to stand up on that point alone and say, we must defend our constitutional prerogative to show that we are co-equal, that we cannot be coerced by even the most despotic of Commanders in Chief.

Also read: U.S. Capitol breach | Administration found siege 'appalling', says White House Press Secretary

You talked about President Trump having a loud voice. Whether or not he runs for office again, that loud voice may be curtailed. It's been curtailed over the last few days because he's dependent on these tech giants [Twitter, Facebook] for that loud voice. How do you see that playing out?

I think one thing that we have seen over the last several days is a severe plummeting in the enthusiasm for President Trump's own news network — he had been floating that idea quite broadly. There appears to be very little enthusiasm, as you can imagine, among sponsors to jump onto a brand-new competitive network to, say, rival will Fox News or something like that. I think that has gone away.

The bigger question in American society right is not actually necessarily about him but about the fact that conservatives for several generations have argued, I think frankly, with no real evidence that the media, whatever that means… the broad media atmosphere of television movies, the internet, et cetera… are anti-conservative and that the media whatever, again, that means, is trying to shut down conservative voices in violation of their First Amendment rights. That's the argument that one is hearing wildly from the right of the political spectrum, from President Trump's supporters, now that he has been kicked off Facebook and Twitter — that this is a violation of his First Amendment rights. Which is just complete poppycock because the First Amendment says the government can't keep you from talking. The private company certainly can. And at least right now, Facebook and Twitter and others are private companies. And they've said, we're not going to stop you from saying out loud, the crazy things you want to say, we're just not going to give you a microphone for it.

So I have not seen anyone put in jail yet for violation of their First Amendment rights for supporting President Trump. I have seen people removed from Twitter and Facebook for inciting violence and for threatening other people using their First Amendment rights. And I think there's a key distinction there between the private and the public that the American people are going to have to really wrestle with over the next generation, if not more.

The Democrats are pursuing impeachment this week. Could this backfire, as it might have a year ago [Democrats impeached Trump in December 2019] if the President does not get convicted by the Senate and he portrays himself as a victim?

I will put all my money and my mortgage and my kids' college fund on the following: Donald Trump is going to portray himself as a victim. No matter what happens, Donald Trump was going to portray himself as a victim. I do think that what you raised though is a real problem for the Democrats, not least because obviously there's only nine days left in the Trump presidency. So the average American may say,"Why bother?"

But more than that, the average American may say, "We've got massive unemployment. We've got a pandemic raging. We have an economy that is on the rocks." Largely again, because of the pandemic. Why would legislators spend their time on this question is, I think, frankly a very legitimate question.

I think that if you want to say that President Trump needs to be removed now because he is erratic, irrational and dangerous, that's a reasonable argument. If you want to say that we need — in the middle of this pandemic — for the next Congress to spend their first agenda item being having a trial to impeach a former President, I'm not sure that's number one in the American people's interests and hearts and pocketbooks. Remember, once the House sends articles of impeachment to the Senate, the Senate is required by the Constitution to do nothing else, but deal with that impeachment. You can imagine why, I mean, it's a big issue. And so consequently there has been some discussion just in the last 24 hours that perhaps the House would impeach the President, but not formally deliver the articles of impeachment until maybe after a hundred days of the Biden administration, thereby giving the Senate now controlled by Democrats, the time to put forward President Biden's agenda.

Maybe some members of the Senate have to do some soul searching over those hundred days.

Yeah. And if there's one thing that we, I think can feel confident about is that in this current political environment you and I have no idea what the situation is going to be. If the vote is 109 days from now, you and I would have no idea what the actual political situation is going to be then, because frankly, you know one week ago, you and I, having this conversation, would not have been discussing the 25th amendment or impeachment. We would have been talking about how Democrats are trying to run out the clock on President Biden or, excuse me, President Trump's last days.

Former Presidents are entitled to classify briefings (unless they’re impeached). Is there a way to exclude Trump from getting these briefings? Many would argue that he could use them to his personal advantage and at a cost to the country or the world's security?

I have to investigate the nuances of that because my understanding is that Presidents receive classified briefings, former Presidents as a courtesy, because they're still important people and they still have information to provide. I don't know that it's offered by law. So I don't know that the incoming Biden administration would be required to give information to an ex-President. But also let's remember a briefing is designed by the person doing the briefing. So President Biden could say, sure, give ex-President Trump a briefing on the following things, which are not particularly important. He doesn't have to brief the ex-President on everything that's on his agenda.

This is an example: President Obama did not call former Presidents before the Osama bin Laden raid because that would be potentially exposing the raid to open publicity. The more people that know something more likely it is to get out. So I don't think that we have to worry necessarily about President Trump illuminating any classified information that he acquires after he leaves the White House.

I do think it's a genuine concern that he's going to release classified information that he attained while he was President. And the reason I say that is because he's done it numerous times taken information that he received in a top secret classified briefing, and immediately turned around and told the public. Now the law allows him to do that. The President can release any information he or she wants. They are actually the ultimate decider of who gets to decide what's classified and what's not. That doesn't mean it's a good idea to release classified information.

Once he exits office, he's no longer the President. So does he have that authority to release information he received while President?

That is a great legal question — I don't know how we're going to unpack that. We are going to learn a lot about what the legal rights of ex-Presidents are over the next several years. So yes, you are absolutely right that the ex-President releasing classified information could be subject to criminal prosecution by the ensuing administrations. Whether or not that's a good idea or whether or not the ex-President might tie things up in court by suggesting that former executive authority matters — these are all questions the lawyers are going to make a lot of money arguing over the next several years, I think.

Abstracting from whether the impact has been positive or negative, purely in terms of the magnitude of impact , which American President comes closest to Trump?

I think Andrew Johnson would be my guess. Andrew Johnson was Vice-President when Abraham Lincoln was shot. [He] obviously becomes the President in charge of Reconstruction, reconciling North and South after the Civil War. Johnson was arguably the nation's most racist President. He arguably was the one who was the biggest jerk. Now other Presidents give him a run for his money on that one, but you know, it's a conversation you don't want to be in. And President Johnson was impeached in the last months of his time in office largely because of the angry rhetoric he employed, attacking the Congress. And the fact that he was violating congressional will openly and to a lesser extent inciting violence. Now there was not ever a moment (such as we saw crystallised on January 6) where protesters following President Johnson's lead marched on the Capitol, but he said some remarkably inflammatory things that were used as justification for his impeachment. So at this point, I think he's the closest analogy.

It appears that people in the Republican party are torn between sticking with Trump or standing up for the "real" Republican party. Do you think that there's going to be a third major political party forming in the near term?

I'm glad you asked that. That's what history suggests. Remember that one way to understand the entire Trump presidency and candidacy is as a civil war within the Republican party. That Donald Trump ran against the Democratic party, but also ran against traditional Republicans — the George W. Bush-Mitt Romney wings of the Republican party. Obviously he was successful in controlling the party and then ultimately winning the presidency, but those people haven't gone away. And I think that what we're seeing is quite likely a moment where the Republican party, I think, as a brand is going to continue moving forward.

That doesn't mean everybody who's in the Republican party is going to continue under that brand, which suggests — especially given that the people who are most antagonistic towards Trump are by and large towards the centre of the political spectrum and there is of course a centre wing of the democratic party as well — that there is a ripe moment here for a coalescing of these two into a new political party.

Now, before Democrats get very excited about that, I should point out that every previous time in American history we've seen one party collapse, it takes the other party down with it over the course of the next several election cycles, just because it completely realigns the interest groups and the coalitions and the alliances within the broad electorate. So I think that there's a good chance of the Republican party is in its death throes. As we currently see it, I think Republicans will continue. I don't necessarily know that their party is going to continue as is currently formed.

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