Editor’s note: The interviews for this story were conducted before the United States House voted on the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump.
A mob of rioters overwhelmed Capitol police and interrupted the Electoral College vote certification process on Jan. 6. Since then, a number of lawmakers are calling for impeachment or invoking the 25th Amendment against President Donald Trump, who will leave office on Wednesday. Police, national guard and military members stand on guard in Washington, D.C., as the threat of violence remains, according to the FBI.
The events of the last two weeks have left many people angry, fearful and questioning America’s politics and democracy as a whole.
Shippensburg University political science professors Steven Lichtman and Alison Dagnes watched as everything unfolded, spending their afternoons responding to emails from current and former students about what was happening. Now, they offer their analysis of the media’s impact, how American politics got to this point, whether or not to invoke the 25th Amendment and how Americans can try to put the pieces back together.
The impact of the media and two-party system
“When you have two political parties, with no way to forge any kind of idea-based or philosophy-based common ground, that means political tensions will naturally ramp up — exponentially so,” said Lichtman, who teaches a variety of courses including The Judicial Process, Constitutional Law and The American Presidency.
According to Lichtman, today’s hyperpolarized American two-party system is a result of a decades long process in which the two main political parties ideologically perfected themselves.
“There are a lot of reasons [for how America got to this point]. One of them is the monetizing of anger,” Lichtman said.
Lichtman aims part of the blame for Jan. 6th’s events at the Capitol at political figures like Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes, Newt Gingrich and other professional political actors, officeholders and consultants who in the 1980s and ‘90s “arrived at the strategic conclusion that a more intemperate, vicious politics was a winning strategy.”
“Anger has never been absent in our politics,” Lichtman said. “Anger as a political tool has never been used quite as comprehensively as it has begun to be used by conservatives in the late 1980s.”
Dagnes separately echoed Lichtman’s analysis, discussing the use of grievance politics where the focus is on the party being the victim. According to Dagnes, right-wing media focuses on the “us vs. them” mindset. “Them” is an interchangeable opposition, and in the past has been the media, democrats, socialists or Antifa.
She said this type of media has actually been developing for the last 20 years, but the lack of trust between those with conservative views and data, science, college professors and intellectuals has been stewing for the last 50 years.
Dagnes’ research interests include the American political media, humor and behavior, which has culminated in multiple books including “Super Mad at Everything All the Time: Political Media and Our National Anger.”
She said a lot of factors have contributed to the system Americans find themselves in today, including the fragmentation of audiences. With the development of cable and technology, broadcasting transformed into narrowcasting, which combined with the invention of the internet.
And in the technological era where social media allows everyone to share their opinion, there is not a lot of listening.
“Everybody’s talking and very few people are listening,” Dagnes said. “We need to listen to one another. We need to see people with whom we disagree as people and not the enemy.”
She emphasized the importance of having verified and reality-based sources of information that everyone can listen to and trust. She also said common conversations must encourage respect and discourage belittling, ridicule and demonization.
“A lot of people have a lot of very legitimate grievances,” Dagnes said.
Dagnes recalled an event she moderated with SU students in the fall 2020 semester. “Political speed dating” gave students with different political beliefs a space to have respectful discussion and listening, according to Dagnes. She said students “loved” the experience and speaking with one another.
“How could this happen?”
A variety of images gave a glimpse of what it was like inside the Capitol during the unrest.
“The sight of someone waving a confederate flag in Congress,” Lichtman said. “That is symbolically one of the most jarring sights from last week.”
Lichtman said the attack on the Capitol was “fundamentally unsurprising,” as it is what happens when one political party and set of institutional actors are willing to tolerate “rampant norm breaking and dishonesty.”
The founders anticipated a figure like Trump, according to Lichtman. He referred to Federalist Paper No. 10 which says, “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”
Lichtman said the founders created a system of political institutions that would mitigate and control an unenlightened statesman.
“The man the founders did not anticipate was Paul Ryan. Ryan was Speaker of the House, a position with constitutional responsibilities. He saw the things that the Trump Administration was doing and thought they were bad, deeply problematic and inappropriate,” Lichtman said. “ And he did nothing.”
“They [the founders] didn’t anticipate a legislative leader seeing behavior he thought was institutionally, politically and morally bad and letting it happen anyway,” he said.
“Last week was an event. Reelecting Trump would have been a decision that would have carried much more significance for the world community,” he said.
The vice president’s role, impeachment and the 25th Amendment
Trump called for Vice President Mike Pence to “do the right thing” and stop Congress’ certification of the vote. In Trump’s eyes, Pence disobeyed, but experts are saying otherwise.
Lichtman explained that constitutionally, the vice president’s role in the certification process is nothing more than a “glorified envelope-opener in chief,” referring to a response to a lawsuit filed by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.). The suit sought to overturn the presidential election; however, a federal judge dismissed the suit.
“In this situation, that is all he is,” Lichtman said.
As for impeachment, Lichtman said it will not help bring Trump’s base back and there are both symbolic and technical losses for the 45th president including loss of pension, some secret service detail and the inability to run for office again.
While lawmakers pursue impeachment, Lichtman said it is almost mechanically impossible for a conviction prior to Trump’s exit. But Trump’s second impeachment is still symbolically important, according to Lichtman.
“It relegates Trump to a unique position in history — no president has ever been impeached twice,” Lichtman said.
Lichtman feels that invoking the 25th Amendment will result in a dangerous precedent for future administrations. He does not believe the current situation fits the constitutional definition of the amendment; it is reserved for leaders who are physically or mentally unfit.
Lichtman said while many believe Trump is politically unfit, his removal would set a “troubling” precedent to impeach on political reasons.
Lichtman said Americans being able to move forward out of division requires the ability to have a conversation. However, he believes for some, it may not be possible.
“I’m not sure that a chunk of that divide is overcomable,” Lichtman said.
He added, “Rapprochement will require responsibility and contrite leadership from all parties.”
“I think it was a breaking point, but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of how sad and scary and awful this is going to be,” Dagnes said. “People are not going to suddenly stop being angry.”
“I think there are enough common sense Republicans. I do not believe that this is the entirety of the Republican Party by any means,” Dagnes said.
She added that she believes a lot of things could be done, but she is not sure there will be a lot of things accomplished.
Dagnes said news outlets must take responsibility by rooting coverage in the truth, as well as calling out misinformation. She also said journalists should not put their own opinion in their reporting so that there is one truth for everyone, no matter what party they identify with. Lawmakers must stop driving hostility and grievance politics to keep themselves in office, according to Dagnes.
When asked what President-elect Joe Biden must say or do to help bring Americans together Dagnes said, “He [Biden] does not have to say very much. He has to do something.”
She said crafting policy that helps the American public will perhaps aid in lowering the political temperature
“He [Trump] took a hornets nest and shook it so hard and now they’re so furious,” Dagnes said. “As long as there are people who legitimize their furiousness and anger, it will continue.”