Making Sense of January 6th: Trump’s Capitol Offense

This post was first published in January 2021.

Editor Note: Over the coming weeks, The College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University will work to provide experiential and academic faculty perspectives on the causes and consequences of the events surrounding January 6, 2021. This means that some posts will offer academic analyses of the events, other posts will mix the unique occupational experiences of faculty with academic perspectives. We hope that readers will engage authors in a productive, civil dialogue on the issues discussed in the post. Appropriate comments (e.g., those that do not include name-calling and vulgarity) will be posted and forwarded to the author for a response.

The nation will require weeks and perhaps months to sort out the violence and chaos that erupted in the nation’s capital on January 6th. Hundreds of Trump’s most ardent supporters literally stormed the U.S. Capitol building after a “Stop the Steal” rally at which Trump was a keynote speaker. Their goal was to stop the peaceful transition of power from Trump to President-elect Joe Biden by preventing congressional certification of November’s election results.

Overestimating the damage to the nation’s identity and its international reputation as a pillar of peaceful democratic governance is hard. At the encouragement of a sitting president, protestors marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the U.S. Capitol building. On the Capitol steps, they climbed up the outside walls to break into second-floor offices and corridors, shattered windows, broke through the front doors and doors to congressional chambers, and assaulted guards. One protester died after she was shot by a Capitol police officer.

The protestors were (temporarily) successful. Aided and abetted by Trump, they disrupted a well-established process for certifying national elections.

Should Trump Be Removed?

Fortunately, the violence and protests were immediately and universally condemned by political leaders across the political spectrum. Leading CEOs and industry groups immediately released statements calling for a peaceful transition of power to Biden.

But Trump’s role in inciting the riot also resulted in calls for his immediate removal. These responses came from moderate Democratic lawmakers such as Congressman Al Lawson (Florida), Republicans such as Congressman Adam Kinzinger (Illinois), as well as business leaders such as Trump supporter Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Indeed, Trump’s specific actions may make the case for his removal even though he has less than two weeks left in office. His inflammatory rhetoric at the rally occurred after Vice President Pence informed him, and subsequently announced to Congress, that he did not have the constitutional authority to negate the results. Yet, Trump encouraged the crowd to march on the Capitol to disrupt and stop the process anyway.

The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides for the removal of a president, and in Section 4 states:

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Ultimately, this will be a political decision that will depend on whether the Vice President and other “principal officers” determine Trump’s continued threats pose a serious risk to the federal government. Trump has triggered a Constitutional Crisis.

However, this should not be the end of the public discussion.

An Epic Failure of Leadership

Trump’s actions are not just one misstep. Rather, the “Stop the Steal” riot puts an exclamation mark on the consequences of incompetent and misguided executive leadership.

I have spent more than 30 years of working in public-facing roles in organizational and civic leadership positions. I have

  • served as an appointed official on five civic commissions (chair of two, and vice chair of a third);
  • served as a board member on nine nonprofit boards of directors (chair of three, co-founder of two);
  • served in staff leadership positions in seven nonprofit organizations (three as senior executive);
  • run for election in one local race (and lost badly);
  • advised countless public officials over the years and given formal legislative testimony as an expert witness on more than two dozen occasions at the federal, state, and local levels;
  • given scores, perhaps hundreds, of media interviews on controversial topics.

Based on my leadership experience, I believe Donald Trump carries most, if not all, the responsibility for the riots at the Capitol building. In fact, the resulting violence, while likely unintentional by Trump, is directly connected to his ongoing public campaign against the legitimacy of the presidential election, his active attempts to overturn the election to keep him installed as president, and his intentional stoking of the fires of anger, resentment, and frustration among his political base.

Trump actively participated in creating the climate that led to the violence at the U.S. Capitol. Moreover, the rally and its consequences are just more evidence of an epic failure in public leadership. His executive team has experienced a 91 percent turnover in just four years, significantly higher than any previous president. Trump willfully flouts the political process and shows disdain for decorum and civility. The exaggerations and deliberate misinformation used to rally his base just became the tinder needed for the spark that set the fire.

As a leader, Trump should have known yesterday’s events were likely consequences. He has consciously fostered resentment, anger, and frustration with the intention of inciting political action. He had a moral and ethical obligation as President of the United States to act in ways that mitigated violence, avoided the destruction of property, and prevented threats to life. He consistently and intentionally chose not to fulfill this duty or responsibility.

Trump’s Actions Are Predictable and Intentional

Wednesday’s violence was not a spontaneous, decentralized, or fragmented response to general concerns about the failure of American institutions. It was a direct response from outrage directed at a specific event (the presidential election) and to support one partisan political figure (Trump). Trump had numerous opportunities to redirect the crowd’s negative energy. Instead, he stoked the fires of resentment and self-righteousness.

The thousands gathered in Washington, DC, were his most ardent and radical supporters. To not realize that this was a cauldron waiting to boil over is the height of irresponsibility and denial after four years in public office, the hundreds of post–George Floyd riots, and the divisiveness of November’s presidential election. For Trump to not know this, or understand its potential consequences, is bald-faced testimony to his incompetence as a leader, decision maker, and protector of the public interest. The alternative is to recognize that Trump does not respect or embrace democracy.

Leadership Comes with Responsibility

As someone who has worked in leadership in civil orientation committees, commissions, and organizations, I cannot imagine that any of the elected officials I served with, any of the directors of the organizations I worked for, or any of my supervisors over the years would think any differently. Anyone working in the civic sector considers the consequences of their participation in public discussions and builds that into the DNA of their decisonmaking process. It’s part of how we define and evaluate effective leadership.

CEOs and organization executives know that leadership comes with responsibility. When that responsibility is abused, the consequences can be catastrophic and tragic, for organizations as well as individuals.

All leaders are on the hook to act responsibly with the authority and power they are given. Trump is not exempt.

As a director of a nonprofit board, I would expect any executive I hired to resign their positions for much less than what Trump does regularly on his political campaign stump. If they didn’t resign, getting a majority of the board to remove them, in my experience, would be an easy task.

The travesty and public disorder resulting from the Trump presidency is not about liberal vs conservative, Republican vs Democrat. It’s not about whether our elections are rigged or unfair. It’s about leadership and the moral obligations of leaders to act ethically.

Can Republicans Recover?

Will the Republican Party recover?

In 2017, I wrote on this blog that if the Republican Party adopted nationalist policies to appeal to its vocal minority, Trump may well end up killing it. What I did not foresee was the degree to which Trump’s leadership incompetence and lack of understanding about public policy would end up undermining the party’s integrity and governing authority.

Trump’s leadership has made the task of resurrecting the Republican Party at the national level much more difficult. But it’s not impossible. Let’s pray it can come back. We need competitive governance, not a monopoly of dogma or ideology, to keep the growth of the State at bay.

Samuel R. Staley: The Independent Institute

Dr. Sam Staley is the director of the DeVoe Moore Center. In addition to his responsibilities providing strategic direction and supervision of center operations and programs, he teaches advanced undergraduate and professional masters courses in social entrepreneurship, economic development, land use and regulation, urban policy, and research methods. Prior to joining Florida State, Dr. Staley was the Robert W. Galvin Fellow at Reason Foundation, an internationally recognized public policy think tank based in Los Angeles where he worked on issues such as transportation system management and performance, public-private partnerships, growth management, and regulatory reform. 

The feature image was taken by Tyler Merbler, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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