It’s been exactly a year since the unprecedented and horrific assault on the United States Capitol, perpetrated by Donald Trump’s supporters and others bent on preventing Congressional certification of the 2020 presidential election results. It’s been almost six years since the Washington Post published a series of editorials that warned about the “bullying demagogue” who eventually would become the 45th president of the United States. The violence the editors feared played out on live television, worldwide, on January 6, 2021, following a course that began years earlier. During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump espoused force as the best way to meet challenges, whether immigration, public safety, or relationships with our allies.
A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll of 1100 people revealed that nearly one-third of respondents said that violence against the government sometimes is justified. Sixty percent thought that Mr. Trump bears a great deal of the blame for the January 6 attack. On that same question, not surprisingly, 92 percent of Democrats blamed Trump, but only 27 percent of Republicans agreed.
Similar results were reported in a September 2021 poll of 2000 residents in five Intermountain West states – Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming – commissioned by the Frank Church Institute at Boise State University (FCI/BSU). I worked on Capitol Hill for nearly two decades, and served on the FCI Board. The FCI/BSU poll indicated that 58 percent of respondents overall said that political violence is not justified in a democracy; the better solution is the ballot box. Accounting by state, those responses ranged from a high of 62 percent in Idaho to 47 percent in Wyoming. More Republicans than Democrats said that political violence is justified in a democracy when you believe that the government is not acting in the best interests of the people, although “best interests” was not defined. In the same survey, more than half (56 percent) had confidence that the federal government would act in their best interests, and even fewer had confidence in the U. S. Congress. More than 70 percent of adults in the five states said the actions of the January 6 mob were not justified. Respondents also said that Mr. Trump was most responsible for violence at the Capitol. More than half the respondents also said that it is likely that the U.S. would experience violence, similar to the events of January 6, in the future.
The two surveys are separated by time and geography, but a basic shared theme is the future of our democracy. One of the Washington Post editorials warned that Mr. Trump’s “contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.” Another posited that “A President Trump could, unilaterally, change this country to its core.” Both comments were prescient: democracy is more fragile than many expected, and the nation has been changed – by lies, denigration, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories, from elected leaders and their followers.
So now what? Can our democracy be strengthened and saved? If so, whose responsibility is it? The answer to the first, I hope, is yes. The answer to the second is all of us. Whether elected official or ordinary citizen, if we truly treasure the democratic ideals that built and sustained this nation, we must do everything necessary to continue this great experiment – the only one of its kind in the world. The Declaration of Independence was a gutsy move by the nation’s founders, but it is the Constitution that provides the framework for governance. It is broad, as it should be, and its various amendments (only 12 in the past 120 years) have broadened it. The nation’s founders recognized that independence and governance are not a “winner take all” equation, but that promoting the common good requires compromise, sometimes a lot of it. Fortunately, last year’s violent attempt to strangle that ideal failed. Whether Democrat, Republican, independent, or unaffiliated, we all must work to ensure that there is no next attempt, violent or non-violent. The future of our nation depends on it.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]