American Reckoning – A PBS NewsHour Special Report
Following the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, “American Reckoning – A PBS NewsHour Special Report” looks at the economic and racial history that led to a political divide between Americans, the impact of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric throughout his presidency and the next steps for the nation to heal from the recent attack on American democracy.
PROTESTERS: We want Trump! We want Trump!
JUDY WOODRUFF: It was a day that stunned and shook a nation already on edge.
LISA DESJARDINS: Judy, there are protesters. Protesters have now broken into the U.S. Capitol.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Provoking a mob of his supporters, President Trump upended America's long tradition
of peacefully transferring power.
DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States: If you don't fight like hell, you're not going
to have a country anymore.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Last week's deadly siege at the Capitol raised urgent questions about
the health and security of our democracy.
PROTESTERS: USA! USA!
JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight: What brought us to this moment of conflict? How did the president
take advantage of the country's deepening division? And where, as a nation, do we go
This is "American Reckoning," a "PBS NewsHour" special.
Good evening. and welcome to our "PBS NewsHour" special report.
It comes at an anxious moment. The nation's capital and many cities around the country
are on edge, concerned that protests over the presidential inauguration could turn violent
again. The FBI says that armed gatherings are planned in every state.
Here in Washington, security has been fortified around the Capitol complex, the White House
and much of the center of the city. More than 25,000 members of the National Guard are being
called up to ensure there are no further riots or attacks.
And even as president-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office, the country is not yet done
dealing with the consequences of President Trump's actions.
The House of Representatives has voted to impeach him. The Senate has yet to decide
what it will do. And many Americans are angry and upset over the mob that ransacked the
Capitol, threatened officials, and led to the loss of life.
The president himself is at the center of much of that anger and upset. From the beginning,
he has tapped into longstanding strains of economic distress in America, resentment toward
the federal government, extremism, and the racist and cultural divisions in the country.
Along with my colleagues Amna Nawaz and William Brangham, we're going to explore all of this
to try to understand better what, for many, is a moment of reckoning.
We are going to begin by looking at the attitudes and the national mood that led us to where
we are now.
For that, we have three perspectives.
Sherrilyn Ifill is the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Stuart
Stevens is a longtime Republican strategist who has worked on multiple presidential campaigns.
He's also the author of the book "It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald
Trump." And George Packer is a writer with "The Atlantic" who has written about the country's
political and economic divides, including his book "The Unwinding: An Inner History
of the New America."
And we so appreciate all three of you being with us for this special.
We know what happened on that Wednesday was not spontaneous combustion. It had its roots
a number of years earlier, Donald Trump, and even before.
But, George Packer, I want to begin with you.
What do we know about where America was and what Americans were feeling and thinking when
Donald Trump appeared on the scene?
GEORGE PACKER, "The Atlantic": Well, first, every democracy is vulnerable to a populist
demagogue like Trump.
We are surprised it happened here. We haven't seen anything like this in our lifetime at
the top. But maybe we shouldn't be so surprised, because this happens in democracies. It's
happening all over the world right now. We are no different, in some ways, from other
countries in a way we might have once thought we were.
We also have a long history of a politics of racism, xenophobia, paranoia. It just hasn't
been broadcast from the White House in the way it has been in the last four years, which
has changed the whole landscape.
But I think the most difficult-to-describe, but important thing is what has happened to
a whole region of America, a political region, that once thought of itself as, like, the
heart and backbone of the country.
Around 10 years ago, in my reporting, I began to notice that, in these towns, small towns
and rural areas that were sort of overlooked by the media, it was like a collapse of traditional
sources of authority and of meaning, the church, the union, the company, the newspaper, the
political party. Those were gone.
People were looking for an identity, a narrative, and villains. And Donald Trump provided them
with all three of those things.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Sherrilyn Ifill, what about that? I mean, what was it in the American
psyche, American -- how Americans see themselves that President Trump was able to play into
and build on?
SHERRILYN IFILL, President, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund: Well, Judy, the through
line here obviously is race,.
And it, I'm sure, comes as no surprise that I'm going to say that, because, frankly, what
we have seen is something that we have seen before. And it's important to talk about regions,
because what we are seeing looks very much like what we have seen in the South over a
very long period of time.
The other day, frankly, Wednesday last week, looks like something out of the 19th century.
It looks like something in the waning days of Reconstruction, when there was this violent
effort to try to suppress a Black political strength. It was successful, because it was
violent and because the federal government really failed -- weary after the Civil War,
failed to do what was necessary to stop it.
But it's also akin to what we saw after Brown vs. Board of Education and during the civil
rights movement, the massive resistance to the idea that we would share this vision of
America that George is talking about. The idea that the Supreme Court said you have
to share it equally was so repugnant that there was this incredible violence.
There were these displays. There was this distrust of the government. There was the
complicity of Congress, 101 members of Congress signing the Southern Manifesto. I mean, I
think we have kind of detached ourselves from that history because, conveniently, we have
decided this was about the South.
And what we are seeing is that something that had been regionally bound now has metastasized
to encompass the whole country. And, yes, Donald Trump is an accelerant. He didn't create
it, but he accelerated something that has existed and that this country has failed to
deal with, because we decided that we could limit it to this region that people disrespect,
where, by the way, a majority of Black people still live, in the South.
And so the people who were not surprised, frankly, are many Black people who saw this,
who see this, who understood the danger of Trump. And I think it's time for us to really
grapple with the fact that this has always been there. And our failure to address it,
to deal with it has only led it to grow.
It has not diminished by our ignoring it. It has grown and strengthened.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Stuart Stevens, as somebody who has been part of the Republican Party
for decades and who has looked and very honestly at what role the Republican Party has played
in speaking to Americans, how do you see the evolution of what's happened leading up to
and during Donald Trump?
STUART STEVENS, Author, "It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump":
Look, I think she's exactly right. It is about race. It ultimately is the politics of white
grievance that is playing out.
And Donald Trump, I don't think, made a lot of people more racist. I think he made it
socially acceptable to be racist. And when you have a collapse of a major party -- I
mean, in our system, political parties should be a circuit-breaker function. And the Republican
Party never pulled the circuit-breaker on Donald Trump.
When Donald Trump came out in December of 2015 for a Muslim ban, which is a religious
test, the party should have rejected him. They should have said what they said when
Todd Akin ran in Missouri, said terrible things about women and rape, that we can't stop people
from voting for this person, we can't take him off the ballot, but we're not going to
And the Republican Party didn't do that.
I think that we have always had this politics of hate in America, like most societies. In
the '30s, we had a huge fascist movement, but why didn't we become fascist? Probably
because Roosevelt was president, and not Lindbergh.
And I think this lesson that we used to study in civic classes that leaders matter has really
proven to be true here. So, you -- I think a lot of people look at Donald Trump, and
they think he's a little wacky, maybe, probably doesn't tell the truth a lot.
But then they see a Republican senator or a congressman whom they may respect who backs
Donald Trump, so they think, well, OK, it must be OK. And it was just this Faustian
bargain that the Republican Party tried to make for power.
And I think Donald Trump looked at the Republican Party and said: This is a party that really
doesn't believe in everything that it said it's believed and will make a deal with me,
who represents everything that they said they didn't believe, if I can give them power.
And he proved to be right.
JUDY WOODRUFF: George Packer, and this is - - I keep coming back to who we are as a people,
as the American people, and what we stand for.
I think Joe Biden has said, this is not who we are. He said that in the aftermath of last
But is it? I mean, we -- you know, it's not fair just to point the finger at Donald Trump,
as all of you are saying. The blame -- the blame falls everywhere, doesn't it?
GEORGE PACKER: I even want to point the finger at people in my trade, at me and my fellow
I think we bear some responsibility for being mesmerized by Trump, for amplifying his hatefulness
and his power, not that we supported or agreed with it, but we just couldn't take our eyes
off him. He's like a poison that entered our system.
And I think journalists should do some reckoning with themselves for how completely he's come
to dominate our thinking and our writing and our coverage.
This is not all we are, but it is certainly who we are. It's not that some alien parachuted
into America and took over, which is why the word fascist makes me a little uneasy. It
makes it sound as if it comes from elsewhere. This is party of our democracy.
Trump is a figure of our democracy, a demagogue, a common figure in democracies. It's not all
we are. And he was defeated in November. And that's something that all Americans who participated
in doing that should actually feel pretty - - pretty good about, because very few countries
have managed to get a demagogue out of office.
Look around the world. They hang onto power. They find ways to do it. And it's something
to build on, even though we now have this poison he's left behind, which we're going
to be dealing with for a long time to come.
JUDY WOODRUFF: A long time to come.
Sherrilyn Ifill, what kind of soul-searching should we be engaged in right now?
SHERRILYN IFILL: The deep kind, the kind in which you don't congratulate yourself for
things that really were very hard fought for, and in which you really examine the lessons
that you need to learn.
I think George is absolutely right about the need for journalists to look hard at the profession,
looking hard at that profession and why people were mesmerized by Donald Trump.
Why people -- why we saw stories almost every week in which we were all asked to try to
understand the white working-class voter, in which journalists sat in diners trying
to understand what that was about, the fascination, is because most influential journalists at
elite institutions are white.
And there was a whole conversation happening among white people about what this all meant.
But we are a multiracial democracy, and Black people have important information to share
with you, because we get to see the democracy from the space and from the place of where
it is weakest, of where it is not working, of where it is broken, of where there are
And we have information to share with you about America and what need to be fixed. And
I think people began to see that last year with the issue of voter suppression, which
I think is now something many Americans understand.
That deliberate effort by state legislatures to disenfranchise federal -- American citizens,
that's a warning sign. That's a warning sign that something is deeply wrong with your democracy.
And that project, the project of disenfranchising Black voters, has metastasized across the
And now people can understand it. But it needed to be listened to when it was being articulated
long before 2019 and 2020. So, it's a project that has to really look not only at individuals,
but at the institutions that are supposed to uphold a democracy and why those institutions
It's true that we came through the election. And, frankly, it's still early days to know
how much power Donald Trump will have. But it is also true that it was late and a very
near thing. And we are all still on tenterhooks about what is going to happen over the next
JUDY WOODRUFF: No question.
Finally, Stuart Stevens, Sherrilyn mentioned institutions. What about the role that political
parties, the partly you have been so involved in, the Republican Party, but the Democratic
Party as well, what is their role at this moment?
STUART STEVENS: You know, I spent 30 years pointing out flaws in the Democratic Party.
But I think, to be honest, there's no comparison of the role the two parties are playing. I
think that, really, the Republican Party has become an auth -- for the most part, an authoritarian
party. It's an anti-democratic force in America.
I mean, what just happened is extraordinary, and I don't think we have really grasped it
yet, which makes sense, because nothing like this has happened since 1860.
But you had a major effort by United States senators to disenfranchise millions of Blacks.
And that's all this election challenge was about. It was about taking the votes away
from predominantly African American voters.
And I think that the poison of that is just beginning. We now have 50, 60, 70 million
Americans who believe that they don't live in a democracy, thanks to Donald Trump and
the Republican Party's failure to confront him.
So, we have a heavily armed populace that has a history of revolution that doesn't believe
it lives in a democracy. How is that going to work out? I think this is just beginning.
I think there are very dark days ahead. And I think the failure really rests with the
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it is a -- it's a grim assessment, but it's an honest one, and I
think it certainly helps us as we try to get our arms around where we are as a country
I cannot thank the three of you enough, Stuart Stevens, Sherrilyn Ifill, George Packer. Thank
you very much.
SHERRILYN IFILL: Thank you, Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump's incendiary remarks that preceded the attempted insurrection
were in many ways a culmination of what he has been doing for the past five years.
And our most recent "PBS NewsHour"/NPR/Marist poll finds that 58 percent of all Americans
place at least some of the blame for the riots at the Capitol on the president.
William Brangham looks at that part of Donald Trump's history that led us to this point
and the darkest appeals he's made to certain groups around the country.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Donald Trump shattered norms long before becoming president.
For years, the developer and reality TV star gained political attention by falsely suggesting
that falsely suggesting that America's first Black president was illegitimate.
DONALD TRUMP: Why doesn't he show the birth certificate? And why is he spending millions
of dollars in legal fees to get away from this issue?
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: From the day he announced his White House run, it seemed clear that
unity wasn't a priority.
DONALD TRUMP: How stupid are our leaders? How stupid are these politicians?
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That speech set the tone for much of his presidency. Groups tarred
as the other or the enemy would face a level of vitriol not seen in decades.
Mexican immigrants were villainized as drug dealers and rapists. Muslims abroad were deemed
so dangerous that they couldn't even enter the country.
CROWD: Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: His 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, was cast as a criminal, protesters
at his rallies treated harshly.
DONALD TRUMP: You see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them,
would you? Seriously.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
DONALD TRUMP: OK? Just knock the hell -- I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: His most frequent target, though, has been the media.
DONALD TRUMP: A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people. And they
are. They are the enemy of the people.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: While raging at his enemies, Donald Trump also delivered his America first
message of economic populism. And it spoke to a large swathe of white and working-class
America, who lifted him all the way to the White House.
DONALD TRUMP: The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But less than a year into the job, a tragedy presented the president
with a moment for healing.
A neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly when a white supremacist plowed
his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a young woman.
In the moment, the president couldn't find the words to clearly condemn the hatred.
DONALD TRUMP: You also had people that were very fine people on both sides.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Since Charlottesville, even though right-wing extremists have been responsible
for the vast majority of terrorist attacks and plots in the United States, the president
almost exclusively condemns and inflates left-wing violence.
DONALD TRUMP: The violence and vandalism is being led by Antifa and other radical left-wing
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But a confluence of crises over the last year has perhaps tested the
nation and its commander in chief more than any other in modern history.
As the novel coronavirus spread rapidly across the United States, and has now killed nearly
400,000 Americans, President Trump has consistently underplayed the threat.
DONALD TRUMP: We have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China, and
we have it under control. It's going to be just fine.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: He sidelined key experts and berated state officials who've tried their
own lockdowns to stop the virus' spread.
In Michigan, for example, Mr. Trump supported armed anti-lockdown demonstrators who occupied
the state capitol in April. Six men were later charged with conspiring to kidnap Michigan's
Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
The president spoke at a rally in Lansing shortly after that plot was thwarted.
DONALD TRUMP: Hey, Governor, let your state open. Get your kids back to school, Governor.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
DONALD TRUMP: Not a good governor.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Amid the pandemic, another crisis. Nationwide protests broke out over
the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
PROTESTER: Hands up!
PROTESTERS: Don't shoot!
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Protesters across the country took to the streets, decrying the disproportionate
police violence experienced by Black Americans.
While most demonstrations were peaceful, some did lead to violent clashes with law enforcement.
Instead of an appeal for calm, the president inflamed tensions.
DONALD TRUMP: You just saw it outside. You saw these thugs that came along. These people
call them protesters. Isn't it beautiful?
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In a remarkable scene over the summer, military forces were called in
to help clear protesters outside the White House so the president could pose outside
a nearby church.
DONALD TRUMP: It's a Bible.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And long before any votes were cast in last year's election, the president
repeatedly, falsely claimed, just as he had in 2016, that the vote count would be rigged
DONALD TRUMP: This election will be the most rigged election in history.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And he refused to denounce supporters who threatened violence, famously
refusing to rebuke the hate group known as the Proud Boys.
DONALD TRUMP: What do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name. Go ahead.
CHRIS WALLACE, Moderator: White supremacists and ...
JOE BIDEN (D), President-Elect: White supremacists.
DONALD TRUMP: Who would you like me to condemn?
CHRIS WALLACE: White supremacists and right-wing militia.
DONALD TRUMP: Who?
JOE BIDEN: The Proud Boys.
DONALD TRUMP: Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And when it was clear he did, in fact, lose, a moment when virtually
every other losing presidential candidate has graciously conceded the race and wished
the victor good luck, President Trump did the opposite.
DONALD TRUMP: I have already decisively won.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: He continued to falsely claim that he'd been robbed of victory by
When his dozens and dozens of legal appeals were thrown out of courts nationwide, the
president went to enormous lengths to personally pressure state officials to overturn Biden's
DONALD TRUMP: So, what are we going to do here, folks? I only need 11,000 votes. Fellows,
I need 11,000 votes.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: At rallies, he continued to claim that Democrats had stolen the election,
and that an illegitimate president was trying to take the White House from him and from
He asked his supporters to come to Washington last week.
DONALD TRUMP: We're going to walk down, and I will be there with you. We're going to walk
down to the Capitol.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That afternoon, an angry mob of Trump supporters and various extremist
white supremacists and anti-government groups battered the police, broke into the Capitol,
left five people dead, and cast a dark shadow over the end of the Trump presidency.
Now, after ominous warnings from law enforcement, the nation's capital and state capitals all
over the country are on edge. They're worried about who may show up next, armed and dangerous
and full of false, poisoned ideas about a stolen country.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Even with President Trump's impending departure from public office, last
week's riots and assaults have underscored how much work remains when it comes to dealing
with longstanding concerns over extremist elements and how we deal with them.
For years, there have been warnings and outright violence that foreshadowed bigger problems.
Amna Nawaz examines what we know about the proliferation of extremists and the role of
AMNA NAWAZ: Judy, we're also going to take a moment to examine the missed chances to
address these problems and meet the threat.
I'm joined by three guests who've worked on this extensively.
Kathleen Belew is a professor of U.S. history at the University of Chicago and has studied
and written on the white power movement in America. Daryl Johnson is a former lead analyst
for domestic terrorism at the Department of Homeland Security. He authored a 2009 report
that warned of the threat of right-wing extremism.
And Justin Hansford is a professor at Howard University School of Law and director of the
Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center. He was also on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri,
in 2014 after the police killing of Michael Brown.
Welcome to you all. And thank you for joining me here.
Daryl Johnson, I'm going to start with you, because, back on Election Day in 2020, which
feels like a long time ago, a lot of people were expressing relief that they thought the
worst was behind them. The election had unfolded relatively peacefully.
You said on that day -- quote -- "It's the period after the election that's going to
be more volatile and higher risk."
Did you see the attack on the Capitol that we saw last week coming?
DARYL JOHNSON, Former Lead Analyst, Department of Homeland Security: Well, it definitely
was a type of scenario that I was concerned about.
In fact, we had two previous breaches of state capitols in Michigan and Idaho that had preceded
this insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week. So, it was on my mind as a potential
scenario, and we were fortunate that it didn't get a lot worse.
AMNA NAWAZ: Justin Hansford, a lot of people on the Capitol grounds were saying, this was
about the election, this was about politics, this was about protecting or claiming back,
they told me, claiming back democracy.
What did you see as you watched that siege on the Capitol unfold?
JUSTIN HANSFORD, Howard University School of Law: The image that stuck out to me, of
course, is the image of the Confederate Flag, and the idea that white supremacy was ushered
into the Capitol.
And it was a sharp contrast to the way that we were received when Black Lives Matter protesters
were protesting over the course of the summer and into the fall.
So, I think, for many of us who were involved in those protest movements, we saw it as a
continuation of the conversation on race and law enforcement that began really when Mike
Brown was killed in 2014 and reached (AUDIO GAP) this past summer.
AMNA NAWAZ: And I want to dig more into that law enforcement response in a moment.
But, Kathleen Belew, let's turn to you here, because among the people we met on the Capitol
grounds that day, there were conspiracy theorists, people spouting QAnon theories just really
divorced from reality.
We also saw members of extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. We should
say, these groups predate President Trump, but they have now become some of his most
strident backers, and are willing to commit this kind of violence in his name.
Why is that? What do we need to understand?
KATHLEEN BELEW, University of Chicago: So, I think the key here is that there are three
main constituencies of people who came to the Capitol on January 6.
There are the die-hard Trump supporters who are deeply invested in the president. There
are QAnon conspiracy believers who have been quite radically -- quickly radicalized over
the past months and years. And then there's this longer trajectory of activism that I
would broadly think of as the white power movement and the militant right.
But I think it would be a mistake to overly think that this is about President Trump.
At the end of the day, I don't think we have enough evidence to think that the president
has the power to command this groundswell or to call it off.
AMNA NAWAZ: So, Justin, let me turn to you here, because you hear Kathleen talking about
a history of violence among these groups, Daryl Johnson pointing to more recent examples
of violence from these groups.
And yet the police officer we saw there to greet them was barely present. We were there.
And, also, it took a very long time for National Guard or any kind of supplementary force to
Now, some former senior officials have told me since there was a failure of imagination
to think that it could unfold the way it did. Why do you think that is?
JUSTIN HANSFORD: There have been studies that have been conducted over the years that have
shown that there is a phenomenon called protesting while Black.
Consistently, Black protesters are seen as more threatening. And the way it plays out
in the context of the First Amendment freedoms that are provided for protesters, it led me
to write a law review article called "The First Amendment Freedom of Assembly as a Racial
Project," because I think we have to understand that the law is what it does.
The law is not necessarily what's on paper. It's how it plays out in real life. And for
millions of protesters, 26 million people who took to the streets this past summer,
people were harmed, people were tear-gassed. There were tanks. There were military personnel
Their ability to make their voice heard through assembly was severely curtailed, as opposed
to what happened this past week. And that's what it is. This is a question of whether
or not the First Amendment is being applied equally or whether or not it's a racial First
And I think the answer was very clear to millions of people around the country. And it's almost
like my law review article came to life like Frankenstein. So, it's the complete opposite
as to what you would see if we had Black, brown, or Muslim protesters in front of the
AMNA NAWAZ: Daryl, I think this is the part that baffles a lot of people is, why haven't
we seen a more robust, coherent response from federal authorities?
The data is there. The evidence is there. The numbers are there. We know this threat
has been growing. You look back to 9/11, the entire government was reorganized to meet
back then the extremist Islamist threat. Why haven't we seen that here?
DARYL JOHNSON: Well, I think there's a combination of factors, poor planning. There's institutional
There was no, I guess, precedented attack that showed that these types of people were
aggressive towards law enforcement. Like I said, the institutional biases, the fact that
they think that white protesters aren't going to be agitated to the point where they're
going to breach the police lines, and, for some reason, they think that they might show
more respect towards the police.
So, it was a combination of factors. And, unfortunately, it was a tough lesson to learn.
And we finally learned the consequences of having these institutional biases.
AMNA NAWAZ: But it's not as if the warnings haven't been there, right?
I mean, we mentioned this 2009 report you had written warning about the threat. In 2012,
you testified about the threat and said, here are specific things we need to do to meet
How many of those steps have been put into place?
DARYL JOHNSON: Very little to none.
And so there's actually a lack of political willpower in Washington to recognize this
threat and to come up with a strategy on how to combat it and deal with it.
AMNA NAWAZ: Kathleen Belew, I need to run some quick headlines by you.
In -- since the attack, we now know that one member of law enforcement has been arrested
for his role in the attack. Two Capitol Police have been suspended for posing with the mob
and taking selfies. Off-duty cops have also been arrested. There's a retired Navy SEAL
who posted videos bragging about breaching the Capitol.
Are the same forces we would be relying on to respond to this threat in some ways sympathetic
KATHLEEN BELEW: We have an unbroken record of white power violence that goes back to
the early 1980s, if not earlier.
We're talking about a groundswell that is decades, if not generations old, and has a
history of the kind of ideologies it follows and what targets we can expect based on those
ideologies. We have a history of actions already undertaken.
It's not enough to wake up after January 6. We should have woken up after the Oklahoma
City bombing, same movement. And that was the largest mass casualty event in the United
States between Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
Now, the fact that most people walk around not understanding that that's part of the
white power movement is an enormous problem for our public discourse.
So, when we think about failure of imagination, I just think that that's not anywhere near
enough of an explanation, given that the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have identified
white extremism as the largest terrorist threat to Americans, outstripping not only what our
president has called Antifa and the left, but also outstripping radical Islamist terror.
We know that this is the problem. The resources have to be oriented around this particular
thing. And the problem of infiltration of law enforcement and military by these groups
has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly study, a great deal of journalistic expose.
We know that this is the issue. So, the question is, what will we, as a society, decide to
do to mobilize our resources to address this problem?
AMNA NAWAZ: So, Daryl Johnson, let me put that question to you.
Kathleen has laid out decades of failures to address and respond to this threat. What
would it take? Can it be done? Is this the time?
DARYL JOHNSON: Yes, I'm hoping that this is the time.
I have been calling for our political leaders to deal with this threat for the past 10 or
11 years. They have lacked the political willpower to do it. So, now that their home base has
been attacked and the Capitol ransacked and people vandalizing and stealing stuff, and
the deaths that resulted, I hope that this is the wakeup call, the much-needed wakeup
call, that I have been calling for, for the past 10 years.
So, it's going to be incumbent on this new administration, and dealing with both Republicans
and Democrats, coming together and denouncing this threat and developing strategies on how
to better combat it.
AMNA NAWAZ: Justin Hansford, what about you? Do you think this threat can and will be met
by the incoming administration and future?
JUSTIN HANSFORD: This is the time to create a new office or a new department which focuses
specifically on white supremacy and law enforcement, especially on the federal level -- that should
be an easy lift -- but even on the state and local level around the country, that is fully
staffed and fully funded, and make it a priority to set a deadline for rooting out not just
white supremacist infiltration, but also white supremacist views and beliefs when it comes
to law enforcement.
I do think that it's possible. I'm concerned that, so far, we have heard two narratives,
one, that these are bad apples that are going to be identified and excluded from law enforcement,
and then that will be the answer, or, secondly, that this was a failure of preparation in
terms of lack of skill or lack of know-how.
And I think neither of those narratives are persuasive. But I do worry that the people
who have oversight over the Capitol Police so far have begun investigations that seem
to be premised on the belief that these were mistakes or that there was some other motive
besides white supremacy and sympathy with white supremacy that was the reason for this
And so it's really a question of who is going to win out. Who is going to win this competition
over the narrative as to what caused this crisis, this attack? And that will determine
whether or not we have the will to go forward and make real change, systematic change.
AMNA NAWAZ: And that will determine what our nation looks like as well.
Justin Hansford, Daryl Johnson, and Kathleen Belew, thank you so much for your time.
JUSTIN HANSFORD: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The start of a new presidency is often a hopeful time for the country, but
the challenges now are unprecedented in modern times.
Beyond the concerns over violence, extremism and bitter polarization, the nation is grappling
with a COVID crisis and a death toll that will pass 400,000 this winter. The economic
recovery is uneven, at best, with many millions still out of work. And Americans are in the
midst of a long reckoning over racial justice.
We asked viewers what concerns them, what fears they have:
JOSHUA GEARY, Maryland: We don't know what the next eight days look like. We don't know
what the next eight years look like. And we do not know the long-term ramifications, if
this is just like the beginning of more violence and more division, or this was it.
SOPHIA FADEM, Pennsylvania: I'm really fearful for the inauguration that's coming up and
just the coming days, how tense things feel. It really does feel like it's kind of looming
over you. And we have already seen posts circulating online -- I have -- about, like, plans for
a similar thing to happen.
CAMILO REINA MUNOZ, Florida: I'm scared that we won't hold Donald Trump accountable for
inciting this insurrection, that the country will try to just move on and try to forget
that this happened.
So, I think, if we want unity in this country, we really need to hold the folks responsible
JOHN S. KEAN IV, Louisiana: I don't think we need to forget what's happened prior to
this in the cities that were rioting and looting and arson. And this has drawn a lot of attention,
but we still have a lot to go back and take a look at.
MARC MEDLEY, New Jersey: If there is anything, the fear is that we stay divided.
If you look in terms of the electoral results, you're looking at almost 50 percent of the
population that voted for the status quo of what we already had, which means, if you get
any group of people together, one out of every two people, one is thinking one way and the
other is thinking another, that, if we continue to remain divided, that, eventually, we're
going to fall, just like any other empire.
JESSE SOUTHERLAND, Virginia: We get put in these echo chambers and we only hear what
we want to hear. No matter if you're a Republican, no matter if you're a Democrat, you can listen
to anything you want to hear and get whatever you want.
LEAFIA SHERADEN COX, Georgia: Most people are only a few wrong clicks away from sliding
into some sort of hateful rhetoric that can blind you to rational thinking.
MARISSA HACKETT, Washington: I am most fearful about just the immediate danger, just my physical
danger right now, even going to the grocery store, living in Seattle, just the -- being
triggered by seeing a truck drive by with a Trump flag on it, and if I may incite some
anger in them and to retaliate.
ELIZABETH COCHRAN, Massachusetts: And there are a lot of mostly white people feeling misheard
in this country and experiencing fear and anger, and I'm scared of what they might choose
NATALIE HALLINGER, Illinois: If white people are angry enough about something, they get
to do whatever they want.
A lot of people, a lot of important people will defend and protect them. They get to
do whatever. Just be angry enough and make sure you're white when you're doing it, and
someone will find a way to bend the rules to make that OK.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We want to shift the conversation forward now and focus on what can and should
be done to tackle these problems, despite all of our differences.
We get perspective from three people.
They are Jelani Cobb. He is an author and staff writer for "The New Yorker" who focuses
on race, politics, history, and culture. Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton
University. He is the author of multiple books on social and political history, including
"The Rise of American Democracy." And Claire Wardle is a leading voice on stopping misinformation.
She's with the Berkman Klein Center for the Internet at Harvard University and co-founder
of the nonprofit First Draft.
We welcome all three of you to the program. Thank you for being here.
Aside from the legal process, Sean Wilentz, addressing the individuals who were responsible
for what happened at the Capitol, what do we need to do, as a country, as a people,
to address what's going on and to move forward?
SEAN WILENTZ, Author, "The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln": I think
the first thing we have to do, though, is to actually understand the magnitude of what
happened on January 6.
I mean, it's one thing to talk about prosecutions and so forth, but we have to appreciate that
that was the darkest day thus far in the history of American democracy, the saddest day for
American democracy, since April 12, 1861, when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter.
And I think that we're not going to be able to get anywhere until we understand the magnitude
of that. And, looking forward, particularly to after January 20, president-elect Biden,
who will then be President Biden, faces a kind of triple whammy.
I mean, it was very hard for FDR coming in, in 1933 to deal with the Great Depression.
President Biden is going to have to deal with the COVID pandemic right away. That would
be the first emergency. He's going to have to deal with the economics coming out of that,
the economic collapse, and then he's going to have to deal with the racial turmoil that
this country has finally -- well, the turmoil, but the reckoning that is finally occurring
throughout the country.
Those are three gigantic crises that he is going to have to face.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Jelani Cobb, pick up on that.
What do you see now that most urgently has to be addressed, and how do we even begin
to address it?
JELANI COBB, Columbia University School of Journalism: Sure,.
I think that Sean reached for the Civil War connection, which has, I think, been instinctive
for a lot of people. We keep going back to that moment, and for good reason.
When we look at what's happened, and the scale of it, and the idea of a president being elected
and being thought illegitimate, declared illegitimate by one of the two major political parties,
and tremendous upheaval, tipping over into violence coming out of it, that seems to be
the ready explanation.
I think there are some things about that moment that point to what we should do here. For
one, when we looked at the aftermath of the Civil War and the resurrection of a movement
to reinscribe slavery, indeed, Ulysses S. Grant was confronted with having to uproot
the Ku Klux Klan. He realized that they were an existential threat to everything that had
been achieved by that bloody war.
And that is, I think, the circumstance the federal government faces now. They really
have to aggressively pursue and root out this cancerous menace of white nationalism and
kind of white extremist militias that are really a functionally revanchist movement
in American society. I think that's one thing.
The other thing that I think is that we have to be very clear that the dynamics that are
connected with Trumpism will not necessarily disappear simply because Donald Trump leaves
the stage, to some extent.
The phenomenon that we know of as McCarthyism preceded Joe McCarthy and extended beyond
McCarthy's time as a senator. And so the dynamics that were -- even made possible for a person
as manifestly unfit as Donald Trump to rise to the presidency, those dynamics are still
There's still a great deal of resentment about the ethnic makeup of this country. There's
a great deal of resentment about the economic shape of the country. There's a connection
between those two things, where people blame ethnic groups and racial groups for the economic
And I think that, more than anything, is going to be the challenge that Joe Biden's administration
has to confront.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Claire Wardle, the other thing that is not going away is this widespread
system of misinformation, this sea that we swim in, and that some people only traffic
in, of information that's just not true, of lies.
How do you see us getting -- even beginning to get our arms around that, as we try to
get healthier as a country?
CLAIRE WARDLE, U.S. Director, First Draft: So, I think what we learned last week is that
this is much bigger than simply misinformation.
We have people who are living in a completely different information ecosystem than the one
we live in. And that ecosystem is falsehoods and conspiracies that are ricocheting from
politicians, down to your next-door neighbor, to your Facebook groups. Everywhere you look,
you're hearing the same thing.
And what we didn't recognize is, in that alternative ecosystem, this big lie that Timothy Snyder
talks about, which is people believing that the election was stolen, that was what was
happening there. The people who stormed the Capitol believed that they were saving us
from the Constitution.
And I hope that this moment makes us recognize that this alternative information ecosystem,
we have to take a handle on that. This is not playing Whac-A-Mole with individual rumors
or lies or having a polite conversation with your uncle who shares this kind of stuff on
We need to understand that people are easily seeking out other people who believe the same
as them, reinforcing those positions. This isn't just a case of alternative facts. It's
people believing fundamentally different things.
And we, as a democracy, can't continue if we don't have that shared set of facts. And
that requires the platforms, that requires the news media, that requires politicians
all to say, we can't -- we can't look the other way anymore. We have to recognize what
this leads to if we're not all sharing facts around critical aspects, because, otherwise,
democracy can't continue.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You're describe a tall order, a lot of work that needs to be done.
Sean Wilentz, what should the people we listen to, what should our leaders, whether they're
political leaders or leaders of other great institutions in our country, religious or
business or otherwise, what should they be doing and saying right now?
SEAN WILENTZ: Well, I think that, actually, Jelani and Claire both pointed out exactly
what has to be done.
I mean, the first thing that has to be done is that this poison, this toxic -- it's racist
and it's even beyond that -- this poison in American politics finally has to be taken
And Jelani referred to the Grant administration. That's right. He went after the Ku Klux Klan.
They also established the Justice Department. That's where the Justice Department came from.
And I listened to attorney general-designate Merrick Garland the other day, and he made
that point. And let's remember that Merrick Garland 25 years ago, 20-odd years ago, was
the lead prosecutor of the Timothy McVeigh case.
So, I think that, right away, that has to be done in no uncertain terms. It's very clear
that the government has not done enough to crack down on that. But then comes to the
question of misinformation. And that's a whole other new world we're dealing with that we
don't know how to handle.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Jelani Cobb, I'm going to ask you to move us forward.
I mean, how do you see us tackling these enormous problems we're describing here and moving
forward? What are the most urgent things that we need to do?
JELANI COBB: We have to shore up the more fundamental aspects of democracy.
There's a bill, H.R.1, which passed Congress last year. It is a sweeping reform -- proposes
sweeping reforms to the way we conduct our elections, particularly our election security
measures, things that are really crucial, have been crucial for a long time.
But now there's an added layer of import to them, which is that, to the extent possible,
they allow the government to have another mechanism to ensure the validity of its elections,
that we can point to, like, well, we have these laws, we have these policies, we have
these procedures that make sure that no one who is not supposed to vote is able to do
anything wrong, and people who are allowed to vote have maximum access to the ballot.
And I think that's one of the most important things we can do right now.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Claire Wardle, as you come back to how you described it, the ecosystem
that exists out there, alternate reality, is that something that we have to live with
for the future? Or is that something that can be dismantled?
CLAIRE WARDLE: I don't think it can be dismantled.
We have to find ways that we're able to provide spaces for people to have conversations to
get accurate information. We also have to talk about the platforms. I mean, they have
taken steps. I think it's very easy to say, oh, good, they have taken action.
Well, they took action in a vacuum. It's crazy to me that, over the last five years, we didn't
create a framework to say, well, when we have an emergency, how can a group of academics
and ethicists and historians and others help Silicon Valley make these kind of decisions
Because these decisions that have been taken over the last 10 days have led to many people
in America to feel very, very angry that their speech is being curtailed. There are unintended
consequences to those decisions that are being taken.
So, platforms are now a critical part of our ecosystem. They weren't around 30 years ago.
They are now. They have happened very quickly. And I think one of the things, when we think
about going forward, is, if we're going to talk about regulation, what does it look like?
How do we bring society into those conversations around the types of speech that we want, the
kinds of public spaces online that we want?
This is not going to be a quick fix. We have probably got 30 to 50 years to think about
the kind of information ecosystem we want. But a fragmented one, as it sits now, is incredibly
dangerous. And last week taught us that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, as you think about the next several years, do you have a sense
of hope or not, Sean Wilentz?
SEAN WILENTZ: Yes, I do.
It's a huge task, and it's going to take a great common effort, provided we get rid of
the poison. We're not going to get anywhere until we get rid of that.
That brings me back to Lincoln. Unless we stand up to that, we're not going to get anywhere.
But, if we do -- and I think the vast majority of the American people would stand behind
that -- then I think there is, indeed, hope for us all.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Jelani Cobb, where are you on the scale, if you will, of hope, of having
hope or not?
JELANI COBB: Well, I think the advantage of the present is that we have more history to
draw upon than any group of people that preceded us.
And we can look at the examples of people who have had to confront crises. And they
never went about that, at least not successfully, with an air of pessimism. And I think that
we also have to be mindful of a kind of irrational optimism, too.
I think the safest place, for me, is a kind of guarded hopefulness, a belief that we are
capable of surmounting these challenges, even if it will take everything that we have, and
a kind of optimism that is informed by the great difficulty and sometimes the great cost
that ensuring peace and the forward motion of democracy has exacted, but believing that
you're fundamentally up to those challenges.
JUDY WOODRUFF: On that note, I want to thank you, all three.
Jelani Cobb, Sean Wilentz, and Claire Wardle, thank you so much.
JELANI COBB: Thank you.
SEAN WILENTZ: Thank you for having us.
CLAIRE WARDLE: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Before we close, we want to stay with that more hopeful note, this time
from everyday Americans.
We asked viewers about their hopes and what they are feeling more optimistic about.
Here's what they told us:
LEAFIA SHERADEN COX: I have not given on democracy. I have not given up on America. I am not one
of the people who was like, well, at the first opportunity, I'm going to move to Canada.
ANDREW HEINRICH, Texas: I just think in my head -- it gets me emotional thinking about
it -- the representative whose name escapes me, Kim, who was cleaning up the Capitol after
they left, like, on his knees, putting stuff in a bag.
That poor officer who led them through the Capitol and away from the Senate. All those
small individual choices to keep their oath.
ELIZABETH COCHRAN: You see it in the members of Congress returning to work that day, even
while some of them knew their colleagues' actions and words had put their lives in danger.
They returned to their work of certifying the presidential election.
MARC MEDLEY: As they say, you can't fix it until you face it.
So, now we have some issues that are right in front of our face that we know we need
to fix. So, I'm hopeful that we're going to do what we need to do to fix it. It doesn't
matter to me what side of the fence you're on or what label you fall under. At the end
of the day, we're all human beings.
JESSE SOUTHERLAND: As we go forward, we can't have mob rule. We have -- that's why we have
law and order. And it's going to take both - - leaders on both sides to tone down rhetoric,
to actually speak to Americans as we are, not in political parties or camps.
MARISSA HACKETT: I learn and watch and grow from what the youth are doing right now, and
that's what gives me hope. And that's who I'm taking the cues from.
MARGARET JAMES, Oklahoma: So many of them are going out of their way to not just talk
about making a difference, but they're really out there doing things and making changes.
SOPHIA FADEM: I logged on to all my classes, and we discussed it.
And it was really, really encouraging to see 20 other students who felt really passionate
about this and just about how upsetting it was, and hearing other people saying exactly
what I had been thinking and talking about how excited we are to be old enough to vote
or even get involved in politics and things.
ALLISON BROESDER, Minnesota: I'm seeing a swell of people coming in to the process in
the last four years that were not there 10, 15, 20 years ago.
And that brings me hope, because the more voices at the table, the more likely we will
have more of an equitable future for all.
JUDY WOODRUFF: It is voices like these that should give us hope, voices from Americans
of all ages who, despite the ugliness of recent days, aren't ready to give up, who see a country
and a government worth holding together.
Abraham Lincoln said, a house divided against itself cannot stand. He was talking about
slavery, but those words surely apply today.
For all the worst instincts we have seen that Americans are capable of acting on, we know
we can't afford to let the country slide too far into division and hatred. That will take
work on the part of each one of us and on the part of future generations. But there's
too much at stake to make any other choice.
Thank you for joining us tonight. I'm Judy Woodruff.
Stay safe, and we will see you soon.
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