Q&A with Steve Vladeck and Rolf Mowatt Larssen on Democracy, Insurrection, and Where We Go From Here

In the lead up to Wednesday, Just Security’s editors swapped ideas and concerns about what could potentially happen — both the effort by some congressional Republicans to throw out the electoral votes for President-elect Joe Biden and the mass of Trump supporters descending upon Washington, D.C. to protest at President Donald Trump’s invitation, with the clear potential for violence erupting.

Were the ingredients right for an attempted “coup” — either inside the halls of Congress or with Trump egging on his angry supporters outside?

As we hypothesized and worried, Steve Vladeck, reassured us that the certification of Biden’s victory would not be stopped by Republican objections in Congress. That the parliamentary process would proceed. The institution would hold and that the rules would carry the day. Meanwhile, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, drawing on his experience in the CIA, was more worried. He believed Trump was willing and ready to break the rules. Violence was possible, if not likely, and that something very dangerous was in the air. The ingredients for an attempted coup were there.

As I watched events unfold, I couldn’t help but think that, in the end, they were both right. The system worked at the same time forces were unleashed to tear it down.

In the aftermath of the certification of Biden’s victory and the insurrection at the Capitol, I thought it would be helpful to return to some of these issues with them, getting their thoughts and insights into how institutions and norms withstood the assault and what they took away from Wednesday.

***

Steve Vladeck

What were your expectations going into Wednesday and the electoral vote count? What were you worried about and what were you not worried about?

I was expecting just about everything up until the rioters breached the Capitol. I always assumed there would be a showdown between the president’s supporters and the Capitol Police, but I wasn’t worried because I figured it would be one-sided (which, I guess, it was—just not the side I would’ve predicted). I also have to say that I expected the president to do what he did—if not to incite them, then at the very least, to indirectly encourage and enable the violence. I just didn’t expect the Capitol Police to be so stunningly unprepared, nor did I expect the federal government to lack an obvious and easily implementable backup plan.

Which norms/rules/institutions held and worked the way you expected them to? Was it a good day for institutional stability? Was it a bad day of shattering and exposing our democracy’s vulnerability to rule breakers? 

Let’s start at the top. On one of the worst days in its history, Congress discharged its constitutional obligation to certify the Electoral College result and confirm Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump. That is a remarkable act of institutional perseverance under unprecedented circumstances, and a perfect repudiation of the underlying goals of the rioters. But it was one of the darkest days for the presidency in all of American history. Not only is it increasingly clear that the federal government’s unpreparedness for what happened and unwillingness to act quickly in response was deliberate, and not merely negligent; but the president’s tweets as the violence was unfolding will likely go down as among the most ignominious actions of any president to date. The fragility that Wednesday drove home, in my view, is not our democracy’s vulnerability to insurrectionists, but rather its vulnerability to elected officials who won’t stand up to them. And so, although my answer started with Congress, it also ends there — with well over half of the Republican conference in the House, and eight Senators, voting to sustain objections to Biden’s Arizona and Pennsylvania electors hours after they came under attack. For so many of our supposed leaders to vindicate with their votes the complaints of those who sought to overturn the election results by force was, and remains, an incredibly disillusioning moment.

How are you thinking about what happened? The electoral vote count proceeded, Biden’s victory was certified, and yet U.S. democracy was attacked. How do you square these two events happening on the same day?

The breaching of the Capitol was one battle in the larger war on our democracy, and democracy won that one. But at a pretty significant cost. Yes, Congress did its job and Biden’s victory was certified. But I gravely fear the message that was sent to the president’s supporters by so many elected Republicans indulging patently meritless legal arguments, unsubstantiated factual allegations, and long-since-debunked conspiracy theories to vote to throw out the votes of millions of Americans (and the results of a democratic election), mere hours after a similar result was attempted by force. What precedent does that set for 2024? That’s the unanswerable — and uneasy — question that yesterday cements.

What should be next steps to cure the most significant defects and weaknesses in our system that were exposed on Wednesday? 

There are weaknesses, and there are weaknesses. Among lots of other electoral reforms, yesterday drives home the dire need for reform of the Electoral Count Act of 1887 — to make clear exactly when Congress may, and, as importantly, may not, dispute duly certified slates of presidential electors. We also need to have a serious conversation about the division of law enforcement responsibilities in our nation’s capital. Even if D.C. statehood is not in the offing, giving the local government more control over its own streets (and its own National Guard) seems a long-overdue step. But these are procedural and responsive reforms. What Wednesday’s events make crystal clear is that the hermetically sealed media ecosystems in which most Americans find themselves cannot coexist in the long term. Trump is a symptom of that disease, but he isn’t the disease itself. How do we get to a point where we can have a presidential election in which the overwhelming majorities of both political parties agree that the result was legitimate, even if one of those groups doesn’t like it? I don’t know the answer to that question, but it seems to me by far the most important one for all of us to be asking going forward.

***

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen  

What were your expectations going into Wednesday and the electoral vote count? What were you worried about and what were you not worried about?

On Tuesday night, a friend asked me what I thought would happen tomorrow (Wednesday). I wrote back: “Chaos is the plan.” The insurrection was predictable. It was a culmination of Trump’s constant messaging to defy the rule of law, the Constitution, and the people’s will, in order to keep him in power. As an intelligence officer, I would note that there was no element of surprise, and no intelligence failure in this case. Trump had signaled his intention to usurp the rule of law, defy democratic principles, and break the rules in order to remain in power, no matter what the cost — throughout his term. And he was allowed to implement this agenda in broad daylight, not on 5th avenue, but nationwide.

Which norms/rules/institutions held and worked the way you expected them to? Was it a good day for institutional stability? Was it a bad day of shattering and exposing our democracy’s vulnerability to rule breakers?

Rule of law has been eroding for four years of Trump’s presidency, and we saw the results of that on Wednesday. In the early days of Trump, excuses were made, with people arguing his abuses of power were justified on the basis of strengthening the executive branch of government. Republicans justified supporting Trump on the basis of the benefits he delivered to the Republican agenda, e.g., the nomination of conservative Supreme Court Justices, deregulation, and tax cuts. But when future generations look back on this dark period of American history, they will be struck by how “we” — the political elite, and citizen voters alike — were so willing to abandon the values and principles of our longstanding democracy for the sake of the expediency of the moment — Trump’s personal agenda, over everything we had stood for in our history. In that context, January 6 was a wakeup call of how vulnerable democracy is to the hostile takeover by selfish interests and authoritarian interests.

How are you thinking about what happened? The electoral vote count proceeded, Biden’s victory was certified, and yet U.S. democracy was attacked. How do you square these two events happening on the same day?

I have described al-Qaeda’s horrific 9/11 attack on the United States as being an “elegant” operation. It is painful for me to acknowledge al-Qaeda’s prowess in pulling off an attack of such sophistication and scale, but it is necessary in assessing the root causes of the failure of imagination that led to 9/11. In the run-up to 9/11, we ignored the warning signs by underestimating the threat our adversary posed, and by overestimating our capabilities to control events. Taking into account the lessons of history, like 9/11, we should have been better prepared to anticipate that the trend line of events had placed us squarely on the path to violence and confrontation. The insurrection on Wednesday should not have been a surprise to anyone. The timing and location of the showdown between violent Trump supporters and authorities was as poignant as it could possibly be, considering it was the day that the people’s will and thereby the results of our working democracy was to be read into the record by the victors, and the vanquished. I listened in rapt attention to the speakers who offered their clarifying comments minutes before the terrorists breached the Capitol. Some stood up courageously in favor of democracy, and the people’s will. Others betrayed everything our democracy stands for, including their own status as elected officials, in order to support what could only be described as Trump’s coup attempt. The juxtaposition of those who stood up to announce their support for democratic principles, and those who failed to do so, will be the enduring image of what transpired on this tragic day in American history.

What should be next steps to cure the most significant defects and weaknesses in our system that were exposed on Wednesday? 

As a nation, gloriously diverse and of different backgrounds, persuasions, and interests, we should do some serious soul searching to identify the vulnerabilities our Founding Fathers created in our democratic model. Perhaps these wise men had a gentler assessment of our better souls than has turned out to be the case. My question for us to ponder, looking forward: What was different Wednesday than any other day in the past four years of Trump’s presidency? Trump didn’t snap this week. He is the man he has always been. He has declared his intentions, and he has acted upon them. For this “authenticity,” indeed this audacity, multitudes of people love what he stands for. But he also represents the narcissistic ambitions of a would-be dictator, a tyrant who believes our democracy is too muddy, too inefficient, too “weak” to stand. The America Trump and his followers want to impose on us is a white nationalist, racist, intolerant, and undemocratic country that they are comfortable living in. They do not respect, above all, the principle that we are a nation of individuals, bound in a social contract that protects how each one of us chooses to live our lives, joined by shared interests. The Founding Fathers did not contemplate that a moment like yesterday would come about, when a president would usurp the rules of democracy and seek to impose his will on our nation.

Image: Flags at the US Capitol fly at half-mast to honor US Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, on January 8, 2021, in Washington, DC. Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).