Robert Siegel on U.S. Capitol Riots: ‘It’s Like Nothing I’ve Seen Before’

Robert Siegel has seen riots, uprisings and revolutions in a journalistic career that spans half a century. One of his formative experiences was covering the student protests at Columbia University in 1968, in which students occupied university buildings, as a reporter on the college radio station. Later, working for NPR, he covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since retiring in 2018 from his longtime position as host of NPR’s All Things Considered, he has been a special literary contributor to Moment. We sought his perspective immediately after the dramatic events of January 6. 

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You’ve reported on so many different cases of unrest. Is this like anything you’ve seen before? 

It’s like nothing I’ve seen before. Given that this took place in Washington, DC, and given that this was a crowd of people, a couple of whom carried Confederate flags, but who, for the most part, were wrapped in the Stars and Stripes with a sense of entitlement that this was their Congress to go in and break the windows of. I found it unlike anything I’ve seen.

Washington is such a beautiful city, certainly in its monumental center, that even protests that have a real edge of grievance to them are quite often rather happy and upbeat, because you’re on this impressive mall, and the monuments here are very inspiring, and the buildings are beautiful. So the notion of such an angry group of people—call it a mode of insurrection—and seeing an almost entirely white protest, that was all pretty new. I’d have to search for any parallels.

You mentioned my origins at the undergraduate protests at Columbia, where I was the guy on the radio. Yesterday, one thing that took me right back was a picture of a rioter who’d broken into the Senate chamber and taken over the seat of the vice president, the chair in which the presiding officer of the Senate sits, whoever that may be. And it was an empty chamber, and there was this rioter sitting there.

And it took me back to a photograph in Life Magazine—a photograph of a guy, a classmate of mine actually, who, in the sit-in at the university president’s office at Columbia in 1968, dipped into the president’s humidor, and was seen smoking a presumably expensive cigar, adding insult to injury or vandalism. In effect, he was saying “Here, big shot, look at me. I’m sitting in your seat of power and authority, and I’m invading the privacy of your desk.”

Over all these years, 1968 for me has been the benchmark of craziness. Whenever anyone would say the country has never been this crazily divided, or this angrily divided, I’ve always thought, well, we haven’t had the equivalent of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. We haven’t had as many universities flaring up one after the other. We didn’t have someone running for president like George Wallace, who was not a dog-whistle racist, but a segregationist. And he actually only earned six fewer electoral votes less than Barry Goldwater, who had run as a Republican four years earlier. So for me, 1968 has always been the standard for concerns about the stability of the country. And I have to admit that over the past year, my confidence that 1968 was more worrying than recent years has been waning. And yesterday was certainly right up there in the tipping points for me.

So is it crazier? 

It’s pretty crazy. I mean, the big differences between camps of protesters and counterprotesters in 1968 had to do with things like: Is the government lying about the Vietnam War? Is this war effort really doomed? And that, to me, was a much more rational argument, between protesters and supporters of the war, than the QAnon conspiracy theses that evidently animated quite a few of the people who were out there. And I am surprised that so many Americans believe that the election was stolen in 2020. And they seem to believe that with a perfect faith. What can we say? They seem to be unshakable in their conviction that a terrible fraud is being worked on President Trump.

This was as litigated an election as we could have. There were lawsuits, there were recounts. It was a very strange election, because just a few months ago, you may recall, E.J. Dionne, my friend, was sounding the alarms when Maryland and the District of Columbia, two jurisdictions not known for voter suppression, failed miserably in pulling off primaries in the spring because of the pandemic, between election poll workers who couldn’t work and the number of polling places, which was greatly reduced. And E.J. very wisely alerted us that we were headed for a disaster, that places were incapable of pulling off a functioning election because of the pandemic.

And the country heard that warning, and warnings from others, and managed to put together a functioning election. And of course, the strangest lesson of 2020 is that, by making it easier to vote, and by making it easier (as it has been in Virginia, where I’ve lived for some years now) to vote absentee with no excuse, we had the greatest participation. You could also say that there was more passion going into this vote. Between that passion and the special arrangements that were made for the year of the pandemic and the shift toward non-election day in-person voting, we had 150 million people take part in the presidential election. 

I used to chart the presidential turnout compared to the Super Bowl audience, which were somewhere in the low one hundred thousands. I thought they were the two events in which the country all did the same thing on one day.

But the Super Bowl has never come close to 150 million people. So the country pulled off this rather remarkable election. And everything that happened was taken by this group of people, who are represented by the rioters in Washington, as further proof that the truth is being denied, and that Donald Trump has been denied.

I was channel surfing and began watching Fox for a while to see how they were handling things. And a reporter made an offhand remark, about how so many of the people there have a background in the military or in law enforcement.

It turned out that the woman who, alas, died inside of the Capitol was an Air Force veteran who had served several deployments. I think that may be part of what I saw as that sense of entitlement to have our house because we’ve served the country. But I find it very disturbing. I can see how a certain part of the traditional Republican Party, which I think of as a party of management and of conservative mores, being repelled by what happened at the Congress, and saying, “I want no part of that.” But I can’t hear the conversation. I just don’t imagine the meeting of minds over this question of, was there a massive criminal conspiracy to work a fraud in the 2020 presidential election, and the dozens of courts that threw out legal challenges? Were their actions further confirmation of how deep the deep state goes?

It seems there’s the potential for us to be stuck in a failure to communicate with common facts with the share of the American people, who are, after all, our neighbors. They are our fellow Americans, and we can’t wish them away any more than they can wish us away. 

I don’t think there’s any fact finding body, whether it’s the 9/11 Commission style, or, my God, like the Warren Commission Report, which was instantly published and no one believed it—it seemed to make the problem worse. So I can’t imagine national hearings about the election, how the election was carried out, that would make people feel a little bit more trusting of the government. So that’s worrying and discouraging.

I know you’ve been reading a lot of history recently. I wonder if there are other periods in American history that could, in any way, be like this, maybe pre-Civil War?

What I was thinking is, do we have a history of mob violence and politics? Do we have a history of less mob violence than other countries? Obviously, the Civil War stands out as our greatest violent confrontation. But if you think back, I assume people still learn in school about Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion. Their complaint was that they were being taxed too much, which is a long-running theme in America. But I was struck by something, which is that we don’t celebrate the events surrounding Shays’ Rebellion or the Whiskey Rebellion. And even when it comes to the Civil War, the kind of national view that was dominant when I was growing up was more about the reconciliation of northern and southern whites—having sold out Blacks, but that wasn’t mentioned. Brother and brother embracing at Gettysburg 50 years later, that was the kind of image that I recalled being sold on. And I was struck by a contrast that I’d read recently, which was that the French, who have had any number of political uprisings and riots in their modern history—on our honeymoon in 1973, my wife and I sat at the Café Cluny in Paris and watched a minor riot between a group of Trotskyists and riot police, and they’d just had a civil war over Algeria—but chose the storming of the Bastille as their National Day. The Bastille at the time had about, I think, eight prisoners in it. And the writer wrote that they could have looked a month later and chosen the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as their founding moment of the Republic. And indeed, Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson worked together on this document. But they chose the violent uprising instead to celebrate.

And I thought that’s something that we as Americans really don’t do. It’s not that we don’t have a violent political history, but we tend to celebrate the moments of healing, and coming together, and maybe make more of our civility than then there really is. We certainly like the idea, I think, that we’re a peaceable country. 

There’s something else we should bear in mind before we diminish responsibility for what happened in Washington. The act of the mob was to interrupt Congress from performing its ceremonial duty of counting the electoral votes. And in fact, what was going on inside was a legislative maneuver, whose aim was to delay Congress from doing its ceremonial duty of counting the electoral votes. So they were of a piece, the two actions, the legislative action and the mob scene. The two acts, the legislative act, to say let us try to throw a wrench into this very simple activity of the Congress and counting the electoral college votes, and a mob breaking in to stop the Congress from counting the electoral college votes, had at their core the same motive, and the same lack of respect for what was really only a matter of ceremony.

So you’re saying that the people who climbed down from the legislative position, maybe they just felt that they didn’t want to be showed up? Once it took the form of mob action, they couldn’t be associated with it anymore?

I think so. I think that they recognized that, in part, they were making the president feel better, showing that they would go the last mile here for the president’s sense of being dealt with unfairly. And then when witnessing what the president’s supporters thought was a fair way of redressing their grievance. I think some of them were just appalled. I think they recognized the unity of purpose of the objections that they were voting on and the protest that was taking place outside. I can’t back that up with any conversation I’ve had with anyone, but that was what I thought I heard them saying.

And a lot of them still managed to put in a word for all the irregularities that there were in this election, when, in fact, the way I saw it, I was amazed that this country pulled off the pandemic election the way it did, and that we had so much participation. And that so few cases of electoral fraud were reported.

So my view of the senators or others who climbed down at the last minute—for instance, Secretary Elaine Chao, who resigned from the cabinet the next day, and is married to Senator Mitch McConnell—is that she could have figured out there was something screwy about this administration before the riot on the Capitol.

So could he, for that matter.

So could he, yes, absolutely. In a city whose industry is politics, I guess one should be appropriately realistic and say, a good deed that comes very late in the game is better than no good deed at all, and we should accept people for what they’re capable of doing.

I gather that Mitch McConnell, in his book, which I’ve never read, pointed out that he always liked dealing with Joe Biden as opposed to dealing with Barack Obama, because Biden didn’t try to change his mind about what he believed. He said he didn’t like being lectured to by Obama about how essentially he, McConnell, was wrong. He said Biden would come to me saying that he understood that Biden had his beliefs, I had mine, we’re different, let’s see what kind of deal we can make. And I suppose that’s one way to judge the behavior of politicians. And so, I feel better for those who connected with some dignity, albeit at the last moment of his presidency.

People like Pence, who got off the train at the last possible moment, but they got off.

Yes. In Pence’s case though, for Pence to have bought into the idea from Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert’s lawsuit, that he did in fact have the authority as vice president, as someone used the example, to look inside the envelope on Oscar night and actually decide that that person didn’t deserve the best actor award, but that it should go to someone else—I mean, that would have been insane. So I’m happy that Pence studied the matter and concluded that he had no such authority. But that I’d say was a low bar for Pence. 

What do you see ahead, now that Biden has the presidency and both houses of Congress? 

Well, he has both houses of Congress by a whisker. And we should recall that  Barack Obama had 60, he had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Instead, this is a 50/50 senate with the vice president being the tiebreaker. So what he gets done will depend a great deal on what senators like, first, Joe Manchin and Kyrssten Sinema, rather conservative or centrist democrats, I should say, are interested in doing. And then what some group of Republicans, the Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, maybe Mitt Romney, a few constructive Republicans, can do. So while it might be a moment for New Deal-size programs of the sort that Barack Obama did actually come into office with the majority that could have passed anything, I think it would be a political miracle for Biden to get, say, a public option to health insurance passed through the Congress.

The number one question is, when do we all get the vaccine? And when does the economy open up because we’ve been vaccinated, open up with confidence? And fortunately, for Biden, that’s really an administrative question. That’s not a legislative issue for the most part. So I think the first great challenge that they face is, can we just be more competent and more there for you, so that you can get your arm jabbed with the vaccine shortly and show that we know what we’re doing? If they can do all that, then I think it tees them up. Perhaps, unlike previous recent presidencies, maybe for doing bigger things, bigger legislative things. But if they don’t get the vaccine right, I don’t think much else matters politically.

This day will recede. Whether we are now going to have these protesters returning every January 6 for commemorative protests on the mall, I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of legs this movement has. There will be a dissident community. There will be this part of the country that just doesn’t believe what the rest of the country believes. And I hope that we just regard it as a bunch of troublesome wingnuts. But it’s possible that it could be more difficult than that, who knows? I used to like to say, when I was in journalism, it’s hard enough getting right what’s already happened. To try to get right the stuff that hasn’t happened yet is probably not worth the effort.

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