UChicago Terrorism Expert Says America a ‘Tinderbox’ in 2024

Saturday marked the third anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then President Donald Trump.

With Trump the overwhelming favorite to get the Republican nomination once again, President Joe Biden has begun to focus his attacks on his presumed opponent.

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In a speech Friday from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, Biden portrayed Trump as an existential threat to American democracy. Biden made clear that in his mind the electoral stakes could not be higher.

“This is not rhetorical, academic or hypothetical,” said Biden. “Whether Democracy is still America’s most sacred cause is the most urgent question of our time And it’s what the 2024 election is all about.”

Below is a Q&A with Robert Pape, political science professor at the University of Chicago, terrorism expert and the founding director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, or CPOST.

(The interview has been edited for length.)

WTTW News: We’ve just passed the third anniversary of the Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol. Since 2021 you’ve been tracking the threat of domestic political violence. How would you assess the level of threat at this particular point, and what is the trend?

Robert Pape: The country is now a tinderbox. And it is likely to become more of a tinderbox as we go through 2024. The more we’ve learned about Jan. 6 by studying the over 1,000 people who have been prosecuted for breaking into the Capitol, the more we see that a large fraction — about half of the folks who stormed the Capitol — are coming right from mainstream America. From the media, you could easily think that what’s happening is it’s the QAnon Shaman or a militia group or the Proud Boys who stormed the Capitol because that’s what the media has been focused on over and over and over again. But the fact of the matter is now that we have studied each and every person who broke into the Capitol, what we see is half are doctors, lawyers, accountants, executives from high-level corporations. They are political candidates running for office. They are business owners. These are not folks who simply waltzed in peacefully. These are folks who we have police body cam film of beating cops. … They came to beat the police. They came with knives, with mesh vests. And again, I’m not talking about Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. I mean, like a female gynecologist from a famous Boston hospital who during the day is dealing with babies and so forth, came to the capital with a mesh vest and armed with weapons to fight police, and we have pictures of her doing exactly that.

(Courtesy of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats)(Courtesy of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats)

What do you think it is that brought these people to the Capitol and the belief that violence is acceptable to achieve political goals?

Pape: This is not that much of a mystery because they tell us in all the court documents. These are true believers. They’re not hiding it, and they say over and over and over again that they came to the Capitol because their President Donald Trump said that the election was stolen and they had to take back their country and they came because the president told them to.

The news media just simply doesn’t want to cover this. I’m not trying to beat up the media, but the New York Times makes this all about just the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys or the QAnon Shaman, and ‘60 Minutes’ has wanted to do that. The Washington Post has wanted to do that. There is just simply a broader story here having to do with mainstream Americans. Maybe it’s just uncomfortable and they don’t want to turn away the people buying their papers by showing them what really happened. … This is the big story that is missing from understanding, and this is important because it’s not just understanding history for the past. It helps us to understand why Donald Trump is such a unique threat to democracy. It’s because he is unique in that he has demonstrated both a capacity and a willingness to inspire mainstream Americans to do violence for his political goals.

Do you see Trump as the primary driving force or is he just a symptom of a broader kind of frustration that these people feel and Trump allows them to express it?

Pape: Well, these are not at odds. Trump is an expression of especially White Americans and traditional Americans being very concerned and fearful about demographic change that’s occurring in the country. That’s why Trump talks about the fear and the great replacement theory … and how the Democratic Party wants to fundamentally change the nature of quote ‘traditional America’ by which he mainly means White America. That has been a big part of Trump’s support, but that is not at odds with him going further and mobilizing his supporters in tightly orchestrated ways to do violence when he says so. And so people keep also saying we haven’t had another Jan. 6 since Jan. 6. Well, Trump has not said so.

As the crowd is responding during Trump’s speech, they’re clearly understanding. Yes, we will march on Capitol Hill and he’s encouraging us. The crowd says this back to him then as they go in and march and then they break through, he’s not calming them down. He’s saying, well, Mike Pence let us down and then they start chanting ‘hang Mike Pence,’ and he’s not calming them down. He’s egging them on at every step. What makes Donald Trump a unique threat to democracy is that he is the one political leader we have in the country who has both a capacity because he has a massive following,  and a willingness because he did this on Jan. 6,  to inspire mainstream Americans to conduct violence for his political goals.

President Biden has clearly decided it’s time to call out Trump as an existential threat by name. What’s your assessment of Biden’s approach at this point?

Pape: The most important thing in Biden’s speeches that he’s given in the last year — this actually starts around the midterms but has been consistent in the multiple speeches he’s given since then — is President Biden has over and over condemned political violence, whether it comes from the right or the left. He is saying in all of these speeches, he is saying that political violence, wherever it comes from, is wrong, it’s anti-American, it’s anti-democratic.

So what President Biden has been doing is he’s not just simply speaking to Democrats who already don’t like Donald Trump. He’s been speaking more as the president of the country condemning violence overall. And then he is calling out Donald Trump because again, there’s no other political leader who has both the demonstrated capacity and willingness to inspire violence from mainstream America for his political goals. So it is really important to see that what Biden is doing in his speeches, … he is establishing that political violence itself is wrong. And then Donald Trump has been the biggest purveyor of that violence.

Do you think it’s inevitable that we will see this threat rise as we approach the presidential election in the fall, and if so, is there anything that can change that trajectory?

Pape: This is not just simply a straight line. So the public wants very simple things. Either the threat is red or the threat is green. The truth is the threat of violence is going to ebb and flow by whether or not the political system will win for Donald Trump. And so long as Trump is winning politically, he’s got absolutely no interest to organize another Jan. 6. And without his effort to organize another Jan. 6, it’s very unlikely to simply spontaneously happen.

So this has been the big mistake again in the way the news media has presented all this. That it’s the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys who are the real instigators here besides Trump. Trump did a little bit, but it’s really the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. So once we take them out and knock them out, then we don’t have a problem anymore. It just simply is not understanding the nature of what happened. It’s a mistake. It’s not 100% wrong, but it’s about 90% of what happened. And what’s really important to see is that Jan. 6 occurred at a moment when Donald Trump had no other political tools to win and stay in office.

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