On the most recent episode of Amicus, Dahlia Lithwick spoke with Georgetown Law professor Joshua Geltzer, who served as senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, about the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol last week and why we should have seen this coming. A portion of their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, has been transcribed below.
Dahlia Lithwick: One of the reasons it was you I wanted to talk to this week is that you wrote a piece almost two years ago, in February of 2019, issuing a warning that Donald Trump would never step down even if he lost the election, and as I recall at the time, you were largely met by silence for a long time. People just did not want to engage with you on that. Do you want to talk a little bit about what it is that you saw coming in 2019? Why you saw red flags then, and the extent to which the events of Wednesday at the Capitol either corroborated your fears or in some ways ran counter to them?
Joshua Geltzer: I think that the predictability is part of the tragedy here. This was not some break with the previous Trump, the Trump of the campaign trail or the Trump of the White House. This was the culmination of that Donald Trump. Why might one have thought that a loss at the polls was not going to be accepted by him graciously or at all? Well, he lost an early primary battle to Ted Cruz, and he said it was rigged, and it should be done over. When he thought his party, the Republicans, were going to lose big in the 2018 midterms, he cast doubt ahead of time on the validity of that. All the groundwork was there and the stakes were then higher of course, because here was Donald Trump now sitting in the White House, having tried to use the organs of government to ensure an electoral victory.
That’s what got him impeached, and it didn’t stop him even when he was, and for all of that, still, not to yield a victory. It fit with the pattern that he wouldn’t accept that graciously, or indeed at all, but I do think the predictability adds to this sense of avoidability, because as we go back, and if we look at moments that could have headed this off, frankly, from two perspectives, from a law perspective, there obviously was impeachment. He was impeached for trying to abuse the powers of the United States government to secure his personal political fortunes, and from the perspective of national security, from the fact that his encouragement, and I dare say at times, incitement, to his supporters to take resistance to his electoral loss into their own hands. From both perspectives, Wednesday, it was not a break, it was a culmination, and that makes it very sad to see, but it also means that it was predictable.
I want to say something for a moment about tone, because the other thing that I note now when I look back at my published Q&A with you, after you wrote your piece, was that already I was being a little flip. I was making jokes, and you checked me pretty quickly and said, “Those are consequential things that you’re describing.” It’s very, very easy to succumb to the funny memes—the Axe body spray, beer belly putsch. People died, and I feel like one of the things you’ve been checking me on since I’ve known you is that it’s really tempting to slide into irony, humor, and disdain. All the ways that we trivialize something when what happened on Wednesday was one of the most sobering and consequential things I’ve ever seen.
It’s a day that if we don’t remember it, if we don’t keep it tattooed on the inside of our eyelids for weeks, and months, to come, we will be making a serious mistake, because we need to learn from it, and we need to figure out what it means for the trajectory this wonderful democracy could be on if there isn’t active effort to steer it in a different direction. I think it’s an enormously consequential and sad day, but I also think there was a real challenge in how to talk about this before Wednesday, before various other horrors of the Trump era. Because, just imagine if somebody had pitched to you a piece six months ago that described Wednesday as it went down—that the Capitol rotunda will be overrun, that there will be members of Congress cowering and told to have gas masks at the ready in case more tear gas needs to be used, that the Confederate flag will be held by rioters who’ve climbed some of the external parts of the Capitol. It would have been hard to say, “Yeah, we’ll just run that one.” Even if I’ve just told you that overall it’s predictable, the particularities of the scenes, the astonishing images, videos, audio—we’ve all heard of how it played out—it’s uncomfortable to say that that could happen, because it’s uncomfortable for it to happen.
And so, to figure out how to warn people ahead of time was something you and I grappled with in conversation, and in print, but even now, how do we point back to Wednesday and do justice in a sense to how close this democracy came? There could have easily been members of the House and senators hurt or killed by how things played out, and if we don’t appreciate that gravity, and what it means, not just as a failing of securing the Capitol building that needs to happen, but more that there were trendlines in our democracy that pointed to this moment, and that some allowed to get to this moment—if we don’t take that really seriously, then we are not going to figure out a better pathway out of this.
It’s useful to think about the fact that we get really caught up in the guys with the fur garments and the pointy helmets, and it’s just ever so easy to slide back into the ways this looked like parody, because it allows us to smugly say, “Oh, our institution’s held.” We’ve been saying our institutions held for years now. It’s not so much that the institutions held and saved us, as you just pointed out. The Capitol Police didn’t prepare for what was to come. What held was our luck in some sense. And it is absolutely emphatically the wrong lesson to say, We don’t need to prepare for the next one after Charlottesville, we don’t need to prepare for the next one after we saw rioting in the streets in D.C., because our institutions are doing a good job. Don’t be fooled by the fact that these guys are dressed up in costumes, that’s what you’re saying?
I am saying that. The ridiculousness of the costumes, the silliness of how some of it looked, obviously, with some very serious results: That’s deliberate. That has been a deliberate turn by those loosely characterized as violent white supremacists, that includes neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates. It includes a group of folks who have deliberately embraced a bizarre humor of sorts, and symbolism, and logos that strike the rest of us, and sometimes even them, as ridiculous, but it has been their reinvention, and as they burst onto the national scene in a new way with Charlottesville back in August 2017, these sorts of memes—Pepe the Frog, their joking phrasings—that was their rebrand, their reboot in a sense.
And they know that the phrase boogaloo boy sounds silly. They wear Hawaiian shirts on purpose, but they’re doing it because it is gaining a certain traction, that combination of deadly serious ideology, deadly serious actions on Wednesday, and some element of ridiculousness and humor, it seems to be gaining traction, and of course, it’s gaining traction in part because the president of the United States for the past four years has at times looked the other way, at times more actively encouraged it, such as the “stand back and stand by” comment at the debate.
And so, it’s not an accidental byproduct of their approach. It is part of how in an internet-driven, meme-driven digital world, these groups have taken some very ancient and awful ideas but also given them a certain modern and even jocular look, and yet, of course, when it is Capitol Police losing their life as they try to protect our nation’s senators and representatives, that is nothing but serious.