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Trump gave violent groups openings and did nothing to stop them, expert says

Historian comments on parallels to militias and organized violence of the past

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The seventh congressional committee hearing focused on the role violent extremists, Donald Trump and his unofficial advisors had in inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Historian Kate Masur, an expert on the 19th-century, discusses historical events referenced by House Jan. 6 committee members, and observations from the testimonies of former Oath Keeper Jason Van Tatenhove and Donald Trump supporter Stephen Ayers.

Masur is Board of Visitors Professor at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and author of “Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction” (W.W. Norton, 2021), a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in history. She can be reached at

Quote from Professor Masur
“Rep. Jamie Raskin invoked Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 “Lyceum” address in which he predicted that if democracy came under threat in the United States, it would be from within, not from outside. In this Springfield, Illinois, speech, Lincoln warned that an ambitious leader could rise up and exploit the passions of the masses. When that occurred, he said, ‘it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.’ Today, Lincoln’s speech reads as very prescient. 

“Rep. Bennie Thompson stated at the end of today’s hearing that people may have different views on the appropriate role of the federal government, but the federal government is in the end the backstop of our democracy. He alluded to being African American and from Mississippi, where it was only because of federal intervention that people like him and his family could vote and move around with dignity.  

“Thompson was talking about why we should take seriously any threat to our federal government and previewing next week when the committee will provide evidence of how Trump did not stand up for democracy or the rule of law as events were unfolding on Jan. 6, 2021. 

“This was a powerful point that speaks to how dramatic it really was that Trump summoned this mob and then did nothing to stop it. 

‘Political violence can unfold in complicated ways’
“There also were parallels with militias and organized violent groups in the past. Witness Jason Van Tatenhove, a former spokesman for the Oath Keepers, talked about how the Oath Keepers are a militia group that doesn’t believe in the rule of law, whose leader, Stewart Rhodes, is constantly seeking legitimacy for the group. Witness Stephen Ayers was an everyday Trump supporter who wanted to do what Trump seemed to call on people like him to do.  

“These figures have parallels in violent movements of the past. The Ku Klux Klan of the 1860s, for example, did everything it could to undermine the new democracy that had emerged from the Civil War, when Black men were first permitted to vote in large numbers. Historians have shown that in Klan organizations – and Klan violence – there were everyday members who kind of went along with leaders; there were armed and charismatic leaders who fomented violence very directly; and then there were politicians who were sometimes directly involved and sometimes distanced themselves from the violence, even though they did nothing to stop it and benefitted from the results. 

“Political violence can unfold in complicated ways, and I think the committee is doing a good job of showing how the connections worked in this case: Violent (and white supremacist or white nationalist) groups may be out there and looking for openings provided by powerful people. Trump gave them openings, in some ways throughout his presidency (think Charlottesville), and certainly starting with his tweet on Dec. 19.”