On Wednesday, January 27th, the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy (CCLP) joined USC Dornsife’s Center for the Political Future and the USC Gould School of Law to discuss the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency and Joe Biden’s first week in office. Hosted by CCLP Director Geoffrey Cowan as part of the What’s Next series, the conversation between expert panelists spanned the past, present, and potential future of American democracy, offering cautionary lessons and hopeful insights.
To open the discussion, Bob Shrum, Director of the Center for the Political Future, raised the question of whether or not Trump’s conduct between the election and the inauguration could have lasting consequences. In denying the integrity of a free and fair election, Trump’s adamant refusal to concede has already led to an astonishing series of events, including a violent storming of the Capitol and Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend @realDonaldTrump for violating the platform’s Glorification of Violence policy.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss views Trump’s unprecedented behavior as an attempt to safeguard his privileges as President. “We never thought we would live to see someone whose ruling goal was to hold on to power at any cost” said Beschloss. In his opinion, Trump’s principal aim was to keep his criminal and legal immunity, which caused his actions to become “desperate and extreme.”
As for the insurrection on January 6th, Beschloss predicts that historians will look at the event as “the culmination of four years,” rather than a spontaneous uprising. Observing past presidencies, Beschloss claimed, “We have not seen a president commit hourly assaults against our democracy for the whole of his term ever before in American history.” His main concern is that the president was directly involved in stopping the certification of a free and fair election and possibly overthrowing Congress. From Beschloss’s point of view, the senate needs to draw a line against such behavior, otherwise domestic threats might be repeated in the future.
Looking at the these potential threats, Erroll Southers, Director of Homegrown Violent Extremism studies in the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, noted the freshly released bulletin from the National Terrorism Advisory System warning of attacks emboldened by the assault on the Capital. He acknowledged that while fear exists, the FBI’s aggressive response to the assault has caused ideologically motivated groups such as the Proud Boys to simmer. Southers stated that 300 people who participated in the January 6th insurrection have already been identified with 150 arrest warrants. Violations of Title 18 and United States Code 18234, which is seditious conspiracy, are “extremely serious” according to Southers.
Like Southers, Beschloss is cautiously optimistic. He hopes to see members of Congress create legislative solutions to ensure that “this four year assault on democracy, and especially the sixth of January, can never happen again.” He looks at Biden’s victory as a lucky turn for America, citing the new president’s conciliatory temperament, desire for unity, and 50 years of experience in government and politics.
Panelists also discussed how recent events have brought scrutiny to the core of our democracy. In Beschloss’s opinion, “Presidents are much too powerful.” From a historical perspective, he views the Trump administration as “a four year lab experiment in which areas of presidential behavior are bound by law and which are bound by custom.” As recent events have highlighted, there is potential for danger when customary conduct is largely disregarded.
Franita Tolson, Vice Dean and Professor of the USC Gould School of Law, also pointed out traditions and policies that could use reform. Considering the tumultuous past few months, Tolson stated, “I think the waning days of the Trump administration, if anything, taught us very powerful lessons about the problems with the people we elect and also how the structure of our constitution and our system of elections has fallen far short of our expectations.”
Followed by a Q&A, the discussion helped participants understand the impact of the Trump era and how it can provide our country with valuable lessons moving forward.