Harvey Wasserman is a resident of Florida and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He voted for Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections but watched in horror as hundreds of supporters of the former president stormed the Capitol Building January 6.
“My stomach was in knots,” he told VOA. “The sheer ignorance of those so-called Trump supporters was doing nothing more than showing the world the dark side of the Republican Party. It made me feel a little embarrassed to have voted for him.”
More than 800 people are believed to have entered the building, temporarily halting Congress’ attempt to certify the Electoral College votes and formalize Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the November 3 elections. Five people died as a result of the events of that day and many law enforcement officers were injured.
But nearly five months later, Wasserman has a different interpretation of that violent day’s events.
“As I look back and try to understand what happened, I believe a good portion of the more aggressive agitators were plants from radical groups,” he explained, echoing the disproven claims that leftist groups like antifa were responsible for the attacks.
“Patriots’ honor and respect for our nation’s symbols and place of government is sacred,” Wasserman continued. “Trump supporters would never use the American flag and pole to break into the Capitol Building.”
But the facts have shown a different story. As of earlier May, federal prosecutors have arrested more than 440 people sympathetic to Trump's assertion that the election was rigged against him and expect to charge at least 100 more.
A congressional witch-hunt
Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would create a 10-person bipartisan commission to investigate the riots. Last week, Republicans in the Senate killed that effort by rejecting a similar bill.
American voters are split on how to proceed, many by political affiliation.
In a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll conducted May 19-20, nearly 70% of Democratic voters say the storming of the Capitol Building warrants a congressional investigation.
However, 62% of Republican voters believe that ongoing investigations conducted by the FBI and Department of Justice are sufficient. Independent voters were split evenly on the issue.
“Like so many things that happened in America, we may never know the truth,” Wasserman said of who caused the January 6 riots, “but we don’t need to waste more money on another congressional witch hunt.”
One week after the deadly riot, the House impeached Trump on grounds of “incitement of insurrection.” Biden was sworn in as the nation’s 46th president one week later, on January 20. Trump did not attend the inauguration.
Jillian Dani is also a Trump voter from central Florida. Like Wasserman, she doesn’t believe an additional commission is needed. But any further investigation, she said, should include questioning about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and riots for racial justice that predominantly took place last summer.
“In both the D.C. riots and the BLM riots, there were mostly peaceful protesters in attendance, but a smaller group of people ruined that for everyone,” she said. “All rioting is wrong, and more people died at the BLM protests. I don’t think there are some reasons for rioting and killing that are better than others.”
Further investigation needed
Many of the Democratic voters who spoke to VOA for this article don’t see the two protests as equal. They note that the January 6 protests and riots were held with the goal of disrupting the certification of Biden’s victory, a victory proven several times to be the result of a free and fair election. Black Lives Matter protests and riots, some argue, were in response to police brutality against African Americans. While critics of BLM say there was a higher death toll at those protests, the movement's supporters note that the violence was rare and spread over a far larger number of events.
According to an analysis by the U.S. Crisis Monitor, a joint effort by Princeton University and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, out of more than 10,000 demonstrations in 2020, in more than 2,700 locations across the country, 94% of the events happened with no violence. At least 25 deaths have been linked to the protests.
Abby Rae Lacombe lives in Pennsylvania and says she doesn’t belong to either political party, although she voted for Democratic candidates over Trump in the last two presidential election cycles. Lacombe says she believes that if Americans want the protests and rioting from last summer investigated, they should reach out to their representatives to do just that.
“But just because you want the BLM protests and riots investigated doesn’t mean we shouldn’t investigate the events from January 6,” she said. “What we do with one doesn’t disqualify the other.”
And for Lacombe and others, further investigating those events is essential.
“I worry if we don’t punish those responsible, those involved, those who consorted and those who planned this,” she said, “then this country is going to devolve into waste in the best-case scenario, or war in the worst case.”
Another Pennsylvania voter who supported Democrats, Jordan Smith, believes that the coronavirus pandemic made it difficult for Americans to summon the kind of response the Washington riots require.
“People are exhausted after more than a year of a global pandemic,” he said, adding “but we need to figure out how to look into and care about what January 6 says about us, that Americans are our own worst enemy right now.”
What January 6 says about America
Smith acknowledged any deeper investigation should be done in a way that doesn’t alienate half the country’s voters.
“We’ve got to do it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t blame 73 million voters, including those who showed up to Washington, D.C., to protest peacefully,” he said. “But we have to continue to investigate and discuss the events of that day without fear. We can’t sweep it under the rug merely to placate those who identify politically with those who stormed the Capitol.”
Kyle Kondik, director of communications at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Republican politicians in Congress opposed a commission for political reasons.
“I would think that getting to the bottom of what happened that day is important to the future of the United States,” he said, “but most Republicans don’t seem to share that view. Likely because they feel it could hurt them from a political standpoint — their politicians fanned the flames, and their voters led the attack.”
Many Republican voters like Dani agree with Democrats that those involved in the storming of the Capitol Building should be punished.
“People who broke the law should be prosecuted and charged as applicable as is being done now,” she said, “but I don’t think politicians like Trump should be charged with inciting that violence. If we do that, then there are plenty of examples of Democratic politicians using their words to incite violence, as well.”
She’s worried this is all part of a never-ending cycle of riots and doubt in the nation’s electoral system.
“I think there was a lot of sketchy stuff that went into this election,” she said, despite multiple recounts and the repeated debunking of rumors calling the 2020 presidential election into question. “And I think election results are always going to be fought over at this point — largely because of big wig politicians in Washington.”
Kondik fears the impact those persistent doubts on our election system will have on the future of the United States.
“It was basically a group of weekend warriors that broke into the United States Capitol and disrupted our election because of a lie pushed by conservative politicians. How weak does that make us look?” he said. “And if the story of this country in the 21st century turns out to be that internal rot caused our decline, it’s going to be hard to look at January 6, 2021, and not see an important moment in that story. We need to continue to investigate that day.”
But Kondik doesn’t believe a congressional commission is the only way to do that, citing the courts, the U.S. Justice Department as well as hearings led by Democrats in Congress as other potential options.
“But I think it’s important we project an internal cohesiveness and strength to the world right now,” he added, “and a bipartisan congressional commission would have been an important way to do that.”