Saturday, July 31, 2021

Teaching About the Capitol Insurrection

Above: Images from January 6, 2021, when a group of people participated in an organized insurrection of the U.S. Capitol with the goal of overturning the free and fair 2020 Presidential Election and ensure that Donald Trump remain in power.

I often use this blog to write about ways that social studies teachers can help their students connect past and present events in their classrooms. However, it has taken me over six months to write about teaching the Capitol Insurrection. While we all had to teach about the event in the days after it happened, I needed more time to reflect on the events of that day and have waited for more information to come out before writing about it. 

With the hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol recently beginning, it seems like the right time to suggest approaches to teaching about it with students. With the start of the next school year quickly approaching, many teachers will need to address questions about the hearings from students.

Above: Trump speaks to a rally to "Stop the Steal" just before encouraging attendees to "fight like hell." After forcing their way into the building, insurrectionists walk throughout the Capitol Building searching for members of Congress.

For most Americans, the Capitol Insurrection was deeply troubling. It was the first time in the United State's history that a mob attempted to stop a peaceful transition of power after a free and fair presidential election (What is a free and fair election?). Even before the nation's Civil War in 1860, those who opposed Lincoln's election accepted the outcome (granted, many states would later secede from the Union). In fact, a record number of Americans voted in the 2020 Election with Joe Biden receiving 7 million more votes and 72 more electors in the Electoral College, and while there have been numerous investigations, there have been no legitimate examples of wide-scale voter fraud (however, Donald Trump had searched for ways to delay the election, pressured state election officials to change results, demanded the vice president to stop its certification, asked the Justice Department to intervene, considered plans to seize election materials or evoke martial law, and would eventually refuse to concede or attend the inauguration; simultaneously, there was a coalition working to prevent these attempts to thwart democracy).

Moreover, the lack of response by the federal government to pro-Trump insurrectionists in comparison to the excessive response faced by largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in the prior summer was concerning. Many students will likely point out that we have just experienced both a global pandemic that disrupted our way of life and collective uprisings for racial justice over the past year, which seem to partially explain why Donald Trump lost re-election (especially since he had the lowest polling numbers of any president in modern times).

Difficult History and Avoiding False Balance

In teaching the Capitol Insurrection, social studies teachers may fall into the trap of "bothsidesism," also known as false balance. Especially in light of numerous speech silencing laws in conservative states aimed at teachers, and social studies teachers in particular, which include prohibiting the teaching of race or racismsexual orientation and gender, or bringing any political topics into the classroom, they may be rightfully worried. Teachers may feel compelled to present the Capitol Insurrection as a two-sides debate to avoid upsetting students or parents (maybe even asking, "Were the insurrectionists justified in their riot?", as if they were the Patriots during the American Revolution). I strongly recommend against this for several reasons. It is important that students learn an honest examination of the events and what it means for the nation.

In fact, this is not a two-sides issue. Instead, a relatively small minority of Americans supported the Capitol Insurrection. The vast majority of Americans think it was a riot or insurrection and that the insurrectionists need to be prosecuted. While this is certainly a political issue, it should not be a partisan one (even if some politicians want to use it to mobilize voters). If teachers are to present this through a "false balance," then they will leave students with the impression that Americans are evenly split on the event (granted, in the months since, conservative media has downplayed the event, we have seen a disturbing increase of support for the insurrectionists among Republican voters, and right wing groups are planning a September D.C. rally in support of the insurrection and portraying the insurrectionists as "political prisoners"). 

We do not present a false balance with other events in the past. For example, we should not ask students: "Were the Confederates justified in rebelling during the Civil War?" or "How could white supremacists have kept segregation laws?" I would argue that the Capitol Insurrection is no different. As the words in the Constitution state, "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty." The Capitol Insurrection directly contradicted the purpose of the United States (It is also important to note that a good number of those who breached the Capitol were white supremacists, antisemites, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, and right-wing extremists; similar groups were also involved in the "Unite the Right" rally a few years earlier).

Instead, I would suggest that teachers approach the Capitol Insurrection as "difficult history" or "hard history" in the present (or now, near past). Gross and Terra have argued that difficult histories "present and surface fundamental disagreements over who we are and what values we hold." They involve events that students (and everyone) may find troubling, because they conflict with the common freedom-quest narrative template often portrayed in U.S. history and illuminate dark and troubling aspects of human behavior. However, left unexamined, they also may contribute to future events that are equally troubling; citizens need to understand difficult or hard history, so they can prevent similar events in the future.   

Here are some helpful resources on teaching hard history in the past (similar advice would apply to current events or "developing" history).

What Makes History Difficult? (Phi Delta Kappan) 

Tips for Teaching Difficult History (Canadian Museum of History/Musée canadien de l'histoire)

Teaching Hard History (Southern Poverty Law Center) 

Teaching Hard History Podcast (Learning for Justice)

Tackling Tough Topics (  

Here are some helpful resources for teachers on teaching the Capitol Insurrection:

Using History to Teach the Insurrection with Yohuru Williams (Public Broadcasting Service's News Hour)

How to Teach About the Capitol Riots (EdWeek) 

Leading Conversations About the Capitol Insurrection (Learning for Justice)

Resources for Teaching the Capitol Insurrection (Facing History and Ourselves)

Teaching About the Capitol Riots (iCivics)

Above: Members of Congress hide under desks and chairs in the Senate Chamber and law enforcement engages in a standoff with insurrectionists at the door of the House of Representatives Chamber.

Inquiry Questions for the Capitol Insurrection

To help students understand the complexity of what occurred during the Capitol Insurrection and what it means within the larger context of U.S. history, I would suggest asking the following inquiry questions: Why did a group of thousands of Americans refuse to accept the outcome of a free and fair election and engage in an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol? What does this event mean for our future as a nation?

Below I have compiled several overview sources followed by several supporting sources grouped around four main concepts: increasing support for authoritarianism, the media and political propaganda, failures of federal security agencies, and the aftermath. Students could use these sources in their explanation for how this event could have happened and model ways that historians might explain these events to citizens in the future.


Here are some resources for introducing the event to students. They include timelines of events, histories of insurrections in the United States, and primary sources from the "Stop the Steal" rally beforehand and the Capitol Insurrection itself.

NOTE: Some of the sources shows acts of violence and hate, and involve disturbing language, and may not be appropriate for younger students.

Timeline of the January 6 Attack (National Public Radio)

Timeline of the Capitol Insurrection (New York Times)

Timeline of Donald Trump During Capitol Insurrection (USA Today)

Capitol Insurrection Terminology (Associated Press)

Capitol Insurrection Terminology (Washington Post)

A History of American Insurrections (Public Broadcasting Service's News Hour)

Differences Between Historical Black Resistance and Capitol Insurrection (The New Republic)

Speeches at the "Stop the Steal" Rally (Politico)

Transcript of Donald Trump's Speech at the "Stop the Steal" Rally (National Public Radio)

Sources from the Capitol Insurrection Part 1; Part 2; Part 3 (George Washington University's National Security Archive)

Sources from the Capitol Insurrection (Public Broadcasting Service's News Hour) 

Sources and Lesson Plans for the Capitol Insurrection (New York Times) 

Testimony of Capitol Police Officers at House Hearings (National Public Radio) 

Interviews with Insurrectionists (CNN)

Tracking Threats to a Free and Fair 2020 Election (Politico)

Timeline of Trump's Second Impeachment (New York Times)

Historians Perspectives on the Capitol Insurrection (National Geographic Magazine)

Concept 1: Growing Support for Authoritarianism

Above: A graph from Matthew MacWilliams's dissertation at UMass Amherst showing the correlation between support for Donald Trump and authoritarianism within South Carolina voters.

Perhaps a product of increasing partisanship (what some political scientists and sociologists call tribalism), Americans, and especially those with conservative political views, have a declining trust of democratic institutions (which threatens the Constitution itself). This decline has been occurring for sometime, the candidacy of Donald Trump may have played into those shifting views, and those changes share commonalities with other nations that have experienced failed democracies. Political scientists have been documenting this decline for sometime and below are several reports on these studies (for a good analysis of this, see "How Democracies Die" by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt). Some political scientists, including Matthew MacWilliams at University of Massachusetts Amherst (see graph above), have argued that Donald Trump offered for these Americans a "strong man" who would go against conventional democratic norms to achieve the policies that they demand. This increasing authoritarian view has been particularly strong in a demographic that some political scientists and sociologist label as Christian nationalists.

Authoritarian Populism in the United States (Center for American Progress)

Social Science Research on Support for Authoritarianism (Washington Post)

Trump Supporters and Authoritarianism (Politico)

Authoritarianism and a Threat to U.S. Government (WBUR) 

How to Live with Authoritarians (Foreign Policy)

Concept 2: The Media and Political Propaganda

Above: Trust in the 2020 Election results was much lower for Republicans compared to Democrats well before election day. Rhetoric from Donald Trump and commentators on conservative news networks may have influenced this.

Over the past 50 years, the U.S. media has become more partisan in how it presents information (others have described it as less objective). There is strong evidence that the commercial success of Fox News and other partisan outlets has exacerbated this phenomenon. We also know that the news media has a major impact on people's psychology and how they understand their world and make sense of current events. Many Americans are now able to choose news media that only conforms with their preexisting political beliefs and ideologies. This leads to essentially a news "echo chamber" with little exposure to conflicting political opinions. Additionally, with more Americans getting their news from social media posts (that often include misinformation), these media echo chambers are becoming more evident (albeit in some subtle ways). Moreover, Donald Trump's media behaviors (along with local-level Republican leaders), including his ability to control news cycles and his use of social media, helped to spread not only encouragement for the insurrectionists, but misinformation that fueled their actions.

Cable News and Partisan Thinking (MIT News)

Impact of Media on Partisan Thinking (Harvard Gazette)

Social Media Influence on Capitol Insurrection (Just Security)

Online Chatter Before January 6th (New York Times) 

How the Capitol Insurrection Was Planned Through Social Media (Vox)

Social Media's Role in the Capitol Insurrection (WBUR)

Misinformation, Trump, and the Capitol Insurrection (Vox)

Misinformation and the Capitol Insurrection (Politico)

Concept 3: Failure of Federal Security Agencies 

Above: U.S. soldiers stationed at the Capitol Building after the insurrection and before the Inauguration of Joseph Biden.

There was a substantial amount of planning and public chatter on social media that were clear warning signs of what was to occur at the Capitol. Yet, the leadership of the Capitol Police, Secret Service, and other federal security agencies were not prepared for what was to come and officers were directed to not use more aggressive defense tactics. Journalists and historians are still trying to understand why this security failure occurred, and we will learn more as investigations continue. However, there was an important bipartisan report released in June 2021, which helps explains numerous bad decisions on the part of federal security agencies.   

Capitol Security Response (National Public Radio)

Summary of the Bipartisan Capitol Security Report (New York Times)

Security Lessons from the Capitol Insurrection (Brookings)

Visual Guide to the Insurrection (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Report on Capitol Security (U.S. Senate)

Concept 4: The Aftermath

Above: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy appoints Rep. Jim Jordan and Rep. Jim Banks to the House Select Committee on the Attack on the Capitol on July 21, 2021. Both voted against certifying the 2020 Election results in the hours after the siege and both committee appointees were later rejected by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

As with many historical events, it is as important to study what happened after the Capitol Insurrection, as what happened during the Capitol Insurrection. In the immediate aftermath, Republican politicians (with the stark exception of Donald Trump) generally had a somber tone and blamed the president for the Capitol Insurrection. However, over the past six months, there has been an intentional downplaying of the events and stonewalling Congressional investigations (there has also been a slight decrease in registered Republican voters, as well as people describing themselves as Republicans). The result of the Republican Party continuing to repeat "the big lie" that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 Election has had damaging effects in the months after the Capitol Insurrection, as it continues to divide Americans and prevents the nation from reckoning with the events of January 6th. Moreover, Republican state legislatures and governors have used "the big lie" to curtain people's voting rights (in an attempt to give themselves unfair advantages in key states), which will not only impact future elections, but may lead to many voters, and especially voters of color and low income voters, being disenfranchised.

Trump's Big Lie Was Bigger Than the Election (Washington Post) 

Statement on the Capitol Insurrection (American Political Science Association)

Five Years of Lies Led to the Capitol Insurrection (USA Today) 

Political Donors and the Capitol Insurrection (Brennan Center)

The Big Lie and Voting Rights (The Guardian) 

The Big Lie and Future Republican Candidates (Washington Post)

Voting Rights After the 2020 Election (The Guardian)

Voting Laws Roundup (The Brennan Center)

Did Trump Damage Democracy (No)? (Brookings)

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