Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of the January 6 insurrection when a violent mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to obstruct congressional certification of the 2020 election that made the twice-impeached loser a one-term president.

A group of Duke experts this week warned that the seditious attempt to overthrow the federal government on January 6 could be a foreshadowing of even worse to come, according to a story published this week in Duke Today.

“If we don’t reckon with the deep historical roots of what happened this time last year, those events could be prologue to a far worse outcome in the future,” Nancy MacLean, a Duke professor of history and public policy, said in a story published Tuesday in the campus magazine.

In an email later sent to the INDY from Duke officials, MacLean noted that U.S. House Select Committee members who are investigating the January 6 attack on democracy have identified “three rings of activity” that were taking place that day. 

McLean pointed to “a large, less complicit outer circle of avid Republican voters who believed the Big Lie and turned into rioters; a smaller number of committed white-power insurrectionists; and an inner circle that strategized to overthrow the election, exploiting federalism to achieve its ends.”

McLean also implied that as much as Trump may be culpable for what happened that day, he merely opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box.

“Each of these elements,” McLean said, “is the product of decades of intentional cultivation.”

David Schanzer is a professor of the practice at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. He said the January 6 storming of the Capitol “was a historic travesty but what has happened in America since then has been even worse.”

Schanzer warned the two-party system that has provided political stability in the United States since the end of the Civil War may be on the verge of collapse if one party is unwilling to accept the legitimacy of any election it does not win.

Schanzer also points to the veritable hair-on-fire moment posed by threats to the peaceful transfer of power in America.

“Even during a global pandemic and while the climate catastrophe is unfolding, this assault on American democracy is the most pressing issue of our times,” Schanzer said.

Peter Feaver is a Duke professor of political science and public policy. Feaver noted that “civilian control, properly understood, held the line during the tumultuous final days of the Trump Administration.”

Feaver also contrasted the “dramatic visual images” that were a feature of the January 6 coup attempt by the pro-Trump rioters with the behind-the-scenes efforts by insiders who wanted to hold on to power. Feaver says those who were in the inner sanctums of power posed even more serious ethical dilemmas to military leaders, other national security, and law enforcement professionals.

“Collectively, these several months constituted the most serious test of American civil-military relations in the contemporary era,” Feaver said. “The system passed the test because our uniformed leaders remembered that their oath is to the Constitution, not to a party or individual.”

The Duke Today writer Amanda Solliday notes that foiled insurrection prompted some social media platforms to take action against individuals spreading disinformation.

Phil Napoli, a professor of public policy and a faculty member at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, told Duke Today that many social media platforms responded to misinformation by pouring more money into “algorithmic filtering and human content moderation, as well as also broadening the categories of content that are subject to removal.”

Napoli warned thatthese efforts remain porous” and he pointed to the rise of platforms like Gab, Rumble, and Parler “that cater to those who reject the approaches to content moderation taken by the dominant platforms.” 

“So I don’t think we head towards the next election feeling that the social media space is significantly more resistant to political disinformation than it was in the previous election,” Napoli explained, “which is very concerning.”

Solliday also cited Judith Kelley, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy, who said “misinformation about election safety—not the actual vulnerability of the election process to bad actors—is the biggest threat to elections in the United States.”

“Nothing is more corrosive to our democracy than the public losing faith in the accuracy of elections. Without that faith, democracy cannot function,” Kelley added.

Kelley pointed to a review by federal elections officials that determined the 2020 presidential election was the most secure in American history. 

“Clearly, we need to stay vigilant to keep it that way, and that includes continual updating of technologies and processes to keep elections safe,” Kelley says. 

Kelley proposes an ongoing updating of of technologies and processes to keep elections safe, along a massive education campaign that would include: 

•    Education in schools about elections,

•    A public education campaign reaching all elements of society,

•    Distribution about election security at polling sites and through absentee or mail-in voting packages,

•    Strategic countering of misinformation, and 

•    Thorough consideration of additional laws to criminalize behaviors that threaten the integrity of the electoral process.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to