In response to a coup attempt on behalf of Donald Trump, Duke University experts have participated in a series of virtual discussions about the threats of white supremacy, threat of insurrection, and domestic terrorism.

“Anytime you have a mob willing to overpower and injure people to get inside the Capitol to overwhelm and harm Congressional representatives, American democracy has a problem,” said Duke historian Adriane Lentz-Smith, who participated in the January 13 discussion entitled “Insurrection, Policing and Democracy.”

Noting reports of ongoing investigations to determine if members of Congress—along with retired and active police and military officers—may have had a hand in the violence “is incredibly worrying,” she added.

Lentz-Smith said that Southern historians have long acknowledged the anti-democratic antecedents to the January 6 coup attempt, but she was still “flabbergasted” by the celebration of wanton violence by an emergent American Isis: Klan members, neo-Confederates, Nazis, anti-vaxxers, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and garden variety racists who stormed the Capitol.

“To my mind, I think back to the Wilmington Coup of 1898, in which a mob overthrew a democratically elected municipal government in coastal North Carolina and installed their own government that had run on the white supremacy campaigns of the 1890s,” she said. “I think of mobs during the desegregation era who were willing to attack and threaten school children in their rage at Supreme Court rulings. And I think of spectacle lynchings over and over again, the big kind of mass lynchings that had a carnival atmosphere in which people recited psalms, recited patriotic songs, sold lemonade.”

Lentz-Smith called it an “escalation of” rather than “a departure from” the nation’s history.

“This is an escalation of things we’ve seen in the past,” she added. “It’s not a departure from past patterns. But it’s important to keep in mind… these things didn’t just threaten American democracy, they harmed it. They hampered it. They threatened to break it. And inaction on the part of local governments and the federal government was taken as approval and encouragement.”

Duke law professor Darrell Miller said the presence of white nationalists in the military and among the ranks of law enforcement urgently needs to be addressed.

“I really think it’s up to police departments and the military to sort of get their house in order,” he said. “It’s a serious threat. Policing and national defense has a kind of small ‘d’ democratic function. The idea of who you enforce the law against—and who you cut a break to—should not be determined by politics or racial ideology.”

Miller added that if the military and law enforcement agencies are being “corrupted from within,” then it is incumbent on those organizations to screen and root out the problem.

“Otherwise it will fester, and it will lead to widespread distrust of the very idea that we have a neutral law enforcement and military apparatus at all,” he said.

Miller said the U.S. Capitol insurrection was “a catastrophic failure of security,” and the nation is fortunate there was not a greater loss of lives.

“If more people had come with firearms, it really would have been a bloodbath,” he said. “The fact that there are, by most accounts, five fatalities, is remarkable.”

Miller compared the law enforcement response to the D.C. rioters with the infamous moment this summer when federal forces attacked and expelled nonviolent Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington, D.C. to enable a Trump photo-op.

 “I’m amazed to think you could have a scenario in which there’s flash bangs and tear gas and all sorts of force used on peaceful protests in D.C., and here you can have a largely but not exclusively white mob actually storm the Capitol building, take up a seat at the speaker’s chair,” he said. “And then there’s video of them being escorted out. Not even escorted, basically led out of the building with the doors held for them by the very police officers they had just overcome with force. It’s hard for me to really get my head around these two images. One of a peaceful protest being cleared for a photo-op, and then rioters being shown out the door and having the door held to them by police.”

Trump’s claims of election fraud by Black and Brown people, along with his “winning” by a landslide are just the latest in a five-year litany of lies that stir up “the worst types of stereotypes and creating all kinds of division: age-old racial and religious resentments, divisions that blur our vision,” Georgia Senator-Elect Raphael Warnock told his congregation on Sunday from the pulpit of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church (where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor).

Describing violent pro-Trump supporters as an American Isis is not so far-fetched, Triangle Center on Terrorism & Homeland Security Director David Schanzer said in a separate virtual discussion, held the day after the coup attempt.

“This is a domestic terrorist movement,” Schanzer said. “I’m afraid it’s gotten to that point.”

Schanzer said that terrorism experts have been warning about the rise in right-wing extremism inside the United States for a decade.

“It has been growing substantially during the Trump administration, yet really only small numbers of individuals had been mobilized to violence,” he explained on January 7. “What we saw yesterday showed a massive amount of people driven towards violence. That’s really having taken this movement to a new level that is deeply disturbing and will have to be addressed.”

Panelist Phil Napoli talked about rioters who were so emboldened about the rightness of their cause, they posted photos and videos of their criminality.

“I don’t think we should expect rationality from a lot of these folks,” said Napoli, professor of public policy and a faculty member at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke. “A lot of those folks felt they weren’t committing a crime.”

Napoli added that “nothing has been clearer over the last four years” than the fact that “egregious actions haven’t had consequences.” 

“That was really borne out yesterday when we watched so many of them just stroll right on out of the Capitol,” Napoli said.

Judith Kelley is dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, and a senior fellow with the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Her areas of research include human rights, democracy and international election observation. Kelley said that “if we play with fire and the house doesn’t catch on fire, the practice of playing with fire will spread,” adding that, “Yesterday, the house caught fire. Hopefully we will learn lessons from that.”

“As tragic as the events of yesterday were, they did lay bare the consequences of what happens when politicians don’t tell the truth and when they stoke fear and hatred,” Kelley said one day after the riots. “We all got to see the belly of the beast. Even Lindsey Graham, when he saw the belly of the beast, he said, ‘Count me out.’ ”

Schanzer said there’s “no question” the incoming Biden administration will have to take the threat of domestic terrorism more seriously.

“I certainly believe elements like the FBI have their eye on these groups and individuals who were advocating or fomenting violence during the Trump administration,” he said. “A new administration can bring more resources, focus, and direction from the White House to identifying this as a serious national problem.”

Schanzer added that it would be challenging for Americans not to conclude that a sweeping number of armed citizens are willing to engage in violence. The issue extends beyond the Capitol insurrection, including the attempted kidnapping of Michigan’s governor, illustrating that “this is a deeper, more societal problem.”

Schanzer was not the first Durham leader to publicly warn of  pro-Trump supporters willing to incite violence to assert their version of America.

In October, Mayor Steve Schewel joined a handful of mayors across the country in signing a letter to the White House that condemned Trump for egging on armed right-wing extremists and “applauding the armed intimidation of peaceful protesters.”

The one-page letter to Trump came from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a national nonprofit that advocates for gun control and against gun violence. In addition to Schewel, the letter was signed by the mayors of cities with the nation’s most volatile Black Lives Matter protests, including Ted Wheeler of Portland, Oregon.

“Instead of inciting vigilantism, we urge you to join us in condemning reckless escalations by militias and other extremists,” stated the letter, which was signed by nine Democratic mayors and one independent. “When self-styled vigilantes brandish firearms, they make violence more likely, not less.”

In the days leading up to the election, Schewel told the INDY he believed Durham would be okay, but he worried about the effects across the country of Trump’s racist signaling and encouragement of armed vigilantes.

“It’s unconscionable,” he said.

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

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