Current Events and the Psychology of Politics

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Capitol attack leads Democrats to demand that Trump leave office (Peter Baker & Maggie Haberman, New York Times, Jan. 8, 2021) — [Speaker of the House] Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, called on [Vice President] Pence and the cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment. But after the vice president refused to take their telephone calls, Ms. Pelosi told reporters that she would pursue impeachment if he did not act. “While it’s only 13 days left, any day can be a horror show for America,” Ms. Pelosi said, calling Mr. Trump’s actions on Wednesday a “seditious act.” “This president should not hold office one day longer,” said Mr. Schumer. …

Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on Jan. 7, 2021 for President Trump to be stripped of his powers through the 25th Amendment or to be impeached again. (Photo credit: Jason Andrew / The New York Times)

Mob behavior and riots were foreseeable

The unintended consequences of President Donald Trump’s January 6 speech at the “Save America” rally and the subsequent “Stop the Steal” march could have been foreseen. Emotionally arousing his followers and then urging the crowd to march on the Capitol without providing structure or direction created a volatile situation, based on social-scientific knowledge regarding collective behavior — most notably emergent-norm theory. According to social scientists Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian (1957), crowds begin as collectivities composed of people with mixed interests and motives. In the case of less stable crowds — such as a large collective of demonstrators or protesters — norms may be vague and ambiguous, as when one person decides to break the glass windows of a storefront and observers join in and start looting; new, increasingly polarized, norms rapidly emerge and many people are caught up in those escalating norms even though their actions may be at odds with their typical social behavior.

Impeachment would be shortsighted and counterproductive

If there is a legitimate national security interest in restraining or incapacitating President Trump, impeachment may well be one of the worst interventions to diminish the perceived threat. If indeed the president is psychologically so unstable as to pose an imminent threat to public safety and social order, making him feel cornered and under siege would magnify, not mitigate, the potential threat.


Update: January 12, 2021

Information has emerged that the attack on the Capitol was planned prior to the events of January 6, suggesting that collective behavior — specifically crowd psychology as conceptualized by emergent-norm theory, was not the primary driver of the mob behavior following the president’s rally:

FBI report warned of ‘war’ at Capitol, contradicting claims there was no indication of looming violence (Devlin Barrett & Matt Zapotosky, Washington Post, Jan. 12, 2021) — A situational information report approved for release the day before the U.S. Capitol riot painted a dire portrait of dangerous plans. … “As of 5 January 2021, FBI Norfolk received information indicating calls for violence in response to ‘unlawful lockdowns’ to begin on 6 January 2021 in Washington, D.C.,” the document says. “An online thread discussed specific calls for violence to include stating ‘Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.” …


Update: January 13, 2021

Trump impeached for inciting insurrection

Speaker Nancy Pelosi with the article of impeachment, Jan. 13, 2021. (Photo credit: Anna Moneymaker / The New York Times)


Related report on this site

Donald Trump’s Temperament: Trump’s Fitness to be President (Oct. 5, 2016)

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