By Christine Todd Whitman
January 21, 2021
January 6 revealed a great deal about this moment in history—about the present dangers to our democracy, the clear physical and literal threats to our system and the current health of our republic. It showed us what happens when an outright lie about our elections is allowed to fester and when an outright liar like former President Donald Trump is permitted to use his massive megaphone to fan the flames of grievance and falsehood.
Beneath the surface, this now-infamous date also exposed something even more fundamental to the functioning of our society and politics: a failure of competent governance, a failure of administrative leadership, a failure of communication, coordination, cooperation and planning.
And the question for those in positions of power and authority must be: How can we learn from this breakdown? How can we do our jobs better? How can we succeed where, in this instance, we failed?
The fact is, what transpired at the U.S. Capitol was a wake-up call for members of Congress, politicians, the media and all Americans. And what occurred before our eyes put our states—governors, as I once was—on notice: that we could be next; that the plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan was not an isolated incident; that we are not immune from this kind of assault; that we have to be vigilant in the face of extremist threats and ready to meet them if and when they manifest into violent action.
Frankly, at this stage, there’s no excuse for any state not to be prepared. After that mob of insurrectionists invaded the Capitol, there should be no more illusions. No more blinders. This is real, and we can’t ignore it.
What’s more, states are, as ever, laboratories of democracy. While that maxim usually applies to policy experimentation, it can speak, as well, to our roles and responsibilities to build models for how to deal with these situations.
So from my seat as a former governor, I see three key lessons we should take away from those horrific events.
First, preparation is everything. Nearly anyone who’s served in an executive post in government should know by now what needs to happen in the face of potential chaos and conflict on your watch. You get ready. You open lines of communication and maintain constant contact with law enforcement. You sit down ahead of time with your state police leadership, with your National Guard commander, with local police chiefs and sheriffs.
You make sure everybody is on the same page about what their roles are, what number to call if they need extra support, what to do in case an incident escalates into an emergency. That way, the protocols are in place to respond as required.
Unfortunately, that type of system fell apart earlier this month in Washington. In order to avoid history repeating itself, this is a moment to learn—and to know what to do in our states and cities and anywhere else.
Second, don’t be afraid to prosecute. We cannot let our system break down to the point where the rule of law means nothing.
If protests are peaceful, they should be respected and protected, celebrated and cherished. But if a demonstration turns into a deadly mob like the one we witnessed on January 6, we can’t hesitate to use the resources at our disposal to hold any perpetrators accountable. We have to arrest people. We have to be willing to let the criminal justice and legal system do its job.
Finally, we have to stare reality in the face: when extremism, lies and incitement rear their ugly heads—in the public square or the dark corners of the internet—we have to call it out. We have to counter it with trusted messengers in our communities who will speak the truth and get a fair hearing.
The half-hearted, after-the-fact condemnation by Trump and his allies wasn’t enough. We have to say what this is and why it matters: The folks involved wanted to create a coup. They and their backers wanted to do away with our form of government. They were fueled by a sincere belief in the fib that the election was stolen, infiltrated by groups like the Proud Boys and white supremacists—and the supposed powers-that-be in the White House, Congress and elsewhere couldn’t control what they had wrought.
State leaders can be the first line of defense against the spread and flourishing of this kind of chaos and misinformation. We’ve already seen it happen in recent months. Since November 3, governors, secretaries of state, attorneys general and election officials everywhere from Arizona to Michigan to Pennsylvania and Georgia have made the facts clear and stood firm by what their voters had decided—that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won.
Maybe it was too little, too late. Maybe the lesson here is that building this kind of faith in our elections needed to happen far earlier than Election Day. Maybe what we can take from this is that January 6 was an outgrowth of months, even years, of allowing misinformation to become commonplace in a single political party. The party I long called home.
What this means is that we have a lot of work to do, and it has to start now. The lies about the 2020 election are already popping up in state legislative activity around the country. Before the next terrifying tragedy fills our television screens, in state capitals or our nation’s capital, let’s be prepared. Let’s uphold our laws. Let’s speak the truth as loud and as often as we can.
Christine Todd Whitman is a former governor of New Jersey and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. She is an advisory board member of the bipartisan Voter Protection Program.