The Breach of the U.S. Capitol Was a Breach of Trust
This article was first published on January 11, 2021, in Harvard Business Review
If you are feeling adrift after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, it may be because your trust has been betrayed. Trust is our willingness to be vulnerable and allow someone else, or an organization or institution, to have power over us.
Trust consists of four components: competence, motives, fair means, and impact. Fundamentally, we agree to let an institution, in this case, the U.S. government, operate because we trust in its competence, its good motives, its fair means, and its positive impact on us. The January 6 attack graphically illustrated the cracks in all four of these. Let us explain.
Competence refers to the ability to get the job done and is the most basic level of trust. There were clear signals that a protest was coming: On December 19 President Trump tweeted, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6. Be there, will be wild.” Vox reports that D.C. officials tracked bus reservations and expected “stadium-sized” crowds.
And yet, Capitol Police were severely underprepared. They were not wearing riot gear: a marked contrast to law enforcement’s military gear when responding to Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C., last July. The barriers they set up around the Capitol didn’t stop the insurrectionists from entering. On the video footage, some police seemed to open the gates to the Capitol complex, letting attackers in. When the governor of Maryland tried to call up the National Guard for back up it took 90 minutes for the secretary of the Army to authorize. Overall it took four hours to secure the Capitol. At best, this is gross incompetence.
Motives are our reasons for operating. While it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to be completely altruistic, when we trust, we expect people to act in the best interests of the groups they serve. It is reasonable to challenge the results of a close election. However, there were 62 court challenges and three recounts that all came to the same conclusion: Joe Biden had won. And yet, in the wake of the Capitol attacks scores of House Republicans still voted to reject Arizona’s and Pennsylvania’s counts.
America is built on trust: in the choices, citizens make in electing their leaders; in political opponents to give up the fight and participate in a peaceful transfer of power. Given the overwhelming evidence that the 2020 election was fair and secure, and a 220-year-old tradition of peaceful transition of power, the lawmakers’ insistence on rejecting the certified results raises questions about their motives.
The hallmark of fairness is consistency, whether it’s using the same rules to offer rewards or to mete out punishments. It’s long been clear that systemic racism is an underlying problem in American law enforcement. This was starkly evident in these recent events.
We’ve repeatedly seen videos of police killing Black citizens for selling loose cigarettes, for passing a counterfeit $20 bill, for playing with a toy gun in a park. We’ve seen phalanx of police in the streets ahead of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. And yet we watched a largely white crowd storm the Capitol with impunity. An estimated 14,000 people were arrested for anti-racism protests this past summer; on June 1, 289 protesters were arrested in one day. As of the writing of this article, dozens of people have been arrested for storming the Capitol. If law enforcement officers cannot be trusted to apply the rules fairly, it calls into question the very foundation of what the American government promises its citizens: equality under the law.
All actions come with consequences and now we’re waiting to see the impact the Capitol attacks will have. What’s next? If the incumbent president and his team actively encourage violence to contest legitimate election results, and if lawmakers continue to protest the 2020 results, what does this mean for the days leading up to the inauguration on January 20? Can we expect to see more violence? And what does this mean for future elections? Can we expect power to transfer peacefully? Or did January 6 signal the beginning of the end? Our trust has been betrayed.
Our research shows that lost trust can be recovered. The Capitol attack can be a turning point rather than the beginning of the end. The road to restoring trust is long, but like any other road, you need to take the first step. Right now, government leaders can take three actions to regain our confidence:
1) They can communicate a single message: The actions of the insurrectionists are unacceptable. We know it’s difficult for the government to come to a consensus, but surely lawmakers can unite in saying attacks on the Capitol are unacceptable in any form. Members of the GOP are suggesting, without basis, that the attacks were conducted by members of antifa — a loose network of left-wing activists. This defies the evidence of our eyes and ears, the hours of horrifying footage of people wearing MAGA hats and bearing Trump flags rampaging, looting, and desecrating our seat of government. The suggestion that other parties are responsible, despite clear evidence otherwise, encourages people to deny reality and chips away at our trust in lawmakers. By sending a unified message that attacks on the Capitol are unacceptable lawmakers can make a start at restoring trust in their integrity.
2) They must punish the guilty. That there’ve been so few arrests is shocking, especially given the violence and destruction of property. But the attack on the Capitol isn’t just an attack on the building. The Capitol is a concrete symbol of the promises America makes to its people. Allowing the attackers to walk away sends two messages: First, violence and destruction are fine. Second, the promises America makes, the laws and processes it creates, and the lawmakers who do this work, are not worth protecting.
3) There must be consequences for the instigators, particularly Trump. While this was the work of many, including those who whipped up the crowd at the rally right before the attack and Sen. Josh Hawley, who infamously pumped his fist at the mob outside the Capitol, this was all ultimately done in support of Trump.
If lawmakers fail to immediately impeach Trump, or to remove him from office using the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, they send the message that incitement to violence against the United States of America is acceptable, even for the president. Trump lost an election. Instead of acting as previous candidates have done to call for a peaceful transfer of power and unity, he incited his supporters to fight. In a video speech, he continued to claim the election was stolen and told the mob, “We love you. You’re very special.” What precedent does that set for the future? In a country that is so divided, how can we possibly expect future peaceful transfers of power — not to mention a government that is able to function properly — unless we act now?
Sandra J. Sucher is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. She is co-author of The Power of Trust: How Companies Build It, Lose It, and Regain It (PublicAffairs 2021).
Shalene Gupta is a research associate at Harvard Business School. She is co-author of The Power of Trust: How Companies Build It, Lose It, and Regain It (PublicAffairs, 2021).
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