UCL Institute of the Americas


The Historical Roots of the Capitol Hill Invasion: Gareth Davies for Italian newspaper Avvenire

11 January 2022

Scene of a large crowd of protesters descending on and trying to force ingress into the Capitol in Washington DC

Gareth Davies, Professor of American History at UCL Institute of the Americas, was recently interviewed by Italian newspaper, Avvenire, on what to expect a year after the riots in Washington D.C. that led to the attack on the Capitol. An image of the article in Italian is below, followed by the transcript of the original interview in English.

Article in Italian by Professor Gareth Davies in newspaper Avvenire

Transcript of the interview in English 

A violence that could repeat itself: Historian Gareth Davies

Gareth Davies, Professor of American History at University College London, is cautious, but --after a few seconds’ reflection-- says it clearly: episodes like the last year’s January attack on the Capitol ‘are still possible’. Maybe ‘in a different manner to what we saw in Washington a year ago’ – he adds – but ‘dictated by the same pattern of anger, mistrust, hatred and extremism.’  

What is the problem?

For historians like me, the riots of January 6 last year were not a surprise. I believe it to be a logical consequence of a process that has been going on for some time, which has shifted the public political debate from economic issues, such as taxes, spending, social security, trade unions, to cultural and identity issues, such as abortion, gun control and LGBT rights. There is no room for ‘reasonable disagreement’ over these questions. Since the 60’s and 70’s, American politics has started to take more and more the form of ‘the politics of moral annihilation’, a background in which politicians speak of their adversary not as someone with whom they disagree, but as a villain.’

This process gained critical momentum during the early 90’s, when Fox News was launched during the government of the Democrat Bill Clinton, and when Rush Limbaugh became a major political force. They embodied a larger shift from ‘broadcasting’ to ‘narrowcasting’, i.e. from speaking to the American people as a whole to targeting a very definite audience. For politicians of both the right and the left, it has become more and more difficult to reconcile one with the other.

What improvement can we expect with the Biden presidency?

He’s certainly a moderate with a natural instinct for mediation, and wants to find a way to work with the Republicans. He was first elected to the Senate in 1972, so he is a product of the old American politics, in which elected politicians tried to find agreement and compromise. But in today’s political ambiance, very few politicians, and certainly very few Republicans, are interested in this type of approach.

What needs to happen for a change of direction?

It is not clear how the American people can achieve a greater degree of unity. It is unlikely to be something that is within the gift of any one politician, or achievable via a particular political project. Rather, one wonders whether it might be more likely to come about through a presently unimaginable external event, such as a war or an environmental catastrophe, one that compels Americans to work together and allows them to find a greater degree of common purpose.  In historical terms, one could point to the way that World War 2 helped Americans to transcend some of the rifts of the 30’s, as did the great prosperity during the 50’s. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has manifestly not had this effect.

How do you interpret the attempts of some Republicans to ‘fix’, if we can call it that, the historical judgement over what happened on January 6 2021?

It’s a confirmation of what I have tried to explain. They preach to their own political bases, not to the American people as a whole. They use the language of suspicion and paranoia which is familiar to those who already hold those beliefs. They don’t try to make anyone change those ideas, but they reinforce them, and that is the problem. They exploit, and seek to deepen, the polarization already existing within American politics.


  • [top] Scene of a large crowd of protesters descending on and trying to force ingress into the Capitol in Washington DC ©Ansa/Reuters
  • [middle] Article in Italian by Professor Gareth Davies in newspaper Avvenire
  • [bottom] Professor Gareth Davies