APU Careers Careers & Learning Everyday Scholar Podcast

Podcast: The Capitol Riots, Media and Free Speech

Podcast featuring Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts and
Dr. Tom Kelly, Program Director, Political Science

For many, the Capitol riot was the predictable outcome of years of growing anger among people who felt marginalized and dismissed. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU Political Science Program Director Dr. Tom Kelly about what fueled this incident including the role of the mainstream news media and the power—and limitations—of social media. Learn how it has become increasingly difficult to discuss opposing political viewpoints in public forums as well as in the classroom, and what that means for the future of the country’s democracy.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Dr. Tom Kelly, Program Director of Political Science in the School of Security and Global Studies. And our conversation today is about the Capitol riot. Welcome Tom.

Dr. Tom Kelly: Hello, Bjorn. Good to be back.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, definitely. In a sense, I wish we weren’t talking about this, but since it did occur in the recent past, as of what, January of 2021, my first question to you is as a political scientist, what was your response to the Capitol riot?

Dr. Tom Kelly: As a political scientist, the first thing to do is to try my best and use as much effort as I can to strip away all personal judgments and feelings and objectively analyze what’s happening, the best I can. Because my knee jerk reaction is probably very similar to most Americans, of disgust, anger, confusion, that type of thing.

So now we’re going to look at it from a political science standpoint, what happened? Where did this come from? It was pretty obvious where it had come from. We’d seen it in the news. We had heard for a month, some minor evidence of some minor voter fraud pops up in a handful of states and it gets extrapolated into these wild conspiracy theories of China running our election equipment.

Start a Political Science degree at American Public University.

And many new sources had not done themselves any favor during the Trump administration with their credibility by constantly jumping the gun to try and make him look bad and not always telling reports completely accurately, or unbiased. Americans, particularly Trump supporters, lose trust in the media. And so now we’ve got a powder keg ready to go here, and then you have a president telling people to show up at DC and have their voices be heard.

Anyone could have seen that coming a mile away that something was going to go wrong. Now the guy with the buffalo hat standing in the Capitol, I didn’t see that coming. But as far as the riot getting out of hand, I did.

Particularly what I find interesting about it though, was predictable yet still interesting, the polar opposite responses to it. Or perhaps the way we can look at the way the ends of the political spectrum exchange narratives versus what happened with the ANTIFA riots during the summer.

But my initial reaction to it to get back to your original question was that this was predictable. When you have videos that Trump’s re-tweeting with people chanting fight for Trump, that gets people riled up.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree. And just in the first three minutes of our conversation, there’s so much to unpack. The rhetoric that has been going around for four years under the Trump administration, since, as of today, we are now under the Biden administration, has been very difficult. But it’s been building, I would say, throughout all the Obama administration where the media really took sides. And I don’t know if that’s a simplistic perspective, but if you then go on to the W administration again, the media took sides.

And would you say, when did the cable news networks bifurcate, and when did they go right and left? And was it under Clinton or was it under W? And obviously then 20 years later, we see kind of the culmination of that divergence of media is where the “right” goes on one side of the “left” goes on the other side and gets their news where an event occurs, but a different, completely different perspective from the same facts.

Dr. Tom Kelly: Right, right. In the way that commentary is infused into facts that they blend, instead of objectively reporting what’s happening and informing people, they tell us what we’re supposed to think about it too. How we’re supposed to feel about it, or how people are supposed to react to it.

Now, I first noticed this probably during the Clinton administration. That’s probably when it started, that is when Fox News got going. That’s when they decided that cable TV news like CNN was too biased, and it did lean towards the Democrats. There’s no doubt about that. And then the pendulum swings the other way on Fox News and you get Hannity and Colmes, and you get these very conservative commentators on Fox News during that time.

But it’s not just the media. It’s the politicians of the time. The Republicans take back complete control of Congress for the first time in two generations, maybe more. They had the Senate briefly during Reagan’s tenure, but never control of Congress like they did in the ’90s. And what do they do with it? They impeached Bill Clinton because he lied under oath about cheating on his wife.

And it was an investigation that originally started with real estate dealings. To borrow word that Donald Trump really liked to use, they went on a witch hunt, they were going to get Bill Clinton. They kind of started all this.

And when you see a president getting impeached for the second time for largely political reasons, or very quickly without really diving into the facts of things, I would see Republicans point and say, “Oh, witch hunt, this is unprecedented.” No, it isn’t. The way Bill Clinton was impeached was completely political, totally backfired on the Republicans, and then the red state, blue state paradigm that we talk about now, that started around 2000, when they were showing the maps of who won what states, Gore versus Bush.

And it’s continuously gotten worse since then, because as the internet has grown, it’s not just cable TV, we have many different news sources. Media news have become very splintered. People can very comfortably live within an ideological bubble and think that they are well-informed because they read a lot, they learn a lot of things, and there’s a lot of confirmation bias.

I put it this way, I have a lot of “friends” on Facebook. I’ve got very few people who like me all the time, because I have a history of pointing out things about when one side is doing one thing and one side doing the other. And that’s one of the things I completely run into with the media constantly. And we see this, let’s take the Capitol riot. Well, actually, let’s take a step back to the hypocrisy of the Republicans in the Republican establishment.

Because back over the summer, when we had the Antifa riots, when federal buildings were torched, when police were attacked, when rioters in Portland locked police officers in their own station, and tried to set the station on fire. Republicans were screaming, “Domestic terrorism. Antifa must be declared a terrorist organization.”

And I was one of the first people speaking out privately and publicly that these are riots. These are unlawful riots. This is not terrorism. These are protests getting hijacked by a handful of violent people and then opportunists. If we start to label any political opposition as domestic terrorism, whenever the extremists of that political movement get violent, well, it wouldn’t be too long before the mirror got turned back on who was ever saying that.

So there were a lot of arguments going back and forth as Republicans and conservatives said that this is domestic terrorism. And Democrats and liberals came to the defense and said, “No, no, these are mostly peaceful protests with some people getting out of hand and we’ll arrest the people that get out of hand.”

Now get to the Capitol riot. A hundred thousand people show up. The overwhelming majority never march on the Capitol. A minority of them, single-digit percentage end up storming into the Capitol, breaking things, people get killed, there’s violence, there’s terror, and what do we have now?

Republicans suddenly look the other way, this is not domestic terrorism. Torching a federal building is domestic terrorism, but overrunning the Capitol on the day there’s a posted vote in the Electoral College to stop the vote, suddenly that’s not domestic terrorism. And that’s exactly the type of thing I had warned against, this double standard.

And suddenly they sound like the Democrats of the summer. They’re saying, “No, no, no. It was mostly peaceful. Just a handful of agitators. This is not domestic terrorism.” And right on time, here comes the Democratic party, “It’s domestic terrorism. Now it’s domestic terrorism.” And then people start to argue about the semantics of it. And then people start making up words, “Oh, this is whataboutism or whatever.”

And we lose that objective perspective as people. It’s obviously a very emotional thing when you live in a country that’s been held up as a paragon of democracy and freedom, and we’ve got people literally storming our Capitol to stop a process of government. That’s going to evoke emotions in anyone who cares about the country. And it really starts to shut off any type of critical analysis of it.

I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for news agencies to condemn both the riots of the summer and the Capitol riot. I don’t see why if somebody says it’s the protests of the summer were mostly peaceful, why you can’t see that the 100,000 people who showed up there were not all terrorists and insurrectionists? Maybe some were misinformed. Maybe someone didn’t have a job because of COVID shutdowns in their state, whatever reason they were there.

We have example of liberal-leaning protests turning violent, and a conservative-leaning protest turning violent. To get back to what you were originally talking about with media, the news agencies get on there and you have the talking heads. You have Rachel Maddow, you have Sean Hannity, you have Chris Cuomo, they’re out on TV and they’re indignant, and they can’t believe this. And how can anybody think this way? And their audience, they’re feeding their audience at that point to validate their anger, to assuage their fears by pointing blame at somebody.

People sometimes talk about our little green friend Yoda. But you have to remember that Yoda’s not real and his philosophy and his sayings were written by a human being, George Lucas. And we’re actually seeing what Yoda warned about in “Revenge of The Sith” happening about fear turning into anger, and anger turning into hate, and hate turning into death.

And then we’ve got our media cheerleading the opposite sides, even when you have our new president, Joe Biden standing up there saying, “Listen, it’s time to end this anger,” that’s not going heated. I tune into the most liberal and the most conservative news I can find to get my finger on the pulse of America. And sometimes it feels like, Bjorn, you have children like I do, and sometimes your kids getting into conflicts and you try to be a mediator, and you try and tell them, “Listen, let’s just settle this down,” and they both point each other and say, “I would, but he blah-blah-blah,” or, “She blah, blah, blah.”

And we’re seeing that now, not just with the parties, but we’re seeing that being echoed on Fox News, Newsmax TV is catching steam because Fox tried to moderate and be less one-sided in the reportings, and Trump had a tantrum about that and told people to abandon Fox. But we’re going to have to get into also, when I talk about something like One American News Network or Newsmax TV, is being to the right of Fox News, how big tech plays into that now.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And you said so many good things. And one of the things I think about is when people arrive at their positions or what they believe. It seems like when it comes to politics, people like to veil that in logic and they’re rational. But then when you listen to somebody like Sam Harris, or you listen to somebody like Ben Shapiro, and you get two different perspectives with two very logical and two very rational people, but then they can severely disagree on things, looking at the same types of facts and figures and different things like that.

And so what happened to the good old days? And I don’t mean that there ever was a good old days, but where the right and the left, the Democrats and Republicans, were unified. Was it because we were unified against a singular threat?

Dr. Tom Kelly: Yeah, that’s a really big question. The United States has never really had unity in the sense that there’s no conflict and no disagreement. We’ve had unity in the sense that there is civility among our disagreements. That fellow Americans may be a pain in the rear, they may make us angry, but there was a view that we were all on the same side. And that predated the Cold War. Obviously, the Cold War was part of it to have common enemy, but obviously we had a Civil War. There has been violence in the past. There has been very contentious moments in American history, the 1960s, there were some parallels between now and the 1960s, including a pandemic.

And that’s what I think we’ve really lost with the way we can curate our media, our social contacts, to create that bubble of not hearing opposing viewpoints really causes an issue.

But I’m also seeing this issue happen now in education. I have a master’s degree in secondary education. Before I decided to become a professor, I was teaching middle school. And we’re going back to the 1990s now.

We were learning, back then in the classroom, that to teach is not to get students to learn how to read and write, it’s to transform society, to bring about social justice. That’s what we’re being taught as future teachers.

I think we’re starting to see the fruits of that labor. We have the millennial generation and younger students who have been educated from teachers who, when they went to school, this was very commonplace. I didn’t go to some radical place that was just teaching neo-Marxist stuff out of the blue. This was educational theory of the 1990s, about the importance of using education for bringing about social change.

Within that rhetoric, within that ideology was that there were certain words and certain ideas that were unacceptable. And we’re seeing more and more of that now, that how often do you hear it now of dissent being called racism, or the new term, they say white supremacy.

I know I’m a little older than you, Bjorn, but when we were growing up when somebody white supremacist, it was a goof wearing a white hood burning a cross or doing a Nazi salutes with a swastika flag, that was a white supremacist. Now it’s been expanded.

I’ve seen like white supremacy pyramids, where at the bottom of the pyramid is stuff like “remaining apolitical.” So somebody who simply doesn’t like politics is now considered in academia to be contributing to white supremacy.

I don’t know how you have meaningful dialogues going ahead when people who dissent from whatever’s the political correct message of the day are immediately labeled as worse than just being racist, I mean, outright white supremacists. That shuts down dialogue. There’s a real chilling effect when you tell people, “Listen, you only disagree because you have white fragility.” That whole idea of putting labels on people, dismissing their humanhood, dismissing their ability to think as an individual, and just categorizing it as a concept that we could do without is really fueling some of this.

You have Trump supporters, millions of people of color. We talked about this last time that about the conventions and Trump again, the numbers off the top of my head, I’m not sure, but about 14%, 16% of the people who voted for Trump were not white, but they’ve been told the whole time that they are guilty of racism and white supremacy for supporting President Trump.

No doubt, there are white supremacists who voted for Donald Trump. To tell 74 million people that they’re all white supremacists, including Black Americans who are being told they’re guilty of multi-racial white supremacy, you want to talk about Orwellian speak. You have a powder keg of tens of millions of people who feel like they’re not being heard, they’re being dismissed.

And the irony of that is many of those people didn’t understand the anger at the Black Lives Matter protests. When George Floyd died, they ironically didn’t understand what it was like to be a part of a group of tens of millions of people who have been marginalized, told they didn’t count, taken for granted. How anger builds up and eventually it spills over into the Black Lives Matter protests and some of them got violent. We’re experiencing that now.

And you have Americans who supported Donald Trump being mocked: “What do you understand about oppression? Oh, you’re so picked on.” And I’m not going to try and make an argument for one way or another, or in any way, try to equivocate the experiences of middle-class white people in America to that as African-Americans, we know the history. I mean, that’s obviously a false equivalency.

Point is, the lack of communication. And when the communication shuts down, when people feel marginalized, it doesn’t matter if they actually are marginalized, when they feel like they are the perception is more important than the reality. And that’s what we’re seeing quite often.

You had 100,000 people marching on the Capitol because they perceived they a stolen election. And that’s partially because communication shut down. When people started to talk about voter fraud, “It’s a myth, it’s a conspiracy theory, that doesn’t happen.” And then somebody would get arrested for voter fraud and they go, “But look, look right here.” “Oh, no, no, no. That’s nothing.”

If we could have had honest conversations, “Yes, there was voter fraud. Let’s edit, let’s look into this. Yep. We had some voter fraud and it doesn’t change the election at all.” Maybe none of this would’ve happened if there was continued communication. Instead we have competing narratives right now of “my side is right, your side is wrong,” and there’s no discussion on it. “You’re a white supremacist.” “Oh yeah. Well, you’re a communist.” Okay. That’s the end of the conversation.

And, Bjorn, that used to be something that we would see on the fringes of political discourse and most people didn’t behave like that. But it’s really mainstream culture now in America. We see articles in mainstream news sources. “Can you be friends with a white person? Can you be friends with a Trump supporter?” There’s some serious demonization going on of large swaths of the population of the United States. I don’t see it getting better unless people just stop for a second and realize that you really need to talk to people outside of your bubble.

And ironically, quite often that was liberals telling conservatives of that. But there are now more conservatives trying to tell liberals that. “How many conservatives do you actually know? Why do you dismiss them all as racist? Why do you dismiss them all as stupid,” is another one I get.

So some of this gets a little bit personal because I get discussions with people I’ve known my entire life since high school and further back, I’ve had people say, “Tom, we’ve known you forever. We know you’re not an idiot. Why do you say things that an idiot would say?” To which I would ask, “What’s idiotic about what I’m saying?” “Well, you’re claiming that there’s voter fraud, that it’s all a big conspiracy theory. The news curated on Google News told me so.” “Maybe you should get news from somewhere besides Google News then, in addition to, not instead of.”

I had a friend asking me today, I’ve had people ask me publicly and privately, “Where do I get my news from? Where do you get your news from? How do you have things so straight all the time?” And I said, “It’s a torturous process of sifting through mainstream media, alternative media, public radio, foreign newspapers, to dig through and corroborate as much as I can, as far as facts go.” Because if I just get all my stuff from Fox News, I’m going to have a very slanted view of the world. If I get it all from The New York Times or the Washington Post, or even something like Apple News, which curates very like-minded type of stuff, again, I will have a very slanted view of the world and unfortunately, incomplete and inaccurate view of people who don’t agree with me.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that was a great comment, Tom. There’s so much to really unpack there. And the one thing, and I’ll transition to our second question is: After such an event, such as the Capitol riot, why is it important for politicians and civic leaders to be careful about how they respond? And we’ve already been talking about this and I’ll add to that, why is it so careful with the words we use?

Dr. Tom Kelly: Yes. Yes. Well, I’ll go first about politicians and their language, and then we’ll tie that in the social media. Politicians are often sometimes incorrectly referred to it as our leaders. No, they’re not. At least they’re not supposed to be in a representative republic, they’re supposed to be our public servants. They’re supposed to speak for us, not to us. They’re not supposed to speak down to us.

Unfortunately, we had a president until he got kicked off, was governing via Twitter. And as much as people derided him for that, that became the norm. You can go on there and you could see AOC, you could find Dan Crenshaw, the representatives of our republic with the most followers are the ones who are the most abrasive, the ones that the most snide comments. They pretty much followed Trump’s lead because millions of people listen to him, he got lots of press. And now we have senators and members of the House of Representatives sniping at each other like adolescents on social media.

Is that the problem? No, no more than Donald Trump was the problem. That’s a symptom. That’s a symptom of a problem that you had talked about. Now, politicians, the smart thing to do is not immediately point blame, feign outrage. Why he couldn’t come on, as soon as things started getting out of hand at the Capitol, and be on TV and the radio saying, “No, stand down, cut it out. This is ridiculous.” Why he couldn’t say that until it was all over with? He was watching it. And I don’t know, it almost seemed like he was tacitly cheering it on, but I’m just infusing my own commentary into it.

But we had all sorts of Members of Congress talking about, “Look, this is a white supremacist insurrection. They’re trying to take over the country.” Really? Buffalo hat guy was trying to take over the country? Looked like he was coming down from bad trip and didn’t know where he was.

It was comical and sad in the same fashion, but that’s not who gets elected. I ran for office, I lost. People like me don’t win because we don’t try to rally our bases and get as many votes as possible. We try to be as honest and objective with everyone we can. And I don’t know if that’s too vanilla or if it doesn’t make enough people feel good to come run out and vote for you. But there weren’t enough adults in the room to tell people that this was unacceptable, this is not how we behave.

We’re not going to blame one movement or any people for it. The immediate call for blood to impeach and remove Donald Trump from office for, basically, he spoke through his silence. When he did speak, he said, “Be peaceful. We don’t have violence, respect our police.” He said all the right things. His timing was absolutely atrocious. To run out there right now and get everybody all whipped up the look, “he incited an insurrection.” It wasn’t an insurrection, it was a riot, is what it was.

So then we come to social media and you talked about people basically saying things that they wouldn’t have said before. And I laugh about that often. The things I’ve had people say to me on Facebook or on Instagram or Twitter before I canceled my account two years ago, because Twitter makes Facebook look like a church group with the venom and hate that’s on Twitter.

I find it amusing because the listeners might not know, I’m six foot nine. I can press 300 pounds. I’m working on my second degree black belt. I can handle myself. And when I see people say things to me online, that I know they wouldn’t say to me face to chest if they met me in person, that really hits home for me about how people feel safe behind their keyboards, no responsibility for their actions.

And it’s not completely the fault of the people sniping at each other, it’s also the medium. It’s text on a screen. You don’t hear the person’s tone of voice. You don’t see that person’s face. You can’t tell if they’re kidding, you can’t hear their pain. And it all becomes trivialized.

And what somebody could be trying to elicit some feelings and concerns that are very, very valid and they’re shut down with “Shut up racist” or “Shut up commie.” Something somebody would never have said to somebody’s face because, but there’s no human face that you’re saying that to. You’re looking at a keyboard. You’re looking at a screen.

Bjorn, one of the things that’s really made things worse has been the pandemic because face-to-face has really, really taken a dive. Even when we meet face-to-face, our faces are covered most of the time now. That human connection has been lost horribly as people stay home, do things virtually. And human connection, churches are shut down, bars and restaurants are shut down.

And last year for good reason, before we knew exactly how this virus spread and who was at risk. And I’m not blaming anyone for that. That’s just a reality of it. The pandemic has further pushed, not just Americans, but humankind into the blogosphere to get our information and do our communication, and that has not helped.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. And one of the things, especially about COVID, like you said, when we wear masks, it’s great to be as safe as possible, et cetera, but it’s really hard to see emotions and you can only see emotions through eyes now. And it’ll be a good time when we can start having these conversations in person.

And when I’ve had conversations with people, I like to talk politics with people, I talk religion with people. And I would say 9.9 times out of 10, I have a great conversation. But the one thing I always do is I’m very careful with my words and I’m never judgmental. And I understand that somebody’s reality is their perception. And even if it is quote not factually correct, it doesn’t matter as long as they’re okay.

And so when we’re talking about the media and social media, it makes me think of, like you said, Dan Crenshaw and AOC. And about a month ago or so, this is January of 2021, AOC and Dan Crenshaw were sniping at each other. They were saying something and they would go back and forth.

And it’s when I watched that, I was, so these are two of the younger “leaders” in the Democratic and the Republican party. And they’re sitting there being like high school kids and nothing about their conversation on Twitter progressed and made things better. All it did was made their base that cares feel proud of them. “Oh yeah, well you gave it to AOC.” “Oh yeah, you really shot Dan Crenshaw down.”

And even if those two had good ideas, even if those two had policies, all I can think about really is just how they get certain aspects of the party and certain aspects to be more fervent about them because they “fight” for their side. And it seems with Trump, that’s why they liked him, he fought for their side.

Now here’s a side question and hopefully this doesn’t go off the rails too much. Why is it that some people like Trump in the sense of, because he’s such a charismatic personality. And as Americans, one of the things that at least what I grew up understanding is that we don’t have a king for a reason. Because kings and queens and monarchies because they get messy. And how can people put their trust in one person or one family? Is that kind of a human nature to be comfortable with a personality and a family, and then want to stay with that, politically?

Dr. Tom Kelly: Something I’ve noticed since I started studying politics decades ago is that representative republics living under liberty rule of the people is more of an anomaly in history than the norm. People throughout history have gravitated towards kingdoms, empires, places with strong men in charge to make them feel safe.

As we have more uncertainty, as the pandemic dug its teeth into countries around the world, we’re seeing more and more of people gravitating towards somebody who’s going to make them feel safe. Not somebody who’s going to keep them free. Maybe that’s been throughout history, not necessarily trust in a person or a family, but trust in that feeling of security.

One of the things we hear right now is that people say, “I don’t feel safe.” I hear that often. I’m kind of callous, I’m like, “You’re not, and you never were.” That’s the world. And whoever you vote for is not going to make you safe, not going to keep you safe from the virus, not going to keep you safe from those evil terrorists across the sea. Whatever you’re afraid of, whoever you vote for, is not going to make you safe from that. They may make you feel safe. And that’s what the gravitation is.

A lot of Trump’s supporters were afraid of losing their jobs to illegal immigrants. They were afraid of diseases coming into the country from the third world. They were afraid. And Trump made them feel safe. “I’m going to build that big wall. I’m going to take care of America first. I’m going to make America great again.” Well, what happens with Joe Biden? The virus rages, president catches it. His election chances really took a tumble right there as reelection chances, because he looked foolish at that point after he had been downplaying the virus, and now he was in the hospital on oxygen.

People are still scared of COVID. As it mutates, as new strains might be able to sidestep the new vaccines. As new strains are more contagious than older strains. And we had a president who didn’t seem to be taking it seriously enough, while Biden made people feel safe. And, and now he’s listing his policies of “Wear a mask and do this, and we’ll retool how we get the vaccines out.”

And that’s what people voted for to feel safer, when ultimately you’re your own first responder. You are the person most likely to keep you safe is yourself. If you’re worried about COVID, it’s up to you to take the precautions, to protect yourself and not to have faith that a career politician is going to somehow be able to issue an order, or Congress will pass a law that will somehow coerce other people to care who don’t.

I’ll go off slightly on a tangent here about mask mandates. This, this is not to argue the effectiveness of wearing or not wearing masks. This is to flat out state that mask mandates don’t help. They’re absolutely useless. I live in Wyoming. They ordered a mask mandate after our COVID cases already had dropped by like 60%. I don’t know why he finally gave in to whatever political pressure, but about 75% of the state was already wearing them. People who wanted to wear them were already wearing them.

After the mandate, I see either people just refusing the mandate altogether, or the people who, what I say, it’s the F-you position. They just wear it under their nose, around their chin. Yeah. I got a mask on. You didn’t say how I had to wear it.

There’s been a gravitation to vote for the people who make people feel safe. There are things government can do to assist, to help when the economy takes a tumble, to get resources to hospitals, to support research for vaccines. There are things government can do to address a crisis, but what a government cannot do is legislate or order away a crisis.

So, Bjorn is, as we get further into this pandemic, and is these new more contagious strains continue to spread, I’m concerned we’re going to see more blame throwing as the virus spreads. And Trump won’t be there to blame anymore. And so who’s going to get the blame as coronavirus spreads, continues to spread through the country and the world? I don’t know.

But I can guarantee you that biased news media will find someone to blame. And whether you have on Newsmax TV, or you have on CNN, they’ll tell you it’s somebody different. And then your friends on social media will either agree with you or block you if they don’t want to listen to you, or maybe you’ll get kicked off of Facebook for putting up “false information.” I’m not sure.

Do you mind if I go off a quick tangent for one funny little story about algorithms and artificial intelligence? Okay. One of the competitors of Twitter or Facebook, one of the alternatives was, was Parler. And a lot of people say parler.com. And I put a post up on Facebook and all I typed in was P-A-R-L-E-R.C-O-M. That was all it said. And it came back, “This post has been marked as false information. No, the Obamas’ children have not been arrested again.” It was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen, but it was an experiment to see what goes on with this type of thing, with trying to fight misinformation on social media. And it’s really gone overboard with trying to shut people down who, who aren’t spouting the party line.

But going forward, like you were saying, why does somebody like Trump get this type of support? And, and the answer is that it took me five minutes to say that he made people feel safe from whatever they were scared from.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, and that totally makes sense. And just like you said, representative democracies or governments such as we have in the sense in the grand scheme of history are rare. And I feel like we need to ensure that they survive because the alternative is some sort of monarchy or different things like that in which, people live or die based on the will of a person.

I personally have been reading a lot about Henry VIII right now, and his inner circle was constantly changing. And by changing, they lost their heads just because of one irrational person. And so the need to have strong democratic institutions is always important. But I also wanted to say what you said Trump made people feel safe and just like you said Biden makes people feel safe.

And just hearing the rhetoric of how people would call Biden, I guess, a socialist, or AOC in the squad, or everybody’s favorite “commie” Bernie Sanders is going to manipulate him, and then we’re going to become, I guess, a communist state, which is very, it’s hard to understand how they can use that rhetoric of fear. And then I guess, for people to adjust accept it because the US is not going to go from where we are now to a communist state overnight, nor will it ever.

But Trump, making people feel safe totally makes sense. And Biden, making people feel safe totally makes sense. But at the same time, like for me and my family, my wife and I, we got COVID and what could we have done to avoid it? Well, my wife probably should have not worked because she works at a hospital. And so the only way to probably not to have gotten it was for her to not work for a nurse and not to make money. But that wasn’t a choice.

And just like you said, government can do certain things. Government should have been doing more to help healthcare workers over the last year. Because precautions aren’t always the best, working conditions aren’t always the best. And just the fact that they’re exposed to COVID. And we both got through it. It was a rough time though, and I don’t wish it on anybody, especially the older population. And especially since the older population is at more risk of dying.

And so this leads us to the last question is social media is used by people to coordinate the Capitol riot and many other riots, you know, recently. How might this lead to governmental censorship of social media? Why is this bad because we need free speech? But at the same time, social media right now hadn’t been censoring anything good. But then there’s been a lot of fake news, a lot of misinformation, a lot of disinformation, but, it’s complicated.

Dr. Tom Kelly: This is one of those things where my conservative friends would quite often get upset with me. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and YouTube and Google had some rather egregious instances of censoring, shadow banning, blocking people who were disagreeable to the Democratic party. And Trump would complain about it and get people riled up and, and they would start with it, “Well, the government has to do something.”

And I would say so as a conservative, who believes in small government and free enterprise, you want the government to come in and force that private company to do something you want. And, of course, stunned silence at that point. The same conservatives who were saying that the gay couple who wanted a wedding cake made in Colorado should have just found another baker. Well, find another social media platform, find another website.

That’s the only consistent way of looking at it. Because when people are worried about big tech censorship on a social media platform, it’s an open web. Anyone can start any company, capital new social media platforms can start at any time. We are starting, though, to move in a more ominous direction where there are efforts to shut down competing websites. Where companies are starting to use their power to limit competition. That’s not free market solutions. We’re talking about a different ball game. You could start talking about antitrust and monopoly issues when you have corporations with so much power that they can keep competitors off the internet.

If we bring government into that? I would only ask people to, to think about this: If government has the power to decide what should be online and what shouldn’t how well is that worked out in places like the People’s Republic of China? They have what they call the great firewall of China over their internet right now. Is that what we want? What would help American free speech by having the government strictly regulate what social media must be allowed to have and say and do?

Some people have looked at it like a public utility. There are legal arguments to be made about publisher versus platform. I’m not going to get into the legalities of it. I’m not an attorney, but more of the political philosophy that free speech means hearing stuff you don’t like.

And the biggest assault on free speech right now is the attempt to say, speech we disagree with is violence or inciting violence. This is becoming more prevalent where somebody says, they’re angry about something and they’re going to fight for their rights. “Oh, look at this person said fight, they’re inciting violence, ban them.” And right now we have social media platforms doing that. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s no law that says they can’t do that. You don’t have a right to have a Facebook account. It’s their service, it’s their website.

When I see Prager University complain that YouTube is restricting their videos, it’s like, “Well, you know, Prager, you do have your own website and your videos are available there. So you’re not really being censored. They just don’t want to do business with you. That’s all.”

But, Bjorn, the rhetoric I’m seeing right now in America that’s most concerning is not so much communism, yeah, there are hardcore Marxists in the country. There are people who think throwing the word democratic in front of a socialist makes it okay. Doesn’t any more than having democratic fascism would. But the majority of Americans don’t want a communist system and that’s not going to happen. But we’re seeing language that is very much congruent with a one-party state, where there’s only one political party that has a message that is okay to hear.

There has been talk among politicians about reprogramming 10 millions of Trumpsters, people who are so badly misinformed and out of touch reality, the government has to step in and tell these people their thought processes are messed up.

World history does not show that those have happy results when government steps in and starts telling people that their beliefs are wrong. And basically the entire Republican party has a belief system that is white supremacist and unacceptable. Now I’m not saying the entire Democratic party, sweepingly all across the spectrum believes this, but you do have Members of Congress saying this type of stuff right now. So we can safely say it is representative of a sizable population.

And this message is be an amplified on many major news media platforms that when you speak out against President Biden, you’re speaking against unity, you’re supporting white supremacy.

There are immigrants from places like Venezuela and from China who are waving red flags and they’re not waving Communist red flags, they’re waving warning red flag saying, “This is the type of rhetoric we heard in the country we fled. That people were inciting violence. They were spreading disinformation. This is why the government needs to censor media.”

America is at a very crucial stage right now. Do we actually want free speech or do we want to feel safe? And that’s one of the things I hear quite often, “that person is using language and makes me feel unsafe.” We’ve heard that in the classroom at an American Public University. I don’t know if you’ve dealt with it, but as a program director, I’ve dealt with student complaints of feeling unsafe because a student had said something or wrote something in the classroom that they disagreed with so strongly it made them feel unsafe in a virtual classroom. So I would just leave it at that. America really has to look in the mirror and understand, do we really want free speech or do we want to feel safe?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I think that is a great statement. Because like you said before in the long thread of human history, and generally people don’t feel safe and we’re living at a time to where we have been remarkably safe. There’s been remarkably few large wars, make the distinction of large wars. And that COVID-19 has been one of the few pandemics that has hit us versus in the past there was the plague. I mean, there a small box, which would ravage people every generation.

And so, in a sense, we should feel unsafe. But at the same time, when it comes to discussions, people should number one, talk to each other. And I think we both agree if people would just talk to each other face-to-face, a lot of things would change. It’s okay to be liberal. It’s okay to be conservative. It’s okay to be religious. It’s okay to be agnostic, atheist. Because you just look in the past and guess what it wasn’t okay to be any number of these things, depending on the country you lived in and the time you lived in and that could have cost you your life.

And violence seems like one of those things that we’re so not used to violence, political violence, I should say, that the Capitol riot was such a shock for some people. But I think for people outside of the US you know, they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, that happens.”

And I don’t know if they were surprised or disappointed that it happened in the US, but like you said, you know, we need to really look at ourselves in the mirror and figure out how we want to move forward together. Because the people on the right and the people on the left have to be included in the process, have to have representation. Or else if they’re excluded well, whenever people are excluded, then they don’t feel like they’re represented and they don’t feel like their voice is heard and then they will do things to themselves.

And, like everything, this is so complicated. And one of my simple wishes is I wish people lived in places that sounds funny that we’re more politically diverse. And I live in Arizona. And for the most part it’s pretty balanced. And I have great conversations with most people. And one of the weird anomalies, which I would love to study, because I don’t quite understand it, is how populations have started to cluster in certain areas where there’s more Democrats in certain areas and more Republicans than other areas. And just kind of as the last side question, how does that happen?

Dr. Tom Kelly: Well, one issue the United States is facing right now is that cyber world, the mobility of jobs and the mobility of capital, and the increased standard of living has made it much easier for people to relocate that is more in line with their worldview.

Thus, I am in Wyoming, not in Illinois. I grew up in Illinois. I left Illinois because I didn’t fit in there very well and I wanted to live in a place that had mountains and nicer weather, but also where politically I wasn’t an outcast. Because when you’re from Cook County, Illinois is like one of the Democratic strongholds for a long time, many generations. So I moved to an area that was, I wouldn’t say I came here because it’s necessarily more conservative, but I came here because it is less restrictive, lower taxes, fewer regulations. That’s what I like.

So I normally don’t go on my own politics and my own viewpoints on things but it’s relevant here that I purposely chose an area where the government would leave me alone more than the Illinois government would.

And we’re seeing more of that now, though, as you see people who are attracted to the State of Washington and people who are moving to this State of Texas to get out of California. That causes long-term concerns for the viability of a union of states like this. If the red states get redder and the blue states get bluer. I mean, how long is it before the people of Wyoming and the people of Illinois are looking at each other saying, “Yeah, I don’t want to be in a country with you either.” I have no answer for that, but I have an answer for why people are doing it, because they can.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, and I completely agree, you know, and my wife and I have often talked about moving to different places and typically to more rural. It sounds just like you typically it’s with more outdoors, more nature, you know, to be part of that humid experience, which is not urban.

But then for many people, it seems like they are drawn to that urban and for some reason that population is more “left-leaning” more right-leaning is more rural. And at the same time, it’s just, everybody should just get together and figure things out. But at the same time, again, when you look at history or even today, people will, unfortunately, kill each other for less.

You would think that wars would start for great reasons but besides the war, which we always talk about World War II, most wars start for inanely stupid reasons, egotistical reasons where this ruler can’t get along with his other rulers. So, well, let’s just go to war. I haven’t had a war in a few years, so I need my pride. So at this point, any final words, Tom, for a great, great conversation and a conversation that honestly leaves us with more questions?

Dr. Tom Kelly: One of the concerns I have is as a college professor, I’m seeing a lot of the ideology and rhetoric of unacceptable political views, emanating from other universities, from professors. And I get concerned how long before that starts to bleed more heavily into our classrooms. How much will free speech of professors be chilled?

Even from my style, I am of the breed where my students, if they can guess how I voted in the last election, I failed at my job. I like to play devil’s advocate. I’d like to remain as objective as possible. I like to argue things from all different sides.

I have had a complaint come up in the political science department about one of my professors portraying conservative viewpoints in the classroom. Now I’m going to tell you, this professor is not a conservative. He just knew the viewpoints and was arguing the opposite side to a student who had some very liberal viewpoints. You’d think that’s what a college classroom is supposed to be.

It came up to me, the program director, that this is unacceptable. “Conservative viewpoints are racist and white supremacist and have no place in an academic learning institution.” This idea has taken root. This is not one isolated student. There are professors who do this. There are departments in universities across the country where people with unapproved political views are losing their jobs.

I get concerned of what chill that will have on free speech or how that will affect education and the ability to teach analysis and critical thinking. When I have a conservative student come in and I can hand her the liberal viewpoints, because I know them inside and out, I’ve studied them for years and I could poke holes in conservative arguments left and right. And then I have a liberal student come in and I do the same thing. Am I only allowed now to challenge my conservative students of liberal viewpoints and then my liberal students, I can’t challenge with conservative viewpoints because it’s unacceptable?

I mean, I’m cheating that liberal student have the ability to think and develop his or her own arguments there too. Just personally, from a perspective of professor, how much longer are we going to have free speech in the classroom?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’d like to thank you, Tom, for a really great conversation.

Dr. Tom Kelly: Thanks for having me again Bjorn, it’s always fun to talk to you.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Absolutely wonderful conversation. And today we are speaking with Dr. Tom Kelly about the Capitol riot.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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