‘My heart was shattered’

‘It’s even worse than it was’

Eight years have passed since Congressional scholars Norm Ornstein, PhD ’74, and Thomas Mann, MA ’68/PhD ’77, co-authored It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (Basic Books, 2012).

Their blunt report on the unprecedented acrimony, hyper partisanship, and dysfunction in Congress cast Republicans as insurgent outliers at the heart of the problem. The party had become “ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, and ardently opposed to the established social and economic policy regime,” the authors wrote.

One nation after Trump book cover

(St. Martin’s Press.)

The book was a watershed for the centrist scholars, who’d been meticulously nonpartisan throughout their careers. Mann is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley. Ornstein is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They met as graduate students at U-M and have been friends and collaborators ever since.

When we first spoke in 2013, Mann and Ornstein joked their next book likely would be called Run for Your Lives. At that point, it was still unfathomable that American citizens would one day breach the nation’s Capitol intent on overthrowing the results of a free and fair presidential election. While the whimsical title is more apt today than ever, the book they released in 2017 actually was called One Nation After Trump (St. Martin’s Press.) E.J. Dionne co-authored.

“We got the ‘after Trump’ right, but we have a long way to go to learn to live as ‘one nation,’” says Mann. “None of this dysfunction will disappear with Trump out of the White House.”

When asked how he felt on Jan. 6, Ornstein says, “My heart was shattered. If you care about the country, I don’t know how you cannot be horrified.”

Below, these longtime Congressional experts share some of their thoughts, fears, and possible solutions to the government breakdown. Making some key structural changes in government could facilitate the healing of our society, they say.

Run for your lives

THE GOP WAS PRIMED for a demagogic leader like Trump, Mann says. Seeds of division took root with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965. “The most substantial federal effort to end Jim Crow was key to dividing the parties shifting the defining issues from economic to cultural policy.

“By the 1980s, the parties diverged sharply by race, ethnicity, religion, abortion, geography, and traditional vs. cosmopolitan values. Republican leaders such as Newt Gingrich rallied conservative activists and voters by seeking to undermine trust in government and the legitimacy of those who ran it. Partisanship became a ‘mega-identity,’ and the divisions among elites penetrated the mass public.

“Trump’s presidency hardened the differences between the parties and mobilized violent, extreme-right groups that had heretofore been present but mostly marginalized in American politics.”

Mann and Ornstein in 2012.

Thomas Mann (left) and Norman Ornstein (right) in 2012. (Photo: Kevin Featherly.)

WE HAVE A BIG CULTURAL PROBLEM that may not be resolvable in this present age of communication if people continue cocooning and getting different sets of facts, Ornstein says. “It’s too easy for disinformation and deliberate distortion to take hold. That is not easy to resolve. But we can address structural issues: voting rights, the campaign reform questions, the way we conduct business in Congress, the partisan gerrymandering, and more. There are ways of doing this that don’t necessarily require a lot of Constitutional amendments.”

WE SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN SURPRISED by the events of Jan. 6, Mann continues. “Trump had been calling for mass resistance to certifying the election for Biden and specifically set Jan. 6 as the time for physical action, otherwise known as insurrection. All of Trump’s words and actions after the election led directly to [the insurrection.] I was stunned by the success of the mob in penetrating the Capitol and meeting little resistance from security for over four hours.”

THAT WAS CLOSE “We are starting to understand this threat was graver than we realized. Clearly, there were terrible, malign actors who were organized and wanted to kill or kidnap people or completely disrupt government operations. They could have decapitated the entire government. There also were people caught up in conspiracy theories. But it doesn’t matter what the motives are. If you break through and enter the United States Capitol with the intent of causing mayhem, whatever your motives, you need to be put in prison for a long time. There’s got to be a deterrent of some sort.”

Book cover

The 2016 paperback edition “revised” the cover text. (Basic Books, 2013)

THE PATHOLOGY RUNS DEEP in the GOP, Ornstein says. “Members of Congress knew their lives were in danger [Jan. 6]. And still, two-thirds of the Republicans in the House voted that Biden’s election was illegitimate, and a quarter of the Republicans in the Senate did so, as well. I think the vast majority of them have no backbone and no moral courage. Most of them know full well that the election was fair, and it was not close. They’re just scared to death to take on the base. And, for some, it’s fear of being shunned by ‘the cult,’ which puts the fundamental freedom of the country at stake.”

CONTINUITY IS KEY “After 9/11, Tom and I created a continuity of government commission,” Ornstein says. The commission was co-chaired by Lloyd Cutler, White House Counsel during the Carter and Clinton administrations, and Alan Simpson, a Republican leader in the Senate. “We issued three reports on continuity of Congress, the presidency, and the Supreme Court. We focused mostly on a foreign terrorist threat, and ultimately, also on a pandemic. But as history tells us, inertia sets in, and we didn’t get very far. We still have no plan. It’s pretty clear we need a 9/11-style commission. I’m hoping the impeachment inquiry gives us more information about what went on.”

THIS ALTERS THE WHOLE LANDSCAPE for a free society, says Ornstein. “Part of our freedom was that people could go to Congress and watch the proceedings taking place. They could see their members of Congress right there. Now, we’re going to have another layer of removal. All of our elected representatives, including in the states, will have to be concerned about their safety. That’s not something we are used to in our lifetimes.”

THE GREATEST FEAR is that we will fail as a multi-racial democracy and descend into civil war and/or autocracy, says Mann. “My greatest hope is that the Republican Party is transformed into or replaced by a center-right governing party. In the next year, we can only hope President Biden and the narrow Democratic majorities in Congress will be able to deliver help to a citizenry ravaged by the pandemic and the economic fallout from it. The odds for success are long, but the alternatives would be devastating.”


  1. James Urbanski - MA 1977

    Agree with your assessment of modern politics. Since the early 1970s I have talked to voters — neighbors — when campaigning. Knocking on doors, I discovered that many older white males often listen to right-wing talk radio or watch Fox News. However when you talk with their wives or voting age children, they in many cases vote differently. They sometimes get upset and rush to the front door to interrupt the conversation with their family members. Also, when confronting these folks I try to find common ground, an issue we can agree on. Many agree that the tax rates for the wealthy are not fair, yet they often vote for candidates that regularly perpetuate the inequalities.


  2. LM Davis - 73

    Four years of Dems trying to oust Trump (who was “duly elected” by the way) probably didn’t help either.


    • Howard Gottlieb - 1990

      Big difference-Dems didn’t storm the Capital and try to kill people.


      • Stephen Charles - 1979

        No, Dems burned down nearly every American city causing Billions of $ in economic damage, killed over 30 people, ruined tens of thousands of business, and millions of lives.


        • N Seabold - 1970

          Since I assume you’re not saying the Democrats literally set fire, I’m curious what event(s) you are referring that symbolically felt like you were being set fire to (to be that fearful to use that language) or businesses were?

          Is being socially responsible – so that all people have the same right to be equal and valued as humans, wrong?

          Is having services that help people in need, in your view, a business killer?
          As long as there are those who are helping themselves and need temporary help or who are suffering from the pandemic and need immediate and ongoing support to get help, in my view – is a business builder FOR ALL, instead of just the wealthy or for white people. I believe in capitalism and personal growth for all.
          Did you have a parent who put you through college? If you did, you didn’t do it all by yourself – you had some help, likely likely did not deal with racism where are you were lost before you even got started and most were at an age or simply not able to put themselves through.
          We need to protect our democracy, as if we don’t, it could result in a domino effect where even those at the very top lose, as there will be few who buys their products or go to their restaurants, etc.
          If karma in this lifetime – perhaps will white supremacists come back as people of color – learn lesson then? Will we find out – if those who put only themselves and money first will come to know what it’s really like to have different rules for different people… What it feels like to have a president who only thinks of himself and those officiating person who will totally agree with him (payback being their own financial stability )in many cases having nothing to do with whether they actually believed in what the president was supporting). Or it could’ve just been fear-based because-if they didn’t agree – there were even threats of being annihilated.
          We were on the brink of having a dictator not openly lived and acted against the law and rules in nearly every sense of the word and aspect of life.
          So please give me your example of what the Democrats were setting fire to when truly supporting mother earth, our humanity. Will we leave for our children and grandchildren a legacy that does not support support truth and well-being for all?
          It takes a high percentage of adults to raise children and a future where we all grow. Only that will support a strong nation. Thanks for listening.
          (The record I had voted Republican in the distant past, before it became so self-serving) At the moment what extreme right Republicans are doing and even more alarming “what has been growing in the Republican Party” is setting off and intuitive alarm.
          We really need to wake up as it is an existential threat to have a party in fear, building on untruths.


        • George Hudock - 1993

          “Dems burned down nearly every American city”? Laughable comment. Care to back it up with actual thought and evidence?


      • Kelly Van Rijn - 1984

        Left wing antifa and BLM thugs attacked, vandalized and burned over 150 federal building last years, and were directly responsible for the deaths of at least one police officer and one retired child fo police. Where was your outrage then? Thought so.


        • Pauline Costianes - 1974 - Albion College

          Your facts are wrong! Most of the damage was done by out of town white supremacists who came in to wreak havoc to give BLM a bad name. “Antifa” aka “antifascist” is NOT any organized group, unlike the thugs and white supremacists who people the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, KKK, etc. The last time we had an organized group of antifascists, it was the Allied Forces fighting the Nazis and the Japanese in WWII!!! Just proves that Trump loves the uneducated!


          • Gary SALWIN - 1970

            Drink some more koolaid


        • M Sanborn - 2002

          Typical radical right “whataboutism”. Whenever confronted with the fact the it was Trump goons who invaded the capital, they try to distract the argument with “but antifa, but BLM.”

          Nice try gramps, no one is buying it except for racist relics like yourself.


      • Gary SALWIN - 19

        No the dems just burned down churches and businesses. Then looted and killed cops


    • Jonathan McIntre - PhD in 1987

      He was duly elected…thanks in significant part to the dishonesty that was pervasive in his campaign. So difficult to understand why so many in our nation believed all of the lies.


  3. David Huff - 1963

    The article’s critical division in the country states full emergence at the day Trump was elected and continues to be critical of the entire GOP as the source of division without any mention of the radical elements of the Democrat party and their actions. The heart of academia to be objective in giving full statements re extreme actions by all parties is gone. The full thrust of the Russia hoax from day one was a basis for extremist actions. How could this not be a subject of our division by a “scholarly” writing? The reason is clear today as anyone raising this question will be ostracized and unemployable in academia.


  4. Jeffrey Schmidt - 90

    A very one-sided opinion piece by 2 white-guy elitists looking down on the commoners (since we are now supposed to judge people based on physical characteristics).
    I would be interested to read their views on those that tried to overturn the results of the 2016 election for 4 years+.
    Both sides are pointing at each other, while justifying their own actions, when we the people should be pointing at all the government, bureaucracy, and enabling media on both sides.


    • Stephen Charles - 1979

      How disingenuous to portray these two as “centrists”. They are anything but as evidenced by this fallacious statement, “Trump had been calling for mass resistance to certifying the election for Biden and specifically set Jan. 6 as the time for physical action, otherwise known as insurrection. All of Trump’s words and actions after the election led directly to [the insurrection.] I was stunned by the success of the mob in penetrating the Capitol and meeting little resistance from security for over four hours.”

      Trump didn’t call for “mass resistance”. Yes, he did call for a protest and encouraged “peaceful protest”. At no time did he call for “physical action” unlike Maxine Waters, Nancy Pelosi, or Kamala Harris. Must we re-litigate the comments of these folks who screamed, “get in their faces”, said that the military would have to physically remove him from office, or advocate and raise money for the looters of American cities?

      Additionally, there is emerging evidence that the violence at the Capitol preceded the President’s speech and there were clearly both antifa elements as well as Trump supporters. Compared to the violence which has occurred in America’s cities over the past year, including the antifa violence at the WH (recall the burned church?) the assault at the Capitol was minimal and the video images suggest that the Capitol police did little to prevent or intervene.


      • Matthew Ross - 1997

        Stephen: I’m not sure if you truly believe what you’re saying or if you’re copying & pasting something from social media or a Russian troll farm, but no one who learned any critical thinking skills at UM would call beating Officer Brian Sicknick to death with a fire extinguisher OR trying to gouge out the eyes of Officer Daniel Hodges OR beating another officer with a hockey stick part of a “minimal” assault — let alone all three of those crimes, all of which are well documented.

        As for Trump’s role, there is video footage of the rioters at the Capitol saying they were doing it because of Trump and “We were invited by the president.” But it must have been the seditionists who erected a gallows with a noose on the west side of the Capitol who really were so “very special,” per your former Dear Leader.


  5. Jamie Seiler - 85

    For years I have believed that two parties were not enough to encompass the many view points of either party. The people who in the past identified as Republicans now feel lost as to what the party represents. The Democratic Party has struggles with the progressive vs. more moderate members. Perhaps a third party could emerge.
    As far as the 2016 election, I believe the electoral college is at fault. One person one vote should be the rule. The candidate that wins the popular vote (the majority), should be the president.
    Whatever your affiliation, there is no room for the outright lies that led to insurrection. Peaceful transfer of power must prevail if we truly believe in democracy.
    I look forward to an interesting read.


    • Nancy p - 1981

      Third party may well be a good idea. There should be room for a party seeking a middle ground. But I disagree with the statement that the popular vote winner should be the winner. LA and NYC could end up carrying every election. Electoral College may need to be updated but not eliminated.


      • Pauline Costianes - 1970

        When we vote in a national election, we are ONE COUNTRY, not a bunch of states! This fallacy of “LA and NYC end up carrying every election” is ridiculous! In a direct democracy, all the votes for candidate A go in one bucket, all the votes for candidate B go in another bucket and so on. Whoever gets the MOST VOTES WINS!!! The Electoral College negates “one man, one vote” and was started with the stain of slavery all over it! It needs to go!


  6. Stephen Charles - 1979

    “THE GOP WAS PRIMED for a demagogic leader like Trump, Mann says. Seeds of division took root with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965.”

    This is revisionist history. The Republicans liberated the slaves and passed the Voting Rights acts. These were opposed by the Democratic Party.

    Now that we have the facts in place, let’s discuss the true evolution of what has been occurring. Our current political divide is predicated less on party differences and more on the division between populists and elites. Mann and Ornstein ignore the emergence of democrat populism led by Bernie Sanders, AOC, et al. The more interesting story is how well organized the democrat elites were in preventing Bernie from gaining power in 2016 and again in 2020. In contrast, the repugs were less organized and since they played by the rules, they were powerless to stop the ascendency of DJT.

    The American aristocracy has contempt for ordinary Americans as evidenced by statements such as the “deplorables”, “47%’ers”, “smelly Walmart”, etc. (notice it comes from both sides of the aisles). The truth is that the degrees of separation between Trump and Bernie supporters is little compared to the divide between the political establishment and ordinary Americans. What Americans have witnessed is the wholesale outsourcing of American lives and livelihoods (shi- this is so good, why am I not being featured?). Both the repubs and dems sold out America to corporations and subsequently China. This globalist enterprise started under the Bush I administration and was accelerated under subsequent administrations including Clinton, Bush II, and Obama. Americans were tired of seeing their jobs eliminated with the passage of NAFTA and entire industries sent to China. After seeing their financial industries ripped off by the elites in the H&L scandal and being left having to pay the bills, the American people were sentenced to 8 years of malaise under an anti-American Obama who promised and delivered on American transformation. Citizens watched as illegal immigrants flooded the country driving wages down. Industries continued to be outsourced and the new administration spoke of American comeuppance while forcing unwelcome social “change” down their throats.

    Trump was the heroic manifestation of the values which most hard working Americans epitomized, namely fair play, opportunities for Americans first, and an ability to live their lives the way they wanted. While we can debate the relative success of Trumps achievements in foreign policy, economic policy, etc. the over arching mission was clear.

    In 2019, after 3 1/2 years of rejection of the Trump administration by the political elite, they were determined not to be undermined again. We saw the resurgence of a now energized Bernie Sanders, though there was no way that the elites would allow his populist movement to gain steam. Instead, they installed a doddering old political insider who was unable to draw flies to fly paper. Yet, somehow he managed to gain more votes than any President in history. Even more than the most popular modern democrat, Barak Obama.

    Since day one, the newly installed President has passed a flurry of EO’s the likes of which has never been seen in American history. Yet, quizzically, the media who proclaim to be the champions of truth have been complicit in this canard. All of these EO’s have been extremely detrimental to ordinary Americans and have among other things damaged women’s sports and job opportunities. These are the things which are most interesting and not the ramblings of a couple of old elitists.


  7. Lee Mitgang - 1971

    Schmidt (’90) is right on one thing: it’s a stretch to call the authors “centrists.” Apparently they are now shocked, shocked at what neo-con organizations such as AEI helped create. A day late, a dollar short is what I have to say to such “centrists” and “moderates” who abdicated their souls and their guts as Gingrich and his acolytes refined the politics of personal destruction to an art form that gave rise to Tea Party and Trumpism. What strikes me most about a number of the Trumpy comments above is the continued level of made-in-Fox-world false equivalencies and outright bull even as this country witnessed the first-ever storming of our nation’s capital. Show me the proof that antifa, whatever the hell that is, had anything to do with Jan. 6. Trump NEVER reached out to Democrats. Instead, he deliberately sowed division and indeed, gained the presidency with his Obama birther lie (which some of my Trump friends still believe). As president, he egged on violence at his rallies against the media and anyone who didn’t kowtow (look at the videos!). Whether or not there was a provable cause-effect between the Jan. 6 traitorous insurrection and Trump’s preceding speech to the mob is not the point. There is absolutely no question that his words and deeds before, during and after that violence were a wink and nod to his Qanon, Proud Boy anti-Black, anti-Semitic base who felt, by their own testimony, that they had the blessings of the President to commit mayhem. I hope the facts come out during the upcoming impeachment trial. I also agree with Seiler (’85) that we should ditch the Electoral College, a Jim Crow vestige. Meanwhile, God bless America!!


    • Stephen Charles - 1979

      You need to get out more or at least turn off CNN. Faux news is an insider establishment enterprise run by the liberal Murdoch children and shills like Paul Ryan. Try a trip to Seattle or Portland on a fact finding mission. Stop in Minneapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, etc. and then come back with your report.


    • Jeffrey Schmidt - 90

      Ok. Now, to be complete, do the one where you talk about the 4 years of trying to overturn the 2016 election and also how the state executives and courts unconstitutionally changed 2020 election laws. And be sure to include how we should prosecute those involved in both of those, since that could also be what incited the riot.


  8. Stephen Charles - 1979

    The best part of reading this article is that I’ve just received notice from my anti-virus that UofM is launching a MITM attack against my system. How’s that for “free speech”?


  9. Kelly Van Rijn - 1884

    Please, spare me your faux outrage. Literally from the first day of Trump’s inauguration until the day he left office, he was insulted, vilified and stonewalled by the Democratic Party, to include a kangaroo show trial of an impeachment. What you saw in DC wasn’t an insurrection, but a manifestation of people tired of four years of non-stop anti-Trump bashing from left wing politicians, media, Hollywood, Big Tech and university elites. Should people have trespassed? No, of course not. But for those all hot and bothered by the March on DC, I ask where was your similar outrage when over 150 federal building were torched and vandalized over the past year by antifa and BLM thugs? Where was your outrage when these same thugs murdered a federal police office and retired chief of police working security? Where was your outrage when average citizens were assaulted and harassed simply for belonging to a different political party than you?

    Mann and Ornstein are part of the problem. By casting Republicans as the villains, they ignore the simple fact that Republicans are only trying to right an America listing so far to the socialist and radical left, that real insurrectionists like BLM, antifa, AOC, Pelosi, Sanders, Schumer, Newsom, the media, Holywood and universities are given a pass as they are ones destroying America. Throw in massive censorship of concersvative and traditional viewpoints by Big Tech and you have 1930s Germany redux.


  10. Kenneth Woodard - 1965

    If the “centrists” Ornstein and Mann have any influence in Washington, they should use it to promote election reforms. Campaign finance, gerrymandering, voter ID and verification all need reform, as they mentioned, to guaranty fair elections. I applied for a library card the other day and they asked for my ID! Imagine that! Also, we need the Electoral College so that middle America has a voice in presidential elections.


  11. Janet King - 1963

    My heart is shattered to see my university shut down free speech, diversity of thought, critical thinking and exclusively hire faculty that supports radical left ideology.


  12. Paul Kirby - 1967

    It’s clear that liberals and conservatives are getting their news from different sources. Until we can agree on what is and what is not true, there will be no chance of reconciliation. A nation divided against itself cannot stand. Many of the views expressed in this commentary are extreme and they vilify their opponents. It’s time to denounce ALL violence, find a news source that is objective (so far as possible) and find as much common ground as possible. We could start with: “We ALL want our families to be safe and prosperous.” Does anyone disagree with that? How do we achieve it? THAT’s where the debate should take place–on issues, not personalities, partisanship, or nonsense parading as truth. If this is achievable, perhaps we can save our country, but I wonder if we’ve gone too far in the other direction already.


  13. burton shifman - 1950, 1951 MBA

    Some of the comments illustrate dire and I’m afraid irredeemable straits for our republic. To the alumnus who wrote “state executives and courts unconstitutionally changed 2020 election laws”, I suggest reading the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Marbury v Madison. What’s constitutional is what the Court says is. I assume the writer repeats the lie about Pennsylvania. When the U.S. Supreme Court with three Trump appointees and three more Reuplican appointees refuses to review a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision validating that states 2020 election, as it has for more than 200 years, mean the election is was constitutional.


    • Jeffrey Schmidt - 90

      That does not mean the Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional. It means they didn’t review it.
      They didn’t want to make a ruling because they could have potentially thrown the election into chaos.
      They chose the lesser of 2 evils.


  14. Archie Patterson - BSE (Aero) 67, BS (Applied Math) 84

    There seems to be those that are willing to see the facts and others that will forever select facts to justify their preconceived views. For the latter no facts will ever change them. In Michigan the voters change the constitution to allow for absentee voting for any reason and to use a commission to redistrict. Now there are those that are saying the people’s action to change the constitution was unconstitutional because it no longer favors their party or view point. I hope the future based on these two changes will usher in a better representative government and put the extreme views, both left and right, back to background noise. The truth and facts must prevail.


  15. Patrick CARDIFF - 1990

    From https://theconversation.com/fact-check-us-is-there-an-antifa-threat-in-the-united-states-as-donald-trump-claims-150555 :
    In an October 9 (2020) report, the Department of Homeland Security called the white-supremacist movement the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland”. By comparison, the Antifa movement has no structure or centralized hierarchy and thus it does not constitute a threat to American democracy, much less the United States.


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