US Election: NZ-based academic says Donald Trump not to blame for Capitol riots, says NZ should butt out

As US lawmakers - including Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi - call for Donald Trump's immediate removal as President, Kiwi experts are expressing mixed views on whether it's possible or even appropriate. 

President-elect Joe Biden has labelled supporters of the outgoing President who stormed the Capitol in Washington DC this week "domestic terrorists", calling it "one of the darkest days in the history of our nation". Pelosi called the events "horrors that will forever stain our nation's history". The FBI is mulling sedition charges against those involved

But Amy Baker Benjamin - a senior lecturer in international law at AUT - doesn't see it that way. While adamant she doesn't condone the violence that occurred, the protests "were peaceful".

"I think there were tens of thousands of people - I don't know the exact number - and they were all peaceful. It looks like there was a small group that went up to the Capitol and decided to take matters into their own hands. 

"I don't condone violence so I can't be on that side, but the big protests that happened earlier were all peaceful and I think that's a fine exercise of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech."

Protesters outside the US Capitol.
Protesters outside the US Capitol. Photo credit: Getty

The argument put forward for Trump's removal centres on his apparent support for the invasion of the Capitol building. For months he has disputed the outcome of the election, urged supporters to show up to the Capitol on the day the events took place, and afterwards praised the intruders, calling them "very special". 

Earlier that day speaking to the crowd at the Capitol, Trump ally Rudy Giuliani called for "trial by combat", his son called for "total war" and Trump himself urged them to "fight like hell". 

Benjamin, whose son was at the protest, said she'd heard nothing from the President that amounted to a call for violence. 

"I don't see how his saying he's going to contest the election is a dog-whistle for people to go out and get violent. I know that some people argue he's always emitting these dog whistles with his words, but I don't see that at all. I think he wanted to fire up the crowd... only relatively few went up to the Capitol... I think anyone who says what Trump said was sort of a coded call to violence is wrong." 

Stephen Hoadley, international relations professor at the University of Auckland, told Newshub while the protests were largely peaceful - even those who breached the Capitol were "remarkably restrained", partly down to being allowed without resistance from law enforcement - it was still a "black day for American history". 

"A lot of authoritarian regimes will point the finger and say, 'the United States is no better than we are. Who are they to lecture us on the conduct of democracy?'" 

Unlike Benjamin, Dr Hoadley said the rioters were "encouraged by the President", and his attempt at defusing the situation -  a one-minute video shot from the safety of the White House lawn - did little to ease tensions, starting with false claims about the election result and praise for the insurrectionists. 

"He did say the right thing that they'd made their point they should now go home... but it was a very mixed message," Dr Hoadley said. 

"It didn't indicate any remorse or any change of view as to his conspiracy theories that he continues to feed his base."

Stephen Hoadley.
Stephen Hoadley. Photo credit: The AM Show

University of Otago international relations professor Robert Patman says Trump "created the climate" that resulted in the first breach of Capitol security in more than 200 years, and waited until after things got "out of hand" to call for peace. 

"If Trump had said to his supporters, 'You must absolutely in no circumstances take this issue onto the streets and in any way contest the result," that would have been different. But he hasn't done that. Trump has set the tone and created an environment in which this sort of mob riot... was possible."

Asked if Trump and his supporters had gone too far in trying to disrupt Biden's certification as the victor, Dr Patman said the outgoing President had been "going too far for a long time" - and others have been encouraged to follow in his footsteps.  

"He's the first person I believe in American political history who's been defeated - in recent history, at least - who's not accepted the outcome. It's a bad look for the United States globally - it's always seen itself as a bastion of democracy, and what we're witnessing here in the United States is there are sizeable numbers in the Republican Party who will not accept the outcome of a democratic election." 

How should New Zealand react? 

Aside from social media posts from Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Government has been largely quiet on the events in Washington. Requests for comment from Ardern and Mahuta by Newshub went ignored. 

Benjamin says New Zealand shouldn't get involved.

"I think New Zealanders are educated and smart, and they will be following this story as everybody should be and they will use their discernment... in interpreting what's going on and who to believe and what judgements to make. I don't really see a role for the New Zealand Government to do anything. Careful observation from afar is what I would advocate." 

Shots were fired in the US Capitol.
Shots were fired in the US Capitol. Photo credit: Getty

Dr Patman has the opposite view.

"New Zealand's national interests do involve us speaking out for a rules-based system. We don't believe in mob rule. It's important New Zealand doesn't tip-toe around what's happening and makes its position absolutely clear - not just to Trump, but the Biden camp, who are looking for international support.

"We believe in a fair go, don't we? ... We don't believe that people should enter a contest on the basis that they can only be the one winner. It's very important that we speak up. Jacinda Ardern has a big audience  out there globally, and a lot of people will be disappointed if New Zealand sits on the sidelines and says nothing." 

Ardern's tweet on Thursday afternoon has had 120,000 likes and been shared nearly 13,000 times.