It has been an extraordinary few days in the history of modern America. Professor Gary Gerstle discusses the events in the United States and the historical impact.

In recent years, Gary Gerstle, Sidney Fellow and Paul Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge University, has focused his writing on the history of American political thought, institutions, and conflicts.

Following the recent US Capitol attack, Gary is on hand to provide us with a summary about what just took place in America.

"On 7 December 1941, an armada of Japanese planes executed a devastatingly successful attack on the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, destroying most of the US Pacific fleet and killing more than 3,000. Now, the US has suffered through a second day of infamy. In 2021, as in 1941, a complacent nation was caught off guard. Now, like then, its future is imperilled. There is a difference, of course: this time, the enemy lurks within, not across a vast ocean.

Violence has been part of American politics for a long time; Sidney students studying American history with me learn this lesson well. There are precedents for angry mobs attempting to take over legislative houses in their states. But never before has a sitting president of the United States incited a mob to assault a branch of the US government over which he presides and has sworn to protect. Donald J. Trump’s action marks this moment as unique, ensuring that he will have a permanent place in America’s hall of shame.

There is much still to sort through, most alarmingly why the Capitol was left virtually defenceless with more than 500 of America’s top legislators inside. There is chatter of another attack between now and Biden’s inauguration. There are questions about what will become of Trumpism as a political force once its leader leaves office, which he will do. And, of course, one has to wonder about the future of American democracy, now that its fragility has been starkly revealed. My comments to the Briefing Room were recorded on 7 January, shortly after the attack. I will be recording more thoughts across this week and next, and will make them available to interested members of the Sidney community."

Gary joined David Aaronovitch on the Briefing Room to examine the US Capitol attack and what this means for the United States, its institutions, and its politics. Listen to The Briefing Room episode, 'America: what just happened?' on the BBC website.

Additional recordings featuring Gary will be added to the 'Key links' section below when they become available. 

Key links

The Briefing Room | 'America: what just happened?'

Follow Gary on Twitter and discover more of his work on his website.


If you have something that would make a good news or feature item, please email news@sid.cam.ac.uk