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Former Senator's Staffer On What Senate Might Do In Response To Riot At U.S. Capitol


As yesterday's violent attack on the Capitol unfolded, one person watching was Adam Jentleson.

ADAM JENTLESON: It was depressing and shocking, especially on a day like yesterday. The day of certification is usually a day of high energy. It feels like the first day of school, with new members finding their offices, learning where the bathrooms are. They bring their families.

CORNISH: He used to walk those halls when he worked for former Democratic Senator Harry Reid. Now he's out with a book called "Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy." In short of calls for impeachment by Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, I asked him what other kinds of action should be taken in the aftermath of all this.

JENTLESON: The reality of the situation is that you have to clean the wound before you can heal it. We need, as a society, to impose clear consequences on folks who perpetrated this kind of behavior. There's really no way to move forward unless we address these issues head-on and show those who took this action that there are consequences for what they did.

CORNISH: What does it mean to have consequences in a situation like this? Like, you know the Senate. If senators like Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley feel like they are representing their constituents and what they're doing, can anyone in the Senate really say anything about that?

JENTLESON: Listen; for some of these bad actors, in some ways they're getting exactly what they wanted. Josh Hawley, as awful as what he's done has been, he is making a appeal to the hardcore base of the Republican Party. He sent out a fundraising appeal yesterday based on his actions. He may be getting the sort of folk-hero status that he is seeking here. If someone is going to act in that level of bad faith and that is what they want to do with their career and those are the folks that want to appeal to and it works, there's not a whole lot you can do.

However, as a society - and as a party, for the GOP - they can take a clear stance here and say that folks who do this are not going to be welcome in their party. And to not take action is to normalize the actions of folks like Senator Hawley.

CORNISH: One of the striking things about this week was seeing the Confederate flag inside the Capitol, brought in by some of the violent rioters who had broken in. What was that like for you, given the racial history you write about in the book?

JENTLESON: It was incredibly depressing. There is a very ugly racial history underlying the Senate. I think that's true, you know, for so many institutions in American life but, really, especially so for the Senate. So much of the structure of the body itself exists due to concessions to the planter class and the slave power back in the 18th and 19th centuries, and then even through the 20th century, many of the rules that are currently in place that we're operating under were put in place in service of segregation of senators from the South.

In the book, I talk about Richard Russell from Georgia, for whom a Senate office building is still named today, who declared himself, in his own words, that white supremacy was the primary cause of his life and that any man worth his salt would give his all for white supremacy.

CORNISH: In the past, the president-elect, Joe Biden, has made a big deal out of his relationship to the Senate, his relationship with other senators and his ability to move things in a bipartisan direction. What, to you, is the reality of the situation on the ground right now?

JENTLESON: You know, things have changed a lot in recent years, and I think that President Biden spent most of his years in the Senate under very different circumstances. When President Obama was elected, there was still a relatively large number of Republican senators who came from blue states and vice versa. That polarization has really taken hold, specifically in the Senate, in a very firm way just in the last few years.

The reality is that the kind of bipartisan cooperation that used to be normal in the Senate when President Biden was there just doesn't exist anymore. Now the prevailing environment is one of sharp partisan polarization and something called negative partisanship, which is that one side succeeds by making the other side fail. And I think that is a dynamic that paralyzes the institution. Recognizing that and facing that reality front-on is something that President Biden is going to have to do pretty early on in his term.

CORNISH: Adam Jentleson is former deputy chief of staff to Democrat Harry Reid and the author of "Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy." Thank you for your time.

JENTLESON: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.