Joe Biden Wants to Heal After Capitol Attack but Americans Can't Even Agree it Was Serious

The January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol was the clearest manifestation yet of America's gaping partisan divide, the culmination of four years under former President Donald Trump in which the two main parties appeared to exist in alternate realities.

Joe Biden vowed to be "a president for all Americans" in his inaugural address, an event protected by a record number of National Guard troops for fear of further action by far-right pro-Trump groups.

The president has urged unity and cooperation. But Republicans are skeptical, fearing Democratic overreach and erosion of constitutional rights.

Biden has his work cut out to bring people together. A recent poll from the Pew Research Center found Americans can't even agree that the January 6 attack on the Capitol was a serious event that warrants serious attention.

Pew surveyed 12,055 nationally-representative U.S. adults between March 1 and 7, finding that a majority of Americans—69 percent—believe it "very important" for law enforcement to find and prosecute those responsible for the Capitol attack.

Eighteen percent consider it "somewhat important," while 12 percent do not think it at all important.

Almost half—47 percent of Americans believe rioters will get penalties less severe than they deserve, with 22 percent thinking sentencing will likely be too harsh.

Forty-eight percent of Americans have a "fair amount" of confidence that law enforcement will deliver justice.

But the partisan divide over the attack—which was condemned by Democratic and Republican lawmakers, though several prominent GOP figures including Trump are accused of inciting the riot—was striking.

Eighty-six percent of Democrats consider it very important to find and prosecute those responsible, versus only half of Republicans.

Sixty-five percent of Democrats expect sentences to be less severe than deserved, compared with only 26 percent of Republicans. Thirty-seven percent of the right-leaning cohort actually expect penalties to be overly harsh.

The FBI is working with other law enforcement bodies to identify and charge those involved in the riots, which includes members of far-right paramilitary and street-fighting groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters.

Experts have warned that the Capitol riot showed hardened extremists working in concert to overturn American democracy and kill or capture lawmakers in the process.

The incident has also prompted calls for new domestic terrorism legislation to make prosecution of extremist groups easier, though this has been met with protests among right-wing lawmakers and civil rights groups.

Recent reports have suggested that some cases against accused rioters may be dropped for a lack of evidence and after political missteps by prosecutors, who have emphasized the strength and severity of evidence beyond what the material shows.

Michael Sherwin, the former head prosecutor on the Capitol cases, told CBS's 60 Minutes this week that some defendants may be charged with sedition, a serious offense that could see the accused jailed for 20 years.

But the sedition charge has not yet been brought against any of the more than 400 people arrested to date, and Reuters reported that U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta threatened a gag order on prosecutors after Sherwin's interview.

Such mistakes are galvanizing right-wing politicians and commentators who are pushing back against the accepted narrative of January 6.

Some high profile Republicans—despite warnings that the riot was a result of years of legitimizing extremists on the right—have remained dismissive or even supportive of the Capitol attackers.

Trump said last week that those who stormed the building posed "zero threat" and "love our country."

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) told a February hearing on the riot that the "jovial, friendly, earnest demeanor of the great majority" only turned sour when police fired tear gas, and blamed the violence on supposed left-wing anarchists disguised as Trump supporters, a claim for which there is no evidence.

Media figures, meanwhile, are also obfuscating the events of January 6, touting the attack as a partisan issue to galvanize the right.

Fox News host Tucker Carlon has accused the Democrats of a "relentless and coordinated" campaign to misrepresent the riot and smear conservatives. Fellow Fox News star Laura Ingraham suggested rioters were merely disguised as Trump fans.

Pew found that 44 percent of Americans believe the Capitol riot is getting enough national attention, but the majority of Republican respondents—54 percent—say the incident is getting too much coverage.

Only eight percent of Democrats agree, with 40 percent saying the attack needs more attention.

The groups involved in the January attack either openly espouse or flirt with fascist, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist ideologies. Racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny permeate such organizations, regardless of their leaders' attempts to re-brand themselves as patriots, anti-authoritarians or "Western chauvinists."

Far-right extremists used walkie-talkies to coordinate movements, hanging back until they identified opportunities to break police lines.

Court documents accuse some members of extremist groups of coordinating with those from other organizations to form a vanguard to push through police barriers and into the Capitol.

The Capitol attack was vindication for the academics, activists, journalists, and politicians who have long warned of the growing threat from America's far-right. Extremist groups have always existed on the fringes of U.S. politics, but recent years have seen the threat "metastasizing" into something new, in the words of FBI Director Christopher Wray.

But Pew found Republicans remain unconvinced about the threat from the right. The GOP remains focused on left-wing violence, whether from those on the fringes of last summer's racial justice protests or from anti-fascist counter-protesters—known as "Antifa"—who routinely try to shut down far-right marches.

Around half of those surveyed agreed that right-wing extremism (52 percent) and left-wing extremism (51 percent) present serious threats. Fewer are concerned about Islamic extremism (37 percent) and Christian extremism (34 percent).

Most Democrats—76 percent—believe right-wing extremism is a serious problem, with a similar number of Republicans saying the same about left-wing extremism. Only 31 percent of Democrats consider left-wing extremism a serious problem, and only 29 percent of Republicans feel the same about right-wing extremism.

Biden wants to unite the country to recover from the coronavirus pandemic but the president must do so with a seriously divided electorate that cannot even agree on where the threat lies.

Protesters at Capitol on January 6
Right-wing protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts