Yesterday, mobs of President Trump’s supporters encircled and stormed the US Capitol as Congress was confirming incoming president Joe Biden’s election victory. Congress was evacuated as rioters smashed windows and breached the Senate floor; there was evidently an armed standoff, and one woman died after a shooting. Rioters hung a noose on the west side of the building, and law enforcement discovered multiple improvised explosive devices on the grounds.
What happened was first and foremost the fault of Donald Trump and his allies and enablers—his children, his White House aides, his right-wing media amplifiers and cronies, the Republicans who, moments before the Capitol building was invaded, took the floor in an antidemocratic effort to overturn a legitimate and concluded election. Trump in fact spouted his baseless election-theft claims to the crowds earlier that day. It was, in a very dark sense, a team effort, a network of individuals stoking the flames for their leader.
The storming of the Capitol building on Wednesday afternoon—with a full session inside, two weeks from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ inauguration—also showed, yet again, the vital importance of words in describing threats to democracy. These problems will not vanish on January 20, and the under-appreciation of language in American political discourse by traditional media and social media platforms alike only threatens to obscure the very real dangers we face.
The gravity of word choice was ignored all too often in the past four years. After a white supremacist terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, when the president equated anti-racist protesters with right-wing terrorists wearing Nazi insignia and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” Trump said only that “there is blame on both sides,” even after a woman was murdered. Yet many media outlets, or pundits for that matter, would still not call Trump racist or anti-Semitic. We can’t know Trump administration officials’ exact intentions, one political reporter told me.
When Trump lied thousands and thousands of times, in many cases regurgitating the same blatant falsehoods ad nauseam, the same hesitance was applied (at least for a while, for some) to using the word “lie.” Yet as Masha Gessen writes in Surviving Autocracy, “A journalist who assumes that Trump’s intention is unknowable, that repeated false statements—when the truth is indeed knowable—do not, factually, constitute lying, is abdicating the responsibility to tell the story, to provide the context of what happened a year ago, yesterday, or even in parallel with the lying.” It patently defies the reality: continued lying when the truth is widely known. Social media companies calling Trump’s lies “misinformation” instead of “disinformation”—the former projecting a lack of intent, the presence of accident—fits this same mold. It took years of Trump’s lies for platforms to apply a mere label to them, and it took until a coup attempt yesterday for Trump’s Twitter account to be suspended for the first time.
This apathy for rhetorical accuracy—not saying “racist” or “liar,” parading out claims of Trump “being presidential” the second he managed a half-coherent sentence not openly laced with vitriol—contributed to downplaying Donald Trump’s threat to democracy. This was on full display yesterday.
Immediately following election day in November, Trump began filing legally baseless challenges to ballot counts in multiple states, nothing more than an authoritarian ploy to seize power by whatever means possible. Again, imprecise descriptions of the scheme—a “sideshow,” a “distraction,” the mere temper tantrum of a man who cannot accept loss—downplayed its autocratic nature and its violence-inspiring force. For if it was a “sideshow,” he devoted many hours of his time, as did countless enablers in Washington and country-wide, to convincing supporters to believe in the “fraud” and donate money to steal the election in the courts. If it was a “distraction,” it certainly captivated those angry individuals plotting violence on right-wing forums and organizing yesterday’s events on social media platforms weeks in advance. If it was a temper tantrum, it was conducted by an adult, was aided by other adults, and inspired other adults to violence in the nation’s capital.
Before Facebook finally suspended Trump’s account today until after the inauguration, the company, run by a man supposedly hell-bent on “connecting people,” froze comments on internal forums where horrified employees called for that action. Even on multiple TV networks yesterday, the individuals mobbing Congress to steal an election were for a period called “protesters”—as if they were, in fact, merely protesting and championing a legitimate cause—rather than terrorists wielding violence for political objectives. “Anarchists,” too, was a word tossed around, almost flippantly, to characterize the crowd—instead of the authoritarianism of absolute deference to a single individual. Perhaps most disturbingly, the word “surprise” reared its head on more than one occasion, as an observation of both the events unfolding and of security responses to them, despite months of evidence that Trump’s rhetoric, and his supporters’ fury, was very much not a sideshow.
Authorities managed to clear and secure the Capitol building, but the removal of these individuals does not mean the public, the media included, should stop interrogating the reality of authoritarianism in America. Make no mistake—there will be Trump allies and enablers, former staffers and members of the Republican Party, who will try to downplay their involvement, to distort the record of what unfolded, to use their last-minute half-rebukes of violence as absolution for all their behavior that came before.
All this means that language isn’t important solely for framing future internal threats to democracy, offline and online. Words matter in this historical context too, and we should never stop interrogating that.
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