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 was killed 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, stood on the floor in antidemocratic efforts 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 into thin air come January 20, and the underappreciation of language in American political discourse by traditional media and social media platforms alike only threatens to obscure naming these dangers for what they are.
The gravity of word choice was discarded all too often in the last 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”—“there is blame on both sides,” he said, after a woman was murdered—many media outlets, or pundits for that matter, would still not call Trump “racist” or “antisemitic.” 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—fit this same mold. It took years of Trump’s lies for platforms to apply a mere label to them and 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.