Many top political figures are converging on a stunning consensus: President Donald Trump personally incited a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, leaving four dead and an indelible scar on American democracy. Those assessments are coming not just from Trump’s political opponents, but also from members of his own party and even former members of his administration.
They include Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s first secretary of defense, who said last night that the “effort to subjugate American democracy by mob rule…was fomented by Mr. Trump.” Gen. Joseph Dunford, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Trump, also laid blame on the President. Republican Sen. Mitt Romney directly blamed Trump for last night’s events, and Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois this morning called for the invocation of the 25th Amendment, which gives the Vice President and the cabinet the power to remove an unfit President.
Many Trump staffers and deputies have already resigned, and others have reportedly discussed acting to remove him, largely out of fear that Trump could directly trigger more violence if not removed. White House counsel Pat Cipollone has reportedly urged remaining staffers to not speak to or take orders from Trump to avoid future prosecution for treason.
Trump’s statements leading up to and during the storming of the Capitol building, however, did not include explicit calls for a violent attack on America’s democratic institutions. Instead, those laying blame on Trump are pointing in part to rhetoric that agitated his followers with conspiratorial lies and instilled a sense of imminent doom—while relying on them to make the final decision to act. This is a version of the “stochastic terrorism” tactics common to authoritarian leaders around the world.
In recent weeks, Trump heavily promoted the rally that led directly to the assault on the Capitol. The rally was part of the “Stop the Steal” movement, which, fueled by Trump’s own conspiratorial fantasies, explicitly aimed to halt the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory. On Dec. 19, Trump promised a “big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” Trump promoted the rally again on Dec. 27, Dec. 30, and Jan. 1, in tweets compiled by the New York Times.
At the rally, Trump delivered the same inflammatory rhetoric and false claims that have characterized his entire presidency. For most of an hour, he reiterated claims that the election had been stolen—claims which have been rejected as unfounded by at least 59 courts, including many headed by Trump-appointed judges.
Trump also repeatedly intimated that his followers should take action. Near the beginning of his speech, Trump even made what appeared to be an indirect threat to Vice President Mike Pence, who, Trump incorrectly told his supporters, had the power to overturn the Nov. 3 election results.
“I just talked to Mike [Pence],” Trump told the crowd. “I said, ‘Mike, [overturning the results] doesn’t take courage. What takes courage is to do nothing. That takes courage.’…We’re just not going to let that happen.”
As the speech continued, Trump edged ever closer to calling for direct action by his supporters.
“We will never give up; we will never concede,” Trump said to thunderous applause. “We will stop the steal. We’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, and we’re going to the Capitol…We’re going to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones…the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
Supporters followed Trump’s call to march to the Capitol. Within less than two hours, they had forced their way through barricades, then through the doors of the Capitol building, forcing the evacuation of legislators.
After the takeover of the Capitol building was in full swing, Trump issued a recorded statement ostensibly intended to defuse the violence. Trump was reportedly supposed to speak from a script, but he instead ad-libbed, repeating false claims about election fraud and expressing support for the rioters. Similar improvisation reportedly led to his infamous “many sides” remarks about the 2017 white supremacist riots in Charlottesville, Va.
“We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side,” Trump said in the video, before begrudgingly telling supporters, “You have to go home now. We have to have peace, we have to have law and order.
“There’s never been a time like this where such a thing happened, where they could take it away, from all of us—from me, from you, from our country,” he also said in the recording. “This was a fraudulent election.
“We love you. You’re very special,” he said to supporters even as they marched through the Capitol waving Confederate battle flags. “You’ve seen what happens. You’ve seen the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel. But go home and go home in peace.”
The repeated vague references to a broad cast of nefarious enemies—“they” and “others” who “are so bad and so evil”—is typical of authoritarian tactics for cementing loyalty by invoking powerful but nonspecific threats. Though ostensibly intended to slow violence, Trump’s message was instead rapidly removed from Facebook and other social media platforms over fears that it would make things worse.
Trump’s rhetoric has been leading up to this moment not for weeks or months but years. Trump began building his political base by promoting the racist “birther” conspiracy theory as early as 2011. That theory falsely claimed that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and therefore was not the legitimately elected leader of the nation.
A steady drumbeat of false and conspiratorial claims has continued ever since, amplified many times over by political allies as Trump gained power. It remains to be seen what consequences Trump and his proxies might face, but yesterday’s assault on American democracy was the clear result of their efforts.