Donald Trump’s Speech At The Capitol Didn’t Specifically Call For Violence
The more I read about the events which led to last week’s attack on the Capitol, the more I’m reminded of one of my favourite 90s movies, Falling Down. The story follows a man, named William Foster, through a series of increasingly violent events.
When he gets into a petty argument over his change in a convenience store, the owner pulls out a baseball bat. William wrestles the bat away from him, smashes up the store, takes the change (and a Coke), and leaves.
As he sits quietly drinking his Coke, two gang members pull out a knife and try to rob him. William uses the baseball bat to chase them off and slips the knife into his pocket.
When the same gang members track him down, this time with two of their friends and a gym bag full of guns, they crash their car as they try to get revenge. William shoots the only surviving gang member in the leg and takes the guns.
Step by step, the violence — and the weaponry used to cause it — continues to escalate, until eventually…well, I won’t give away the ending.
The point is, that at almost every step along the way, William’s actions are, if not correct, understandable. Events conspire against him. Strangers treat him unfairly and even attack him for no reason.
When the story reaches its climax, there’s no single moment to blame for what happens. It’s the accumulation of a thousand little things. William was already on the brink. In the end, it didn’t take much to send him over it.
Last night, Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, posted a lengthy thread about the decision to ban Donald Trump from his platform. Here’s how it starts:
“I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter, or how we got here. After a clear warning we’d take this action, we made a decision with the best information we had based on threats to physical safety both on and off Twitter. Was this correct?
I believe this was the right decision for Twitter. We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety. Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all.”
The replies to Jack’s thread are dominated by people (many of whom claim they don’t support Trump) arguing that Donald Trump can’t be held directly responsible. “Where were the calls for violence in his speech?” asked one. “There are plenty of users who say much worse,” said another. “Stick it up your ass Comrade Jack!” suggested a third.
And the thing is, they have a point. Sure, there are a few oblique references to “fighting like hell” and “taking back the country”, in his speech, but that’s not particularly inflammatory given the state of today’s political rhetoric. Trump didn’t say anything on Twitter that he hasn’t said countless times in the days and weeks following the election. He certainly didn’t tell anybody to storm into the Capitol and tie a noose around Mike Pence’s neck.
If Trump’s mob hadn’t decided to storm the Capitol, it’s unlikely that any of us would be talking about his comments at all. He’d still be on Twitter lying about election fraud, and we’d still be living in a world where no U.S. president had been such an unmitigated disaster that they were impeached twice in a single term.
But what those commenters are failing to see, is that no single speech or tweet could ever have caused the events we saw on January 6th. There’s no turn of phrase so inflammatory, no tweet so reprehensible, no lie so outlandish, that it could induce a mob to storm the Capitol. Influence like that takes time. It takes familiarity. It takes a group of people who have been conditioned to accept your lies.
In a recent article in Scientific American, forensic psychologist Bandy X Lee describes the effect Trump has on his followers:
Shared psychosis […] refers to the infectiousness of severe symptoms that goes beyond ordinary group psychology. When a highly symptomatic individual is placed in an influential position, the person’s symptoms can spread through the population through emotional bonds, heightening existing pathologies and inducing delusions, paranoia and propensity for violence — even in previously healthy individuals. The treatment is removal of exposure.
The decision to ban Trump from Twitter wasn’t about the removal of a specific tweet or the content of a single speech, it was about the removal of exposure. The exposure was allowed to continue for long enough that his followers were already primed to commit violence. The only surprise is that something terrible didn’t happen sooner.
The people arguing that Donald Trump’s speech didn’t specifically incite violence are correct. They’re also being either wilfully or accidentally stupid. Events like those we saw on January 6th don’t happen because of one thing. There’s never going to be a single inciting incident you can point to and say this is what caused an atrocity to happen.
Can anybody point to the tweet which made the 9/11 terrorists fly planes into towers full of innocent people? What were the exact words that motivated James Fields Jr to drive his car into a peaceful protest in Charlottesville? What was the specific lie that inspired Dylann Roof to kill nine people in a church in Charleston? These questions are ridiculous because we know that the mindset which led to these atrocities took years to foment.
For five years, Donald Trump has been proving to his supporters that he can do whatever he wants and get away with it. He’s convinced them that their country is being stolen from them by a rigged and corrupt system. He’s told them that they’re special and that he loves them when they commit violence.
None of these things was responsible for the attack, but each of them marked a step in an increasingly troubling series of events. Trump’s speech wasn’t the most incendiary I’ve ever heard. It almost certainly wasn’t the most incendiary speech he’s ever given. But not every push needs to be a shove. Trump has spent the last five years nudging his supporters towards the brink. In the end, it didn’t take much to send them over it.