“Big Protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
On December 19th, 2020, Donald Trump posted a Tweet that some believe encouraged extremist right-wing groups to prepare for a violent riot at the United States Capitol Building. After the insurrection, which resulted in 5 deaths and hundreds of injuries, federal prosecutors and congressional investigators are examining whether or not Trump’s tweet encouraged his supporters to plan the savage attack. By investigating online chat threads from several right-wing groups such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the Texas Three Percenters, investigators can see that Trump’s supporters viewed his Tweet as a “call to action” for the final fight against the “stolen election”. The violent rhetoric used by these group’s leaders proves that the groups had planned a vicious attack on the Capitol, and investigators wonder if anyone in Trump’s inner circle had correspondence with leaders of the right-wing groups.
Radical right-wing groups pose as a threat to liberal democracy because of their desire to undermine the social contract and by creating increased polarization between parties because of their extremist beliefs. Further, the destruction of liberal democracy leads to immense satisfaction which weakens political parties and allows for more populist leaders to run for office. Since Trump began his campaign for president in 2015, his use of extreme and populist language encouraged right-wing groups to become more active. Further, his lack of condemnation of white supremacists developed a sense that right-wing protestors would face no consequences if they used violence while rioting. For example, after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2018 that resulted in 1 death and several injuries, Trump tweeted that there are “very fine people” on both sides of the protest, essentially refusing to denounce the white supremacists. Trump’s harmful rhetoric came to a head in 2020 when he refused a peaceful transition of power because he believed the election was “stolen”. His radical right-wing supporters were furious, and Trump’s words fueled their fire. After a long cultivation of anger and frustration from his extremist supporters, Trump’s tweet on December 19th instigated the attack that is the apex of democratic erosion in the United States.
The panel of investigators tasked with deciphering who is responsible for the Capitol insurrection sifted through thousands of online chat rooms from radical right-wing groups trying to piece together how the riot was planned. They noted that many users wrote in an “apocalyptic tone”, as if the end of Trump’s presidency would be the end of the United States. According to Mercieca, weaponized rhetoric is used to gain compliance and avoid accountability. Since Trump could not explicitly tell his followers to raid the Capitol with violence, the leaders of the right-wing groups took it upon themselves speak to their respective group members with weaponized rhetoric. They instilled fear in their peers and followers about the future of the United States without Trump and used that fear to provoke action. Steward Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers said that there would be a “massively bloody revolution” if Biden took office. More examples of weaponized rhetoric from the chat rooms include “Bring guns. It’s now or never” and “[confront] members of congress and [carry] firearms during the protest”. One could argue that these words were written by supporters of Trump, not Trump himself, and therefore leaving the former President innocent. However, I argue that throughout his four years of presidency, Trump’s populist and extreme rhetoric encouraged radical right-wing groups to become more outspoken. And when they did and he did not denounce them, they became even more vocal. The members of right-wing groups are more loyal to Trump than any other politician. Guy Wesley Reffitt, the first insurrection defendant to be convicted at trial, posted a Tweet that reads, “Our president will need all of us. ALL OF US…!!! On January 6th. We the People owe him that debt. He sacrificed for us and we must pay that debt”. Since their loyalty to Trump is so strong, they would not organize a riot unless they wholeheartedly believed that it is what Trump would want. For this reason, I believe that Trump’s tweet on December 19th incited the insurrection of the Capitol.
Throughout his four years in office, Trump harmed America’s liberal democracy with his populist and demagogic rhetoric in which he encouraged violence and delegitimized democratic institutions. His time in power concluded with insurrection, possibly the most concerning event regarding the health of the United States democracy, which he instigated with a simple Tweet.
Cineas, F. (2021, January 9). Trump’s history of inciting violence in words and tweets: A timeline from 2015 through the Capitol attack. Vox. https://www.vox.com/21506029/trump-violence-tweets-racist-hate-speech
Feuer, A., Schmidt, M. S., & Broadwater, L. (2022, March 30). New Focus on How a Trump Tweet Incited Far-Right Groups Ahead of Jan. 6. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/29/us/politics/trump-tweet-jan-6.html
Lee, F. (2020). Populism and the American Party System: Opportunities and Constraints. Perspectives on Politics, 18(2), 370-388. DOI:10.1017/S1537592719002664
Lipset, S. M. (1959). Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy. The American Political Science Review, 53(1), 69–105. https://doi.org/10.2307/1951731
Mercieca, J. (2019). Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Comminucation. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 49:3, 264-279, DOI: 10.1080/02773945.2019.1610640