Did Trump Incite Violence? To Scholars of Propaganda, There's a Mountain of Evidence | Opinion

Former President Donald's Trump's second impeachment trial is set to begin on Tuesday. Trump is accused of "inciting violence against the government of the United States," and much of the trial will center around whether or not Trump's actions leading up to and on January 6, the day of the fateful Capitol Hill riot that resulted in five deaths, qualified as incitement.

Incitement is a legal term, but it is also subject to interpretation, and Trump's lawyers have already put forward a defense brief arguing that the former president did not "direct anyone to commit unlawful actions."

As a linguist and a philosopher and experts in political propaganda, we beg to differ; we believe that his actions do indeed qualify as incitement.

It's true that words in isolation do not lead to violence. Any analysis of how rhetoric leads to violence must consider the context and background situation, and the Capitol Hill riot on January 6 is no exception. To establish whether incitement took place, we have to ask whether the person accused had the authority to motivate the violent actors.

In this case, the person was the President of the United States.

When the President of the United States makes claims, these claims carry with them enormous authority by virtue of the office of the person issuing them. It has always been thus. At the end of a gladiatorial match, a Roman emperor could signal whether a vanquished gladiator would live or die by the mere positioning of his thumb; if he pointed down, it meant to put the sword down and let the gladiator live, and if the emperor pointed back towards his chest, it meant into his heart.

Capitol Hill riot
Supporters of US President Donald Trump protest inside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

Depending on the authority of the speaker, any word—and any act—can incite violence. But the emperor's thumb enacts killing only in the context of a practice that has been built up over time. So, too, was the violence that took hold of our Capitol on January 6.

Immediately prior to the riot, President Trump held a rally which was designed to produce the Capitol invasion, deploying language and imagery that, like the emperor's thumb, gained their meanings over time.

For months and even years, Trump had been using a timeworn propaganda recipe that never fails: Take a source of grievance, then magnify and redirect it.

Throughout his presidency, Trump has focused on economic loss, both real and perceived, and on violence in America's major cities, both real and perceived, to mobilize lower income Americans, chiefly white ones. He has also made a habit of harping on cultural dissonance conservatives feel in the face of the spread of liberal ideas. More recently, since his presidential loss, Trump fabricated a web of lies in which an unholy alliance of "Democrat run cities," members of the media, political elites and radical leftists stole the election from his supporters. Trump repeated these lies at a truly astonishing rate starting well before the election had even occurred.

But Trump's rhetorical strategy did not merely involve lying. It also made heavy use of the device of presupposition, a technique studied in linguistics that plays a central role in our academic work on meaning and propaganda. It works like this: What people presuppose in their speech slips in under the radar, as if uncontroversial. In her work on memory, the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus showed that presupposition acts so subtly that it can override memories of what people see with their own eyes. For example, in a classic experimental study, researchers showed participants footage of cars colliding. They asked half the participants how fast the cars were going when they "smashed" into each other and the other half how fast they were going when they "hit" each other. Those told the cars had "smashed" into each other reported far greater speeds than those told they had "hit" each other.

As you can see, it's a powerful tool. Advertisers and politicians alike use presuppositions, often described as framings, to represent values and propositions as uncontroversial background information accepted by all. And it's a tool Trump has made much use of.

On a regular basis, Trump presupposes outright falsehoods and framings that undermine the normal democratic process. Trump regularly engages in what is called undermining propaganda in the literature on propaganda. Undermining propaganda dresses up the sabotage of certain ideals as if it were supporting those very ideals. For example, you might say that in the interests of equality and fairness, we must protect white American values. Or in the interests of democracy, we must disregard votes that are not in our interest, because democracy has been compromised by what Trump called on Jan 6 "the scam of mail-in ballots."

Such false claims whip up emotion. But even more effective is Trump's regular trafficking in wartime framing. In his speech on January 6, Trump used the words "fight" or "fighting" twenty times. Trump described Republicans on his side as "warriors," rather than participants in a democratic process. And he described the stakes in existential terms. "And we fight," he said. "We fight like hell. And if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore."

Trump's speech at the rally epitomized Goebbels' maxim that "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." Trump managed to falsely claim 32 times in this single speech that the election was stolen or "taken," and that the vote tally resulted from "illegal" or "unconstitutional" actions. And who did the stealing? It was "stolen by emboldened radical left Democrats... and the fake news media."

Take angry people, make them angrier, pull them into a mob, and fan them with the same flames extremists had been heating them up with over the course of months and years online. Let threats against those who transgress (weak Republicans and Mike Pence, who is going to need "courage" if he does "nothing," per Trump's rally speech) hang in the air. Talk of the country's descent into chaos ("It's a disgrace", "they're all running around like chickens with their heads cut off with [ballot] boxes"). Make it personal: "We will not let them silence your voices." Then direct the mob to the target: Congress. "We're going to the Capitol and we're going to try and give [weak Republicans] the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country."

And off they went. They had seen the emperor's thumb, and they knew what to do.

If there was any opportunism, it was not in the rioting. It was rather in Trump's adoption of methods of propaganda that have been tried and tested the world over, methods that reliably incite violence against a leader's political opposition.

Whether Trump's consistent use of these messages was opportunistic or reflects his deeply held values is irrelevant. What is at issue is whether he engaged in these acts with the aim of inciting violence.

From our perspectives as theorists of political rhetoric, finishing a book on this very subject, the answer is obviously in the affirmative.

Jason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy, and the author of 5 books, most recently How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. His next book, with David Beaver, The Politics of Language, is forthcoming with Princeton UP.

David Beaver is a Professor in the departments of Linguistics and Philosophy, and Director of the Cognitive Science Program, at the University of Texas at Austin. He's the author of two books and over 60 peer reviewed articles and book chapters on meaning in language, and joint founder, and managing editor, of the journal Semantics and Pragmatics.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.