An honest propagandist for any Cause, that is, one who honestly studies and figures our the most effective way of putting over his Message, will learn fairly early that it is not fair to ordinary folks—it just confuses them—to try to make them swallow all the true facts that would be suitable to a higher class of people. And one seemingly small but almighty important point he learns, if he does much speechifying, is that you can win over folks to your point of view much better in the evening, when they are tired out from work and not so likely to resist you, then at any other time of the day.
Zero Hour, Berzelius Windrip
Sinclair Lewis, IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE, New American Library (republished 2005), p. 180.
Fearing mob violence, insurrection, and the erosion of democratic norms – consequences of Benito Mussolini’s and Adolph Hitler’s propaganda, and indulgence in unrelenting and unbridled repletion of alternative facts – Sinclair Lewis wrote his 1935 tour de force dystopian novel, IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE, depicting the slow-burning rise of an American dictator in the ilk of Il Duce and Der Führer.
Lewis, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, had good reason to be concerned – aside from what he saw happening in Europe. Media mogul William Randolph Hearst, fond of engaging in incendiary propaganda, had defined Americanism in Trumpian style (here I am thinking of when US President Trump called the racist, anti-Semitic, Confederate-flag-waving, Ku Klux Klan Chanting demonstrators “very fine people”):
Whenever you hear a prominent American called “fascist”, you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a LOYAL CITIZEN WHO STANDS FOR AMERICANISM.
Watching the assault on Capitol Hill and desecration of the US Congress, the citadel of the US’s democracy, who would have believed that this was the United States of America? Who would have thought that it could happen here – in the US? It was not a coup. No dictator emerged. At dawn, the Republic was still intact, though marred, bruised, tested, weakened, humbled and humiliated.
What the world witnessed on January 6th was an attempted soft coup – the manipulation and agitation of a mob, with use of incendiary rhetoric and weaponized words, whipping them into a frenzy to intimidate legislators into undermining and delegitimizing the results of the 2020 US Presidential elections. When the sycophantic, cheerleading, and up until then, unfailingly loyal Vice President Mike Pence opted to comply with the US Constitution in lieu of doing President Trump’s bidding in effecting a procedural coup, President Trump commanded his mob to march to and – wink wink nod nod – storm the halls of Congress.
Egging on his gathered faithful, after first feeding them fantastical falsehoods of voter fraud and election theft, he urged them to march to the Capitol to stop the steal of his delusional electoral victory.
President Trump had been priming the thuggish elements of his base with lies and rhetoric, declaring well before the election that if he did not win, it was because of massive voter fraud. Insinuating through sloganeering the advent of inescapable violence rather than the peaceful transition of power should he loose, President Trump turned many of his followers already prone to hooliganism, racism, and intolerance, into opportunistic rioters, ready to spring into action upon command.
President Trump was not calling for a peaceful march, or for a simple trespass on government property for a peaceful sit-in. No. He primed the mob well in advance that something spectacular would occur on January 6 in Washington, D.C. – the day when the election of Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Kamala Harris as President and Vice President respectively, would formally and conclusively be certified by both houses of Congress sitting in joint session.
Lewis predicted the possibilities of Trumpism, where a charismatic leader through fearmongering and fear-instilling tactics, and through media echo-chambers, acting like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, would lead his followers into an anarchic abyss. Lewis was not alone. The late Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Roth also warned us in his 2004 dark masterpiece, The Plot Against America:
To have enslaved America with this hocuspocus! To have captured the mind of the world’s greatest nation without uttering a single word of truth! Oh, the pleasure we must be affording the most malevolent man on earth!
Seemingly, President Trump is the leader and orchestrator of this violent mob. He had de facto command and control over them. They followed his tacit commands. His words gave way to action, and that action led to crimes. The superior responsibility criteria seem to have been met – de facto is as good as de jure.
As for incitement, it may be useful to consider Professor Richard Ashby Wilson’s checklist of factors based on persuasion and political communication, in his excellent book Incitement on Trial: prosecuting international speech crimes (reviewed here):
- The speaker occupies an official position of authority.
- The speaker is perceived as credible by his/her audience.
- The speaker is perceived as charismatic by his/her audience.
- The speaker is adept at summoning up pre-existing cultural symbols and narratives to cultivate historical grievances.
- The speaker makes dehumanizing references, refers to past atrocities, and calls for revenge against the out-group.
- The speaker uses intense language replete with vivid images, graphic metaphors, and exaggerations.
- His or her speech is experienced as “powerful” by an audience.
- The message of the speaker is repeated across a variety of mass communications formats, from radio to television to Twitter.
- The speaker wields a monopoly on the means of communication or can censor and suppress information.
- The emotional state of the audience is affected by wider circumstances of insecurity and uncertainty.
- His or her speech arouses fear by labelling a direct threat and then identifying a distinct and foreseeably violent course of action that can be taken by the audience to remove the source of that threat.
Considering all facts and viewing how the events unfolded, the hallmarks of conspiracy to commit sedition and incitement of insurrection are arguably present. Whether any of the above factors listed by Professor Wilson are relevant, and if yes, whether President Trump’s conduct meet any of them, and whether he and others committed or attempted to commit any crimes (during a conspiracy or otherwise), I leave it to others to draw any conclusions. A comprehensive, objective investigation is necessary. Let the cards fall where they may. If the agitator-in-Chief, his family members, and other close minions (here I am thinking of his lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and others) are responsible for any crimes, they should be held to account.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that President Trump is guilty of any crimes. If charged, he deserves his full day in court – like everyone else. In any event, I am not trying to ascribe guilt. Rather, I want to emphasize a simple and undisputed fact: words matter. Depending on who is speaking and the choice of words that are used, serious consequences can flow.
The Republic survived, but at what cost. Blood was spilled. Five lives were lost over words that turned into destructive, dangerous, deadly action. Had the mob been armed – as they have been on other occasions – who knows what loss of life we would be mourning.