Words Matter, but Context Matters More: Dangerous Speech and the Capitol Riots

Donald Trump’s lawyers tried to defend him against charges of inciting the Capitol riot by arguing that many Democrats had used the same words as Trump. During the impeachment trial, David Schoen, one of Trump’s lawyers, even played a 10-minute video montage of prominent Democrats using the word “fight” in public.

But it’s not the same. When Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said “we stand up, and we fight back,” or when Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said “we’re going to keep fighting,” they didn’t increase the chances that anyone would storm a building, because the contexts were utterly different from that in which Trump spoke.

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Dangerous speech – speech that can increase the risk that its audience will condone or commit violence against members of another group – can never be captured in a list of words;[1] context is always vital. Many of those who attended Trump’s “Save America” rally on January 6th and heard his words were already primed to understand “fight” to mean that they must defend their country against destruction. They got that idea from sources like the white supremacist novel The Turner Diaries by William Luther Pierce, and others that frame Trump supporters as valiant defenders of America, like the 18th century colonists who fought off British tyranny.

In the The Turner Diaries, members of an anti-government group called “the Organization” publicly lynch white people they see as “race traitors,” such as journalists and politicians, on the so-called “day of the rope.”[2] In another scene, members of the Organization attack the U.S. Capitol. The 1978 novel has inspired violence before, most notably the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing,[3] and is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the “bible of the racist right.”[4]

Between the November election that Trump lost and January 6th, the day when his loss was formally confirmed, the term “the day of the rope” abounded on Twitter and on militant message boards,[5] and people said they were looking forward to that imminent day.  One Twitter user wrote on January 2, “here’s to a new Holiday! January 6th: The day of the rope!!!”[6]

There were other notable references as well. For example, on November 13th, a Staten Island, New York man was arrested after threatening on social media to kill Democrats and government officials as retaliation for the 2020 election, writing “the Turner Diaries must come to life.”[7] In December, a journalist posted a video of members of the Proud Boys, a far-right, neo-fascist group, telling him to “read The Turner Diaries.”[8] Prosecutors have since alleged that the Proud Boys were largely responsible for orchestrating the storming of the Capitol.[9]

Allusions to the American Revolution were also prominent on social media before January 6, and in the rioting crowd on that day. References to 1776, the year when the American Declaration of Independence was signed, greatly increased on Parler, a social media site frequented by Trump supporters, on and after the November election.[10] On the 6th, rioters wore clothing emblazoned with “1776”[11] and some carried the flag of the “Three Percenters,”[12] an anti-government group formed around the “dubious historical claim that only 3 percent of American colonists fought against the British during the War of Independence.”[13] Prior to the riot, Reps Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and  Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who are Trump loyalists,  both referred to the 6th as Republicans’ “1776 moment,” and earlier that day, Representative Jody Hice from Georgia tweeted “What is done today will be remembered! This is our 1776 moment.”[14]

Within that context, Trump’s statement on the 6th that, “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” was dangerous. Those who saw January 6th as their “1776 moment” saw it as their responsibility to protect their country. For many Trump supporters, this notion was  familiar. For years, Trump told his supporters that it was their job – as patriots – to defend America from the encroaching threats of immigrants, Muslims, and Democrats. Trump had framed this responsibility with martial language before.  In June of 2020, for example, the Trump campaign sent out a fundraising email to supporters, addressing them as people who would “make an excellent addition to the Trump army.”[15]

Narratives of valiant, violent revolution, combined with Trump’s own rhetoric, allowed rioters to see their actions as morally justified, even necessary, in order to protect their country.  Jonathan Leader Maynard, who studies the role of ideology in collective political violence, coined the term “virtuetalk” to describe situations like this, where participating in violence is framed as a demonstration of “the laudable character of the perpetrator,” connecting violent action with notions of courage, duty, and vigilance.[16]

In this case, the rioters saw themselves as patriots fighting traitors, so their violence was noble. When Trump warned them that if they did not fight, they weren’t “going to have a country anymore,” they believed it. For devotees of The Turner Diaries and believers in the guiding myths of groups like the 3 percenters, the idea of America felt as precarious as it was in 1776, and when their leader told they must “fight,” to defend it, they did.


[1] https://dangerousspeech.org/guide/

[2] ADL. 2021. “Day of the Rope.” https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/day-of-the-rope

[3] Thomas, Jo. 2001. “Behind a Book that Inspired McVeigh.”The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2001/06/09/us/behind-a-book-that-inspired-mcveigh.html

[4] Jackson, Camille. 2004. “The Turner Diaries, Other Racist Novels, Inspire Extremist Violence.” Southern Poverty Law Center. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2004/turner-diaries-other-racist-novels-inspire-extremist-violence

[5] Neilson, Susie and Morgan McFall-Johnsen. 2021.“Several groups of extremists stormed the Capitol on Wednesday. Here are some of the most notable individuals, symbols, and groups.” Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/hate-symbols-and-extremist-groups-at-the-us-capitol-siege-2021-1

[6] https://twitter.com/tarichar88/status/1345382319239135233

[7] “NYC man allegedly made death threats against people celebrating election outcome” 2020. Eyewitness News ABC 7. https://abc7ny.com/brian-maiorana-staten-island-man-arrested-threats-election/7841391/

[8] https://twitter.com/tankgirl161/status/1339127345286934528

[9] Hsu, Spencer. 2021. “U.S. alleges Proud Boys planned to break into Capitol on Jan. 6 from many different points.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/legal-issues/proud-boys-leader-capitol-riot/2021/03/02/0ca15138-7aed-11eb-85cd-9b7fa90c8873_story.html

[10] Kunzelman, Michael and Amanda Seitz. 2021. “Dozens charged in Capitol riots spewed extremist rhetoric. AP.

[11] Washington Post Staff. 2021. “Identifying far-right symbols that appeared at the U.S. Capitol riot.” Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/interactive/2021/far-right-symbols-capitol-riot/

[12] SImon, Mallory and Sara Sider. 2021. “Decoding the extremist symbols, groups at the Capitol Hill insurrection.” ABC11News. https://abc11.com/capitol-riot-the-insurrection-act-extremist-symbols/9535204/

[13] Southern Poverty Law Center. “Antigovernment Movement.” https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/antigovernment

[14] So, Linda; Andrea Januta; and Mike Berens. 2021. “Off-duty cops, other officials face reckoning after rallying for Trump in D.C.” Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-protest-officials-insight/off-duty-cops-other-officials-face-reckoning-after-rallying-for-trump-in-d-c-idUSKBN29I315

[15] Grady, Constance. 2020. “The bizarrely aggressive rhetoric of Trump’s fundraising emails, explained.” Vox. https://www.vox.com/culture/21440412/trump-emails-campaign-fundraising-rhetoric-explained

[16] Leader Maynard, Jonathan. 2014. “Rethinking the role of ideology in mass atrocities.” Terrorism and Political Violence, 26(5), 821-841.p.17