Call Trump’s Scheme What It Is: Autocracy

Yesterday, mobs of President Trump’s supporters encircled and stormed the US Capitol as Congress was confirming incoming president Joe Biden’s election victory. Congress was evacuated as rioters smashed windows and breached the Senate floor; there was evidently an armed standoff, and one woman died after a shooting. Rioters hung a noose on the west side of the building, and law enforcement discovered multiple improvised explosive devices on the grounds.

What happened was first and foremost the fault of Donald Trump and his allies and enablers—his children, his White House aides, his right-wing media amplifiers and cronies, the Republicans who, moments before the Capitol building was invaded, took the floor in an antidemocratic effort to overturn a legitimate and concluded election. Trump in fact spouted his baseless election-theft claims to the crowds earlier that day. It was, in a very dark sense, a team effort, a network of individuals stoking the flames for their leader.

The storming of the Capitol building on Wednesday afternoon—with a full session inside, two weeks from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ inauguration—also showed, yet again, the vital importance of words in describing threats to democracy. These problems will not vanish on January 20, and the under-appreciation of language in American political discourse by traditional media and social media platforms alike only threatens to obscure the very real dangers we face.

The gravity of word choice was ignored all too often in the past four years. After a white supremacist terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, when the president equated anti-racist protesters with right-wing terrorists wearing Nazi insignia and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” Trump said only that “there is blame on both sides,” even after a woman was murdered. Yet many media outlets, or pundits for that matter, would still not call Trump racist or anti-Semitic. We can’t know Trump administration officials’ exact intentions, one political reporter told me.

When Trump lied thousands and thousands of times, in many cases regurgitating the same blatant falsehoods ad nauseam, the same hesitance was applied (at least for a while, for some) to using the word “lie.” Yet as Masha Gessen writes in Surviving Autocracy, “A journalist who assumes that Trump’s intention is unknowable, that repeated false statements—when the truth is indeed knowable—do not, factually, constitute lying, is abdicating the responsibility to tell the story, to provide the context of what happened a year ago, yesterday, or even in parallel with the lying.” It patently defies the reality: continued lying when the truth is widely known. Social media companies calling Trump’s lies “misinformation” instead of “disinformation”—the former projecting a lack of intent, the presence of accident—fits this same mold. It took years of Trump’s lies for platforms to apply a mere label to them, and it took until a coup attempt yesterday for Trump’s Twitter account to be suspended for the first time.

This apathy for rhetorical accuracy—not saying “racist” or “liar,” parading out claims of Trump “being presidential” the second he managed a half-coherent sentence not openly laced with vitriol—contributed to downplaying Donald Trump’s threat to democracy. This was on full display yesterday.

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