In Adam Schiff’s closing remarks in the first impeachment trial of Donald Trump, he warned, “He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again. He has compromised our elections, and he will do so again… You will not change him. You cannot constrain him. He is who he is.” If Republicans had acknowledged the truth before their eyes not even one year ago, we would not have had an insurrection, five people would not be dead, and Mike Pence would be president today (and maybe next week too). Instead, they chose to do what they have done throughout Trump’s time in the public eye—take him seriously, but not literally.
This recurring argument from Republicans defending Trump over the last half-decade is that the media was being overly critical of him by virtue of taking him literally, but not seriously. This argument was first put forward by Salena Zito in The Atlantic during the campaign, but it has become something of a rhetorical device among Trump’s defenders. Even non-partisan members of the media have adopted this framework for making sense of his most outlandish (and obviously false) claims.
Trump himself is very good at speaking in an ambiguous manner that gives cover to his defenders to claim the more benign interpretation of his remarks was what he intended, while his critics point to the plain (literal) meaning as being highly alarming. Consider, for example, his remarks during the first presidential debate of the 2020 campaign when he responded to a request to denounce white supremacists by telling the Proud Boys (a Southern Poverty Law Center-identified hate group) to “stand back and stand by,” before going on to falsely claim—in the same sentence—that political violence isn’t a right-wing problem.
A plain reading of “stand back and stand by,” clearly suggests that he would like the Proud Boys to stop doing violence right now (stand back) and be ready for future orders (stand by). But even the New York Times (among others) didn’t report this plain reading. After all, he couldn’t possibly have been telling hate groups to “stand by” for future orders, right? (Wrong.) While the NYT headline did note that he, “refus[ed] to categorically denounce white supremacists,” it simply ignored the notion that Trump might have been doing exactly what it seemed like he was doing.
At least a few news organizations wrote up this plainer and more alarming interpretation, including BuzzFeed and the LA Times. Buzzfeed’s is by far the best because it is the only one that even suggests that Trump’s transparent call for future political violence might actually be what’s going on:
“Trump’s comments are part of his campaign’s pattern of dog whistles and overt appeals to violent groups, white supremacists, and his most fervent supporters to take matters into their own hands and defend him and his divisive ideologies at all costs.”
After all, this wasn’t the first time Trump had failed to denounce or actively countenanced political violence. Trump told police, “please don’t be too nice,” with suspected gang members, implying that police slam their heads into patrol cars upon arrest. He described supporters doing violence at his rally as simply “very passionate.” In the same debate referenced above, he encouraged his supporters to show up at the polls to “watch” what’s going on. The “menacingly” part was clearly implied but unstated.
And it’s not as if Trump supporters previously driven to violence hadn’t cited him as part of the reason they were doing what they were doing. The terrorists who sent explosives to the media and prominent Democrats, attacked a mosque in New Zealand, and killed 23 people in El Paso all cited Trump favorably as strong influences in their politics.
In the wake of the attempted coup last week, Ezra Klein returned to the theme of whether to take Trump literally or seriously.
“For Republican elites, this was a helpful two-step. If Trump’s words were understood as layered in folksy exaggeration and schtick — designed to trigger media pedants, but perfectly legible to his salt-of-the-earth supporters — then much that would be too grotesque or false to embrace literally could be carefully endorsed at best and ignored as poor comedy at worst. And Republican elites could walk the line between eviscerating their reputations and enraging their party’s leader, all while blaming the media for caricaturing Trumpism by reporting Trump’s words accurately.”
Trump’s Republican colleagues taking him seriously and his supporters taking him literally “collided in spectacular fashion” during the insurrection.
“Inside the building, a rump of Republican senators, led by Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, were leading a feckless challenge to the Electoral College results. They had no pathway to overturning the results and they knew it. They had no evidence that the results should be overturned and they knew it. And they did not act or speak like they truly believed the election had been stolen. They were there to take Trump’s concerns seriously, not literally, in the hopes that his supporters might become their supporters in 2024. But at the same time, Trump was telling his supporters that the election had actually been stolen, and that it was up to them to resist. And they took him literally. They did not experience this as performative grievance; they experienced it as a profound assault.” (Emphases mine)
All of which brings us to the question of Trump’s culpability in inciting an insurrectionist mob to violently attack Vice President Pence and members of Congress. Watching House Republicans defend his actions this Wednesday in the debate about impeachment, it was clear they are still relying on the two-step Klein describes.
Comically, Congressman Brian Mast (R, FL-03) asked rhetorically whether any protesters claimed to be doing Trump’s bidding. Uhhh, yes! As the video clips insurrectionists filmed of themselves, interviews of insurrectionists by news teams, and criminal complaints filed in court attest, many of the insurrectionists explicitly cited Trump’s call to “stop the steal” as the reason for their participation.
This through-line—from Trump’s general calls for violence, to myriad false claims about the outcome of the election, to his proximate urging of people to congregate and “fight like hell,” to the fact that the insurrectionists themselves cited Trump as the reason for their actions—is all meticulously documented in the House Judiciary Committee report on Impeachment.
If you have not read this document, I would encourage you to do so. It not only paints a convincing argument for the need to impeach and remove quickly, but also to bar Trump from holding future office (something his conviction in the Senate, even after the transfer of power on Wednesday would accomplish). Furthermore, it explains that the bar for criminal culpability is separate from the bar for impeachment, and that the Brandenburg test—the Supreme Court’s definition of what constitutes incitement—while applicable to criminal proceedings, is not the bar for impeachment. In other words, just because Trump’s language may not meet the criminal standard for incitement does not mean he can not or should not be impeached for his words and actions that clearly contributed to the violent insurrection.
As Schiff warned one year ago, Trump betrayed our national security again, and he tried to compromise our elections again. There was a very real threat that the insurrectionists could have physically harmed or killed multiple elected officials. And the second impeachment also cites Trump’s phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensburger in which Trump asks him to “find the votes.”
The fact that Schiff’s warning went unheeded by Republicans—comically so in the case of Senator Susan Collins who claimed Trump had “learned his lesson”—makes it all the more important that Republicans acknowledge the evidence before their eyes. The longer they delay in making it clear to the American people that there was no steal, no fraud, no usurpation of power, the more likely additional political violence becomes.
Always read Adam Serwer. At The Atlantic, he wrote both about how white supremacy is woven into America’s democratic history (a better version of what I wrote last week) and about the class composition of the insurrectionists.
At The New Republic, Osita Nwanevu wrote about the importance of Democrats not missing out on the opportunity to build American democracy anew (as happened after Reconstruction).
At Politico, former National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill wrote about why we should be talking about the insurrection as a coup attempt.