Words matter. The media repeats this ad nauseam, especially regarding President Donald Trump, a man whose speech currently matters more than perhaps that of anyone else. Trump speaks the language of advertising, a famously untrustworthy medium in which everything is a superlative — the biggest or the smallest, the greatest or the worst. Trump’s deadly hyperbole has permeated the entire discourse, and both politicians and the media must be wary of its effects.
The only defense against this surging tide of meaninglessness, which has meaningful consequences, is clear, accurate language. In the last days of Trump’s presidency, commentators and politicians alike have debated and discussed the language used to describe the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Below, I evaluate and critique several terms frequently used to describe the event.
While much of the blame should be laid at Trump’s feet, no one who has seen footage of Wednesday’s events could deny that the U.S. Capitol Police failed miserably. Whether or not they opened the gates for rioters (a disputed, difficult-to-prove claim), they utterly failed to do their job.
That the police, a group riddled with white supremacists and Trump supporters, severely underestimated the fervor and determination of the pro-Trump mob is hardly surprising. That the mob seemed content to snap selfies and raid the Capitol like kids set loose in a gift shop is a lucky break. Had the rioters been anything like the organized militia that many on the left feared would attack after a Trump loss, there could have been hundreds of casualties.
I prefer the term “riot” because it assumes this is a failure of the police, who exist to prevent riots, not coups or insurrections. If the police had been overcome with violent force or outwitted by stealthy infiltrators, things would be slightly different. As it is, they retreated after finding themselves outnumbered and overwhelmed. Had they brought even a fraction of the planning, strategy, gear and manpower that they deployed against Black Lives Matter protests all summer, the rioters would never have made it over the wall. As Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic noted, “better security cannot stop a coup.” No, but it can, and should, stop a riot.
Former President Andrew Johnson’s 1866 “Proclamation on the End of the Confederate Insurrection” declared the Civil War’s end. That milestone did not mean the end of state violence against Black people, which, as last summer’s spate of police brutality demonstrated, continues today.
Comparing this mass of selfie-takers and vandals with the Confederacy is absurd. These people cannot be said to be opposing the state in the way that the Confederacy did. Setting aside the obvious differences in scale, the Confederacy also differed from the loose mob outside the Capitol in its level of organization and its clearly defined hierarchy.
The fact that the Confederate battle flag had actually made its way into the Capitol shocked many people online, who seemed unaware that the building had been home to numerous Confederate statues (including one of Jefferson Davis) for years.
This more accurate term racializes the word “riot,” making it an official expression of white supremacy. With its connotations of decentralized racial violence tacitly condoned by the state, it encapsulates the storming of the Capitol more accurately than any other term used thus far. Back in 2014, Emory Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies Carol Anderson noted that “white rage recurs in American history.” This is merely the latest expression of white supremacy flexing its muscles and testing the limits of its power.
“To call the explosion of the mob that took over the Capitol building an attempted coup, or an insurrection, is unfair to the plotters of coups and insurrections,” Adam Shatz writes in the London Review of Books.
I don’t think I could put it better myself. Comparing Capitol rioter Jake “QAnon Shaman” Angeli to, say, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the man largely responsible for the 1976 U.S.-backed coup against democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende, is reprehensible. The preparation, amount of money spent, viciousness and success of Kissinger’s efforts dwarf the haphazard, meme-filled planning of the Capitol attack.
Any kind of real coup, involving the seizing of power, not just a building, and the murder, not intimidation, of elected officials seems highly unlikely in the U.S., especially given the military’s staunch opposition to Trump.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took to Twitter to disabuse journalists and politicians of the notion that America is such a state. “In a banana republic, mob violence determines the exercise of power,” he wrote. “In the United States, law enforcement officials quash mob violence so that the people’s representatives can exercise power in accordance with the rule of law and constitutional government.” A typical choice of words from the administration that brought us the wonderful phrase “shithole country,” and yet another example of racist American politicians attempting to analogize our very home-grown problems with those of some hazily-defined “third-world” mirage.
Thugs? Terrorists? Both words are fraught with loaded, racialized connotations. Which describes those responsible for last Wednesday’s violence with the accurate severity and gravity? I would be inclined to use the latter, were President-elect Joe Biden not so eager to apply the language of the War on Terror to this very different situation. That Biden, a man who likes the Patriot Act so much that he claims credit for introducing its predecessor, should speak this way is troubling. I think that the word “terrorist,” weighted down with racist, post-9/11 baggage, may be unredeemable. While I would like to see the word applied to the white supremacists it so perfectly describes, I have strong doubts that increased surveillance and state power will be used to do anything but further harass and brutalize people of color.
The U.S. has a long (unfortunately), proud history of using inaccurate terminology long after the truth is out. It’s common knowledge that the Boston Massacre, the Spanish Flu and “enhanced interrogation” are all completely specious phrases, but they maintain their place in our national vocabulary. It’s imperative the media think carefully about the terms they use. Trump’s slippery words cannot become our national language. Ordinary citizens must pay attention to the way we talk about events like the Capitol riot. Our words are our greatest strength. Use them wisely.
Stephen Altobelli (22C) is from Westminster, Massachusetts.