Former President Donald Trump’s legal team is expected to take a unique -- and dishonest -- approach to defending him in his second Senate impeachment trial. In addition to absurdly claiming that Trump is cleared by evidence that some of the January 6 insurrectionists had planned the Capitol attack in advance, his team will try to shift the focus to comments made by Democrats. Some Democrats have said things that could incite violence, Trump’s legal team purports, and to hold Trump accountable for his actions would be to open the door for Democrats to be held responsible for what they have said.
This tactic, which usually relies on misrepresenting what was actually said, should be extremely familiar to anyone who watches Fox News.
Right-wing media outlets regularly broadcast and publish segments and stories that promote violence. And when called on this, they often pivot to arguing that Democrats do it, too.
Throughout his political career, Trump has been accused of inciting violence. In the days after the Capitol insurrection, Vox published a lengthy overview of Trump’s rhetoric. Examples included Trump’s 2015 comment about the assault of a protester at one of his rallies, “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing,” as well as a 2016 instruction to rally attendees that they should “knock the crap out of” people who may have been planning to throw tomatoes at him. “Seriously. Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. There won’t be so much of them because the courts agree with us.”
In May 2020, ABC News catalogued 54 instances of Trump-inspired violence.
Much of what Trump has said over the years is hard to defend. Instead of trying, right-wing media have instead focused on perceived instances of Democrats saying things with the potential to incite violence. But most of the examples right-wing outlets have pointed to are false, exaggerated, or taken out of context.
For instance, while running for president in 2019, Joe Biden was asked how he planned to advance his legislative agenda as president, particularly if Republicans retained control of the Senate. He responded with his usual straightforward call for finding common ground and reaching across the aisle. And he ended his response by urging people not to lose hope that change could happen, saying, “If you start off with the notion there is nothing you can do, then why don’t you all go home, then, man? Or let’s start a real, physical revolution if you are talking about it. Because we have to be able to change what we are doing within our system.”
Some in right-wing media, such as the Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra, claimed that Biden had called for a revolution -- which was actually the opposite of what Biden had said. Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel, who was at the same event, pushed back on the false characterization of Biden’s remarks.
In October 2018, while speaking to a group of Georgia Democrats, former Attorney General Eric Holder riffed on Michelle Obama’s famous “when they go low, we go high” line from the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Holder was talking about the need to push back against voter suppression efforts when he said, “Michelle always says, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ No. No. When they go low, we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about. We’re proud as hell to be Democrats. We’re willing to fight for the ideals of the Democratic Party.”
In case it wasn’t entirely evident from the context of Holder’s line, he’d later add during that speech, “Now, when I say, you know, ‘we kick ‘em,’ I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate. We don’t do anything illegal. But we’ve got to be tough and we’ve got to fight for the very things that John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, you know, all those folks gave to us. That stuff can be taken away. That’s what they want to do.”
But over the course of several days, Fox News and other right-wing media outlets would strip Holder’s quote from context and act as though he was calling on Democrats to literally kick Republicans. It was fake outrage born of a bad faith interpretation. Still, the rage fodder worked in that it provided content for right-wing media to promote.
Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs called Holder an “illustrious thug.” Fox & Friends hosted Trump, who actually had the audacity to call Holder’s comment a “dangerous statement” before claiming that Republicans “are exactly opposite” of Democrats. Trump said his rallies were “really calm and well-run” and tried to blame instances of violence on “paid protesters” sent in by Democrats and George Soros.
While speaking to a small crowd of people in June 2018, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) urged people to protest and confront Trump administration officials in public over the recently implemented family separation policy:
Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. And if you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere. We’ve got to get the children connected to their parents.
We don’t know what damage has been done to these children. All that we know is they’re in cages. They’re in prisons. They’re in jails. I don’t care what they call it, that’s where they are and Mr. President, we will see you every day, every hour of the day, everywhere that we are to let you know you cannot get away with this.
Trump and Republicans immediately recontextualized Waters’ comments as a call “for harm to supporters, of which there are many, of the Make America Great Again movement.”
But just days earlier, the owner of a Virginia restaurant had asked White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to leave, sparking days of discussion about civility (and somewhat ironically, a series of extremely uncivil protests outside the restaurant by Trump supporters). In that context, it is perfectly clear what Waters was calling for: social consequences and perhaps a bit of rudeness to people who work within the administration, not violence.
Whether one agrees with what she said or not — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Waters’ comments “unacceptable” — it’s a major stretch to act as though Waters was trying to incite violence, though that didn’t stop right-wing media.
In June 2017, after a gunman shot and wounded five people during a baseball practice of congressional Republicans, right-wing media jumped at the chance to try to link the attack back to Democrats and the left. Among those blamed by right-wing media for the shooting were President Barack Obama, who once quoted the movie The Untouchables, referencing an obvious metaphor when he said, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun”; former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who had urged people not to give up hope in the face of Trump’s election and noted that people marched, bled, and even died for the progress we’ve made as a country; Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who had urged people to “fight in Congress, fight in the courts, fight in the streets, fight online, fight at the ballot box”; the Russia investigation; and the mainstream media.
Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans and right-wing media leaned into efforts to brand Democrats as the party of violent mobs.
“Jobs not mobs” became an unofficial slogan for Republicans ahead of the 2018 midterms after a supercut of angry protesters was posted to the pro-Trump “r/The_Donald” subreddit. Pro-Trump media’s closing pitch to audiences essentially boiled down to an attempt to convince voters that Democrats want to actually kill Trump supporters.
The pitch was weak and largely unsupported by evidence, and it showed. Fox & Friends resorted to claiming that actor Alec Baldwin was advocating violent revolution after he made comments that were clearly about urging people to get out and vote.
Baldwin said, “The way we implement change in America is through elections. We change governments here at home in an orderly and formal way. And in that orderly and formal way and lawful way, we need to overthrow the government of the United States under Donald Trump.”
Nevertheless, Fox News omitted the portions of Baldwin’s quote where he specified that he was talking about elections.
It’s unsurprising that Trump’s legal team looks to adopt this right-wing media trope for the impeachment trial, but there’s an important lesson to be learned.
During day one of Trump’s trial, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) explained the thought process behind this conservative strategy:
Apparently, they think this will establish some sort of equivalency, or that it will show, in contrast, that President Trump’s statements at the Save America rally weren’t so bad. Like so much of what President Trump’s lawyers might say today, that’s a gimmick; that’s a parlour game meant to inflame partisan hostility and play on our divisions.
So let me be crystal clear: President Trump was not impeached because the words he used, viewed in isolation, without context, were beyond the pale. Plenty of other politicians have used strong language. But Donald J. Trump was president of the United States. He sought to overturn a presidential election that had been upheld by every single court to consider it. He spent months insisting to his base that the only way he could lose was a dangerous, wide-ranging conspiracy against them and America itself.
To Cicilline’s point, there’s always been a real effort on the part of right-wing media to distort what people are angry about or criticizing. The issue in this case is not simply that Trump told people at his rally to “fight” for him. Politicians use the term “fight” in all sorts of figurative ways all the time. For instance, Biden said that he would “beat [Trump] like a drum” in the 2020 election. When backed into a corner, conservative media like to pretend not to understand context.
But the context in this case is clear: Trump spent months lying to his millions of supporters, telling them that the election had been stolen from him, and he urged them to get it back even after he’d exhausted every one of his legal options. Whether he sent them to the Capitol with the hope or expectation of violence is immaterial. He, like everyone watching in the months leading up to that moment, knew just how easily things could go wrong, and yet he continued to push his conspiracy theories anyway.
Mainstream media, politicians, and every politically engaged person needs to understand what it is that right-wing media are trying to do when they make these arguments. They want to distract from the task at hand. They want to foment anger. They want to sidestep the consequences of their actions.