The impeachment trial asks whether the president can be held responsible for the violence he incited others to do. While the attack at the US Capitol is the violence under consideration now, Trump supporters used the same defense of their effort to blow up an apartment complex, mosque, and other buildings in October 2016, a month before Trump’s presidential win. Three men calling themselves “Crusaders” planned an Oklahoma City-style bombing in Garden City, Kansas, one they hoped would kill the Muslim immigrants who work in the city’s meatpacking industry. In their defense, they argued that they were under the influence of Trump, who espoused anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas in his campaign. In other words, Trump has been inciting domestic terrorism since before he was president, and, in the end, his followers blamed him for their actions. Will it work this time?
A number of people bear responsibility for last month’s attack on the US Capitol, which include an effort to hunt down and murder House Representatives: the insurrectionists themselves; the Trump company, profiteers who encourage domestic terrorism because it pushes his brand–and drives up their profits; social media platforms that permit domestic terrorists to organize using their online space; capitol police who chose to fail in their duties; seditionist Republicans who refused to recognize the result of a fair election since November; and the fascist collaborators in Congress who provided reconnaissance to murdering invaders.
And Donald Trump. Despite his impeachment attorney’s argument that his followers took his words out of context, it’s clear to anyone who has listened to him over the last years that he promotes violence–against protestors at his rallies (“knock the crap out of them… I’ll pay the legal fees”), at journalists (“a beautiful sight”), at innocent Black men accused of crimes they didn’t commit, and against his political opponents. Unfortunately, calls for violence against political opponents has been part of Republican rhetoric for some time now, with calls for armed insurrection against government appearing repeatedly in the 2008 presidential campaign. Like so many of the horrors this fascist has unleashed in the US, his encouragement of violence against members of Congress is only a fuller expression of long-held Republican values.
Can he be held responsible for sedition, which is the encouragement of insurrection? I’m hopeful, because that is work done outside of the impeachment process.
But can insurrectionists themselves use his words as a defense of their own actions? The defense lawyers for insurrectionists are blaming Trump himself, saying that he deliberately lied to people to incite violence. This is the same charge he faces in the current impeachment trial: that he incited insurrection. Lawyers are claiming that their clients were simply responding to the president’s call to arms, that they “took the bait” and were “duped”. Given that the president has a large platform, had previously promised those who carried out violence in his name this financial and legal support and had, in fact, pardoned criminals who had committed crimes on his behalf, Trump’s disavowal that his words were influential is laughable.
But it’s also likely that they won’t protect defendants–and they shouldn’t. We can both hold Trump accountable for sedition (and to that I’d add capitol murder, since if he engaged in sedition, which is a crime, then he is also guilty of the crimes committed in the perpetration of the attack) and also hold those who, with planning and care, chose to engage in domestic terrorism. We did the second in 2016, but had we done the first as well, we wouldn’t have elected this fascist.