Donald Trump’s rhetoric had consequences from the beginning of his presidential candidacy. In June 2015, he descended the golden escalator in Trump Tower to the cheers of fans, tourists and, reportedly, paid actors. His announcement speech was a potpourri of Trumpian braggadocio and vanity, with a dash of American optimism, all steeped in resentment — resentment against unnamed political elites, corrupt system-riggers, freeloaders, losers, Democrats and foreigners. He warned of the “rapists” invading from Mexico.
Just two months later, two brothers in Boston pounced on a Latino man sleeping outside a subway stop, viciously beating him. According to the arresting police officers, the brothers explained their attack as inspired by Trump’s demand that “illegals” be kicked out of the country.
That frenzied campaign summer, Trump’s rollicking rallies became safe spaces for his most enthusiastic and embittered supporters to vent unprintable racist, misogynistic and sometimes violent language against Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the news media. In coming months, some ralliers were moved to administer the occasional sucker punch to anti-Trump protesters.
It was all egged on by Trump, who smirked at his throngs’ antics. He never quite directed their attacks, but he never quite discouraged them either. Instead — not just at rallies, but continuing through the four years of his presidency — he set an example. He modeled maximal invective against enemies and harnessed it to an intemperate conviction that vast forces were conspiring against him — including, in the end, his own vice president.
The whirlwind he unleashed struck the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Shouldn’t we have seen it coming? How can we prevent it from happening again?
Over the years, as Trump’s stubborn popularity with tens of millions of Americans confounded liberals, some analysts said Trump’s critics made the mistake of taking him literally but not seriously. It seemed like good advice, for a while: Don’t get hung up on and offended by a close reading of Trump’s actual words. Instead, appreciate the significance of what he represents.
In that spirit, through the length of his presidency, after every Trump eruption when the literal meaning of his words was troubling if not downright scary, a cadre of enablers stepped forward to explain them away. The enablers pointed to other parts of his record: The judges! The stock market! They said he was just kidding, or that the American people didn’t care anyway. This has continued even after the insurrection at the Capitol, as some Republicans in Congress still maintain that Trump had a point about the election maybe being stolen — even though it plainly wasn’t.
Below, we revisit Trump’s words and those of rationalizers around him, alongside a visual record of the assault. When a leader tells us who he is, maybe we should believe him. So when the next populist phenomenon captures hopes and fans fears, we should take him or her seriously — and literally.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Donald Trump, announcing his run for president at Trump Tower in New York City, June 16, 2015
“Donald Trump was right: All these illegals need to be deported.”
Scott Leader, after police arrested him and his brother Steve in the beating of a homeless Latino man (who later said he was a permanent resident) in Boston, Aug. 19, 2015
“You know what I hate? There’s a guy, totally disruptive, throwing punches, we’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks. Oh, it’s true. ... I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell ya.”
Trump, addressing a campaign rally as a protester is ejected in Las Vegas, Feb. 22, 2016
“Those are Donald’s opinions. And he has the right to express them, the same way anybody else has the right to express their views regarding how they’re treated in the civil or criminal courts in this country. That’s part of what free speech is about.”
Chris Christie (R), then governor of New Jersey, speaking to reporters after Trump claimed an American federal judge with Mexican parents could be biased against him because of his plan to build a border wall, June 7, 2016
“I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people who cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.”
Trump, accepting the GOP nomination for president in Cleveland, July 21, 2016
“First of all, [the primary season] was rigged, and I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest. Because I think my side was rigged.”
Trump at a campaign rally in Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 1, 2016
“If [Hillary Clinton] gets to pick — if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.”
Trump at a campaign rally in Wilmington, N.C., Aug. 9, 2016
“For [the corporate media], it’s a war. And for them, nothing at all is out of bounds. ... Anyone who challenges [the establishment’s] control is deemed a sexist, a racist, a xenophobe, and morally deformed. They will attack you, they will slander you, they will seek to destroy your career and your family. They will seek to destroy everything about you, including your reputation. They will lie, lie, lie, and then again they will do worse than that!”
Trump at a campaign rally in West Palm Beach, Fla., Oct. 13, 2016
“Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”
Alt-right leader Richard Spencer, addressing a conference in Washington after Trump’s victory, Nov. 19, 2016
“What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.”
Trump, inaugural address, Washington, Jan. 20, 2017
“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Trump, speaking to reporters about the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Aug. 15, 2017
“While I find it hard to believe I should have to defend myself on this, or the president, I feel compelled to let you know that the president in no way, shape or form believes that neo-Nazi and other hate groups who endorse violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and lawful ways.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a statement responding to Yale University classmates calling for him to resign after Trump said there were “very fine people, on both sides” of the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Aug. 19, 2017
“Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy.”
Trump, praising a congressman who had pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter, at a rally in Missoula, Mont., Oct. 18, 2018
“Everyone has their own style. And frankly, people on both sides of the aisle use strong language about our political differences. But I just don’t think you can connect it to threats or acts of violence. ... President Trump connected to the American people because he spoke plainly.”
Vice President Mike Pence, in the aftermath of mail bombs being sent to Trump critics and a massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Oct. 27, 2018
“I don’t spend a lot of time focusing on the president’s tweets and things that the president says. What I focus more on is, what is he going to actually do? ... I think some of the president’s comments have been unfortunate.”
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) on “Meet the Press,” Dec. 23, 2018
“Where I have differences with him, I’ll tend to talk about them in private. ... There are clearly some differences of view between him and some of my colleagues. But it’s not a crack because we are all in the same boat.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), on the day of the State of the Union address, Feb. 5, 2019
“A huge chunk of those domestic terrorism investigations involve racially motivated, violent extremist-motivated terrorist attacks. And the majority of those, of the racially motivated, violent extremist attacks, are fueled by some kind of white supremacy. And I would say that the most lethal activity over the last few years has been committed by those type of attackers.”
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testifying before a Senate committee, Nov. 5, 2019
“Nancy Pelosi, I hope you’re watching. You’re going to impeach a president that’s created the best economy in 35 years? Are you insane? I mean, look, it is the economy, stupid. These are amazing numbers. This is now an expansion.”
Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore, speaking on Fox Business News, Dec. 6, 2019
“If he thought he was doing something wrong he would probably shut up about it. ... All I can tell you is, from the president’s point of view, he did nothing wrong in his mind."
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), speaking with reporters during Trump’s impeachment trial, Jan. 23, 2020
“LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
Three tweets from Trump urging on protesters of states’ restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus, April 17, 2020
“The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
Trump tweet after anti-lockdown demonstrators, some armed, swarmed into the Michigan Capitol, May 1, 2020
“No matter what some Washington Democrats may try to claim, you’re not crazy or a conspiracy theorist if you see a pattern of institutional unfairness toward this president. You would have to be blind not to see one.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking on the Senate floor, May 19, 2020
“….These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
Trump tweet about racial justice protesters in Minneapolis, May 29, 2020
“You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate, and you have to arrest people, and you have to try people, and they have to go to jail for long periods of time.”
Trump in a phone call with governors about racial justice protests, June 1, 2020
“Radical Left Governor @JayInslee and the Mayor of Seattle are being taunted and played at a level that our great Country has never seen before. Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will. This is not a game. These ugly Anarchists must be stopped IMMEDIATELY. MOVE FAST!”
Trump tweet, June 10, 2020
“RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”
Trump tweet, June 22, 2020
“Thank you to the great people of The Villages. The Radical Left Do Nothing Democrats will Fall in the Fall. Corrupt Joe is shot. See you soon!!!”
Trump tweet that included a video of a supporter shouting “White power,” later deleted, June 28, 2020
“I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election. I really do. ... I have to see. No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no. And I didn’t last time, either.”
Trump, when asked on “Fox News Sunday” if he would accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, July 19, 2020
“The president’s job is to maintain order and … right the ship during and after a crisis. Not spread panic, not spreading fear among the population. Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: President Trump has never misled or distorted the truth about this deadly disease. No, he acted faster than anyone else.”
Sean Hannity on his show, after recordings emerged of Trump admitting in an interview with Bob Woodward that he downplayed the pandemic, Sept. 9, 2020
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what. Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”
Trump, addressing a far-right group with ties to white nationalism, in a campaign debate with Joe Biden in Cleveland, Sept. 29, 2020
PROUD BOYS STANDING BY
Message on Proud Boys T-shirts and hoodies being sold online by Sept. 30, 2020
“President Trump won this election. So everyone who’s listening: Do not be quiet. Do not be silent about this. We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes."
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), on Fox News, Nov. 5, 2020
“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change. ... He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”
A senior Republican official, quoted in The Washington Post, Nov. 9, 2020
“The BIG Protest Rally in Washington, D.C., will take place at 11.00 A.M. on January 6th. Locational details to follow. StopTheSteal!”
Trump tweet, Jan. 1, 2021
“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore. ... So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Trump, concluding his address to thousands of supporters on the Ellipse before a mob stormed the Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021
“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
Trump tweet, later removed by Twitter, as night fell on the day of the Capitol insurrection, Jan. 6, 2021
David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine.
Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.