Almost from the moment Donald Trump declared his candidacy in 2015, people have debated whether his intemperate rhetoric was responsible for the increasing number of violent attacks on immigrants, Muslims, Jews and, his favorite target, the news media.
This should not surprise us, because history provides many examples of inflammatory words that spurred people to bloody behavior that they justified in the name of national defense. The 1792 September Massacres in France provide a searing example.
In August 1792, the people of Paris stormed the Tuileries Palace and overthrew King Louis XVI, who seemed insufficiently supportive of the constitutional government that the Revolution of 1789 had instituted. The Legislative Assembly acquiesced to the demands of the insurrectionary Paris Commune and suspended the king’s authority. This presaged the end of the monarchy and would lead to the creation of the new French Republic on Sept. 21, 1792.
However, tensions continued to mount: The French were at war with Austria and Prussia, and the duke of Brunswick, leading the Prussian troops, had promised to visit severe retribution on the people of Paris if any harm befell members of the royal family, who were relatives of the Austrian emperor. French revolutionaries were convinced that counterrevolutionaries in the country were in league with emigres and foreign armies and intensified efforts to root out any traitors, spurring numerous isolated killings of suspected conspirators during August. Suspicion focused on priests and former members of the nobility, who were assumed to lack loyalty to the new revolutionary government.
The prisons of Paris rapidly filled with suspects arrested on often flimsy grounds as the Prussian army bore down on the city. On Aug. 31, Parisians learned that the Prussian army had taken the key French fortress of Verdun two days earlier and that the path to Paris lay open. Citizens were urged to prepare to defend their nation, which included rounding up enemies within.
Journalists and politicians took the lead in urging vigilance and violence against political prisoners as fear and panic intensified. In his populist newspaper L’Ami du peuple, the demagogic Jean-Paul Marat notoriously urged his readers to “go to the Abbaye [prison], to seize priests, and especially the officers of the Swiss guards and their accomplices and run a sword through them.” He coupled this exhortation with continued calls to find and kill traitors.
The Legislative Assembly armed volunteers with pikes to defend Paris — not particularly practical for holding off the Prussians, but effective in massacring fellow citizens.
On Sept. 2, Justice Minister Georges Danton gave a rousing speech in which he told Parisians: “The tocsin we are about to sound is not a warning signal; it sounds the charge on the enemies of our country. To conquer them, we need boldness, more boldness, always boldness, and France is saved!” — a speech that many believe helped incite the attacks. That same day, the gates to Paris were closed, cutting off the escape route to endangered counterrevolutionaries.
In the afternoon, the massacres began. The first murdered were counterrevolutionary priests who were being transported to the Abbaye prison. The killings quickly spread to other prisons, where mobs of “patriots” were convinced that treasonous plots were being hatched in collusion with former aristocrats. By the time the slaughter ended on Sept. 6, more than 1,200 people had died. A fraction of those killed were actually political prisoners; the vast majority were common criminals, including forgers, prostitutes and the insane.
These murders were widely denounced in France and abroad. A British diplomat described “the fury of the enraged populace” who slaughtered prisoners “with circumstances of barbarity too shocking to describe.”
However, the “Septembriseurs” who carried out the massacres considered themselves true patriots, doing work essential to safeguard the safety of the country. In fact, after the first indiscriminate murders, in some cases, those leading the attacks arranged ad hoc revolutionary tribunals to judge whether the people facing mob justice were “enemies of the people” or innocent. These trappings of justice provided a veneer of legality in the same way that the men who plotted to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) in the summer planned to put her on “trial,” for, in their view, violating the Constitution.
In a similar fashion, Trump’s rhetoric about the “stolen election” has convinced those who descended on the Capitol that they are the defenders of law and order, not a lawless mob. Before calling for them to head to the Capitol, Trump told the rallygoers that they needed to fight harder and called the election an “egregious assault on our democracy.”
In France, radical politicians such as Maximilien Robespierre and Danton defended the massacres, claiming that the bloodletting had been a spontaneous and necessary popular movement, if not strictly legal, while the journalist Marat enthusiastically celebrated the murders. The September Massacres pushed the French Revolution into a new and more dangerous phase, portending the Reign of Terror of 1793 to 1794, during which the French government sought to eliminate all “enemies of the people” insufficiently supportive of the Revolution, leading to the official execution of about 20,000 and the deaths of many more.
Although for a time ambitious politicians seeking support from the radicalized elements of the Parisian populace praised the actions of the Septembriseurs, most French people came to reject the brutal event and the politicians associated with it. Marat, assassinated by Charlotte Corday, was the first to pay a price. Historians later excoriated others seen as complicit — many of whom lost their own lives during the Terror.
Similarly, even after Trump saw the consequences of his words, he posted a videotaped speech and a subsequent tweet (both of which Twitter later removed) validating the violent actions of his supporters even as he halfheartedly told them to stand down and go home. Like the politicians who tacitly encouraged the September massacres even while they did not participate themselves, he wants to benefit from the threat his supporters pose without explicitly condoning violent acts. However, this time, he may have gone too far. It will be difficult to erase the memory of mobs storming the Capitol in response to his incitement these past two months.