But for all of the analysis of why the mob attacked the Capitol, we can’t lose sight of the primary motivation: Trump’s lies about the election having been stolen from him.
The president’s claims that the results of the election should be considered suspect began well before Election Day itself. On average, Trump said 44 false things a day from Jan. 1, 2020, to Nov. 5, according to a database maintained by The Washington Post’s fact-checking team. That was up from an average of 22 false or misleading statements a day in 2019, 16 a day in 2018 and only six a day in 2017.
Of course, Trump also talked a lot more in 2020, thanks to his sporadic briefings on the coronavirus pandemic and because of the election itself. From Jan. 1, 2020, to Nov. 5 (the last day for which our team has tracked his statements), Trump’s daily average was 5.4 false statements for every 1,000 words he spoke, down a bit from the 6.6 false statements per 1,000 words spoken in 2019. (Daily word totals are from the irreplaceable Factba.se.)
From the beginning of the year until two days after the election, The Post counted nearly 1,800 false statements or lies solely about the election itself.
After the election, two things happened. The first was that Trump got quiet, largely curtailing public events. A Post analysis found that Trump’s official calendar included events on only 27 of the 64 days between Nov. 4 (the day after the election) and Jan. 5 (the day before the storming of the Capitol). Trump’s primary conduit for disinformation became his Twitter account — but Twitter, following through with a pre-election promise, was quick to flag or remove tweets including false information.
From Nov. 4 to Jan. 8, when Trump’s Twitter account was shut down by the company, Trump tweeted or retweeted others more than 1,900 times, with about 450 flagged or removed for misinformation about the campaign. In other words, about 1 in 4 Trump tweets since the election was marked as being inaccurate.
This was it. This was the primary trigger for what would eventually happen. Had Trump on Nov. 7 accepted that the vote-counting showed him losing the electoral college, there may have been some angst among his followers and some efforts to protest what was to follow. But he didn’t. He insisted, despite a complete dearth of credible evidence, that the election had somehow been stolen. He pressured state legislators and officials to reject the counted vote totals. He objected to the certification of votes. He harangued his audience about alleged fraud for days before the Dec. 14 electoral college voting itself and, in the days that followed, amplified his false statements on Twitter.
He focused on Jan. 6 as the last moment at which pressure could be applied, and encouraged his supporters to travel to Washington so that they might somehow shake loose a miracle from the well-regimented process that would soon turn him out of the White House. Had he not spent months insisting that fraud would occur, and then, that it had, this entreaty would have been largely ignored.
But Trump did spend all of that time offering dishonest rationales for his loss. He told a base of support — by now, quickly accepting of even his most obvious lies — that fraud had occurred. Every day, I receive emails from people angrily insisting that it did and that Trump won; never has anyone presented actual substantive evidence to that end. Layer in QAnon conspiracy theorists and white nationalists eager to leverage the situation, and the mix was destined to be toxic.
If Trump doesn’t demand that his base believe that the election would be rigged and then was rigged, his allies don’t echo it. Fringe personalities don’t fundraise off it and don’t organize around it. Thousands of Americans don’t feel the need to come to Washington.
If Trump is simply honest, the storming of the Capitol doesn’t happen. That’s the proximate cause of the violence, and we should not forget it.