There are lots of similar examples, including the one that prompted Coates’s comments on that day: that there’s no transferability of the use of the n-word simply because a Black recording artist includes it in a song. Some language is acceptable or innocuous in one situation but unacceptable or damaging in another. It’s the difference between using a hammer to build a house and using a hammer to murder someone: The context for its use matters.
Which brings us to President Donald Trump’s speech outside the White House on the morning of Jan. 6.
The impeachment trial underway in the Senate focuses on whether Trump incited the short-lived insurrection that took place later that day at the U.S. Capitol. Over hours of testimony so far, the House impeachment managers — hoping to persuade the Senate to convict Trump on that charge — have outlined how Trump’s rhetoric overlapped with the actions of the mob, which overran the building. Some of that has centered on what Trump said during a rally at the Ellipse about 90 minutes and two miles from where that violence erupted.
Trump’s allies and defenders have focused on one particular line from that speech.
“I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard,” Trump said early in his comments. (That the day’s events included a formal march was itself something new to the mix.) How could Trump be held accountable for inciting the mob’s violence when he asked them to be peaceful?
Well, one counterpoint is that the sole mention of behaving peacefully during that speech was bookended by repeated mentions of the need to fight against Trump’s critics. Below, the entire speech as transcribed by Factba.se is shown, with mentions of fighting — most centered on the election results — highlighted in orange and the mention of remaining peaceful in purple.
The record is clear: The crowd listening to Trump heard a lot more about the need to fight than the need to remain peaceful.
Now we consider the context. Conservative writer Matt Lewis put it neatly in a tweet on Wednesday.
“It’s Jan 6,” he wrote. “The election has been over for months. You’re speaking to a large crowd in DC. You’re telling them to go to the Capitol (where votes are being certified) and to fight. What does ‘fight,’ in this context, mean?”
The traditional sense in which “fight” is used in a political context means to push for policy changes through legislative votes or to elect different people to office. As Lewis points out, there was no “vote them out of office” fight to be had that day. If you heard Trump’s speech, if you heard lines like the one he offered as he concluded — “I said something’s wrong here ... and we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” What fight would you think he was asking you to engage in?
There’s no good answer that doesn’t implicate Trump. So his defenders have instead tried to extricate those calls to “fight” from the context in which they were offered. They’ve tried to equate Trump’s use of the term with uses of it by the House Democrats who are presenting the evidence against Trump at the impeachment trial.
The Twitter account “Trump War Room,” once a rapid-response outlet for Trump’s reelection campaign, picked out a number of examples of those Democrats using the same language.
That’s an excerpt from an interview that lead House impeachment manager Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) gave to the Atlantic in May 2019. The context was an effort in the House to force Trump administration officials to respond to subpoenas issued by the Democratic majority. Raskin’s metaphor has a clear focus: Fight for policies and actions that defend the Constitution. There’s no ambiguity to it or any context in which a rational observer might think Raskin wanted someone to literally fight against an unnamed opponent.
Trump War Room deployed the same whataboutism to target another impeachment manager, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.).
“Fight to take back Congress” is even less vague: Neguse obviously meant try to win elections. That’s what “take back Congress” means. He wasn’t speaking from a large rally within proximity to Congress where “take back Congress” might imply something more nefarious. He was tweeting about an endorsement he’d received for his congressional bid.
There were other examples presented; each was obviously flawed in the same way.
The War Room tweets created an ouroboros of coverage at Fox News, including mentions of this purported “hypocrisy” on Sean Hannity’s program and two news articles on the network’s website. The War Room account then tweeted out the Fox News coverage, as though the issue was snowballing.
Look, you play the cards you’re dealt. If it’s urgent that you diminish Trump’s rhetoric on the morning of Jan. 6, you do your best to diminish it. If that means trying to say your guy was just using a hammer the way anyone might use a hammer, that’s what you do.
That doesn’t mean Americans have to treat the argument as serious.