The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A key part of Trump’s impeachment defense was already undercut by his own attorney

If all politicians use “fighting” language, why did only Trump’s supporters act on it?

On Feb. 12, the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump moved to a question and answers portion where senators hashed out Trump's Jan. 6 timeline. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Three-hundred seventy-seven times.

According to an automated transcription of the first two hours of presentations by Donald Trump’s defense attorneys at his impeachment trial Friday, that’s the number of times that the word “fight” was heard in the Senate chamber. Most of those came in the form of lengthy videos in which Democratic legislators were shown using the word in a political context: minutes-long barrages of various politicians saying “fight” “fight” “fight” over and over.

The idea offered by Trump’s team is that similar language is so common in politics that Trump’s repeated deployment of it on the morning of Jan. 6, shortly before the Capitol was overrun by his supporters, should be seen as something unremarkable. If people are so used to hearing that phrase deployed in a political context, the argument seems to go, why would they have suddenly seized upon it in this moment as a spur to violence?

As it turns out, that question has already been answered — by one of Trump’s attorneys.

In an interview on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program Tuesday, Trump attorney David Schoen speculated on the difference this time around. Schoen and Hannity were discussing examples of Democrats using the same word in different ways over the years, prompting Schoen to explain the difference.

“They’re using rhetoric that’s just as inflammatory, or more so,” he said of the Democrats. “The problem is, they don’t really have followers, you know, their dedicated followers and so — you know, when they give their speeches.”

We can read between the lines: The Democrats’ language was “just as inflammatory” but “the problem” they had — apparently preventing them from seeing their supporters lose control — is that they don’t have “dedicated followers.”

This probably isn’t really what Schoen was hoping viewers would take away from the discussion. He was on Hannity and probably just trying to score some points by dinging the Democrats for not having the same fervency in their base that Trump does. Which is broadly true, of course. No politician has a base as energetic and large as Trump’s — though probably no politician has worked as hard to rile up his base as has the former president.

But that’s the point, of course. The difference between Trump saying “fight” Jan. 6 was not that his supporters heard that particular word and, like an unwitting assassin in a bad action flick were suddenly triggered to push toward the Capitol. The problem was, instead, that Trump had actually conditioned his base of support for months to believe that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and he insisted that morning that the final opportunity to avert that theft was at hand.

“All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats, which is what they’re doing, and stolen by the fake news media,” he said that morning.

“The Republicans have to get tougher,” he said at another point. “You’re not going to have a Republican Party if you don’t get tougher. They want to play so straight. … ‘Sir, yes, the United States Constitution doesn’t allow me to send them back to the States.’ Well, I say, yes, it does, because the Constitution says you have to protect our country and you have to protect our Constitution, and you can’t vote on fraud. And fraud breaks up everything, doesn’t it? When you catch somebody in a fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules.”

“I said something’s wrong here, something is really wrong, can’t have happened,” he concluded. “And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

That’s not just “fight.” That’s something else, said to a base who deeply believed that Trump’s victory had been snatched away — just as he said again that morning. Trump did have a base of support that was dedicated to his false argument, unlike those Democrats Schoen mocked and the Trump defense team quoted Friday.

As we’ve pointed out, there’s a difference in the meaning of words and phrases depending on context. The standard asterisk applied to the First Amendment is instructive: You can shout “fire” if you see a fire, but you can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater when there isn’t one.

Likewise, you can say “we need to fight for our future” to a group of volunteers at a political rally shortly before an election because you understand that it’s unlikely anyone loosely familiar with the English language will then go start a physical fight with a political opponent. It is far riskier to cap off months of false claims about the core of American democracy being undermined by telling a group of angry, determined supporters that the last chance to avert that crime was at hand.

In other words, Schoen’s right. Democrats used language similar to that used by Trump — and the crucial difference lay in who heard it.