“For identity leadership to be effective,” the authors wrote,
It is important for leaders to interpret the goals toward which a group works as vital and virtuous. Precisely in this sense, another central feature of Trump’s speech (on January 6) to those who attacked the Capitol was his insistence on the rectitude of his cause.
The authors then quoted Trump speaking at his January 6 Ellipse rally, shortly before the storming of the Capitol:
As this huge crowd shows, we have truth and justice on our side. We have a deep and lasting love for America in our hearts. We love our country. We have overwhelming pride in this great country, and we have it deep in our souls. Together, we are determined to defend and preserve government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
At the same time, Trump portrayed his adversaries as the epitome of evil: “Trump reminded them not only of the good work they were doing to fight ‘bad’ actors and forces, but also of the challenges this ‘dirty business’ presented. ”
Once again, Haslam and his co-authors quoted Trump speaking at his January 6 rally:
Together, we will drain the swamp of Washington and clean up the corruption in our nation’s capital. We’ve done a great job on it, but you think it’s easy. It’s a dirty business. It’s a dirty business. You have a lot of bad people out there.
Critically, the 12 academics wrote, Trump “did not give them explicit instructions on what to do,” noting that he “did not tell anyone to take down the barricades, invade the speaker’s office, or attack police and security guards. ” Instead, “he invoked values of strength, determination and willingness to fight for justice (using the word “fight” 20 times) without indicating who they should fight or how”, setting his followers as a goal “to ensure that the electoral results they were not certified and therefore to ‘stop the theft’ without specifying how that goal should be achieved.”
For Trump supporters, they continued,
Far from being a day of shame and infamy, this was a day of vindication, empowerment, and glory. The reason for this was that they had been able to play a significant role in enacting a shared social identity and to do so in a way that enabled them to translate their leader’s moving analysis and vision into material reality.
Leaders gain influence, Haslam and his collaborators argued,
defining parameters of action in ways that frame the agency of their followers but leave room for creativity in the way collective goals are achieved. Followers, in turn, show their loyalty and attachment to the leader by striving to be effective in advancing these goals, thereby giving the leader power and agency.
In the case of January 6, 2021, they wrote:
Donald Trump’s exhortations to his supporters that they should “fight” to “stop the theft” of the 2020 election was followed by an attack on the United States Capitol. We argue that it is Trump’s voluntary participation in this mutual identity promulgation process, rather than the instructions contained in his speech, that should be the basis for assessing his influence and responsibility for the attack.
In conclusion, they argued:
it is important to recognize that Trump was not a puppeteer and that his supporters were much more than puppets. Instead, he was the unifier, activator, and enabler of his followers during the dark events of January 6, 2021. As such, rather than eclipse or sublimate his agency, he framed and unleashed it.
The power of Trump’s speech, they argued,
it lay in its provision of a “moral” framework that prompted its audience to work creatively to “stop theft,” fueling a dynamic that ultimately led to insurrection. The absence of a point where Trump instructed his supporters to storm the Capitol makes the storming of the Capitol no less his responsibility. Crimes committed by followers on behalf of the group are necessarily crimes of leadership as well.
On January 7, 2021, 30 hours after the assault on the Capitol began, Trump condemned the assault in videotaped comments. “I would like to start by talking about the heinous attack on the United States Capitol. Like all Americans, I am outraged by the violence, lawlessness and chaos,” he said. He added: “To those who engage in acts of violence and destruction, you do not represent our country. And to those who broke the law, you will pay them.”
However, during a Unlisted News town hall in May, Trump called January 6 “a fine day” and declared that he was “inclined to forgive” many of the rioters.
In a January newspaper, “Public Opinion Roots of Electoral Denial,” Charles Stuart IIIprofessor of political science at MIT, argued that Trump has unleashed deeply anti-democratic forces not only within Republican ranks but also among a segment of independent voters:
The staunchest Republican deniers believe that great malevolent forces are at work in world events, racial minorities receive too much deference in society, and America’s destiny is Christian. Among independents, the most confirmed deniers are Christian nationalists who resent what they see as the favored position of racial minorities.
The belief that Donald Trump was denied the White House in 2020 due to Democratic Party fraud is arguably the biggest challenge to the legitimacy of the federal government since the Civil War, if not in American history. It’s hard to think of a time when almost two-fifths of Americans seemed to honestly believe that the man in the White House is there for a robbery.
It is not yet known whether Trump will be charged in connection with his refusal to comply with all the legal requirements of democratic electoral competition. Still, no indictment could capture the enormity of the damage that Trump has inflicted on the American body politic with his bad faith, swindler, and fundamentally amoral character.