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How the Capitol riots changed the way we talk about insurrection

In the aftermath of an unprecedented second impeachment following a violent attack on the Capitol that left five dead, some language themes are emerging.

One immediate question that affects all of us: Did the riot reflect the views of the “fringe?” Or was it a natural outgrowth of increasingly mainstream views and behavior?

Fringe or not?

“I really see the crowd that day as the perfect illustration for what’s been a central theme of my reporting for the past few years on right-wing extremism. And it’s this vanishing line between mainstream and fringe,” NPR reporter Hannah Allam said on “Weekend Edition.”

“I mean, is it still accurate to say fringe if millions of Americans are now embracing conspiracies and hateful ideologies? I’ve heard domestic terrorism analysts start to call it a mass radicalization and stress that we’re beyond both-sides political divisions,” Allam said. Allam pointed to the “moms in strollers” that she saw at the Capitol as further proof that we are seeing widely-held views. And of course, it’s hard to ignore the 74 million who voted for Trump — despite his disastrous handling of the coronavirus crisis, which has cost hundreds of thousands of American lives.

And despite the testimony in that first impeachment proceeding.

Was there one motivation or was it a mix?

Another linguistic theme: What’s behind these riots? Trump fervor? Racism? Q-Anon beliefs? Belief in stolen-election lies? White grievance?

All these motivations were in evidence in the comments of some Republican members of Congress during impeachment proceedings; 198 Republicans still voted to keep Trump in office despite the attack on their own lives, and the lynch mob yelling “hang Mike Pence.”

Perhaps the best explanation for the rioters — and their Republican office-holding enablers — is a multitude of motivations. Astead Herndon, a national political reporter at The New York Times, called this climate “a potent mix of conspiracy and bigotry” in an episode of “Washington Week” hosted by Yamiche Alcindor.

That “conspiracy and bigotry” framing has stuck with me. For many journalists, the bigotry is old news. As Jane Coaston of The New York Times tweeted: “If you were on this platform writing about politics in 2015 or 2016, particularly if you were non-white or Jewish, you should have probably had a solid inkling of where some of this might all end up.”

But perhaps what is tilting the country to a dangerous and violent moment is not just bigotry, but the way it’s been mixed with conspiracy theory, super-charged by the non-stop conspiracy-mongering by President Trump, who spent four years in possession of the largest megaphone in the world.

Listening to the impeachment proceedings and hearing a Republican congressman blame “Antifa” for the Capitol riot and other Republicans comment on Black Lives Matter and what they perceive as a “double standard” in which conservative protesters are attacked while racial justice protesters are praised and police stations are burned, I thought of Herndon’s framing. “For months, our cities burned, police stations burned, our businesses were shattered, and they said nothing,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who is deeply supportive of Trump. “Some have cited the metaphor that the president lit the flame. Well, they lit actual flames.”

It’s not just racism — but racism plus conspiracy theory, a mix so “potent” it can let a sitting congressman blame the nearly all-white Capitol rioters on Black Lives Matter —or contend that people carrying Confederate flags and wearing Camp Auschwitz sweatshirts were sent in by Antifa.

Yeah, right.

Finally, House Minority Kevin McCarthy had the guts to comment on the conspiracy theories aired, speaking at the very end of impeachment proceedings.

“Some say the riots were caused by Antifa,” McCarthy said. “There is absolutely no evidence of that, and conservatives should be the first to say so.”

How military lingo has invaded non-military spaces

“Let’s have trial by combat,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani told the crowd that had gathered in front of the Capitol.

Giuliani’s language choice may lead to expulsion from the New York State Bar Association, and the organization opened an inquiry into the matter.

That rhetoric has been mirrored by the military clothing — and weaponry — brought by Trump supporters. Reporters have filed interview after interview with rabid Trump supporters describing the arms they brought with them; sadly, there are sitting members of Congress who are also boasting about packing heat while encouraging the targeting of politicians by violent mobs, such as Lauren Boebert, who tweeted Nancy Pelosi’s location during the riot, and who has filmed herself “walking against a Washington backdrop with a gun holstered at her waistline,” according to The New York Times.

This military language, paramilitary clothing — a form of language, and worst of all, the actual guns — have created a new lexicon. It’s another combination platter, this time a mix of fighting and breaking the rules.

Juliette Kayyem, Senior Belfer Lecturer in International Security at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, speaking on the “PBS News Hour,” referred to “the language of fighting” and “the language of disruption” used by the President and his proxies.

All of this has been supercharged by President Trump, who egged the crowd on, urging them to show “strength”.” In the Trump vocabulary, “strength” means combat — and disruption. Unfortunately, America now has a serious political violence problem, as well as a significant number of citizens willing to disrupt and destroy what they believe is “theirs” to defile.

The rhetoric of ‘This Is Ours’

One theme that emerged in interviews with rioters was the word “ours” –one after another, they said “this is our house,” referring to the Capitol.

But what does “ours” mean?

“You know, when you say something’s ours or something’s mine — part of that is care for the thing. Part of that is stewardship,” Philip Kennicott, senior art and architecture critic for The Washington Post, said in an interview about the significance of the U.S. Capitol.

“It’s not just that if it’s mine, I can do whatever I want with it,” Kennicott told NPR. “And that was the kind of claim of possession that I found so appalling, so sickening in what was going on there.”

“When they said, it was ours, they basically said, it’s ours to destroy — not ours to preserve, not ours to pass down, not ours to imbue with meaning and symbol and value and worth — ours to do with as we wish. I find that repellent.”

Why this is all so difficult to describe

All of these themes — the fringe becoming the mainstream; the terrifying collusion of bigotry and conspiracy; and the combination of violent fighting and simultaneously feeling empowered to break all rules; and the “ours” lingo to justify behavior that seems very far from what we long believed were our own values — has made it hard for many of us to explain what is happening to ourselves. “We’re in a battle of words as well as a battle of politics,” Yale University professor Joanne Freeman told the “PBS News Hour.”

“Americans don’t have the words to describe what is going on,” Freeman, a professor of American history, said.

I think the combination of factors is what is both confusing and terrifying. But of all the linguistic themes, what is scariest is undoubtedly the scope of the problem — and the question of whether this kind of murderous rhetoric and behavior is America.

The rioters have forced us to think about what “ours” really means.

Every American who does not condone deeply destructive language — and the murderous violence that such language makes possible — must take a clear stand. This is about what is “mainstream,” and each of us plays a role in defining what “mainstream” is, privately and publicly.

It is up to each of us to determine whether “mainstream” will mean safety for all — or violence that can burst in and disrupt anyone at any time, even members of Congress upholding democracy itself.

Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau) and Wolf Lamb Bomb (Orison Books, June 2021). Follow her on Twitter @Aviya Kushner


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