As a former English teacher, I commend the New York Times for its concise, direct headline “TRUMP INCITES MOB” to describe the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.
The verb “incite” signifies intent, not accident or misunderstanding. It also signifies that the thing that was started with intent did indeed come to fruition; you cannot “incite” something that never materializes. Trump (and Rudy Giuliani) knew what would happen when they called on supporters to go to the Capitol for a show of strength. Trump did not, for example, make private remarks that were later leaked. He did not make remarks that were taken out of context, nor did a group of supporters spontaneously organize on its own. The verb “incite” aligns with Trump’s intent to loosely organize his strongest supporters, spark a flame, and then wash his hands of the consequences.
Of course, Trump was smart enough to avoid directly telling supporters to break into the Capitol or commit violent acts. He didn’t need to be literal or thorough in his messaging; he just had to get things started and watch what unfolded. In that sense, the verb “incite” suggests a mob taking up action perhaps without a step-by-step plan or specific goal.
But the Times’ subject-verb pairing “Trump Incites” puts the blame directly where it belongs. He may deny that he wanted an insurrection to occur; he may say, “I never told anyone to commit violence,” etc., but that is only true in the literal sense. By choosing what not to say aloud but employing the right subtext, Trump will forever be able to avoid responsibility while gleefully taking in the chaos caused by people who love him. He told his supporters that he loves them back and that they are special, only to (lightly) chastise them for illegal actions that he pretends he didn’t see coming. Similarly, some Republican lawmakers, including four reps from Minnesota’s congressional delegation, would overlook the subject in the Times’ headline and focus on blaming the mob itself and condemning violence in the abstract, as if it materialized out of nowhere.
The noun “mob” can suggest an unruly, disorganized crowd. But as the headline rightly states, this particular mob was incited by Trump, and that was all the organization it needed. Even as the rioters’ actions were at times ridiculous and spontaneous — smoking weed in offices, carrying around podiums, taking selfies — these supporters came from near and far, united in their desire to keep Trump in office. None of their actions could directly help overturn Biden’s victory, but it seems this mob barely had a purpose other than to cause disruption. When spurred on by this particular president, what could have been a peaceful (though factually unrealistic) protest escalated into a riotous insurrection.
And, sadly, it all makes sense. Trump is, perhaps, a one-man mob. With his incendiary rhetoric, he can certainly “incite,” but he cannot truly “organize” or “inspire,” because to do so would require real strategy and leadership. Morally bankrupt and willfully unprincipled, Trump started a fire on Jan. 6 only to watch it burn. Similarly, he has set fire to many of America’s alliances, norms, and long-held agreements — all because we gave him the power to do so. Trump is a chaos president, so it is no surprise that like the mob he incited, he will leave a trail of destruction in his wake.
Tempting as it is to remake the Times headline as “POLICE ENABLE MOB” — or more accurately, “POLICE ENABLE WHITE MOB” — that version is at least one level removed from the root cause. Trump is directly responsible for the Capitol being overrun for the first time since 1814. Although his slippery rhetoric will allow him to appear blameless and police incompetence and hypocrisy will add layers to the discussion, the headline “TRUMP INCITES MOB” serves as a permanent reminder of the power we handed to a dangerous man.
Emily Swanson, a lifelong Minneapolis resident, is a former English teacher and current restaurant sous chef, writer and self-described news junkie and overthinker.
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