On Incitement to Hatred, Sedition and the Way Forward
The recent decision by the lion’s share of the GOP Senate caucus to acquit former President Donald Trump on procedural grounds of the sedition he both practiced and incited on January 6, when a mob ransacked the U.S. Capitol at his instance, killing five and injuring 140 others, has raised the question of why those lawmakers adopted that stance. While I outline potential answers briefly here, I am less interested in the how and why of the individual and collective choices of these officials than I am in the fact that their decisions most often reflected their perception that a major share of GOP voters continued to support Trump.
Generally speaking, analysts have offered three broad explanations for these leaders’ action. First, a very few of these Senators appear to believe Trump’s lie that he won the election and that it was taken from him by widespread corruption among Republican and Democratic Party election officials across the country as well as by aligned corporate actors, all of whom conspired for unspecified reasons and despite the fact that their party otherwise gained seats in the House of Representatives in the election.
A second explanation centers on ideology and a companion chauvinist belief that Republicans alone enjoy legitimacy to rule in the United States. It is difficult to say how many GOP lawmakers voted on the basis of this argument, but it was a staple of Trump’s rhetoric and it has been a constant claim for Fox entertainment hosts as well as many demagogic far-right radio personalities, including the recently deceased Rush Limbaugh.
Finally, the most significant rationale for the GOP acquittal was a fear among these incumbents of raising the ire of the most active Republicans in their states who remain in the thrall of the former president, and thereby garnering opposition or “primarying” in their next election. Indeed, the devotion of GOP voters to Trump remains cult-like in character. According to a recent national poll reported by Politico, 81 percent of Republicans accord Trump a positive favorability rating while an American Enterprise Institute poll undertaken at the same time found that 39 percent of GOP devotees believe violence is justified to attain their political aims.[i]
As I note above, I am not as interested here in the unremitting cynicism of this large group of Republican Party Senators as I am in charting why so many GOP supporters would believe, or profess to believe, Trump’s lie and continue to embrace him, even in the face of the wholesale and repeated rejection of that lie by the nation’s courts, their own states (in many cases) and the U.S. Supreme Court. In this respect, it is vital to understand that Trump’s style of lies, racism, scapegoating and chauvinism that now so captivates the Republican base is hardly unique to him. Indeed, as a number of journalists have recounted in recent days following his death, Limbaugh practiced exactly this sort of diatribe for more than three decades on his syndicated radio program in the name of GOP “conservatism.” As Jonathan Chait, for example, has observed,
Limbaugh oozed bile. He did not merely characterize his targets as misguided, or stupid, or even selfish. He rendered them for his audience as dehumanized targets of rage. He had special rage for feminist women, who were castrating harpies, and Black people, who were lazy, intellectually unqualified, and inherently criminal. The message he pounded home day after day was that minorities and women were seizing status and resources from white people and men, and that politics was a zero-sum struggle — and the victory would go to whichever side fought more viciously. Limbaugh’s racism was obsessive, not incidental. Any measures to uplift Black America, in his mind, could only come at white expense and were inherently illegitimate.[ii]
By all accounts, Trump was a willing Limbaugh pupil. To the lessons he learned from the radio host, he added the dimension of national chauvinism, in which he attacked this country’s traditional allies as leaches and embraced the nation’s long-time enemies as being ruled by strong leaders. To these assertions, he appended claims that he would bring the nation back to a never-defined mythical greatness by reining in support for emigres and refugees from “s…hole” countries and withdrawing from a wide range of international treaties and obligations. Like Limbaugh, who first launched similar tirades some 30 years before, Trump relied heavily on racism and racist tropes and called for militant action against imagined and imaginary enemies, both internal and external.
In short, Limbaugh and Trump were of a piece in their racism and lies and in their willingness to scapegoat “others” for their audience’s perceived woes, which each also did his level best to inflame daily, although one did so for ratings and advertising revenue and the other for political power. Each also demanded fealty to his tortured and meandering “logic” if followers wished successfully to address those purported challenges, or as Chait put it in a description of Limbaugh (which could just as accurately be employed to describe Trump):
He could blather for hours without going from a premise to a conclusion. His only tools for processing opposing points of view were assertion, mockery, and resentment. Limbaugh liked to call himself smart, but he was a lifelong stranger to reason. He hid this weakness with a remarkable ability to gab smoothly and seamlessly.[iii]
Trump, too, persistently referred to himself as smart or smarter than anyone else, as he just as continually offered little other than unreason, ignorance and cruelty. In sum, the majority of rank-and-file Republicans continuing to pledge loyalty to Trump appear to be doing so on the basis of several identifiable tropes that Limbaugh employed long before the former president did so. The latter, however, used those with particular vengeance to encourage a fierce allegiance, even to the point of embracing a baldly transparent lie concerning an election he lost badly:
- Exploitation of social and economic anxiety linked to changes wrought by globalization, worsened by an unfettered devotion to neoliberal governance
- Fearmongering concerning changing demographics, with whites predicted to lose their majority status in the next decades
- Constant attacks on governance as simply redistributing tax dollars to undeserving women, Black and Brown citizens and illegal immigrants and refugees
- Persistent disparagement of social norms of civil engagement and of freedom of the press, association, religion and speech when those were not immediately supportive of his claims and desires, however malignant or ignorant
- Support for a cynical desire among some business interests and moneyed elites—including Trump and members of his family—to use government power for short-term economic gain
- Utilization of a shared ideological devotion among many in the GOP to the view that government should be starved via tax cuts aimed at benefitting the wealthy while hobbling public capacity to address social challenges, so as to permit those actors de facto to rule.
As Limbaugh had done before him, Trump has demonized and dehumanized anyone who dared disagree with him. This behavior resulted, finally, in a crazed mob, believing it was doing his bidding, attacking their own government and sovereignty. Chillingly, the individuals who assaulted the Capitol did so believing that this was the right thing to do. This stance reminds me of the individuals who supported the dehumanization of Jews during World War II and justified their extermination with like certainty. As the writer Vasily Grossman wrote in late 1944 of the Nazi S.S. soldiers who operated the Treblinka death camp:
It needs to be emphasized that these creatures were far from being mere robots that mechanically carried out the wishes of their superiors. Every witness attests to their shared love of philosophizing. The S.S. loved to discuss what was happening at Treblinka and its profound significance for the future. They were all deeply and sincerely convinced that what they were doing was right and necessary. They explained at length that their race was superior to all other races; they delivered tirades about German blood, the German character and the mission of the German race. … After they had finished work for the day, … they would sleep the sleep of the just, not disturbed by dreams of nightmares. They were not tormented by conscience, if only because not one of them possessed a conscience.[iv]
I take Grossman’s final sentence to mean that, having adopted a view of the world in which an entire group of other human beings, in this case, Jews, were nothing, the German soldiers believed their heinous actions carried only beneficent consequences. The analogy to the perspective Trump and Limbaugh encouraged, and Trump continues to promote, among their followers vís-a-vís other Americans and all who offer an alternate perspective, is direct.
Since the major share of Republican officials has signaled that they will not challenge Trump’s ignorance, mindless cruelty or sedition, I find myself wondering how the nation’s other political leaders can lead millions of American citizens back to reality and away from their belief in a dangerous demagogue. This fact constitutes what Charles Pierce has rightly described as a situation in which, “America is now in a fierce struggle for the very survival of its democracy. A majority of Republican senators stood with the sedition. The Republicans who had the courage to vote for conviction have been censured by their state Republican parties.”[v]
Writing in 2016 about the Syrian Civil War and the immigration wave to Europe it triggered, Zygmunt Bauman argued that the only recourse moving forward was dialogue among the various parties involved. That premise, applied in this case, would find the majority of Americans seeking persistently to enter into a conversation with a minority of their fellow citizens who meanwhile support an individual who continues to demonize and dehumanize them and call for the diminution of their civil and human rights. It would find members of that majority seeking to identify what Bauman called “understanding” or a form of “common language, albeit a common language that is itself formed in the process of understanding itself,” but seeking to do so with a partner both unwilling to engage in that dialogic process and equally disinclined to legitimate it.[vi]
In short, the question is, how can one converse with someone who belongs to a population that is so anxious, so instinctually cruel and so misled as to continue to embrace a charlatan in an ongoing attack on the very essence of their shared form of governance? Put differently, why should one portion of the citizenry be called on to possess and act on a moral conscience and moral imagination while the other, acting on malignant lies, shows no interest in doing so and supports an individual who continues to attack the very foundations of their shared possibility as a people? How can we engage in a much-needed collective conversation with only one portion of the citizenry—the majority who live in reality—aware such is necessary and appropriate? It is this dilemma that Senate Republicans dodged and, in so doing, exacerbated. It is this question the nation must find a way to address in coming years if we are to retain our democratic institutions and way of life. The way forward doubtless requires some form of hope-driven ongoing dialogue, as Bauman contended, but precisely how that conversation can be elicited by the majority with a minority supporting an individual and party without conscience too willing to decry that majority’s very humanity, remains to be seen.
[i] Palmeri, Tara, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza and Rachael Bade. “Republicans Can’t Quit Trump,” Politico Playbook, February 16, 2021, https://www.politico.com/newsletters/playbook/2021/02/16/republicans-cant-quit-trump-491756, Accessed February 16, 2021; Gjelten, Tom. “A ‘Scary’ Survey Finding: 4 In 10 Republicans Say Political Violence May Be Necessary,” National Public Radio, February 11, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/02/11/966498544/a-scary-survey-finding-4-in-10-republicans-say-political-violence-may-be-necessa, Accessed February 16, 2021.
[ii] Chait, Jonathan. “Rush Limbaugh Taught Republicans to Love an Angry, Racist Bully,” New York Magazine, February 18, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/02/rush-limbaugh-dead-donald-trump-racist-sexist-conservative-radio.html, Accessed February 18, 2021.
[iii] Chait, February 18, 2021.
[iv] Grossman, Vasily. The Hell of Treblinka in Rajchman, Chil. Treblinka: A Survivor’s Memory. London: MacLehose Press, 2011, pp. 167-168.
[v] Pierce, Charles. “So Which Republicans Are Seriously Going to Serve on This Trump Insurrection Commission,” Esquire, February 16, 2021, https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/a35521453/trump-insurrection-congress-january-6-commission/, Accessed February 16, 2021.
[vi] Bauman, Zygmunt. Strangers at Our Door. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016, p. 116.
 Palmeri, Tara, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza and Rachael Bade. “Republicans Can’t Quit Trump,” Politico Playbook, February 16, 2021, https://www.politico.com/newsletters/playbook/2021/02/16/republicans-cant-quit-trump-491756, Accessed February 16, 2021; Gjelten, Tom. “A ‘Scary’ Survey Finding: 4 In 10 Republicans Say Political Violence May Be Necessary,” National Public Radio, February 11, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/02/11/966498544/a-scary-survey-finding-4-in-10-republicans-say-political-violence-may-be-necessa, Accessed February 16, 2021.
 Chait, Jonathan. “Rush Limbaugh Taught Republicans to Love an Angry, Racist Bully,” New York Magazine, February 18, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/02/rush-limbaugh-dead-donald-trump-racist-sexist-conservative-radio.html, Accessed February 18, 2021.
 Chait, February 18, 2021.
 Grossman, Vasily. The Hell of Treblinka in Rajchman, Chil. Treblinka: A Survivor’s Memory. London: MacLehose Press, 2011, pp. 167-168.
 Pierce, Charles. “So Which Republicans Are Seriously Going to Serve on This Trump Insurrection Commission,” Esquire, February 16, 2021, https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/a35521453/trump-insurrection-congress-january-6-commission/, Accessed February 16, 2021.
 Bauman, Zygmunt. Strangers at Our Door. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016, p. 116.