Donald Trump’s big lie is a rallying call for...
When the back wheels of Air Force One finally lifted off the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews bound for Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s White House-in-exile in West Palm Beach, cheers erupted in millions of households across America and around the globe. Four years of screeching tweets and ugly divisiveness were over, and for many it felt like the hope of a calmer, more civil world had swept in.
However, the acrid, bitter smell of Trump continues to hang in the air: By forgoing the ritual of the peaceful handover of power that has been a pillar of American democracy since the country’s founding, Trump leaves a black cloud over the incoming administration.
Trump’s refusal formally to pass the baton means that the terrible events of 6 January are unfinished business. The armed mob of Trump supporters and white supremacists who stormed the Capitol Building, fired up by Trump’s lies about the “stolen election” and hunting for members of Congress to lynch, still have their marching orders. As Trump legacies go, this one could prove much harder to unpick than those he left behind on the pandemic, immigration or the climate crisis. Michael Chertoff, the former homeland security secretary under George W Bush, told the Guardian recently that domestic terrorism inspired directly by Trump “is going to be the security challenge for the foreseeable future”.
An intelligence bulletin obtained by the Washington Post that was written just a week before the inauguration spelled out the intelligence community’s anxieties. The memo concluded that “amplified perceptions of fraud surrounding the outcome of the general election… very likely will lead to an increase in DVE [domestic violent extremist] violence.”
Trump’s campaign to overturn the results of the presidential election amounted to a “big lie”. The lie was simple – able to be repeated and shared on TV and social media in six short words: “They stole the election from me.” That “they” was important too – by signaling a clear enemy, it allowed his supporters to direct their frustration and anger at identifiable targets. “The fact that Trump actually believes himself to have been wronged and persecuted, or has paranoid ideations, spreads and finds resonance in paranoia that already exists in the population. That will increase the chances of violence,” said Bandy X Lee, a forensic psychiatrist and violence expert.
However, it seems there is still some hesitation in using the word ‘terrorism’ for the capitol event. Every time America deals with an attack by its white, Christian citizens, there is far too much hand-wringing and heel-dragging over using the T-word. We saw it after Charlottesville; we saw it after Charleston. And the Christmas Day Nashville bombing barely even prompted a conversation.
Federal prosecutors wrote in a court filing that “the intent of the Capitol rioters was to capture and assassinate elected officials in the United States government.” In a related report on the matter, CNN correspondent Jessica Schneider said, “Prosecutors are using the same tools to investigate as they might use in a counter-terrorism probe.” She made it sound as if the attempted coup/bombing was somehow terror-adjacent, rather than actual, real-life terrorism. Domestic terrorism, by definition, is a dangerous, criminal act intended to forcibly change government policy and/or intimidate civilians. If the events of Jan. 6 don’t constitute terrorism, what does? What we call terrorism—in the government, in the media, and in our communities—matters.
In some ways, that reluctance to recognize these events for what they are is not terribly surprising. The U.S. didn’t even have an official definition for domestic terrorism until 2001’s Patriot Act. Twenty years later, domestic terrorism is still not a federal crime. The issue is complicated; many civil rights groups fear that people of color would be unfairly targeted if a new law was introduced. That concern is especially valid as long as terrorism is solely associated with 9/11, rather than the actions of white, far-right extremists. Only recently, in October 2020, the Department of Homeland Security listed “domestic violent extremists” and “white supremacist extremists” as “the most persistent and lethal threat(s)” to America.
Chris Wray, the FBI director told Congress that “Racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists” were the main source of ideological killings, overshadowing international jihadism that has dominated US intelligence thinking for 20 years. Yet the way the FBI dishes out its resources is the exact opposite. Some 80% of its counter-terrorism budget goes on fighting international terrorism, and only 20% on domestic.
The storming of the Capitol was a “call to action for the FBI as it showed that there are individuals and groups within these political movements that are violent and willing to act out their frustrations and ideations in public”. said Gomez, the former FBI supervisor.