Was he calling for a fight, or was he calling for a “fight”?
In American political speech — and particularly in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial and the discussions around it — words matter. But beyond that is another axiom: Context, it seems, can be everything.
Yes, Trump used pointed, intense words that aroused supporters’ emotions. Yes, he deployed the notion of battle as potent political metaphor. Yes — he might have gone too far for some. His attorneys acknowledged all of that during their combative defense at his impeachment trial Friday.
But what the 45th president didn’t do on that day in January, when he stood near the White House and used the words “fight” or “fighting” 20 times as he tried to overturn a legitimate election was this, his lawyers insisted: He didn’t cross the lines of free speech and wade into literal incitement that produced the riot at the Capitol.
“We fight like hell,” Trump said then. “And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
This was a day about Donald Trump, about what he said on that chaotic day and what he says in general. But it was also, as Trump attorney Michael van der Veen pointed out, part of a broader context of increasingly strident and aggressive political speech in the American republic — and one, it's worth noting, that Trump's remarks and voluminous tweets while president certainly inflamed.
“The Jan. 6 speech did not cause the riots. The president did not cause the riots. He neither implicitly nor explicitly called for the use of violence or lawless action,” Bruce Castor Jr., Trump’s lead attorney, told the Senate.
It was the polar opposite of what House impeachment manager Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., said during Democrats’ arguments on Wednesday. “The president,” he said, “used the speech as a call to arms. It was not rhetorical.”
What can legally be said in public life? And where is the line drawn? That has been a fundamental part of American constitutional tension since the First Amendment was instituted, and particularly since Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. came up with the now-classic road test of where the right ends.
“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic,” Holmes wrote in a 1917 ruling that anti-draft flyers couldn’t be distributed during World War I because they might undermine military recruitment efforts.
“The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent,” Holmes wrote.
As with Trump’s words, this is no easy thing to work out in a country so deeply committed for so long to linguistic metaphors built around fighting and violence and guns — metaphors that in many contexts, from sports to corporate settings, aren’t actually violent or gun-related.
Fight for your rights, fight for your children, join the fight against breast cancer: Do those always involve fists? “Take aim against cavities,” an old toothpaste commercial once exhorted, and guns were nowhere in sight. A great movie or TV show can blow us away. We lash out. We throw elbows. We slap people down. Sometimes we go for the jugular.
“This is ordinary political rhetoric that is virtually indistinguishable from the language that has been used by people across the political spectrum for hundreds of years,” van der Veen said.
That’s where context comes in. And context is where the arguments in the Senate this week came to a head.
With Trump and his remarks on Jan. 6 to supporters, many of whom went on to storm the Capitol, the question of context came down to this: Can a speaker be held responsible if a metaphor produces violent results after being perceived, from a mob’s vantage point, as literal?
After all, a euphemism in a debate or an interview is far different — at least in impeachment prosecutors’ view — from a euphemism in front of a specific, agitated crowd about a specific thing that could happen in the immediate future.
This is part of what euphemism in language allows. It creates space for “dog whistles” that can be brushed off as innocuous but also act as messages to those whose ears are cocked in the right political ways.
Van der Veen illustrated this dramatically — and, one could argue, ad nauseam — with three lengthy video montages showing Democrat after Democrat using the word “fight” and others like it when referring to political maneuverings.
“I just don’t know why there aren’t uprisings all over the country, and maybe there will be,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in one clip. In another, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said of two Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices: “You have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price.”
Van der Veen’s point: We all say this stuff, and don’t forget that when you accuse Trump of incitement.
“The inflammatory language from both sides of the aisle has been alarming, frankly, but this political discourse must be considered as part of these proceedings to contextualize Mr. Trump’s words,” he said.
Perhaps. But that argument about larger context also excludes another kind of context — that of the actual moments when Trump was speaking before the riot, as Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, pointed out later in the day.
“When people are armed and they’re saying they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore,” Castro said, that produces “an incredibly combustible situation.”
In short, shouting “Fire!” in a swimming pool or shouting “Water!” in a crowded theater are probably fine. But when the right (or wrong) words meet the right (or wrong) situation, that changes. And those are the conditions when incitement often occurs.
Finally, the question of fight or “fight” points, too, to the status of Trump himself — his position as president.
As a private citizen, he has free speech just like any American. But did his own context — standing as the head of the executive branch, with the might of the world’s strongest military at his command — change the equation at all? Does a president saying “fight” in that situation remove the quote marks like a street brawler tossing aside his jacket?
Much of the time, when we fight, we “fight.” On Jan. 6, 2021, outside and inside the U.S. Capitol, some Americans decided to actually fight. We know the results of that day now, viscerally and comprehensively.
And as public discourse in the United States grows ever more polarized, the amount of light shining between those two versions of a single word — one figurative, the other literal — is going to reveal a lot about free speech, and a lot about the American future.
Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted