Keywords: Narrative, Identity, Ideology, Politics, Agency
A Timeline of Events from January 6th, 2021 (Leatherby et al., 2021).
11:50 a.m.: Hundreds assembled on the lawn in front of the Capitol building, about a mile away from where (now former) President Trump was scheduled to speak at noon.
12:17 p.m.: Mr. Trump stated “we are going to walk down, we are going to walk down to the Capitol” (Trump, 2021).
12:29 p.m.: Supporters arrived from the Save America Rally, uniting with others on the lawn.
12:53 p.m – 1:03 p.m: The first barriers were breached, backed by the sounds of “Whose house? Our house!”
The weeks following the events of January 6th, 2021, were filled with fear, anger, and embarrassment for some, but victory, empowerment, and patriotism for others. Bodies covered in red, white, and blue had scaled the stone walls of the Capitol Building. Pipe bombs had been found at the headquarters of the Republican and Democratic National Committees. Representatives had been forced to huddle under the seats the same people smashing the glass and waving the flags put them in. The peaceful transition of presidential power, once a signal of America’s democratic essence, was hanging in the balance.
Was this America? Is this democracy? How did this happen?
Maurice Charland describes constitutive rhetoric as “constitution in action of a motivated subject that orients those addressed toward particular future acts” (Charland, 1987). When something as shocking and unprecedented as the storming of the Capitol happens, it is only natural that we as citizens are left wanting to identify how and why it happened. Perhaps understanding the locus of the action and the motives behind its perpetrators will relieve pressure, allowing us to have someone or thing to point fingers at besides the fall of our democracy. Furthermore, at the very least, figuring out how something of this caliber happened will hopefully prevent it from happening again. After analyzing the events preceding the insurrection and combing through news reports both immediately following and months after, I decided to focus on the words of Former President Donald Trump in the hours before the event. Trump is notorious for his charged rhetoric, representing power, bravery, and patriotism for his constituent base. I explain the ability of Trump’s rhetoric to resonate with impressionable voters at the Save America Rally on January 6 using the concept of Charland’s “motivated subjects” to show how rally-goers acted in response to his calling to avenge an unfair election and restore justice. Capitalizing on their vulnerability to conspiracy and fear of corruption, Trump crafted a narrative that would motivate people to take unprecedented political action, showing how constitutive rhetoric holds the power to destabilize the constituted order through appealing to identity and ideology.
In the case of January 6th, the collectivized subject of the most radical factions of Trump’s constituency base were inserted into the world with the motive to “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue” and take back the presidency. Kenneth Burke, poet and literary theorist, focused his work on the rhetoric of motives, and within that, the interaction between persuasion and identification. According to Burke, “you can persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, idea… identifying your ways with his” (Burke, 1969). Burke considered the audience as predisposed to be persuaded and claimed that predisposition stems from identification. Echoing Burke, Charland posited that “persuasive discourse requires a subject-as-audience who is already constituted with an identity and within an ideology” (Charland, 1987). Maurice Charland investigated The Case of the Peuple Quebecois, in which the audience of the “peuple” were called into being and “constituted with the right and duty to political sovereignty” (Charland, 1987). The slogan “nous sommes des Québécois:” (“we are Québécois”) served as the constitutive rhetoric under which the “peuple” began to take action, offering this collectivized subject a textualized structure of motives, inserting them into the world of practice and opening the possibility for them to participate in the collective project of advocating for Quebec’s political sovereignty (Charland, 1987). Analogous to the Peuple Québécois were the rally-goers present, as they held onto every word of Trump’s speech and internalized his sentiment as their own. Constituted by their president’s call to collective action, they took on the persona of a “motivated subject” and stormed the Capitol.
In the months prior to the 2020 presidential election, Trump crafted a narrative using charged rhetoric to paint the loss of the election as a loss of freedom, patriotism, and power. The Atlantic published an article evaluating Trump’s psyche prior to him winning the election in 2016 attempting to predict how his personality might shape his presidency. As a narcissistic extrovert, Trump was projected to capitalize on the in-group vs. out-group nature of political polarization. According to one survey done in November 2020, 77% of Trump supporters believed President Biden’s victory was due to voter fraud (Murray, 2020). The article explains how “when individuals with authoritarian proclivities fear their way of life is being threatened, they may turn to strong leaders who promise to keep them safe – leaders like Donald Trump” (McAdams, 2016). Effective constitutive rhetoric requires a narrative that serves as a locus for action (Charland, 1987). Starting as early as July 19, 2020, in an interview on “Fox News Sunday”, the Former President was broadcast saying “I’m not going to just say yes, I’m not going to say no” (Trump, 2020), when asked if he would accept the results of the election. In the weeks leading up to the election, he continued to promulgate the concept that it was going to be crooked, rigged, and unfair, unsettling his constituent base and priming them to take action based in a fight for justice if and when prompted. Placing the blame on the Democrats, Trump made fraud a recurring theme of his reelection campaign. The Save America Rally on January 6th was on par with his narrative structured around combating fraud through acts of bravery. Comments such as “there’s never been anything like this” and “nobody knows what the hell is going on” instilled fear in the audience, while firm statements like “we will not let them silence your voices”, “we’re gathered together in the heart of our nation’s capital for one, very, very basic simple reason: to save our democracy”, and “you’re the people that built this nation… not the people that tore down our nation” provided them with the feeling not only that there was someone on their side fighting for them, but that there was something to actively fight against.
Presidents choose whether to advance messages with a pro-social or anti-social democratic outcome. Those erring towards negativity use communication that “constructs ‘the people’ in opposition to an expansive and threatening political establishment… summoning anti-social and potentially dangerous forms of political participation” (Scacco & Coe, 2021). Presenting the election as fraudulent allowed Trump to frame the situation as a crisis commanding immediate and collective action. Watching the Save America Rally, those present became what Charland referred to as a subject-as-audience constituted with an identity within an ideology, and what Burke described as predisposed to be persuaded. For example, among the crowd were members of The Proud Boys group, a self-described men’s organization for “Western chauvinists” that fight left-wing activists. A key faction of Trump’s most radical supporters, these men have been described as regularly standing in opposition to immigration, feminism, and social justice movements advanced by the left. “Throughout its existence, the Proud Boys have latched onto conservative movement narratives, iconography, and campaigns, corrupting them to their own purposes and using them to recruit and mainstream their radical views” (Kriner & Lewis, 2021). This group is just one example of the many who held an ideology that allowed them to be convinced the election was threatening and warranted a response J. Matthew Hoye defined constitutive politics as “the politics related to the construction of a polity’s political identity, often in times of political emergency, and often in ways that allow the people to act in concert to address these crises” (Hoye, 2019). Faced with Hoye’s crisis of the election being fraudulent and listening to Trump’s narrative urging them to march to the Capitol constituted the perfect storm, as a constitutive moment does not stop at persuading an audience, it reconfigures identities, establishes cohesion, and gives agency needed to take action. Predisposed to believe there was a need for justice, members of groups such as the Proud Boys present at the Save America Rally functioned as agents that were activated by the perception that something was threatening their fundamental beliefs. Trump’s rhetoric presented the situation as a crisis, and therefore as Hoye theorized would happen, the group acted as a collective to protect their identity.
The locus of action could also be placed within the current state of American political institutions, as we are facing the highest levels of intra-party and inter-party polarization in decades. With such uncertainty, lack of compromise, and lack of perceived progress, the American people may be frustrated and more likely to take aggressive action to ensure their voices are heard. Similarly, the claim could be made that the people taking the action were acting as autonomous bodies and were acting out of their own initiative and not based on Trump’s narrative. While this could be true for some, attorneys defending people suspected of taking part in the insurrection have also been found to make a case centered blaming Trump. In court papers, they have stated that “Trump gave the mob explicit permission and encouragement to do what they did, providing those who obeyed him with a viable defense in criminal liability” (Kunzelman & Richer, 2021). The fact that the argument I am making is also the basis for many of the cases in legal courts shows that people supposedly operating through a nonpartisan lens are still attributing blame to Trump, and therefore there is validity in the claim.
When looking at the events of January 6th through the lens of Charland’s initial definition of constitutive rhetoric as “constitution in action of a motivated subject that orients those addressed toward particular future acts” (Charland, 1987), I have shown how the radical right of Trump’s support base was motivated by his speech to storm the Capitol. Trump’s portrayal of the election processes evoked fears already present in the audience fueled by their ideology, and his invitation to march down to the Capitol provided them with a sense of agency. That day, a combination of a powerful narrative, a predisposed audience, and a strong ideology showed how constitutive rhetoric has the power to destabilize constituted order.
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