American Politics


On January 6th, 2021, a mob of rioters stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. to disrupt the ceremonial certification of electors and install former President Donald Trump as the winner of the 2020 election; the citadel of democracy was vandalized, the lives of members of Congress were put in immediate danger, and multiple Capitol police officers died from injuries sustained in defending the American republic from her own citizens.

This paper uses this dramatic and unusual event to examine the role of political leaders in fomenting violence to keep or regain power. More specifically, I examine whether the rhetoric deployed by former President Trump during the 2020-2021 Interregnum is causally related to the violence that occurred at the Capitol during the certification of electors.

This case was selected for two major reasons.

First, the role of the former president during the electoral process stood out as extraordinary in modern presidential politics. Indeed, during the Interregnum, former President Trump made history as the first president to not accept the results of the election while making repeated claims of fraud.

Second, while studies of the role of political leaders in instigating violence to retain power often use cases from autocracies and young democracies, largely from the developing world, the attack on the Capitol took place in Western democracy. Identifying whether former President Trump played a role in the seditious acts of that day is both vital in understanding this fateful moment in American history, but also in studying election violence beyond non-democratic and non-Western countries.

The study uses a mixed method approach as it relies on qualitative data drawn from the transcripts of remarks made by former President Trump between November 3rd, 2020 (Election Day) and January 6th, 2021, and on quantitative data derived from the archived tweets sent from the personal account of former President Trump.

The evidence supports the argument that former President Trump directly incited the violence at the Capitol through his rhetoric in the days leading up to and the morning of January 6th. The former president sought to overturn the election by engaging in three strategies: he crafted and convinced his supporters of a false narrative surrounding the 2020 election, he manifested animosity against an enemy (i.e., Democrats and ‘fake’ Republicans), and he issued a call to action that directly pointed to the impediment of the certification of electors on January 6th. These findings imply that political leaders can play a critical role in democratic stability, regardless of the strength of democratic institutions or the place where violence against these institutions take place.

Additional Files