What actually happened in the USA last night – and what do we call it?

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It’s been quite a day/night, and indeed, quite a year in the USA. People have had to decide how to characterize widespread unrest. Are these events demonstrations? uprisingsrebellionsinsurrectionriots? Were the people who came out for Black Lives Matter (BLM) last summer, or those who stormed the Capitol yesterday, protesters or a mob? Each term sends a very different message about what is going on in the streets.

During a speech in the Rose Garden on June 1, President Trump used the word riot five times. It is a loaded word. In general, riot connotes meaningless violence by people who have lost touch with reason. In the U.S., it also has a racial dimension. In the 1960s, it was weaponized by whites to conjure up the image of Black people creating senseless chaos in cities. The word helped to hide the political dimension of what was going on, including the socioeconomic disparities that preceded the upheaval.

Compared to riot, words like uprising, insurrection or rebellion suggest a struggle for justice, a warranted (or justified) response to oppression, with a demand for systemic change. 

Trump referred to the mostly peaceful BLM protesters by suggesting that America was in the grips of an “angry mob.” He called the people in the streets “looters, criminals, rioters” who were committing “acts of domestic terror”. He vowed to bring “law and order.” 

Law and order” is coded in its own way. Actions that the police might take – even firing rubber bullets into a crowd – are often cast as “imposing order”. The logic is that rioting is always disorder, and so whatever is done in response to it must be the opposite. 

And then there is inciting violent insurrection: causing people to riot. Even before the election, Trump and his enablers had begun delegitimizing the election in the eyes of his supporters. Some in the media say Trump has been attempting to stage a coup. On 6 January, Trump told his supporters, “You are the real people” and “Your voices are not going to be silenced, we won’t let that happen”, and told them that “we” would walk the mile to the Capitol. They then took off – but Trump let them go on their own. That mob was “wholly owned” by Trump, in both senses of the word: To own something means to have it in your belongings. And to be owned is to be made a fool of.

In the riot on 6 January, Senator Mitch McConnell and the other Senators and Representatives and their staff were chased out of the Capitol. On their return, McConnell said he would not bow to “thugs” and the “unhinged” crowd. He referred to what had happened as a “failed insurrection“. What he didn’t want to admit in his speech was that these people, whom he didn’t want to call “protesters”, included his own voters. Mitt Romney – the only Republican Senator who voted in favor of charging Trump with abuse of power in the impeachment – was more specific: He called the Capitol mob “an insurrection incited by the President of the United States.”

Trump’s right-wing enablers may continue to defend this as a (legitimate) protest, but this is connected to overturning a legitimate election. President Trump invited these people, and he is the one who instigated the mob and the riot. Under normal circumstances, we might classify his actions as treason and consider the actors traitors. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is speaking of sedition, which is conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of the state. The Trump side is doubling down now.

Today Congress is discussing whether Trump should be declared unfit for office and removed from office – his cabinet would need to invoke the 25th Amendment for this – for the last 2 weeks of his term. If that does not happen, Nancy Pelosi has announced that Congress will impeach Trump again.

There was much speechifying – i.e. making weighty speeches – in the joint congressional session to accept the electors. But Congress continues to be very divided. Vice-President Pence has now been banned from the White House. Trump has been banned on Twitter and Facebook for the remainder of his term. And the riot, or protest, or insurrection, or coup, in the streets and at the White House? The attempt by the executive branch to control the legislative branch? It is anything but over.

Suggested level: B2


uprising – Volksaufstand
to rise against – sich erheben gegen
insurrection – Aufstand
Riot – Krawall
Protestors – Demonstranten
Upheaval – Aufruhr
rebellion – Rebellion
to rebel against – rebellieren gegen
angry mob – wütender Mob
act of domestic terror – Terrorakt im Inland
law and order – Recht und Ordnung
to impose order – Ordnung aufzwingen
disorder – Unordnung
to incite violence – Gewalt anzetteln

insurrection – Aufstand
failed/successful – gescheiterter/erfolgreicher
to stage a coup – einen Putsch inszenieren
unhinged – aus den Angeln gehoben
thugs – Schlägertypen
(legitimate) protest – (legitimer) Protest
treason – Verrat
traitor – Verräter

sedition – Volksverhetzung
declared unfit – für untauglich erklärt
speechify – gewandt reden


2 Responses

  1. Brianna Keilar explains “insurrection” and criticises how Tucker Carson (Fox News) has reported it as a “political protest”, as opposed to reporting on the BLM movement.

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