New research suggests Donald Trump’s January 6th speech served as a ‘warrant’ for the violence that occurred afterwards when crowds stormed the Capitol building.

Led by The Open University and the University of St Andrews, psychologists in the research team, including academics from Canterbury Christ Church University and The University of Queensland in Australia, believe Trump used arguments that obligated his followers to stop Congress certifying the 2020 election result in the Capitol that afternoon and removed moral objections to violent action.

Earlier this year, the team was asked to provide expert advice to the US House Committee investigating the assault on the Capitol in relation to the impact of Trump’s speech.

Now their research paper has been published by the British Journal of Social Psychology and it concludes previous analyses got it wrong by trying to find precise statements instructing his followers to storm the Capitol.

Dr Evangelos Ntontis, Lecturer in Psychology at the OU, who is first author on the paper, said: “However hard you look, you won’t find those.”

He added: “What Trump actually does is far more subtle and far more powerful. He removes the usual moral restraints on extreme action and obligates crowd members to do whatever is necessary to meet their goals.”

Stephen Reicher, Professor of Psychology at the University of St Andrews and leader of the research team, said: “This reflects a classic pattern of toxic rhetoric which justifies extremism as necessary for people to defend their group against an external threat.

“In Trump’s case, by portraying America as a ‘glorious Republic’, he extols the defeat of its enemies as a ‘virtuous act’. So, while Trump doesn’t order his followers to be violent, his speech as a whole constitutes a warrant for violence.”

The researchers argue that the technique of setting a general goal without telling people precisely what to do has proven very potent in history. It leads crowd members to strive to outdo each other in reaching the goal, becoming more and more radical in the process.

To talk of ‘enabling violence’ may seem less dangerous than instructing violence, but actually, the opposite is true. History tells us that, by not telling people how far to go (beyond telling to them to go as far as is necessary) they end up going further and further.

Klara Jurstakova, lecturer in the School of Psychology and Life Sciences at Canterbury Christ Church University.