Historians criticize Trump after he calls impeachment inquiry a ‘lynching’

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tags: lynching, impeachment

Laura Gonzalez is an intern for HNN. 

On Tuesday October 22, 2019, President Donald Trump described the House’s impeachment proceedings against him as a “lynching.” He tweeted “so some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witness here – a lynching. But we will WIN!”


Trump evokes one of the darkest chapters of American history. Concentrated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, lynching’s were extrajudicial executions of African Americans. They were often public events used to enforce racial subordination and segregation in the South. Trump's use of the term to describe his political predicament provoked significant outage from many historians and politicians. Let’s take a look at how historians denounced his use of the term.


Lawrence B. Glickman, a history professor at Cornell University wrote a Washington Post article about the long history of politicians claiming to be victims of lynching and racial violence. The article explains a type of conservative rhetoric described as “elite victimization.” Glickman argues Trump’s use of the term is a mode of speech typically used by wealthy, powerful elite men who employ such language of enslavement to claim to be victims. Glickman’s article gives the reader a key insight to how wealthy White men have appropriated the language of minority rights in order to depict themselves as precarious and weak.


In the Washington Post article, Glickman provides examples of previous politicians who used images of racialized subjection, including slavery and lynching, to describe their plight. For example, on December 2, 1954, the Senate voted to censure Senator Joseph McCarthy, who led the fight in Congress to root out suspected Communists from the Federal Government. Sen. McCarthy (R-Wis.) complained the “special sessions amounted to a lynch party.” Glickman also highlighted the 1987 ad-campaign from the National Conservative Political Action Committee, which condemned the “liberal lynch mob” for criticizing President Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal. Like Trump, these politicians conceived of themselves as a persecuted  minority. Instead of embracing their elite position of power, some conservative men have instead appropriated victimhood, distorting the history of lynching.


Seth Kotch, a history professor at UNC –Chapel Hill and an expert on lynching, tweeted that “lynching is not something that can be appropriated by a billionaire president who wants to do crimes without consequences. But victimhood apparently can be.” In a follow-up tweet, Kotch said the President’s complaint “is really revealing [how] lynching was about the perverse and enduring idea of white male victimhood.”  The idea of white male victimhood is a topic Kotch mentions in his latest book Lethal State: A History of the Death Penalty in North Carolina. In an interview with The INDY newspaper, Koch detailed that lynching's after slavery targeted African American men to preserve white supremacy and capital punishment. Mob murders in North Carolina disrupted Black communities, stole Black wealth, and destroyed Black owned property. White men who joined lynch mobs did so “because maintaining White dominance was materially and symbolically important to them… as part of their racial inheritance.” Kotch’s historical references are  significant because they teach others how to acknowledge and memorialize the victims of the lynch mobs.


Kevin Kruse, a history professor at Princeton University delivered a thorough takedown of President Donald Trump’s claim that the impeachment inquiry represents a lynching. In a past tweet that was reposted in an article by AlterNet, Kruse stated “I’m not sure what legal rights’ he thinks he’s entitled to in the current stage of the impeachment process – which are akin to a grand jury investigation and indictment – but whatever rights he imagines he has will apply in the Senate trial.” Kruse convincingly argued the constitutional mechanics of the impeachment process in the House only require a minimum majority of lawmakers in order to advance. In the same thread, Kruse says “comparing impeachment proceeding to a lynching is even more insulting when you’ve cozied up to the very forces of White supremacy that historically have used lynching as a tool to terrorize racial minorities.” Kruse’s twitter thread helps us understand the ways that the impeachment process is being properly conducted, destroying the president's assertion it is unfair. Kruse also historicized the inappropriate metaphor by informing readers that the first time impeachment proceeding were describe as "lynching" was when conservatives tried to defend Richard Nixon in the Watergate investigation.

Historians have made it clear that the term “lynching” should not be applied to situations like impeachment inquiries. Historians say metaphorical use of the term is problematic because it erases the history of the racist violence once practiced in the United States.

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