When the Threat of Political Violence Is RealRoundup
tags: Congress, polarization, political violence, Capitol Riot
Joanne B. Freeman (@jbf1755), a professor of history and American studies at Yale, is the author of The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War.
Scarcely had the violence ebbed on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 when the Republican calls for healing began. Representative Debbie Lesko of Arizona made an anti-impeachment cease-and-desist plea on Jan. 12 that was typical of many. Addressing Democrats, she warned that impeachment would “further divide our country, further the unrest and possibly incite more violence.” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina concurred, declaring on Fox News that calls for impeachment would “incite more violence” and “divide the country.”
Although couched in calls for unity, these warnings are remarkably one-sided. There is no talk of reconciliation or compromise. No acceptance of responsibility. Lots of blame casting. And little willingness to calm and inform their base. Even now, some Republicans refuse to admit that Joe Biden won the election, and the Senate vote on an impeachment trial on Jan. 26 suggests that most Republicans want no investigation and will place no blame. They want reconciliation without apologies, concessions without sacrifice, power without accountability.
And many of them are using threats of violence to encourage Democrats and the disloyal to fall in line. If you impeach the president there will be violence, they charge. Masked in democratic platitudes like “unity” and “healing,” the inherent menace in such pleas is utterly deniable. But they are threats nonetheless.
Not all Republican threats have been subtle. Consider the words of the newly elected Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina at a Turning Point USA event on Dec. 21. “Call your congressman,” he told attendees, “and feel free — you can lightly threaten them and say, you know what, if you don’t start supporting election integrity, I’m coming after you. Madison Cawthorn is coming after you. Everybody’s coming after you.” Cawthorn later denounced the violence at the Capitol. But his call for “light” threats was part of the roiling rhetoric that paved the way to Jan. 6.
Threats have power in a democratic politics of give and take. They’re intended to intimidate people into silence or compliance. If they’re believable — and only if they’re believable — they shape outcomes, strengthened by the weight of possibility. In the last four years, we’ve seen the former president’s ample servings of public humiliation silence or sideline people time and again. Never has the bully pulpit been so bullying.
The impact of such threats was apparent in the House vote on impeachment. “I had a lot of conversations with my Republican colleagues last night,” reported Representative Jason Crow, Democrat of Colorado, on MSNBC on Jan. 13, and a “couple of them actually broke down in tears … saying that they are afraid for their lives if they vote for this impeachment.”
This is bullying as politics, the modus operandi of our departed chief. Hardly a Trumpian innovation, its heyday was in the decades before the Civil War. During the 1840s and 1850s, America was divided over the fate of slavery. Political parties were splintering under the strain. National institutions were struggling — and failing — to contain it. The press sensationalized the struggle to serve a cause and sell papers. And a new technology spread journalistic hot-takes throughout the nation with greater reach and speed than ever before. The telegraph was the social media of its day, and it came into use in the late 1840s as the slavery crisis was rising toward its peak.
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