clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
President Trump chairs a meeting with administration and state officials on prison reform at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey August 9, 2018.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The ignorance of comparing impeachment to “a lynching,” explained

Thousands of Americans were lynched. Donald Trump is not one of them. Bill Clinton isn’t either.

President Donald Trump complained he is being lynched in a tweet Tuesday that brought rapid condemnation from Democratic lawmakers — particularly those who were themselves once in danger of being lynched.

“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,” Trump wrote. “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here - a lynching.”

Republicans are not witnessing anything of the kind. The impeachment inquiry Trump faces for requesting foreign governments investigate a political rival is not a lynching — not even close.

Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham disagreed with this fact, however, telling reporters Tuesday, “This is a lynching in every sense.”

He added, “What does lynching mean? That a mob grabs you, they don’t give you a chance to defend yourself, they don’t tell you what happened to you, they just destroy you. That’s exactly what’s happening in the United States House of Representatives right now.”

Lynchings were lawless killings committed by groups of white Americans usually targeting fellow Americans of different races: black Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx Americans. They were used to reinforce a system of control, and to prevent these minorities from even thinking about enjoying their rights as US citizens.

The impeachment inquiry is not this.

It is not the work of a mob whipped into a frenzy of racial violence, and an impeached Trump would not be a mutilated corpse photographed for souvenir postcards or to be divided, body parts sold off as macabre relics.

An impeachment inquiry is not something that can be launched at any time for any perceived slight or because a president is enjoying the American dream a bit more than his fellow citizens think he or she should — it is a lawful process triggered when a president is suspected of improper behavior, a process outlined in the Constitution.

And this fact, coupled with the evil history of lynching, has led to swift and powerful condemnation of the tweet by lawmakers.

Rep. Bobby Rush, who was a Black Panther in Illinois during the time that party was under a federal investigation, responded on Twitter, writing: “You think this impeachment is a LYNCHING? What the hell is wrong with you? Do you know how many people who look like me have been lynched, since the inception of this country, by people who look like you.”

In a speech on the House floor Tuesday, Rep. Al Green, who has himself been threatened with lynching, said of the tweet, “This makes you no better than those who were screaming ‘blood and soil,’ ‘Jews will not replace us.’ It makes you no better than those who burned crosses. It makes you no better than those who wear hoods and white robes. Do you not understand what you’re doing to this country?”

A past impeachment proceeding was also described as a lynching. It was wrong then, too.

Although some Republicans condemned Trump’s tweet, a number of his allies began to point out some Democrats used similar language in 1998, when former President Bill Clinton faced impeachment.

Current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden — then a senator — said, “history is going to question whether or not this was just a partisan lynching.”

House Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Jerry Nadler — a less powerful representative — compared the impeachment proceedings to a lynching at least three times, according to the Washington Post, each time referring to his Republican colleagues as a “lynch mob.”

Reps. Danny Davis and Gregory Meeks — both men who, in their younger years, could have been targets of actual lynch mobs — called the Clinton proceedings a “lynching” on the floor of the House.

Many of these men have since apologized; Meeks has argued he had every right to use the word.

“Context matters,” Meeks told the Post. “There is a difference when that word is used by someone of my experience and perspective, whose relatives were the targets of lynch mobs, compared to a president who has dog-whistled to white nationalists and peddled racism.”

Biden, who is not a black man, was more straightforward: “This wasn’t the right word to use and I’m sorry about that,” he tweeted Tuesday evening.

Democrats who used the word flippantly in 1998 may not have been criticized at the time, but, like the president, they are being censured now. Unlike the president, they have for the most part apologized.

And though impeachment proceedings have been described as lynchings in the past, that doesn’t make doing so right. Lynching referred to the same base act in 1998 that it refers to now.

The brutality contained in the word was brought up by House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn in his response to Trump’s tweet. Clyburn, who like many lawmakers was a youth during the period in which lynchings are believed to have been at their zenith, said on CNN: “I’m a product of the South. I know the history of that word. That is a word that we ought to be very, very careful about using.”

A brief history of actual lynchings

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) notes that people of any race could be — and were — lynched. The earliest form of the practice was used in places that lacked formal legal structures, like in settlements in the American West, where lynchings were used to punish legal infractions (and didn’t always mean death).

Today, however, the word lynching is linked to extrajudicial killings animated by racism of the sort seen throughout the South and West in the period following the Civil War.

NAACP research found 4,743 lynchings occurred in the US between 1882 and 1968; the vast majority of those — 3,446 — were lynchings of black Americans.

During this period, lynching could occur at any time for any reason.

An EJI analysis found that 25 percent of the lynchings it studied were carried out following some allegation of rape; 30 percent were committed after an accusation of murder. These accusations were rarely investigated; and the killings were often committed before any legal proceedings could be held, and were sometimes done in the face of evidence suggesting the lynched person was innocent.

Peter Bazemore was accused of rape in 1918; he was lynched before an investigation revealed the rapist was a white man in blackface. When a judge granted a stay of execution against Edward Johnson, a black man accused of rape, in 1906, he was taken from jail, hanged and shot, and left with a note reading, “To Justice Harlan. Come get your nigger now.” Johnson maintained he was innocent, and was eventually found to be.

A crowd in Waco, Texas surrounds the lynched body of Jesse Washington.
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

Those who defended black Americans against these sorts of lynchings placed themselves in danger. Journalist Ida B. Wells, who rebutted stereotypes of sexual violence perpetrated by black men, had her office burned down and was threatened with lynching herself.

Lynchings were also used to control populaces of color, forcing them to bend to racist power structures and ensuring limited paths to economic and political development.

In practice, this meant a person could be lynched for any reason. Charles Lewis was lynched in 1918 for refusing to empty the pockets of his Army uniform. Richard Wilkerson was lynched in 1934 for defending a black woman who had been assaulted by a white man at a dance. Sam Gates was lynched in 1917 for being “annoying.”

The terror inherent in this uncertainty was reinforced by lynchings as a public spectacle at which refreshments were served and white citizens were encouraged to take direct part in torture — for instance, the 1904 lynching of Luther Holbert and his wife during which the crowd cut off pieces of their “quivering flesh” while they were still alive. As the incisions were made, the crowd drank lemonade and whiskey and bought snacks.

At other lynchings, fingers and teeth and even pieces of skin were taken as grisly mementos that were openly displayed after the murder was over. Bodies were left in strategic locations to terrify black populations — the head of Ell Persons was placed in Memphis, Tennessee’s black business district as a warning.

Such lynchings were not limited to the South. In 1922, Elias Villareal Zarate, a man of Mexican descent, was lynched in Texas after being accused of fighting with a white coworker. Texas Rangers and US soldiers killed 15 Latin Americans one night in 1918, accusing them of being thieves. Antonio Rodríguez was lynched in Texas in 1910, burned alive. A night of lynching in Los Angeles in 1871 saw 10 percent of that city’s Chinese population at the time killed. As with the lynchings of black Americans in the South, these Western lynchings also drew large crowds, and saw affected populations forced to limit their engagement in life in order to shield themselves from the ever present threat of death.

The federal government has guidelines for dealing with impeachment. It has no laws on lynching.

Murder is, of course, against the law. But federal murder laws did little to protect the thousands of people of color lynched during the period of Reconstruction and the years leading up to the civil rights movement. And it goes without saying federal and local statutes did nothing to protect slaves from being lynched — the only systematic protection that population had from lynching was economic.

And few of those responsible for lynching ever faced any legal consequences for their actions. EJI found 1 percent of all lynching perpetrators were convicted of a crime (for lynchings after 1900).

Some states passed anti-lynching laws, but they were roundly ignored, and federal efforts to pass anti-lynching legislation in the House of Representatives went nowhere, as Vox’s P.R. Lockhart has explained:

Efforts to pass anti-lynching legislation date back to 1900, when North Carolina Rep. George H. White, the only black man in Congress at the time, introduced a measure that was defeated in committee. The first serious congressional effort to pass anti-lynching legislation began in 1918, when Rep. Leonidas Dyer, a Missouri Republican, introduced the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which called for the federal government “to prosecute lynch mobs for murder,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Dyer introduced the bill at each subsequent session, and in 1922, the bill passed the House only to be filibustered in the Senate. In 1928, Dyer outlined the constitutional case for his anti-lynching legislation and argued that his bill protected the equal protection rights granted to African Americans under the 14th Amendment. “There has been and is now a two-fold denial of the equal protection of the law resulting from the existence of the lynching evil: the failure to afford protection to the victim, and the failure to prosecute the guilty parties,” Dyer wrote.

After the 1922 filibuster, Dyer’s bill would remain untouched by Congress for years until it was reintroduced in 1930. But as the Great Depression continued, legislators would set the issue aside.

Legislation on the issue did not succeed until 2018, when Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Tim Scott — the only three black senators in Congress — introduced the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018. Harris was also one of the many lawmakers who condemned Trump’s tweet, writing on Twitter, “Lynching is a reprehensible stain on this nation’s history, as is this President.”

The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act passed the Senate in 2018; companion legislation introduced by Rush, the former Black Panther who pointedly criticized Trump’s lynching tweet, has not passed the House.

Nor has it been taken up by the president. By advocating for the act, as he did criminal justice reform, Trump could help give the US a federal anti-lynching law for the first time in its history.

Instead, however, he used his first tweet about lynching to complain that he is being lynched by an impeachment inquiry.

Despite Graham’s characterization of this inquiry as lawless, it is not. Impeachment is governed by a process described in the Constitution, which states a president may be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” That document also spells out guidelines for the impeachment process — namely, that it starts in the House of Representatives and is concluded in the Senate. And so far, the House has followed what is spelled out in the Constitution and established practice.

The federal government has ways to deal with suspected lawbreaking by a president. The Constitution and federal law do not have ways of addressing lynching, however, despite it having been a method of killing favored by Americans for generations.

It is true there is little fear of lynchings currently, and this is perhaps why Trump felt it appropriate to use the word to describe the impeachment process — for many, it may seem a thing of the past. But the fact so many Americans were murdered through lynching, the fact it was used to as a terror tactic to promote an ideology of hatred, and the fact no federal anti-lynching law exists makes the president’s use of the word completely inappropriate at best.

The power of the word remains, and even if there is minimal threat of lynchings now, the incident serves as a reminder of history and as a new opportunity to correct a gap in federal law.



Qatar’s migrant labor system is bigger than the World Cup

Politics & Policy

How independent voters saved Democrats

Politics & Policy

The high stakes and unique weirdness of the Georgia Senate runoff, briefly explained

View all stories in Politics & Policy