Democrats condemned President Donald Trump this week for using the word “lynching” to describe his impeachment. Republicans responded with a counterattack: Joe Biden said the same thing 20 years ago as a senator, and Virginia’s lieutenant governor used the term in February of this year.
In a media storm launched from a Trump tweet (again), the argument from some conservatives regarding the word “lynching” was not that using the term was good, but that Democrats had been just as willing to use the term before Trump took office, and even since, indicating that the ire caused by Trump’s tweet was mostly for show.
The defense was made by conservative commentators like Mark Levin, who said earlier this week, “This is a pseudo-event — a non-event — which the Democrats and the media and the media and the Democrats, once and the same, are using yet again to attack the president of the United States and try and drive down his popularity, to try and create a caricature of the man, that he’s a racist. When in fact that word has been used and was used repeatedly during the Clinton impeachment period.”
Since Trump descended an escalator and launched his presidential campaign with a broadside against Mexican immigrants, Democrats and liberals have made race, racism, and Trump’s attitudes toward both a central pillar of their criticism of not only his administration, but of the president himself.
But many conservatives and Republicans believe that that’s entirely unfair — not necessarily because Trump is actually deeply sensitive to the issues facing racial and ethnic minorities, but because Democrats are, in their view, just as bad, and are calling out Trump’s racism not out of moral imperative, but pure politics.
A debate that began over the usage of a word that carries so much historical weight as a political metaphor morphed into one that, for many conservatives, centered on a near constant irritation: perceived liberal hypocrisy.
“All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing”
On Tuesday morning, Donald Trump decided that he had had enough of the impeachment inquiry into his apparent quid pro quo pressure on the Ukrainian government to open up an investigation into Joe Biden’s son Hunter in order to receive military aid.
He tweeted that if any Democrat were to become president, they too could face impeachment. And he added, “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here — a lynching. But we will WIN!”
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 witnessing here - a lynching. But we will WIN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 22, 2019
And some Republicans came to Trump’s defense. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, said that the impeachment process undertaken by the House, per the Constitution, was “a lynching in every sense,” adding, “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.”
Many other Republicans backed away from Trump’s word choice, saying that while they agreed with the sentiment, they disagreed with the usage of the term “lynching.”
But then Breitbart found examples of Democrats using the term “lynching” in reference to Bill Clinton’s impeachment saga, and the crux of the argument shifted to hypocrisy, not the accuracy of the term itself. As the lead of Breitbart’s piece reads, “Democrats are expressing outrage over President Trump’s comparison of the ongoing impeachment inquiry to “lynching,” but a top House Democrat — House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) — made that same comparison himself in 1998 during Bill Clinton’s impeachment.”
The politics of “lynching”
Nadler’s use of the term, as well as that of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in 1998, gave credence to the argument that Democrats who pilloried Trump’s use of “lynching” was indicative of a double standard.
As conservative commentator Ben Shapiro argued, “So when Joe Biden used the word “lynching” to describe his perception of a politically motivated impeachment in 1998, that was merely poor word choice. When Trump used it in 2019, he obviously meant to liken himself to black victims of white supremacist violence.”
In an email, I asked Shapiro if he thought conservatives were seeing this as part of a broader trend of hypocrisy — Democrats using a racialized term and then condemning Republicans for using the same. He replied simply, “yes.”
This is a bigger issue than a Trump tweet. Since the beginning of the Trump administration and even since the launch of his presidential campaign, as Trump has been beset by Democrats linking him and his supporters to white supremacy and racism more broadly, conservatives and Republicans have retorted that Democrats have in the past, and are currently, using racism as a hypocritical cudgel when the need arises.
As I wrote after a blackface photo of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam surfaced earlier this year:
For some on the right, Northam’s photograph served as political vindication, proof positive that Democrats can be just as racist as Republicans. In fact, even more so, because they pretend to be otherwise and then use race, in the view of some on the right, as a weapon against them. As Conor Friedersdorf wrote back in 2010, “race is used as a cudgel to discredit [conservatives] in a way that would never be applied to a political movement on the left.”
Tom Elliott, founder of the right-leaning aggregation site Grabien, compiled a host of examples of Democrats and others using the term “lynching.” He told me that he did so to showcase that double standard.
“My point in posting clips of Democrats invoking “lynching” was not to defend Trump but to note their hypocrisy. Pretty much anyone can attack Trump for his use of the word “lynching” — except politicians who themselves have made the exact same rhetorical point.”
Here’s then-Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) likening Clinton’s impeachment to an “lynching”: “I will not vote for this lynching in this people’s house.” pic.twitter.com/nQdTCjcydA— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) October 22, 2019
He added that he did not think Trump’s use of the term was at all accurate, saying, “Trump sits atop the pinnacle of political power, so it’s definitely bizarre for him to claim he’s the victim of a “lynching,” which historically involves mobs carrying out extrajudicial killings as a form of intimidation. This impeachment inquiry, whatever its faults, is not mob justice, and he’s not a member of a minority community facing discrimination.”
I asked him if he thought this was a widespread phenomenon. “Yes, it’s on display today, in fact,” he said. “A year ago Democrats went wild after Trump accused left-wing activists of acting like a ‘mob’; they said this word is racially charged and beyond the bounds of common decency; yet today’s Democratic talking point is that Republican who tried to access yesterday’s impeachment testimony acted … like a mob.”
That perceived hypocrisy matters to conservatives, who think of accusations of racism or racist behavior against Republicans are largely used to get votes and force the GOP to play defense, forever, against an amorphous opponent who doesn’t even really care about the alleged racism at hand.
Words still matter
When I argued in our conversation that perhaps no one should use the term to reference an event that was not, in fact, a lynching, Elliott said, “America’s political lexicon is so cliche-ridden these days that I think we need more words in circulation, not fewer.”
But it’s fairly clear here that Trump is not the victim of a lynching, metaphorical or otherwise. And neither was Bill Clinton, of whose own impeachment Joe Biden said in 1998, “history is going to question whether or not this was just a partisan lynching.” And neither was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who said in 1991 that the allegations of sexual harassment made against him by Anita Hill and the resulting media furor constituted “a high-tech lynching.” And neither was Democratic Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who this year said that the two sexual assault allegations against him represented a “political lynching.”
More than 4,000 black Americans were lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950, some murdered for crimes like entering a room where white women were present. And other groups faced the scourge of lynching too — in 1871, 11 Italian men were lynched by a crowd numbering in the thousands who were convinced the men were responsible for the murder of a police official. It was the largest lynching in American history. The victims of real lynchings, historically, did not have the opportunity to write (or tweet) about their mistreatment, because they were dead.
Conservatives are bothered by perceived Democratic hypocrisy on the usage of the term “lynching”. But the usage of the term in our politics by anyone, Donald Trump or Joe Biden, should perhaps be of more concern than who said it first, or more recently, or loudest, as the guardrails against racism have fallen so precipitously particularly on the edges of our politics.
The term “lynching,” regrettably, isn’t alone. I’ve written before, for example, about the “Americanization” of Nazism: an effort to put Nazi Germany somewhere on the American political axis, bringing us a world in which somehow both Trump and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are the equivalent of Adolf Hitler, a man responsible for the murder of more than 50 million people and the attempted extermination of entire religious and ethnic groups.
In the United States, lynching was not an experience from which a man would emerge a Supreme Court Justice, or a mildly chastened but unbowed president, or even a lieutenant governor still in office. In the United States, people who were lynched were sometimes burned to death in front of 10,000 people, or had their bodies desecrated with body parts taken by observers as trinkets. People proudly posed by the bodies of men and women hung from trees, for photographs that would be passed down from generation to generation.
As the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher wrote in 2015, “ISIS filmed that poor Jordanian pilot burning to death as an act of revenge and terror. We call those Islamist fanatics animals. But white people did this often, and sometimes even made a public spectacle of it. ‘The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.’”
The problem with the word “lynching” being used in our politics is actually not hypocrisy — that Trump is punished for using the term while Democrats are purportedly able to do so with abandon without criticism — because that argument implies that both sides should be able to use the term equally.
Like with blackface, or the term “Nazi,” or referring to someone as the equivalent of Adolf Hitler, the issue is that any political figure from any political party is doing so at all.