The inescapable history behind Trump's 'lynching' analogy
This isn't just another case of overheated political rhetoric
When in the future a Democratic administration coincides with a Republican-held House, President Trump advised on Twitter early Tuesday, the GOP must remember to exact revenge in the form of an unfair impeachment inquiry. Revenge is due, he wrote, because "what [we] are witnessing here" is "a lynching."
There are a few words and phrases in our lexicon which bear uniquely heavy historical freight. It's impossible to hear "four score" without the Gettysburg Address coming to mind. "Infamy" may forever conjure Pearl Harbor. I regularly regret that "deplorable" is heard as a reference to Hillary Clinton's comment about Trump supporters. And "lynching," well, "lynching" reminds us of exactly that, of the decades of terrorism meted out by often-gleeful white mobs against black Americans and other minorities to scapegoat, suppress, and subdue them.
There's inescapable history in Trump's allusion, and it is no exaggeration to identify it as a history of terror. How else would you describe an ideological throng that conducts brutal, extrajudicial torture and execution to control and intimidate an entire community? What else would you call it when the mob makes murder a party, a family event where ladies serve lemonade and you can take home a commemorative postcard or a piece of the victim's body?
I am not embellishing here or indulging in political distortion. This is bare description of history. We have photos of these events. Some of the newspaper notices and souvenirs survive. Of public spectacle lynchings a report from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) says:
Large crowds of white people, often numbering in the thousands and including elected officials and prominent citizens, gathered to witness pre-planned, heinous killings that featured prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment, and/or burning of the victim. White press justified and promoted these carnival-like events, with vendors selling food, printers producing postcards featuring photographs of the lynching and corpse, and the victim's body parts collected as souvenirs. These killings were bold, public acts that implicated the entire community and sent a message that African Americans were sub-human, their subjugation was to be achieved through any means necessary, and whites who carried out lynchings would face no legal repercussions. [EJI]
Does this sound like a fitting analogy for Congress subjecting the president to constitutional scrutiny? Does it seem like a metaphor someone with a functioning conscience would employ?
Now you may wish to register an objection: Perhaps it is possible to duly acknowledge and mourn this history and still decline to take umbrage at the president's tweet. After all, ours is a violent political language. Before Jon Stewart stepped down as host of The Daily Show, he did a segment on the gory headlines about his takedowns. "Jon Stewart eviscerated," demolished, crushed, slammed, annihilated, and destroyed his comic targets — and we regularly speak that way about other political criticism. Is Trump's use of "lynching" really so different?
Yes. It is. It's different because of the history. We do not have the same concrete history of politically motivated evisceration in America. "Demolished" references destroying a building, not a life. "Crushed" may envisage an accident, like being hit by a falling tree. These other metaphors are violent, but they are generically violent.
Lynching is not generic. It is a specific practice of terrorism that functioned in a specific way in our specific history, and it is nothing like the most powerful man on the planet being subject to a constitutionally prescribed legal inquiry.
Lynching is also far too recent to shed any of that specificity. The heyday of terror lynching was from 1880 to 1940 — note the latter date is still within current lifespans — but the last known lynching by hanging in the United States happened in 1981, when a young man named Michael Donald was murdered by Klansmen in Alabama over an unrelated criminal trial. Donald died in the same decade in which I was born. He was a year younger than former President Barack Obama. More broadly, lynching "profoundly impacted race relations in this country and shaped the geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African Americans in ways that are still evident today," the EJI report notes. The trauma hasn't even scabbed.
The best verbal analogies I can muster here are "crucified" and "Auschwitz." They do not work as political metaphor because, like lynching, they are not historically generic. Mentioning crucifixion will always invoke Christ, so it will always feel irreverent, for Christians at least, to use crucifixion as a metaphor for lesser trials. To speak of Auschwitz is always to speak of the Holocaust; it is not like pettier difficulties.
It should likewise strike us as fundamentally indecent to speak of lynching so casually. This is a particular and disgusting horror of America's not-so-distant past. It is not similar to impeachment, and it should not be bandied in a whining presidential tweet. To acknowledge this does not require opposition to the president; it's just recognition of our history.
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