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Punching Politicians and Trump’s Belligerence
Journalists shouldn’t shy away from linking the two.
WHEN THE 118th CONGRESS GOT UNDERWAY, one of the first actions of the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives was to remove the magnetometers that former Speaker Nancy Pelosi had had installed outside the House chamber following the January 6th attack.
After Tuesday’s events on Capitol Hill—when deposed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy allegedly sucker-elbowed a fellow Republican who called it “a clean shot to the kidneys” and Senator Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) dared a witness in a Senate hearing to a fistfight—maybe it’s time to bring those magnetometers back.
Remember when, back in September, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) referred to Republican infighting as a “civil war” and everyone understood him to be speaking metaphorically? Maybe not so much.
Before Tuesday’s unhinged Republican behavior recedes from memory, it’s worth emphasizing one aspect of it that has been underappreciated in the press coverage: that it didn’t happen in a void, but rather fits into larger patterns in the world of Donald Trump.
Time and again, Trump has issued permission slips to those who practice violence. His fascination with the use of force, including by violent militias like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, is well documented. Tuesday’s events can only really be understood in that larger context of Trump and violence.
But you’ll search in vain for a mention of Trump in most reporting about Tuesday. The main New York Times article gives room to an excusatory tweet from Mitch McConnell’s spokesman (“Today is another example of why Congress shouldn’t be in session for 5 weeks straight”) and a distracting statement from MAGA Matt Gaetz (Thanksgiving “will allow everybody to go home [and] cool off”) but doesn’t even mention Trump’s name. The same goes for CNN, PBS, ABC, and the Los Angeles Times.
At least the Washington Post made an effort to note a parallel for the violence in the American past, quoting Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman, author of The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War: “If no one speaks up, [violence] becomes representative of what that party stands for.”
The most infamous tale of deadly force on the Senate floor is the 1856 caning of anti-slavery Republican Senator Charles Sumner by Rep. Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery Democratic congressman from South Carolina. The cane was metal-tipped, and Brooks struck Sumner’s head from the back, nearly killing him.1
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This was all part of accelerating division in the years leading to full-blown national violence on an unprecedented scale. Now, as before, violence is showing up in the halls of Congress—except this time it follows years of Donald Trump lauding the use of force in remarks that often became memes.
You’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.
Then in August 2017, from the White House podium, Trump said about the violent Charlottesville “Unite Right Rally” that there were “very fine people on both sides.” One side included James Alex Fields, who drove his Dodge Challenger into counterdemonstrator Heather Heyer, killing her.
Fast-forward to mid-2020 when Trump said of post-George Floyd riots, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and retweeted a supporter’s video that said, “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.”
No one can forget the January 6th “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage” tweet after Trump had learned that violence was surging at the Capitol. It was the time when the invaders were shouting, “Hang Mike Pence.”
Nor do we fail to remember Trump’s famous three hours of diddling while the Capitol filled with violence; only when police reinforcements were about to turn the tide did the then-president ask the mob to go home.
Then there’s Trump’s more recent social posting about Mark Milley, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “In times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH” for what Trump misrepresented Milley had done.
Last, let’s add Trump’s Hitler-channeling speech dehumanizing his foes as “vermin.” That, blogger Lucian Truscott IV wrote on Saturday, “is how it begins”—the violent roundups to the concentration camps. (General Dwight Eisenhower put Truscott’s grandfather in charge of relocating the liberated inmates of Dachau.)
ALL OF THESE TRUMPIAN MOMENTS—and countless others one could name—create an environment in which political violence becomes acceptable, and in which it’s okay to coldcock someone you don’t like in a Capitol hallway or to challenge an adversary to put up his dukes in a hearing room of what was once known as the world’s “greatest deliberative body.”
There is no reason to think we won’t see more such political pugnacity on the right as the 2024 campaign continues. Journalists should not be shy about connecting the dots between the vile words of Trump and the violent actions of his Republican followers. And the rest of us, remembering that normalizing small acts of political violence can create the climate for big ones, must keep calling out MAGA violence and those who are responsible for it.
Sen. Mullin apparently wishes he were around in the days when Brooks bashed Sumner: “You used to be able to cane,” he said.