Editor’s note: Jason Morgan Ward is professor of history at Emory University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his own.
One hundred years ago this September, a white mob in Omaha, Nebraska, set the local county courthouse ablaze to force authorities to turn over a black man named Will Brown. The vigilantes strung the prisoner from a telephone pole, riddled his body with hundreds of bullets, and dragged his corpse behind an automobile for several blocks. After dousing Brown’s corpse in lantern oil, the mob set him on fire.
Will Brown was a lynching victim.
President Trump is not.
In a Tuesday morning tweet, the President of the United States likened the House impeachment inquiry against him to a “lynching.” He also bemoaned what he called the lack of “due process or fairness or any legal rights”– an unwitting but accurate allusion to hundreds of lynching victims, like Will Brown, seized by mobs unwilling to wait for a jury’s verdict to render their own brutal judgment.
The President’s invocation of lynching defiles the memory of the thousands of documented victims, overwhelmingly African American, murdered by mobs, but it also serves a political function more potent than blind racial antagonism. For a hard core of Trump supporters, analogies to white supremacist atrocities reinforce the conviction that they are victims, too.
This is a rhetoric with a history, and it serves as a reminder that what words mean matters to our past and present.
Trump is not the first to deploy the lynching label to discredit political opponents or processes. The tweet appeared as he implored Republicans to rally in his defense, much as they did in 1991, when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas survived a confirmation process he decried as a “high-tech lynching.”
The twisted invocation of past racial wrongs extends beyond lynching comparisons, as evinced by the President’s affinity for tweets by those who espouse “white genocide” conspiracy theories, and his political appointees, like HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who in 2011 compared the Affordable Care Act to antebellum enslavement.
Indeed, this rhetorical tradition stretches back to political demagogues of past generations, like conservatives in the 1930s who compared Social Security to slavery or opponents of the nation’s first anti-lynching legislation who accused civil rights supporters of “lynching the Constitution.”
Rhetoric of the kind that the President deployed on Twitter undercuts an honest reckoning with America’s past by muddying the meaning of terms that help us name and navigate a bloody legacy of racial violence.
By co-opting the word “lynching” to mean anything unpleasant or objectionable, and deploying the term for political expediency or more dangerous ends, the speaker, writer, or, in this case, the tweeter, diminishes lynching’s power in American history.
Worse still, claiming the identity of a lynching victim is an outrageous distraction from and diminishment of the suffering of the many thousands who died at the hands of bloodthirsty mobs—spurred, in many cases, by the racial demagogues of that day. We honor their memory by saying their names; we debase their brutal, shameful treatment by claiming to be them to glibly score rhetorical points.
As other commentators have noted, the President’s lynching tweet follows in a long line of racist remarks, but this particular comment does something additional: it taps into a broader vein of racial grievance and resentment.
Like the Tennessee county commissioner who, just yesterday, ended a rant against Democratic presidential contenders by declaring that “a white male in this country has very few rights and they’re getting took more every day,” the President understands the power of flipping the script of a racial past he may have more of a feel for than he knows.
But while the President and some diehard supporters trade in claims that they are America’s true victims, their rhetoric suggests another possibility—a tacit admission, perhaps, that there is no worse fate in American history than being treated like black folk.