Donald Trump today compared the impeachment inquiry to a lynching and immediately drew condemnation for employing a word tied to such a dark and painful past. But though he did not intend them, there are indeed parallels between his looming impeachment and our history of racist violence.
Impeachment is a constitutional remedy directed at a president alleged to have committed high crimes and misdemeanors. Like the emoluments clause, it is a part of the constitution that any president swears to uphold and was created by the Founders for purposes of constraining an executive deemed to have committed criminal acts or to have otherwise disgraced the office of the presidency. Perhaps most importantly, impeachment is a process pursued by democratically elected representatives, and even though the House of Representatives may impeach a president, it remains the jurisdiction of the Senate to decide upon the president’s removal from office. Given the make-up of the Senate, being dominated by Republicans who are personally enamored of, and devoted to, the current president, Donald Trump will likely remain insulated from any actual consequences of his impeachment, no matter what particular forms of treason he is proven to have committed. So it goes.
Now, what is a lynching? Lynching has manifested itself throughout American history in a variety of ways, from the small posse stealing away a prisoner from the local jail in the dead of night and leaving him hanging from a tree (as happened to Peter Berryman), to the mass mob of thousands celebrating in the town square as the body of their victim burns to a char (as with the lynching of Jordan Jameson). In Arkansas, the overwhelming majority of lynching victims were African American, though some lower-class whites also fell victim. Lynching was often regarded by whites as replacing the judicial process for the punishment of criminals. In 1898, the citizens of Monticello lynched two black men, James Redd and Alex Johnson, nearly two years after their original trial for the murder of a local white merchant, because they believed that the men should not be afforded appeals to their original conviction. As Ersula J. Ore has written, “By denying black victims the right to due process, lynchers were in fact arguing that the protections and privileges of American citizenship were the exclusive rights of the white men and women who lynched them.”
However, what is most noteworthy in the study of lynching is just how many people were brutally murdered despite having been accused of no crime at all. According to some accounts of the event, Clyde Ellison was lynched in Star City in 1919 for refusing to work for local plantation owner David Bennett for 85 cents a day; his corpse was left hanging from a bridge and bearing the sign, “This is how we treat lazy niggers.” Later that year, also in Star City, Clinton Briggs, a black World War I veteran, was walking down the street when he stepped aside to allow a white couple to pass. The woman scolded him for not stepping off the sidewalk entirely, and when he responded with the words, “This is a free man’s country,” her companion seized him, gathered some friends, and drove him outside of town, where they chained him to a tree and shot him to death. In Chicot County in 1921, the nineteen-year-old Robert Hicks was lynched merely for writing a letter to a white woman his own age.
According to Jonathan Markowitz, “Lynching was always intended as a metaphor for, or a way to understand, race relations. While there were many different types of lynchings, lynch mobs typically worked to ensure that black audiences were aware of the strength of white supremacy and the costs of violating the boundaries of the racial order.” In short, lynching was terrorism in its purest form, a perpetual reminder to the oppressed and exploited of this nation that any step out of line could be deadly.
In no case was any white man from an elite background ever lynched in Arkansas. In fact, white men from elite backgrounds were regularly leading the mobs. When the mob broke into the Jonesboro jail on December 26, 1920, to seize Wade Thomas, the mayor and police chief failed to stop them because, as they mayor later told his nephew, “the first half-a-dozen men standing there were leading citizens—businessmen, leaders of their churches and the community.” Indeed, the state was often complicit in lynching, not the least through its failure to charge and prosecute even one the thousands of white people who participated, undisguised, in mob violence. Or as Monica Muñoz Martinez has written, “Despite popular assumptions that vigilantism in the nineteenth century occurred primarily in regions where law enforcement institutions lacked structure and social influence, vigilantism was in fact practiced in places where criminal justice systems were well established…. [E]xtralegal violence comes to the fore as a common and sanctioned practice of state policing in the twentieth century.”
In fact, far from being the victim of a lynching, Donald Trump and his followers have more typically exemplified the mob. Remember that his father was a Klansman and that he has regularly allied himself with Alt-Right and white supremacist figures. Remember that he continued to call for the execution of the Central Park Five long after they had been proven innocent, because the logic of lynching does not depend upon the body at the end of the noose having actually been guilty of any particular crime, so long as it can serve as a warning to others. Remember that he has regularly called for his followers to attack or employ “Second Amendment solutions” against his political opponents. Remember that he regularly accuses the press of distortions and outright lies, just as southern elites once accused northern newspapers of exaggerating the brutality of their regime.
Perhaps to an alleged billionaire who grew up in a pampered lifestyle and who has continually been able to afford himself unfettered access to foreign money, foreign wives, porn stars, and Playboy bunnies, a small dose of democratic accountability for his actions can feel like oppression. And perhaps only a man entirely ignorant of the course of American history could compare committee meetings to the burnt offerings of black bodies smoldering on so many courthouse squares across this nation.
But Donald Trump, in a perverse way, can compare his impeachment to a lynching. On December 31, 1904, a mob of about 700 people marched Louis Allwhite through the town of Newport in broad daylight and hanged him from a railroad trestle outside of town. Despite acknowledging that the members of the mob were “generally known,” a coroner’s jury concluded that Allwhite’s death was carried out by people unknown. In response, the Arkansas Gazette editorialized: “Why should there be talk about the decline of humor? It isn’t on decline at Newport!”
Members of lynch mobs were protected from judgment by the larger white community. Similarly, despite the number of high crimes and misdemeanors Donald Trump commits in broad daylight, his fellow Republicans and his appointed judges will protect him to the last. As Trump himself said during the campaign, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” Like lynch mobs, Donald Trump has long invoked the tradition of impunity that is crucial to white supremacy. His fellow elites will ensure he never faces the slightest inconvenience for his evil actions, just as their predecessors in those years gone by let the mobs run riot and the ropes hang high.