Bully Brooks reincarnated as Bully Mullin Skip to content

Bully Brooks reincarnated as Bully Mullin

Sen. Mullins’s offer to fight a union president right in the U.S. Senate echoes an earlier, even more violent episode.

5 min read
Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma (Facebook profile photo); Sen. Preston “Bully” Brooks attacking Sen. Charles Sumner on the Senate floor (drawing based on one by John Magee [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons)

Move over Bully Brooks. Make way for “Bully Mullin.”

Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) threatened to beat up Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien during a recent Senate hearing on unions.

In 1856, Rep. Preston “Bully” Brooks (D-SC) nearly killed Sen. Charles Sumner (R-MA) on the Senate floor with a heavy cane.

Elected last year, Mullin is all MAGA all the time. He dotes on Donald Trump. Brooks was a pro-slavery hotblood who hated Yankee abolitionists like Sumner.

“The assault on Sumner happened in the mid-19th century, but we are in the first quarter of the 21st century,” said Murray State University historian Brian Clardy. “I’d like to think that we’ve grown up since then, but given what we saw in the Senate a few days ago, we haven’t evolved that much, and that’s very scary.”  

Mullin, a former mixed martial arts fighter, must have perused a history book after he challenged O’Brien to put up his dukes. The Sooner State senator suggested caning be resurrected to “keep people from thinking they’re so tough,” according to The Boston Herald’s Rick Sobey. (Union leader O’Brien grew up in Medford, near Boston, and joined the union in Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood, when he was 18.)

In a social media post, which Bully Mullin read aloud at the hearing, “O’Brien appeared to challenge Mullin to a fight,” according to Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonik. But at the hearing, it was Bully Mullin who physically threatened O’Brien.

When it was his turn to question the union president, Mullin started by claiming he’s not anti-labor. Then, the senator proceeded to grill O’Brien, ripping him, the Teamsters, and union Pipefitters. (During his 10 years in the U.S. House, Mullin voted the union position on legislation just 15 percent of the time, according to the AFL-CIO’s Legislative Scorecard. His score was zero for 2022, the last year the AFL-CIO rated lawmakers.)  

Daily Kos staffer Kerry Eleveld called Mullin’s bizarre bellicosity “high on entertainment value," yet he added that “the most newsworthy takeaway from the Senate melee was the way in which it mirrored the playbook of MAGA Republicans in the House. This is the play that House Republican members such as Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie Taylor Greene specialize in: 

  • Say nasty thing to lib, own the lib.
  • Grab video of it.
  • Tweet video of you owning the lib, saying you owned the lib.
  • Fundraise off the clip of you owning the lib.
  • Achieve MAGA tough guy hero status.
  • Find next opportunity to own the lib.”

Wrote Daily Kos staffer Walter Einenkel: 

“Instead of using the committee’s time to help improve workers’ lives, Mullin read tweets O’Brien wrote about the senator and then challenged the Teamsters president to fight him right there in the committee hearing room. It was ridiculous. After Mullin stood up — yes, he stood up — [Committee Chair Sen. Bernie] Sanders told him, ‘Sit down! No, you’re a United States senator,’ while O’Brien called Mullin a ‘clown’ and wondered out loud if this was how the senator from Oklahoma dealt with every disagreement. During the exchange, the teamsters sitting behind O’Brien laughed at Mullin’s ludicrous bit of political theater.”

While Bully Mullin didn’t punch O’Brien, Bully Brooks gleefully spilled Sumner’s blood.

In 1856, the long-simmering North-South dispute over slavery and its expansion was coming to a boil. The flashpoint was the Kansas territory. In 1856, the Democrats, then the pro-slavery party, wanted Kansas admitted to the Union as a slave state. The anti-slavery Republicans favored a free state Kansas.

While lawmakers hotly debated the issue in Congress, “Bleeding Kansas” was torn by civil strife between pro- and anti-slavery settlers. (Kansas was admitted as a free state on Jan. 29, 1861, less than three months before the Civil War started.)

Brooks became enraged over Sumner’s long May 19-20, 1856, “Crime Against Kansas” speech, in which the senator name-checked Sen. Andrew Butler (D-SC) for favoring a slave state Kansas. Brooks was Butler’s cousin.

Sumner said Butler, pro-slavery like his kinsman, had taken as a “mistress … the harlot slavery.”

On May 22, Brooks strode into the Senate chamber, surprised the unsuspecting Sumner, who was seated at his desk, and attacked him. Brooks beat him over the head with a metal-topped gutta-percha cane until it splintered. The dazed, blood-spattered Sumner almost died.

After a motion to expel him failed, Bully Brooks resigned and went home a hero. Southern newspaper editorials lauded him; a Florida town and a Georgia County were named for him. Admirers sent Brooks canes, one inscribed “Hit Him Again.”

Bully Mullin thinks Sooner State home folks have his back. The Guardian’s Martin Pengelly reported that the senator told a sympathetic Sean Hannity of Fox News that if he hadn’t tried to provoke O’Brien to fisticuffs, “people in Oklahoma would be pretty upset at me. I represent Oklahoma values.”  

The Tulsa World disagrees. An editorial headlined, “Fistfights and taunts aren’t Oklahoma values," noted that Mullin and O’Brien had traded barbs during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee meeting in March that later escalated on social media. But “the ever-irascible Mullin wouldn’t let it go. He came into [the] committee hearing intent on picking an actual fistfight, holding up copies of O’Brien’s social media posts that taunted the senator. Mullin believes one post challenged him to a fight.

“It was an embarrassing spectacle for Congress and Oklahomans. Mullin doubled down in later interviews, telling Newsmax, ‘Every now and then, you need to get punched in the face.’ That’s an entertaining soundbite, but violence is not a legitimate solution in settling public policy differences. That’s the caveman way, not the diplomatic or smart way.”

It’s also the MAGA way.

Mullin doesn’t have to face the voters until 2026. Brooks was soon reelected, but died unexpectedly in 1857. Sumner, who suffered lingering head injuries and what today is called post traumatic stress disorder, was unable to return to the Senate full time until 1859.

“The nation, suffering from the breakdown of reasoned discourse that this event symbolized, tumbled onward toward the catastrophe of civil war,” an official U.S. Senate webpage says.

Though Mullin didn’t assault O’Brien, Clardy fears physical violence in Congress and elsewhere will follow as Trump becomes more extreme in demonizing his political opponents, whom he recently smeared as “vermin.” President Joe Biden condemned “vermin” as “language you heard in Nazi Germany in the ’30s.”

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie said he agreed with the president. Christie, who is challenging Trump for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination — unsuccessfully so far — told CNN’s Jake Tapper: “Look, I think that what he’s done with his use of language is to give permission to a lot of people who then believe they can take it even further, and they can actionize the things that he is saying, weaponize the things that he’s saying, and most people won’t use that type of language, because they know there’s a risk of that.

“He doesn’t care. He just doesn’t care, Jake. I mean, his view is if it’s good for him at that moment, he’ll do it and then if something bad happens, he’ll disown any responsibility for it.”

After likening Mullin to Brooks, Clardy quoted the second of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “something wicked this way comes.”


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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

Arlington, KY