Jamie Comer is following in the footsteps of another 1st District representative Skip to content

Jamie Comer is following in the footsteps of another 1st District representative

The parallels are interesting – and disturbing.

4 min read
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Demagoguery has always thrived on parched, narrow minds.

– Jamie Lucke, Kentucky Lantern editor-in-chief.

I wonder if First District Congressman James Comer has ever heard of Congressman Henry Cornelius Burnett, one of his distant predecessors.

First elected in 1855 and expelled for treason in 1861, the pro-Confederate Burnett had few peers in rank demagoguery. But Comer, the MAGA Republican, is giving Burnett a run for his money.

“When he’s not busy threatening pay-TVproviders for not carrying his favorite right-wing channels, or warning that Chinese spy balloons may drop ‘bioweapons’ on the U.S., Comer has devoted much of his energy to launching an investigation into presidential son Hunter Biden’s business dealings,” wrote Justin Baragona, Daily Beast senior media reporter.

Consider the similarities.

Burnett’s presidential pick in 1860 was Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Lexington, the Southern Democrat (and future Confederate general and secretary of war). Comer still dotes on The Donald, who gave him a ride on Air Force One in 2017.

Breckinridge stood on an avowedly proslavery and white supremacist platform. In 2016 and 2020, Trump ran the most overtly racist presidential campaigns since George Wallace in 1968.

Burnett, from Cadiz, despised the 1860 winner, antislavery “Black Republican” Abraham Lincoln. Comer, from Tompkinsville, loathes Joe Biden and the “socialist Democrat Party.” Comer is gung ho for impeaching Biden, even if that means digging up — metaphorically — the president’s dead son.

The chair of the House Oversight Committee, Comer went on a right-wing podcast to gripe that Beau Biden, then Delaware’s attorney general, “was never prosecuted over an investigation into illegal contributions involving his father’s 2008 presidential campaign.” (Beau Biden succumbed to a brain tumor in 2015.)

A Biden donor pleaded guilty to the charges involving the contribution, but an independent investigation found that “19 lawmakers had unknowingly received straw donations, including both Bidens, and therefore no public officials were ever charged or prosecuted,” according to Baragona. (A straw donor is somebody who unlawfully donates money to a candidate in somebody else's name.)

Comer probably got a kick out of the White House anger over his suggestion that Beau Biden belonged behind bars. Besides, Comer doubtless suspects that the MAGA white folks in the old First loved the Biden-bashing. (Trump twice romped in the First. So did Comer last November, piling up almost 75 percent of the vote.)

Comer couldn’t wait to grab the Oversight Committee gavel. Yet Burnett, reelected on a proslavery, pro-secession Southern Rights ticket in 1861, admitted he wasn’t sure if he’d retake his seat in 1861. (His uncertainty was understandable. Except for the Jackson Purchase in far western Kentucky and a few scattered counties, the state leaned Union. Pro-Union candidates swept to lopsided wins in the state's nine other congressional districts;  but in the First, Burnett carried only the Jackson Purchase — the “South Carolina of Kentucky” — and Trigg, his home county.)

Nonetheless, Burnett reportedly blustered that if he went back to Washington, “it was his firm determination to arraign the traitor Lincoln before the bar of his country for treason.” He pledged that “if, in his endeavors to bring the usurper to justice, he should lose his life, he expected that Kentuckians would avenge his death.”

Anyway, in his speech at Fancy Farm last August, Comer let everybody know what he’d do, Biden-wise, as Oversight Committee top dog. But first came his trademark demagoguery. “Democrat leaders in Washington” and their party, according to the congressman, “are so liberal and so woke now that they can’t even define what a woman is – and even worse, they say men can have babies.”

The MAGA side of the house whooped and hollered even louder when, right on cue, Comer took a big swipe at Hunter Biden, the president’s still living son. “But my friends, if you remember one thing from my speech today, remember this: the days of the Biden family influence peddling with our adversaries around the world is about to come to an end,” Comer promised. “... Stay tuned to Fox News for more.”

Comer, and a big chunk of the GOP, is trotting out a 21st-century variant of Burnett’s Only White Lives Matter politics. (Comer made an F on the latest NAACP's Civil Rights Federal Legislative Report Card. Sixty is passing; Comer notched a 9.)

Burnett-like, too, Comer — and a slew of his fellow Republicans — also pander to nativism.

In his Fancy Farm address, Comer claimed “Democrats halted the construction of the southern border wall and implemented an open border policy that has allowed three million illegals into the United States.”

By illegals, he, of course, meant brown-skinned folks.

In an 1861 Christian County speech, Burnett was said to have railed against German immigrants because a lot of them were Catholics and Jews, and most of them were conspicuously pro-Union and antislavery. As much as he loved Dixie, Burnett vowed he’d never live in the Land of Cotton “unless foreigners were forever excluded from its borders.” (Burnett ultimately raised a regiment of Confederate infantry in western Kentucky and helped disgruntled secessionists organize a bogus Confederate government behind rebel lines at Russellville. As farcical and unrepresentative of majority Kentucky sentiment as the conclave was, it was enough to land him a seat in the Confederate Congress at Richmond.)

In January, just as Congress convened. Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce called out Comer, writing that the congressman “gave us confirmation that his tenure leading that committee will be a two-year session of the Airing Of Grievances.” Pierce poured it on: Comer reassured the House that he will investigate everything that ever pissed off a drive-time talk show host in Kentucky. He will also investigate other investigations, including I suspect that of the January 6 select committee. The “Vindication of the Former President” will also be a priority. There will be more smoke blown than a five-alarm warehouse fire — just as soon as they get settled in under Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the invisible man.

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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

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