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‘What has happened to our country?’

Five years before the Civil War, politics had become so heated that violence entered the political arena. Are we there again?

6 min read
Left – Bill Clinton at Barkley Field (photo by Berry Craig); Right – Insurrectionists attack the U.S. Capitol (AP photo)

Thirty years ago Wednesday night, Brian Clardy went to Paducah's Barkley Regional Airport.

The Murray State University historian didn’t go to catch a plane. He went to catch a glimpse of Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential hopeful who jetted coast-to-coast on election eve 1992, blitzing through three time zones, traveling 4,100 miles and speaking to the faithful in Paducah and several other towns and cities.

“Contrast what’s going on today with 30 years ago,” Clardy said. “Clinton won the election the next day; President George H.W. Bush conceded that night and a new administration was coming into office,” the professor remembered. “What has happened to our country?

“The most significant midterm in my lifetime”

“Democracy, as the president said in his [Wednesday night] speech, is on the ballot. Order and stability are on the ballot. This is the most significant midterm Congressional election in my lifetime. If it goes the way of the right, we are looking at some terrible times ahead.”

Clardy said the midterms may indeed decide the future of American democracy, as former President Donald Trump and his most ardent followers cling to the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Sixty percent of Americans will see an election denier on their ballot. Trump supporters have threatened, harassed and intimidated state and local election officials and voters. Many election officers have resigned.

Tim Michels, the Trump-endorsed GOP Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate, told rally goers that if he unseats Tony Evers, the Democratic incumbent, the Republican Party “will never lose another election” in the Dairy State.

“That’s profoundly scary,” Clardy said. “What did he mean by that? How are the Republicans going to stack this deck? What are other Republican candidates in other states saying behind closed doors?”

Is this our Brooks - Sumner moment?

Scarier still, Clardy said, is the GOP response to the brutal assault on Paul Pelosi, the 82-year-old husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Republican right and right-wing media have demonized her for years. David DePape, who is accused of trying to kill Pelosi with a hammer, believes in anti-Semitic, QAnon, and MAGA conspiracies. “When he broke into the Pelosi home in San Francisco, he said, ‘Where's Nancy?’ which is what they said on Jan. 6,” said Clardy, referring to the Trump-incited rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an attempt to overturn the presidential election.

DePape, 42 and behind bars, pleaded not guilty to an array of state charges, including burglary and attempted murder.

“The evil spirit of Jan. 6 has metastasized,” Clardy said. “DePape was looking for the speaker, like the MAGA crowd on Jan. 6.  That was not a one-off event. This is an ongoing rebellion.”

The far-right has also vilified the Democratic party for a long time, but ramped up the rhetoric after Trump’s advent, according to Clardy. The Religious Right — especially Christian nationalists — condemn Pelosi’s party as “anti-God, anti-country, and anti-freedom,” he said. “Therefore, the Democrats are demonic and evil incarnate, and it serves God to eliminate them. That kind of talk, where you assume the mantle of divinity and divine privilege, empowers people to do things which are dangerous in the name of God. We have seen this down through history from the Crusades to the present moment.”

While Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was “horrified and disgusted” by the near-fatal attack on Pelosi, “it’s clear that too many Republican officials and their mouthpieces in the conspiracy-laden right-wing media are not taking this incident seriously,” a Los Angeles Times editorial charged.

“Instead of treating it for what it is — a reprehensible breach of American values and a dangerous threat to democracy in the heat of election season — they are making jokes and spreading homophobic falsehoods. As if that’s not bad enough, some have the gall to portray themselves as victims when reasonable people push back at this cruel disinformation campaign.”

Clardy said that when he heard that a man allegedly had beaten Pelosi nearly to death with a hammer, he immediately thought of Rep. Preston Brooks, a proslavery Southern Democrat, who brutally caned abolitionist Republican Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in 1856. “I wondered if this was our Sumner-Brooks moment.”

Because Sumner pulled no punches in condemning slavery as inhuman, he was universally despised in Dixie. On May 22, 1856, Brooks, a South Carolina Democrat, ambushed Sumner at his desk, striking him “thirty times or more over the head with a gold-headed cane,” wrote James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. “Sumner, his legs trapped under the bolted down desk, finally wrenched it loose from the floor and collapsed with his head covered by blood.”

White Southerners made a hero of Brooks while ridiculing Sumner. Similarly, the MAGA faithful are making jokes about the near-fatal beating of Pelosi. They include Kari Lake, the GOP gubernatorial hopeful in Arizona, and Donald Trump Jr. At the same time, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-Louisiana) and Elon Musk, the richest man on earth and the new owner of Twitter, tweeted and deleted lies circulating on the MAGA fringe “laden with homophobic innuendoes,” said the Times editorial.

The Richmond Examiner described the assault on Sumner as “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequence,” according to McPherson. The paper flayed “the vulgar Abolitionists in the Senate [for] getting above themselves” and declared, “they have suffered to run too long without collars. They must be lashed into submission.”

McPherson also wrote that future Confederate general Braxton Bragg of Louisiana urged the House to approve a measure thanking Brooks. The historian quoted Bragg: “You can only reach the sensibilities of such dogs” — meaning Sumner — “only through their heads and a big stick.”

The House voted 121 to 95 to expel Brooks, but Southern congressmen united to prevent the two-thirds majority necessary to oust him. Brooks broke his cane, but Southerners sent him dozens of new ones, some with inscriptions like “Hit Him Again” and “Use Knock-Down Arguments,” according to McPherson.

“Brooks resigned anyway and returned home to seek vindication by reelection,” McPherson wrote. “South Carolinians feted him and sent him back to Washington with triumphant unanimity.”

Afterwards, Southern Democrats started carrying pistols and knives into Congress. They punched Northern congressmen and challenged them to duels.

The Civil War came after Kentucky-born Republican Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was elected president. Fearing the new president and his party would end slavery, 11 Southern states — led mainly by Southern Democrats — seceded, founded the Confederate States of America on the twin pillars of slavery and white supremacy, and went to war against the Union to preserve their independence.

The Civil War was America’s most lethal conflict, claiming 620,000 lives.

Political violence embraced by the right

Writing in Politico, Joshua Zeitz pointed out that political violence “doesn’t always emanate from the right. Several years ago, a left-wing radical attempted to gun down several Republican congressmen and nearly succeeded in killing GOP Whip Steve Scalise [in 2017].” (Pelosi joined then Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan in praising Scalise and condemning the man who shot Scalise and others at a Republican practice session for the Congressional baseball game.)

“But in the main, the coercion and bellicosity reside on the right,” Zeitz added. “We see it in the rise of far-right, white power militias like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, who in some cases enjoy semiformal relationships with local Republican Party organizations and leaders. We see it in MAGA rallies, where former President Donald Trump regularly incites violence against journalists and political opponents, oftentimes with GOP officeholders and candidates standing silently beside him. We see it in the growing number of political ads in which Republican candidates brandish assault weapons and even shoot things up.”

Zeitz also wrote that historically, “bombings and sabotage were a common tool of far-left domestic terrorists,” even as late as the 1970s. “But here is the difference this time: In 1970, liberal members of the Senate didn’t march alongside members of the Weather Underground, pump their fists in the air and egg them on. They didn’t align themselves with violent extremists — court their votes, grant interviews to their underground newspapers, appear at their conferences. That’s the stuff of the 1850s, when mainstream Democrats turned away from democracy and openly embraced violence, vigilantism and treason to protect a world they saw at risk of disappearing.”

Zeitz explained that proslavery Southern Democratic violence aimed at antislavery Republicans in the decade that preceded the Civil War “ultimately led a majority of Republicans, who represented the political majority, to draw a line in the sand and enforce it by violence when necessary. If history is a guidepost, we are on the precipice of [a] dangerous future in which politics devolves into a contest of force rather than ideas. That’s a future everyone should want to avoid.”

Clardy agrees, but doubts there will be a shooting civil war, despite talk of armed civil conflict often heard on the extreme right. “We may have a cold civil war with sporadic acts of violence. I pray to God I am wrong. But I fear I'm not.”


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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