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Return of the Plug-Uglies

Return of the Plug-Uglies November 30, 2021

Image via YouTube

I’M reading a book by Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman, above, about violence in the US Congress in the decades before the Civil War. It’s not a random choice, the product of browsing the library shelves for whatever looks interesting, of course – it’s a choice motivated by the hideous shameful mess that is the US Congress right now today this minute.

We don’t know what apocalypse of violence this decade is leading to, but maybe we can learn something about the pattern.

Freeman provides a striking picture of political violence outside Congress in her Introduction:

There was hand-to-hand combat and rioting at polling places. On one memorable occasion in Washington in 1857, three nativist gangs – the Plug Uglies, the Chunkers, and the Rip-Raps – joined forces to terrorize immigrants casting votes, causing a riot. When the panicked mayor called in the Marines, the three gangs hauled a cannon into play, though they never fired it. By the time the brawl subsided, several people had been killed.

The Plug Uglies were notorious for being instigators of many Nativist riots in Baltimore from 1854–1865. Image via Wikipedia CC.

It sounds all too familiar, now. It didn’t until very recently and now it does – which causes me to have dark thoughts about how easily we think that the way things are now is the natural or normal one and that therefore they will go on being that way. We had decades, yes decades, of Congress after Congress that didn’t involve fist-fights or canings or shots fired, or even threats of same. We didn’t realize how lucky we were.

Freeman continues:

In 1857, there was an all-out row in the Illinois legislature featuring “considerable wrestling, knocking over chairs, desks, inkstands, men, and things generally.” In 1858, state assemblies in both New York and Massachusetts dissolved into fisticuffs … The Arkansas House deserves special mention. In 1837, when a representative insulted the Speaker during debate, the Speaker stepped down from his platform, bowie knife in hand, and killed him. Expelled and tried for murder, he was acquitted for excusable homicide and reelected, only to pull his knife on another legislator during debate, though this time the sound of colleagues cocking pistols stopped him cold.

Colorful! Would make a great film! Or how about a 75-episode series on Netflix, starring a digitally resurrected Orson Welles as the Speaker.

Freeman warns us of the dangers:

A top Yale historian, Joanne Freeman, warned that a tweet from GOP Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona depicting deadly violence against Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York is indicative of the broader threat the Republican party poses to democracy in the US.

In the controversial tweet, which Gosar shared on Monday, the Arizona Republican is depicted as an anime character who at one point seemingly fatally wounds another character with Ocasio-Cortez’s face.

Paul Gosar. Image via YouTube

Freeman, who specializes in early American politics and political culture, wrote a book on violence in Congress prior to the Civil War: The Field of Blood. In a tweet responding to Gosar’s violent anime video, Freeman said, “Threats of violence lead to actual violence. They clear the ground. They cow opposition. They plant the idea. They normalize it. They encourage it. They maim democracy. And run the risk of killing it.”

I suspect that to Gosar and those like him, killing democracy is not a risk but a hope. I think they want a combination theocracy-junta, in which the majority does what it’s told and the minority does the telling.

Gosar was widely criticized online over the tweet and video.

“This is sick behavior from Rep. Paul Gosar,” Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California tweeted.

“This is grotesque and demands action by the House of Representatives and social media companies. Glorification & incitement of violence is not just toxic to our democracy, but dangerous for my friends and colleagues. Enough is enough!” Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado tweeted.

It’s enough for people who don’t like violence and arbitrary rule, but the US population includes way too many people who love both.

Historians like Freeman, as well as experts on authoritarianism and democracy watchdogs, have increasingly raised alarm bells about the GOP’s normalization of violence in recent years. The concern over the GOP’s violent rhetoric and its impact on American democracy accelerated following the deadly January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, which President Donald Trump provoked via lies about the 2020 election. Many sitting Republican lawmakers, including Gosar, amplified Trump’s false claims about the election and objected to certifying the results.

Gosar has been accused of involvement in the planning of the fatal riot at the Capitol, though he’s denied this.

The New York Times reported on the rise in violent rhetoric a few weeks ago:

At a conservative rally in western Idaho last month, a young man stepped up to a microphone to ask when he could start killing Democrats.

“When do we get to use the guns?” he said as the audience applauded. “How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?” The local state representative, a Republican, later called it a “fair” question.

Very fair, except for the part about killing, and the part about using guns, and the part about stealing elections.

Polling indicates that 30 percent of Republicans, and 40 percent of people who “most trust” far-right news sources, believe that “true patriots” may have to resort to violence to “save” the country — a statement that gets far less support among Democrats and independents.

Such views, routinely expressed in warlike or revolutionary terms, are often intertwined with white racial resentments and evangelical Christian religious fervor — two potent sources of fuel for the G.O.P. during the Trump era — as the most animated Republican voters increasingly see themselves as participants in a struggle, if not a kind of holy war, to preserve their idea of American culture and their place in society.

That’s just great, isn’t it? Theocracy plus racism, armed and dangerous.

I would like to be able to say something optimistic at this point. I’d like to be able to say that the Paul Gosars and Lauren Boeberts and Marjorie Taylor Greenes are a small minority and will never prevail, but I can’t.

Republican legislatures in many states are carefully reshaping Congressional districts to guarantee Republican majorities, and the Supreme Court is already Republican-majority, and reactionary Republican-majority at that. I’d be tempted to move to Alaska to escape the worst of it, but it’s melting.


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