History repeating itself? Biden and Trump not the first to use ‘rage rhetoric’ for political gain
President Joe Biden recently stood in front of a blood-red background in Philadelphia, framed by two Marines, to denounce millions of “MAGA Republicans” and his political opponents as “semi-fascist” extremists. In Wilkes-Barre, Pa., former president Donald Trump stood before his followers and denounced Biden as an “enemy of the state” and the FBI as “vicious monsters.”
Although I have previously expressed alarm over what I call the “age of rage,” we are seeing a more serious turn as our leaders fuel that rage in hopes of retaining or regaining power.
Not surprisingly, polls show more than 40 percent of voters now believe we are heading into a civil war. Not only are more columnists discussing the approach of a possible civil war, President Biden reportedly told a senior Democrat: “I certainly hope [my presidency] works out. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure we’re going to have a country.”
A Trafalgar poll shows a majority of Americans believe Biden tried to “incite conflict” with his Philadelphia speech. Given an opportunity to assume higher ground after that speech, Trump instead engaged in the same kind of unhinged rhetoric. Liberal and conservative pundits add to all that by discussing the gathering clouds of civil war while blaming each other.
While many insist there is a systemic failure of our political system, the United States faces not a constitutional crisis but a crisis of leadership, because both parties view rage as a political weapon.
As polls show the midterm election tightening, both parties appear to be giving up reason in favor of rage for better results.
Despite our history of highly divisive periods, this is one of the most dangerous we have encountered.
I recently completed a study of what I call “rage rhetoric” and how our country has addressed such periods, legally and politically, from colonial to contemporary times. Rage politics is the most dangerous form of demagoguery. With the rise of democracy came a rise in demagogues who sought to use rage to generate popular support. As Aristotle noted, demagogues “are like the fishers for eels; in still waters they catch nothing, but if they thoroughly stir up the slime, their fishing is good.” The fishing is particularly good today, as people tend to receive their news from siloed, partisan sources.
Rage politics is nothing new
Rage politics is not new to America, and the period that is most similar to today occurred at the very start of our republic.
At the start of the 19th century, the newly minted nation was deeply divided between Federalists aligned with John Adams and Democratic-Republicans aligned with Thomas Jefferson. President Adams labeled Jeffersonians as “seditionists,” while Jefferson referred to the Adams administration as “the reign of the witches.”
Adams sought to punish his opponents through the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts. Vermont Rep. Matthew Lyon was prosecuted for criticizing Adams’ “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.” Adams seemed eager to prove the point through partisan prosecutions. Twenty-five leading Democratic-Republicans were arrested, including journalists; others were threatened with arrest if they uttered such thoughts.
Federalist journalist William Cobbett called Jeffersonians “frog-eating, man-eating, blood-drinking cannibals” and the “refuse of nations.” Federalist newspapers predicted that if the Jeffersonians prevailed, then “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”
Not unlike today, Supreme Court justices also were threatened. Then-Chief Justice John Jay was hated for his negotiation of what became known as the Jay Treaty with Great Britain; he was a target of Democratic-Republicans who considered the court a cabal of political activists. One editorial declared: “John Jay, ah! The Arch traitor — seize him, drown him, flay him alive.” Crowds burned Jay in effigy, including a Kentucky mob that stuffed its effigy with gunpowder, guillotined it, then blew it up. Jay remarked that he could travel the “country at night by the light of [my] burning effigies.”
Later, Chief Justice John Marshall also was burned in effigy after writing the famous opinion in Marbury v. Madison. While the opinion is known for laying the foundations of judicial authority, it was an outgrowth of Adams’ attempt to appoint a slew of “Midnight judges” in his final hours as president, in order to dominate the courts. (Sound familiar?)
Today’s leaders seek to garner support by leading the mob. In 2020, for example, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) declared on the steps of the Supreme Court: “I want to tell you, [Justice] Gorsuch, I want to tell you, [Justice] Kavanaugh, you have released the whirlwind and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”
People like Schumer hardly make convincing revolutionaries. They want to tap into the energy of rage while assuming it will be directed solely at their opponents — but history often has proven such assumptions wrong. Revolutions take on an appetite of their own; French journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan famously observed during the French Revolution that “like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.”
Today’s rage rhetoric is strikingly similar to what we saw in the Adams-Jefferson period. Though many denounced Biden’s speech as inflammatory and divisive, others complained it did not go far enough. MSNBC regular Elie Mystal objected to Biden’s use of “MAGA Republicans” when, he claimed, all Republicans are white supremacists. Mystal and others have denounced the Constitution as “trash,” and even some law professors want to “reclaim America from Constitutionalism.”
Rather than temper such passions, both Biden and Trump appear intent on fueling the rage to win at any cost in 2022 and 2024. With leaders on both sides trafficking in rage politics, it is hardly surprising that Americans expect an increase in political violence.
Fortunately, our Constitution was not just written for times like these, it was written and ratified in times like these. It (and we) have survived.
As we did in the 1800s, we will not commit the self-immolation advocated by so many — but the costs are likely to be high, due to the failure of leadership that is fueling this crisis of faith.
Author James Freeman Clarke once said “a politician thinks of the next election; a statesman thinks of the next generation.” Today, we have far too many politicians and far too few statesmen at an increasingly perilous moment.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.