Why the GOP march of mad hatters poses a threat to our Democracy

On May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks (D-S.C.) marched onto the Senate floor and brutally beat Republican Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) with a cane. Sumner had insulted Brooks’ cousin, Andrew Butler, for his role in “the crime against Kansas,” legislation allowing the western territory to enter the Union as a slave state. The assault, which incapacitated Sumner for months, shocked Americans, who regarded it as an intrusion of violence into the heart of American institutions.

Fast-forward to a conference room in the bowels of the House of Representatives on Oct. 23, 2019, where Defense Department official Laura Cooper was scheduled to testify to three House committees about the Trump administration’s postponement of a military appropriation to help Ukraine defend itself against a Russian-backed occupation of its territory and allegations of a quid pro quo to release the funds if the president of Ukraine launched an investigation of Joe BidenJoe BidenGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides MORE and his son, Hunter.

Led by Reps Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzSchiff told Gaetz to 'absent yourself' in fiery exchange: impeachment transcript Do Republicans understand the Constitution? Ocasio-Cortez: 'Major crime' against Katie Hill will deter other female candidates MORE (R-Fla.), Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksTrump takes pulse of GOP on Alabama Senate race The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems unveil impeachment measure; Vindman splits GOP Jeff Sessions calling Alabama lawmakers about 2020 Senate bid MORE (R-Ala.), Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanGraham says Schiff should be a witness in Trump impeachment trial Democrats seize on new evidence in first public impeachment hearing House Republicans call impeachment hearing 'boring,' dismiss Taylor testimony as hearsay MORE (R-Ohio), Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertLive coverage: House holds first public impeachment hearing GOP lawmaker invokes possibility of 'civil war' after House votes on Trump impeachment procedures Why the GOP march of mad hatters poses a threat to our Democracy MORE (R-Texas) and Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingWhy the GOP march of mad hatters poses a threat to our Democracy MSNBC's Donny Deutsch: 'Pathetic' Republicans who stormed closed hearing are 'boring, nerdy-looking white guys' Overnight Defense: Trump lifts sanctions on Turkey | 'Small number' of troops to remain by Syrian oil fields | Defense official's impeachment testimony delayed five hours after Republicans storm secure room MORE (R-Iowa) — paragons of civility, protocol, and the rule of law — more than two dozen Republican mad hatters marched into the room to denounce, disrupt, and distract attention from  the investigation.

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Instead of a cane, they brandished their cellphones (a risk to national security that violates House rules), so their constituents could see them in action in real time. In contrast to the caning of Sen. Sumner, their violence was verbal: Rep. Gaetz branded the Democrats “rabid hyenas.” Approved in advance by President Donald Trump, their protest was linked to statements by the president and his press secretary, Stephanie GrishamStephanie GrishamDemocrats seize on new evidence in first public impeachment hearing More Democrats in poll say Trump will finish first term amid impeachment inquiry The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democrats open televised impeachment hearings MORE, that labelled diplomats willing to testify in the growing Ukraine scandal and Republicans who failed to support him “Never Trumpers,” “radical unelected bureaucrats,” and “human scum.” Their strategy followed the Trump playbook: If the facts are not on your side, libel the presenters of those facts, trash the process, and hope no one is paying enough attention to realize that you are creating fake news.

Despite its ludic character, this strategy poses a threat to our democracy. Here’s why:

Such an intrusion is especially inappropriate — and damaging — because no principle is at stake. After all, the Republican argument that closed-door hearings are wrong is contradicted by Republican past practice as well as the two previous impeachment proceedings of modern times. While Judiciary Committee hearings are usually held in open session, closed hearings are customary for others, including the Intelligence Committee, which handles classified and sensitive information related to national security.

In the early phases of the impeachment investigations of Richard Nixon and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Harris lead Trump in Georgia: Poll Keep your eye on essential facts in the unfolding impeachment circus MORE, witnesses did not testify in public. Nor were the hearings on the terrorist attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi. In fact, Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who chaired the Benghazi proceedings, refused access to Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), his Republican colleague and chair of the House Oversight Committee. Public hearings, Gowdy subsequently explained, have taken on  “a professional wrestling type carnival atmosphere.” The Democrats, it is important to add, are operating under procedures enacted by a Republican majority in 2015. The Trump administration has responded to subpoenas for documents and testimony with a blanket refusal to cooperate with the investigation. And Democrats have promised to conduct public hearings following the information-gathering phase of their inquiry.

Second, breaking the rules of the House may lead to a spiral of movement/countermovement interaction that could increase the dysfunction in government by exacerbating the already-tense and intensely partisan climate in Congress. “Regular order,” as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) frequently said, is essential to well-functioning legislatures. 

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Third, the Republicans’ strategy — including the president’s foul and inflammatory language  — may well trigger less comic and more violent forms of collective behavior by his supporters outside of Congress. Already, in response to Trump’s call for the Republicans to “get tough,” Major League umpire Rob Drake threatened to buy an AR-15 to attack anyone who would dare to impeach “his” president.

What can be done? Democrats should — in the words of Michelle Obama — “go high when they go low.” Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Speaker Pelosi, it's time to throw American innovators a lifeline Why Americans must tune in to the Trump impeachment hearings MORE (D-Calif.), Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffGraham: Senate trial 'must expose the whistleblower' Graham says Schiff should be a witness in Trump impeachment trial Democrats seize on new evidence in first public impeachment hearing MORE (D-Calif.), and their Democratic colleagues in the House should think carefully about when and how they will present the already-damning and — to a growing number of Americans — irrefutable indictment of President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE that has come from the unimpeachable, patriotic, non-partisan sources they have interviewed — anyone inclined to believe that William B. Taylor and Marie Yovanovitch are “radical unelected bureaucrats” or “human scum” should read their biographies.

As for the Republicans, we can only hope  that more responsible, saner spirits will triumph over the Gaetzes and Gohmerts. If principled arguments do not persuade them, perhaps they will realize that the time will come — and it may be soon — when the Democrats will be in a position to censure similar stunts.

Finally, Americans faced by the spectacle of congressional comedy should resist the temptation to tune out… After all, it is our duty as citizens to decide whether the behavior of the president and his acolytes is compatible with their obligations under the Constitution.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic:  Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century. Sidney Tarrow is the Maxwell Upson Emeritus Professor of Government at Cornell University. He is author of Power in Movement (2011) and the co-editor (with David S. Meyer) of "The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement."