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 BidenTrump shakes up WH communications team The Hill's Campaign Report: Wisconsin votes despite coronavirus pandemic The Intercept's Ryan Grim says Cuomo is winning over critics MORE and his son, Hunter.

Led by Reps Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) Gaetz2020 on my mind: Democrats have to think like Mitch McConnell Harris knocks Gaetz for taking issue with money for Howard in relief package Critics hit Florida governor over lack of 'sweeping' coronavirus response MORE (R-Fla.), Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksRepublican group asks 'what is Trump hiding' in Times Square billboard Conservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' Trump takes pulse of GOP on Alabama Senate race MORE (R-Ala.), Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTop conservatives pen letter to Trump with concerns on fourth coronavirus relief bill Justice IG pours fuel on looming fight over FISA court The relief bill and public broadcasting: A missed opportunity MORE (R-Ohio), Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertTop conservatives pen letter to Trump with concerns on fourth coronavirus relief bill Lysol, disinfecting wipes and face masks mark coronavirus vote in House The Hill's 12:30 Report: What we know about T stimulus deal MORE (R-Texas) and Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingTop conservatives pen letter to Trump with concerns on fourth coronavirus relief bill Castro forms PAC, boosts five House candidates Man sentenced for throwing glass of water at Steve King 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 GrishamTrump shakes up WH communications team The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Debruyne Says Global Response Platform Needed; Navarro Saw It Coming The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump gets new press secretary in latest shake-up 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 ClintonHistory's lessons for Donald Trump Clintons send pizza to NY hospital staff treating coronavirus Budowsky: President Trump, meet with all former living presidents 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 PelosiLawmakers outline proposals for virtual voting Mattis defends Pentagon IG removed by Trump Overnight Health Care: Trump calls report on hospital shortages 'another fake dossier' | Trump weighs freezing funding to WHO | NY sees another 731 deaths | States battle for supplies | McConnell, Schumer headed for clash MORE (D-Calif.), Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHillicon Valley: Schiff presses intel chief on staff changes | Warren offers plan to secure elections | Twitter's Jack Dorsey to donate B to coronavirus fight | WhatsApp takes steps to counter virus misinformation Schiff calls on DNI Grenell to explain intelligence community changes READ: Schiff plans to investigate Trump firing intel watchdog 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 TrumpCDC updates website to remove dosage guidance on drug touted by Trump Trump says he'd like economy to reopen 'with a big bang' but acknowledges it may be limited Graham backs Trump, vows no money for WHO in next funding bill 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."