When President Donald Trump claimed this week that an impeachment inquiry amounts to a “lynching,” it was a major controversy, with Democrats (and some Republicans) condemning his words.
But a couple hours later that same day, it surfaced that some Democratic members of Congress used the term “lynch” in the 1990s to defend President Bill Clinton from impeachment, including then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and the lawmaker who would be in charge of writing up articles of impeachment against Trump, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold E. Nadler, D-N.Y. (“At least five House Democrats called Bill Clinton’s impeachment a ‘lynching’ in 1998,” StarTribune.com, Oct. 23.)
As far as can be surmised, there wasn’t a massive outcry the way there was Tuesday against Trump.
Biden apologized for using the term but claimed that the way Trump used it was worse, tweeting: “This wasn’t the right word to use and I’m sorry about that. Trump on the other hand chose his words deliberately today in his use of the word lynching and continues to stoke racial divides in this country daily.”
So what’s different this time? A few theories:
We’re more culturally aware now: From widespread police shootings of black people, to the #MeToo movement, to some presidential candidates talking about reparations for slavery. There were race riots in the 1990s that captured the nation’s attention, but the United States feels like it’s at a more reflective moment today over race, gender and how minorities are treated.
The media landscape has changed from the ’90s: Cable news was just coming of age during the Clinton impeachment. There certainly weren’t social media and smartphone alerts that allow news to ricochet across the globe in seconds. More people heard about Trump’s lynching comment in a smaller amount of time, allowing for more politicians to react and for the story to build up more quickly than a floor speech in the U.S. House that few people were watching in real time.
Trump said it: This is the big one for a few reasons. One is that Trump is president of the United States, so his words carry more weight than those of a member of Congress. He’s also white, and the majority of lynching victims were black. For the most powerful (white) person in the world right now to compare his plight in an impeachment inquiry, where lawmakers are following very real evidence, to the gruesome, death-by-torture mob mentality that claimed the lives of thousands of powerless black men was especially dissonant. It was Trump’s extreme victimhood on display, and it’s possible he truly believes he has been wronged on a par with lynching victims, writes the Eugene Scott in the Washington Post blog The Fix.
But perhaps the most notable reason Trump’s lynching comments drew a major outcry was because the president no longer gets the benefit of the doubt that he is innocently using offensive language. He has a history of making racially inflammatory and even outright racist statements. Demonizing people of color and stereotyping black communities have been part of his campaign since day one. He also has a well-documented lack of empathy for people who are struggling.
Combine those things, and it’s hard to believe that Trump did not mean to draw a direct contrast between what’s happening to him now and the real lynchings of the 19th and 20th centuries. Especially when one of his top supporters in Congress, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., clarified that for Trump, this is “a lynching in every sense of the word.”
Trump just doesn’t get the credit afforded other politicians that he was using language derived from political discourse rather than deliberately invoking America’s racist past.
Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix, a Washington Post blog.