On May 22, 1856, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the Senate chamber and proceeded to beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts nearly to death with a cane. Brooks’ attack was prompted by Sumner’s earlier “Crime Against Kansas” speech in which he denounced the “slave power” and verbally attacked Brooks’ cousin, Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, for his “chivalrous” embrace of “the harlot, slavery.”
The incident was just one more example of the polarization that afflicted the country, which would culminate five years later in civil war. The fact was that Northerners and Southerners had stopped viewing each other as fellow citizens, now regarding their opponents as not simply wrong but evil.
Have we reached such a point today? America is again severely polarized and our language all-too-often intemperate. Indeed, some speak of a “cold civil war,” an apt description of today’s social and political environment. But have we reached the point where intemperate speech is translated into violence?
Just ask Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) who in June 2017 was the victim of a politically inspired attack reminiscent of Brooks’ assault against Sumner. Or the victims of the ludicrously misnamed “Antifa” (anti-fascist) thugs or white supremacists who have taken their fight to the streets.
Many blame Donald Trump for today’s incivility and intemperate speech, but these problems predate his presidency. Indeed, Trump’s election may be seen as a reaction against the intemperate contempt that some Americans, especially our elites, show for other Americans who do not share their own political views.
The source of the problem lies in a dangerous virus that threatens the American body politic: not the COVID-19 but the Gramscian cultural Marxism that has executed a “long march” through American institutions, especially the academy, resulting in the emergence of identity politics, which has replaced citizenship with tribalism.
Too many Americans now see themselves not as citizens but as members of tribes based on race, sex, or sexual identity, vying with each other to claim victimhood. “Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who is the most oppressed of all?”
Trump’s election can be seen as a reaction by normal Americans against identity politics run rampant. But in response, Trump’s opponents paint his supporters as at best, nose-breathing, knuckle-dragging bumpkins and at worst, irredeemable racists.
While Trump has not hesitated to mercilessly mock his political opponents, to my knowledge he has not attacked voters. Contrast this with the behavior of liberal elites.
Who can forget the recent CNN panel with Don Lemon and guests mocking Trump supporters as hopelessly ignorant rubes? Or Joe Biden’s propensity for verbally attacking voters who have confronted him on the campaign trail? All of this is just a continuation of Hillary Clinton’s description of Trump supporters as “deplorables.”
The problem with a war of words is that it can lead to violence. As the Scalise shooting and Antifa street violence illustrate, if we believe that our opponents are not just wrong, but evil, violence against them is an acceptable response.
Intemperate language inflames the passions, the enemy of a republican government. Abraham Lincoln confronted the issue in his 1842 address to the Springfield Washington Temperance Society. Although the speech focuses ostensibly on temperance regarding liquor, it is really about temperance or moderation in speech, the manner in which citizens go about persuading one another on a given social or political issue.
“When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim, that a ‘drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’”
The central teaching of Lincoln’s speech applied not only to alcohol but to the intemperate rhetoric that characterized the slavery question. As was the case in the antebellum period, viewing each other as enemies rather than fellow citizens is a recipe for national ruin.