Kansas history professor says violent mobs are ‘carrying on a deeply American tradition’

Protesters and counter protesters face off on Aug. 15, 2020, near the downtown of Stone Mountain, Georgia. Georgia's Stone Mountain Park, which is famous for its large rock carving of Confederate leaders, planned to close in response to a planned right-wing rally. (Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon/Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Daniel McClure is an assistant professor of history at Fort Hays State University.

This past weekend’s violence in Washington, D.C., follows other outbursts in the weeks since the election, as many of President Donald Trump’s supporters embraced the “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theory and offered their weapons in defense of the president’s unfounded assertions of victory.

They were carrying on a deeply American tradition: experiencing liberty and freedom through unrestrained antagonism towards those deemed internal enemies.

Conspiratorial and paramilitary threats of violence from those disenchanted with the conclusion to the Trump era are hardly an original feature in America’s history of populist-conservatism. The social media information flows feeding QAnon fantasies and conservative news platforms accommodating these ideas might be new, but the instinct toward violence, particularly armed mob violence, is not.

In fact, it is a distinctive feature of American community formation, from slave patrols and Native American massacres to white-instigated race riots such as the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 and the sadistic spectacle of lynching.

To understand the connection between our current polarization and our violent past, we might reexamine D.H. Lawrence’s 1923 “Studies in Classic American Literature.” Writing during an extended stay in the United States, the Englishman observed the way liberty and freedom often came in the form of populist violence:

  This the land of the free! Why, if I say anything that displeases them, the free mob will lynch me, and that’s my freedom. Free? Why, I have never been in any country where the individual has such an abject fear of his fellow countrymen. Because, as I say, they are free to lynch the moment he shows he is not one of them.   – D.H. Lawrence

In the months leading up to the election, militias gathered to “help” local police quell social justice movements protesting the deep history of American racism. White nationalists joined the fray, infiltrating protests as agent provocateurs hoping to escalate the violence. In a projection of strength, Trump even sent federal agents — often unmarked — to heighten the standoff.

With his political capital driven by his constituents’ resentment, the president of the United States had already called for insurrection against liberal state governors who followed science-informed guidelines when the Covid-19 lockdown occurred in the spring. In Michigan, a noose held a doll made to represent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. In response, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” More recently an armed mob descended upon Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s home, where she and her young child endured obscenities from upset Trump supporters upset at the election results.

This taste of sanctioned mob belligerency will not go away soon. While the pop-culture image of sheriffs might have originated with Andy Griffith, by 2020, a new archetype modeled on the old emerged: an Arkansas police chief who, days after the election, called for mob violence against Democrats: “throw water on them at restaurants. Push them off sidewalks. Never let them forget they are traitors and have no right to live in this Republic after what they have done”; “death to all Marxist Democrats. Take no prisoners leave no survivors!!” Such rhetoric was a reminder of how close we are to the violent era of Jim Crow. Finally, a recent petition called for Trump to declare martial law and suspend the constitution.

The Trump branded armed mob signals a new era of counterculture reaction. Born of pre-Civil Rights era traditions — when “America was great” — the rejuvenation of populist lust taps into the centuries-old sentiments defining American freedom and liberty: when white intimidation of historically marginalized people occurred with impunity and celebration. Lawrence noted this endemic national attribute, the American stripped bare of innocence and ready to vent frustration at those deemed “enemies of the state”:

  But you have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.   – D.H. Lawrence

As we stumble towards 2021, we seem irreparably lost in the various sets of information flows holding us hostage to isolated views of reality.

As online information flows crowd out meaningful dialogue — who has ever won a fight on Facebook? — person-to-person interactions appear to be the best alternative.

The momentum of the mob is hard to stop — ask any officer of the law who tried to halt a lynching between the 1800s and early 1900s. In this age of the Trump mob, insurrectionary populist intimidation threatens to become the bridge replacing the confederate battle flag with the Trump flag as the new symbol of white resentment.

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