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Accusing critics of a ‘lynching’ not just a Trump thing

Many who’ve used the term are descendants of slaves and free blacks

President Donald Trump speaking Oct. 1 on the South Lawn of the White House. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump speaking Oct. 1 on the South Lawn of the White House. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Donald Trump’s description of his impeachment travails as a “lynching” is by no means the first time a public figure has used that term to attack critics.

But there’s one thing Trump, a self-described billionaire who’s spoken repeatedly — if not always accurately — about his European roots, does not have in common with many who have resorted to the political lynching defense. His ancestors were neither slaves nor descended from free blacks, historically the most frequent targets of mob violence and extrajudicial hangings.

Does comparing a political battle over impeachment, accusations of sexual misconduct or even a criminal indictment trivialize the historic meaning? And how readily should the term be appropriated by white Americans who have no experience with racism and no cultural connection to lynching? Those are among the questions that the president’s lynching tweet has prompted.


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Whatever the answer to those questions may be, using the term “lynching” in a metaphorical sense — more often than not — has involved black public figures. But not exclusively. 

Earlier this year, Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax alluded to lynchings after he was accused of sexual assault. Fairfax is the descendant of slaves in Virginia and carried the manumission papers — the documents that freed that ancestor — with him when he was sworn in as lieutenant governor in 2018.

“I have heard much about anti-lynching on the floor of this very Senate, where people are not given any due process whatsoever, and we rue that,” Fairfax said in February. “And yet we stand here in a rush to judgment in nothing but accusations and no facts, and we are deciding we are willing to do the same thing.”

Fairfax has denied the accusations. He remains in office.

In response to allegations that R&B singer R. Kelly had mistreated women, his management issued a statement in 2018 asserting that they would “vigorously resist this attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.”

And after disgraced entertainer Bill Cosby was convicted on  sexual assault charges in 2018, his crisis manager Andrew Wyatt compared the proceedings to a “public lynching.”  Cosby’s wife Camille alleged on Facebook that “unproven accusations evolved into lynch mobs.”  

Other than Trump, perhaps the most prominent public figure to use the term was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who described the furor over accusations of sexual impropriety that emerged during his confirmation hearing in 1991 as a “high-tech lynching.”

“This is a circus. This is a national disgrace,” Thomas told senators. “And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas.  and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.”

The Senate ultimately confirmed Thomas’ nomination in a 52–48 vote.

In 1990, former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry accused the Department of Justice of a “political lynching” after he was indicted on felony drug charges.

Barry was convicted on one of the charges and served six months in jail, but successfully ran for a fourth term as D.C.’s mayor and as a city council member after his release.

But Trump is not the only white public figure to have made comments about political lynchings.

For example, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who has served on the Judiciary Committee in one capacity or another ever since he was elected to the Senate almost four decades ago, once denounced the hearings into failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork as “little more than a political lynching.” That was in 1988 during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was nominated after Bork’s nomination failed.

Grassley also brought up lynching in 2002 during the nomination process for Thomas Dorr, who was being considered for the position of Agriculture Department undersecretary for rural development.

“I think the hearing went well yesterday unless people are out to politically lynch somebody,” he was quoted as saying in an Associated Press article.

Dorr had been questioned about having to repay the government $17,000 he’d received in federal farm subsidies. 

Statements he made at an agricultural conference in 1999 also raised eyebrows during his nomination hearing. Dorr was quoted as saying farmers  “have been very non-diverse in their ethnic background and their religious background and there’s something there obviously that has enabled them to succeed very well.”

Dorr’s nomination was derailed in the Senate but President George W. Bush ultimately put him in the job with a recess appointment.

And conservative commentator Ann Coulter echoed Thomas’ 1991 “high-tech lynching” remarks when defending onetime presidential candidate Herman Cain, whom she described as a “strong, conservative black man,” after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against him in 2011.  

Cain denied the accusations.

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