Juvenile Political Violence In Congress

[ Posted Wednesday, November 15th, 2023 – 17:36 UTC ]

What is one to make of the sudden rise in physical altercations (or threats thereof) in the halls of Congress? Well, you can play it for comedy, that's certainly the first impulse. Or you can adopt a sort of "Tsk, tsk!" tone and go for the moral highroad. Then there is the traditional fallback of the opposition party using it to score political points. But in these uncertain times (to say the least) one might be tempted to fit this into a bigger picture and say it is part and parcel of a dark and very dangerous trend in American politics right now: the normalization and acceptance (by one party) of political violence.

Let's take each of these in turn. Feel free to support any of them -- they all make a certain amount of sense, and they're not mutually exclusive (you can mix and match). And only time will tell whether this trend accelerates or continues at the school-playground level it's been at this particular week.


Play it for laughs

It all is pretty funny, you've got to admit. Members of Congress calling each other "Smurfs" (or far worse). Somebody getting a sharp elbow to the back in a crowded hallway. What could be more "junior high"? Picking a fight in a wildly inappropriate setting. If I were an enterprising young congressional reporter, I might start staking out the congressional cafeteria each day, just on the off chance a food fight might break out. Boy, wouldn't that be some great video?!?

You see how easy it is? Tune in to any late-night comedy show for more of these jokes (and better ones, admittedly). The elbow-in-the-back dustup was particularly ripe for such ridicule, especially considering the juvenile way both Representatives Kevin McCarthy (the alleged shover) and Tim Burchett (the alleged shovee) responded to the press afterwards.

McCarthy, while denying he had hit Burchett, bragged: "If I hit somebody, they would know it. If I kidney-punched someone, they would be on the ground."

Burchett, also bragging, said that if he did ever have an actual fight with McCarthy, "It would be a very short fistfight, I can tell you that."

Senator Markwayne Mullin, who tried to throw down with the head of the Teamsters Union in a Senate committee hearing room, later revealed in an interview what any foe could expect from him in a fight: "By the way, I'm not afraid of biting... I'll bite, one hundred percent. In a fight, I'm going to bite. I'll do anything. I'm not above it. And I don't care where I bite, by the way."

If that isn't enough for the late-night comedy writers, it also helps to know that Mullin, before he became a United States senator from Oklahoma, used to be a professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter. The jokes just write themselves, folks.


Tsk! Tsk!

This was best exemplified by an article in the Washington Post with the headline (you just can't make this stuff up): "Lawmaker Dudes Are Getting Kinda Fight-y."

After running down all the details of the back-and-forth between Senator Mullin and the Union boss (which ended with the exchange: "You stand your butt up, then." "You stand your butt up, big guy."), the article got just a wee bit snarky and more than a little schoolmarmish:

As preamble to a fight, it was all very crisp and official. As a proceeding of a Senate committee, it was completely juvenile and absurd. What in the name of Vince McMahon is going on in Congress these days?

The Capitol has become, since the events of Jan. 6, 2021, much like an expensive sofa purchased by the parents of toddlers. In the beginning, there were rules -- no food, no shoes -- and an agreement that this object is to be treated with care and respect. But then someone has a massive diaper blowout on the center cushion -- an insurrection, if you will -- and the stain can’t be removed, and after that a few toast crumbs no longer seem like such a big deal. Before you know it, the whole Congress is spray-painting the couch with grape juice and Go-Gurt.

That is a nice metaphor, I have to admit. And as you can see, there is some overlap between these categories. It's hard not to let some comedy seep into your remarks, even when wagging a "Tsk, tsk!" finger.

The urge to take the moral high road even reached to a darling of rightwing media, Laura Ingraham. No, really! She went out of her way to praise Bernie Sanders for breaking up the impending fight:

I never thought I'd say this, but Bernie Sanders seems to be the voice of reason here. Everything you just saw was a complete and utter embarrassment. It shouldn't be what is projected to our kids from our nation's capital. Reminder to all of you: The children are watching.


Make political hay

Likewise, it's hard not to let comedy seep in even when you're scoring political points. As Senator Elizabeth Warren did, in response: "I used to teach 4-to-6-year-olds. They were better behaved than some of the people in this place."

Democrats could take this further, if they wanted to: "Let's just go ahead and set up a cage-match arena in the Capitol basement, where Republicans can hold their gladiator fights. Think of the ratings! C-SPAN would hit record viewership, that's my guess...."

Or you could point out the sheer childishness and lack of self-control, and what this says about the Republican Party in general. Or, even better, attack the party as a whole: "Republicans are getting more and more unhinged in their use of political violence and what strikes me is how none of the rest of them ever seem to stand up to it and say: 'Stop it! This is not who we are as a party!' -- which leaves the inescapable conclusion that, yes, this is who they are as a party."

Another option is to ask the question directly to the voters: "Is this what you really want representing you in Washington? People who are getting into shoving matches and threatening fistfights? While the rest of the party looks the other way and pretends it's not happening? The Republican Party is nothing more than a bunch of schoolyard bullies and little toadies to those bullies who are so craven that they cheer the bullies on in an effort not to be the bullies' target. This is pathetic, but this is what you get when you elect Republicans to Congress, folks."

Or you can make a point about the culpability of the media, as Bernie Sanders did. Bernie's the chair of the committee where Mullin tried to pick a fight with the witness, and he quite correctly pointed out that Republicans do outrageous things because it works -- it gets their faces on the evening news. All while the serious business of Congress gets completely ignored, because it is seen as having no entertainment value. In an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, Sanders made this point:

"Well, it's pretty pathetic," [Senator Bernie Sanders] told [Anderson] Cooper. "I mean, we have a United States senator challenging, you know, a member of the panel who is the head of one of the larger unions in America, which has just negotiated a very good contract for their workers, the Teamsters."

Sanders lamented, "This is what goes on in a Senate hearing, and that's why the American people are getting sick and tired at what goes on here in Congress" when the country faces numerous other crises such as wealth inequality and climate change.

The former Democratic presidential candidate then accused the media of playing a role by focusing on controversial moments in hearings rather than the substance of what was being discussed.

That article didn't provide them, but here is a little of what Sanders had to say on that subject: "Might be nice for the media to pay attention to really what the hearing was about." When Cooper asked if the Senate is getting as bad as the House in terms of political grandstanding (while Cooper studiously avoided admitting his own culpability in putting these things on the air), Bernie drove the point home: "The media plays its role.... [the] media plays a role too -- you tell me, is the media more interested in a confrontation than why we have massive levels of income and wealth inequality?"

Obviously, the answer to Bernie's question is: "Duh."


These aren't isolated events

This isn't all happening in a vacuum. The de facto leader of the Republican Party has long encouraged his followers to commit political violence. That's just a fact. And he's getting even worse about this as he finally is facing legal reckoning for his past misdeeds. Republicans, terrified of the hold Donald Trump has over his MAGA base, either look the other way and pretend it isn't happening, try to gaslight everyone into believing it's really no big deal, or actively join in this egging on of political violence.

Politicians behaving badly works, on the only level that means anything to Trump: it gets your face on television. How many people had heard the name "Markwayne Mullin" before this week? How many know who he is now? That sort of exposure is worth millions of dollars to a politician. And the Republicans are being led by a man who firmly believes the old Hollywood adage: "There is no 'bad' press." Getting your name and face on television is worth it no matter what the reason for you getting coverage actually is. There are 100 senators and 435 representatives, so the easiest way of standing out from the pack (these days) is to do something completely outrageous. Even Anderson Cooper with his "Tsk, tsk!" attitude while interviewing Bernie was putting Mullin's misbehavior front and center. This stuff works, folks. Every single time. Even when whatever Republicans do is so minor that it doesn't make a big mainstream media splash, it'll be guaranteed to be heavily featured in the rightwing media echo chamber, which is all that really matters to them (since it is how most of their voters get their news).

And throughout it all, they can always point to Trump as an example of someone who has done or said far worse (although Republicans would probably frame that as "someone even bolder"). Which, sadly, is accurate. Trump has no problem with political violence, as long as those committing it are his supporters. Political violence from his opponents, however, should (as far as he is concerned) be met with as much force as possible. If Trump becomes president, he will invoke the Insurrection Act at the drop of a hat and send in the military to attack demonstrators. To Trump, if he's president, then any protest against him qualifies as an attempted insurrection (for disloyalty to the Dear Leader), plain and simple. This is the end of the political-violence road, after all: using the military power of the state to suppress any domestic opposition to anything you are doing.



As I've noted, these aren't mutually exclusive, so whatever reaction you choose to this week's eruption of junior-high-school bullying by Republicans will probably contain shades of more than one of them.

On one level, this is hilarious. Congressmen acting like 8th-grade bullies. Wondering when the first actual fistfight is going to break out in the halls of the U.S. Capitol. Senator Markwayne Mullin seems to be researching the possibility, even. In an interview after his near-altercation, after he was asked whether there was any actual Senate rule against duking it out ("Could you guys go bare-knuckle if you wanted to?"), Mullin responded: "We looked into the rules. You used to be able to cane.... President Andrew Jackson challenged nine guys to a duel and won nine times.... At the end of the day, there is presence [sic] for it." Obviously, he meant to say "precedence" there, but it's astounding that a United States senator would want to bring back the days of one senator beating another senseless with a cane (which did indeed happen... a long time ago). Which is why it is also deadly serious as well.

In normal times, any outbursts such as the ones we have witnessed this week would have been strongly condemned by party leaders. The offending congressmen would have been quietly taken behind closed doors and told to get their act together or else. But those days are gone, at least for the Republican Party. How can congressional leaders even attempt to do so when Donald Trump is out there cheering on political violence (both great and small)?

So feel free to have mixed reactions to all of this. On the one hand, it is fodder for late-night comedians' jokes. On the other hand, we may look back later and wonder why nobody saw these as dire warning signs for whatever comes next. That is the political world we now live in, folks.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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