Jurisprudence

Trump’s “Lynching” Tweet Isn’t Just Offensive. It’s Dangerous.

We know what happens when powerful people play the victim.

A flag hanging outside the headquarters of the NAACP, bearing the words "A Man Was Lynched Yesterday."
A flag hanging outside the NAACP headquarters in New York, pictured in the late 1930s.
Photo by MPI/Getty Images

On Tuesday morning, Donald Trump tweeted, “If a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here—a lynching. But we will WIN!”

The word lynching conjures the imagery of the 4,000 killed in racial terror lynchings by the 1960s, what Billie Holiday sang as “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” By definition, to be lynched is to be punished or killed (often by a group) without due process or a trial. The president’s claim is facially absurd because he is not being punished without process. His own tweet even indicates that impeachment is the process. If the House of Representatives formally recognizes his wrongdoing after an inquiry, then the Senate will start a trial and reach a verdict.

It is tempting to delve into the distinctions between Trump’s farcical claim and actual horrors of lynching. It is tempting to talk about the Black and brown people who had limbs, genitalia, and even babies cut from their bodies. It is tempting to describe the fetor of burning flesh, or the sight of Emmett Till’s body tied to an industrial fan, or the smiling faces of white women, men, and children as they rejoiced in Black bodies’ last gasps for air. And, to refute politicians of both parties who now suggest lynching is confined to a dark chapter in American history, it is tempting to point to modern-day lynchings perpetuated by white men who assert “stand your ground” defenses after killing Black people, or police officers who rehearse the “I feared for my life” script following their violent acts.

Fortunately, activists, politicians, and scholars condemned Trump’s comparison and his Republican backers. But it’s also important to read Trump’s outrageous claim as a common and dangerous tactic: Powerful people steal the language of those they oppress to signal to others that they themselves are victims. This carefully crafted narrative of victimhood has perpetuated its own lynchings.

Dylann Roof announced, “I have to do this because you are raping our women and taking over the world,” as he murdered nine Black people at the Mother Emanuel church in South Carolina, six of them women. He lynched them. False and mischaracterized assertions of white women’s victimhood inspired thousands of Black beatings, lynchings, and prosecutions. Trump knows this well: He paid for an advertisement in the New York Times to call for the torture and execution of angry “young men,” a reference to the black teens known as the Central Park Five, who were accused—and ultimately exonerated—of raping a jogger.

Justice Clarence Thomas claimed to be a victim of a “high-tech lynching” after his former employee, Anita Hill, a black woman, testified during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings that he sexually harassed her for years. “Lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U. S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree,” he said. Pulling a page from Thomas’ testimony, Bill Cosby and singer R. Kelly borrowed the lynching language to dismiss sexual assault claims against them.

Police officers have also used the language of victimization since coming under more widespread criticism by the Black Lives Matter movement. Under the rallying cry “Blue Lives Matter,” states have passed laws and sentencing enhancements that criminalize protest and provide additional protection for any kind of action that could be interpreted as violence against police officers. But law enforcement is actually far less dangerous than many other jobs; police officer deaths have declined by more than half over the past 40 years. Meanwhile, the number of police shooting victims still hovers at about 1,000 people per year.

The false portrayal of powerful people as victims can inspire vigilantes to identify with and defend them by any means. White supremacists patrol the border to defend their country. Militias showed up to help police arrest anti-fascist protesters in Portland, Oregon, while law enforcement sympathizers have repeatedly rammed their cars into peaceful protests against police violence and ICE.

And Trump’s imaginary victimhood is especially dangerous. He has encouraged the perception of victimhood among white nationalists in particular. He famously called white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, “very fine people” after one murdered counterprotester Heather Heyer. Online, in the press room, and at rallies, he frequently fuels the imaginary fears of an immigrant “invasion.” His campaign ran thousands of online advertisements that warned people like Patrick Crusius that they were under attack from an outside, illegal enemy. Crusius opened fire on dozens of people at a Texas Walmart on an August morning this year. Twenty died. Crusius ignored the massive policing apparatus that exists to surveil and police immigrants and decided it was up to him to stop the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” He imagined he was the victim.

This was a mass lynching. And Trump roused the rope.

As long as he continues to feign victimhood, people will defend him by attacking people of color, immigrants, poor people, and people of faith. Hate crimes have already risen astronomically since his election. But there is no strange fruit at the White House. Just rotten ones.