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July 3rd, 2022

Insight

'This mobocratic spirit'

Jeff Jacoby

By Jeff Jacoby

Published Jan. 12, 2021

'This mobocratic spirit'
In January 1838, an up-and-coming Illinois lawyer and Whig politician named Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech at the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield. His subject: unbridled political emotionalism and the social disorder it was fueling around the country.

There is an "increasing disregard for law which pervades the country," Lincoln told his listeners — a "growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts, and the worse-than-savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice."

Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the everyday news of the times. They have pervaded the country, from New England to Louisiana. . . .

It would be tedious as well as useless to recount the horrors of all of them. Those happening in the state of Mississippi, and at St. Louis, are perhaps the most dangerous in example and revolting to humanity. In the Mississippi case, they first commenced by hanging the regular gamblers. . . . Next, Negroes, suspected of conspiring to raise an insurrection, were caught up and hanged in all parts of the state: then, white men, supposed to be leagued with the Negroes; and finally, strangers, from neighboring states, going thither on business, were . . . subjected to the same fate. Thus went on this process of hanging, from gamblers to Negroes, from Negroes to white citizens, and from these to strangers; till dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every roadside. . . .

Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim only was sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is perhaps the most highly tragic . . . that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.

Such are the effects of mob law; and such are the scenes, becoming more and more frequent in this land so lately famed for love of law and order.

Lincoln could have mentioned another example of mob violence, one that had struck much closer to home just two months earlier: the violent attack in nearby Alton, Ill., on Elijah P. Lovejoy and his antislavery newspaper, The Observer . Twice Lovejoy's shop had been invaded by furious anti-abolitionists, who had wrecked his equipment and thrown his printing presses into the Mississippi River. Lovejoy gathered a band of armed supporters to protect a third press from the same fate, but on Nov. 7, 1837, a mob set fire to the warehouse where the press was stored and shot Lovejoy dead.

The point Lincoln was making at the Lyceum that day was not that mob attacks are bad. It was that uncontrolled political emotion cannot help but whip up furious public passions, suppress good judgment, and lead to horrifying outbreaks of violence. If hyperemotional politics cannot be reined in, he said, they will lead to the end of democratic self-government in America.

When mobs are allowed to rampage, the "lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice."


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While on the other hand, good men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their country; seeing their property destroyed, their families insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured; and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better; become tired of, and disgusted with, a government that offers them no protection; and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose.

Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocratic spirit, which all must admit is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any government . . . may effectually be broken down and destroyed — I mean, the attachment of the people. Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons . . . with impunity — depend on it, this government cannot last.

Lincoln wasn't only speaking of American life in the 1830s. He was also speaking of American life in the 2020s. He was speaking of Wednesday's atrocities in Washington, DC, where pro-Trump rioters — egged on by a president vowing to "never concede" and exhorting them "to show strength" — rampaged through the halls of Congress, smashed windows, chanted "Hang Mike Pence!" and fatally bludgeoned a Capitol Hill Police officer with a fire extinguisher.

And he was speaking of the horror-show in dozens of American cities last spring and summer, in Minneapolis and Portland and Los Angeles and Philadelphia and St. Louis, where rioters in the wake of the George Floyd killing erupted in an orgy of smashing, burning, looting, statue-toppling, and killing. And he was speaking of the protests that turned violent and destructive on Inauguration Day in 2017, when passionate Trump opponents broke windows, set fires, and vowed to " resist from Day 1." And he was speaking of the passionate Trump supporters at "Make America Great Again" rallies, bellowing "Lock her up!" at the mention of Hillary Clinton or cheering Trump's wish to "punch him [a heckler] in the face."

Even at age 28, Lincoln knew well how much is at risk when Americans let their political zeal and ideological vehemence boil over. He didn't make the mistake of excusing such vehemence when it came from those he agreed with. In his Lyceum speech he directly criticized the mob actions of some in the abolitionist camp, with whose aims he sympathized, but whose angry rhetoric and violent rampages he abhorred. Such anger and violence would eventually rip the country in half, plunge America into the bloodiest war in its history, and result in the murder of Lincoln himself — the first assassination of a president.

Could he have peered into our time, Lincoln would have warned out-of-control Trump defenders convinced the election was stolen and out-of-control Black Lives Matter adherents convinced all police are racist about the same thing he warned the out-of-control activists and zealots of his own time: No matter how powerful your sense of grievance, no matter how abused you feel at the hands of government officials, you will not gain your cause by giving in to mob frenzy — and you may well lose your country.

"There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law," the future president told his audience in Springfield that day. Far from strengthening American democracy, mobs only empower demagogues — and when an ambitious political operator sees "nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down."

As we know, the "mobocratic spirit" that so concerned Lincoln in 1838 never fully dissipated. It continued to seethe and hiss and bubble, sometimes below the surface, but increasingly in the open , until the two sides could no longer tolerate or talk to each other and civil war became inevitable. Is that where contemporary America is headed? The prospect may seem crazy. But until last Wednesday, so did the prospect of armed insurgents storming the Capitol to disrupt the counting of Electoral College votes.

I don't know if our present trauma can be healed. I do know that it does not help when influential voices in the media condemn only the violence and mayhem on one side of the political spectrum. The violent assault on the Capitol last week brought unhesitating condemnation across the board. The violent assault on businesses, courthouses, neighborhoods, and police stations across the country last year did not. Again and again, Democratic politicians and liberal media personalities minimized and condoned what the rioters were doing. Some pretended to see only the many lawful and nonviolent racial-justice demonstrations, or insisted that the thugs and looters were an insignificant sliver amid "mostly peaceful" protests.

Others claimed that violence, under the circumstances, was understandable — even laudable.

I wrote about this in Arguable last spring. Recounting some of the anguished reactions of shop and restaurant owners whose livelihoods and savings had been wiped out in the BLM riots, I wondered: "Who, seeing such pain and havoc, could react with unconcern or disdain?" Sadly, it was a rhetorical question. This was my answer:

Maura Healey could.

The Massachusetts attorney general, a liberal Democrat, delivered a speech via Zoom to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. She claimed that her foremost priority as AG had been to address "centuries-long systemic racism." . . . As violence and looting were shattering so many communities, this was the message Healey wanted her audience to take away:

"Yes, America is burning. But that's how forests grow."

In more than 30 years of following Massachusetts politics, I'm not sure I have ever heard a major state official utter words so callous and incendiary. Healey wasn't speaking off the cuff, she was reading from a script. She actually smiled as she brushed off the tidal wave of arson and looting — and murder — as being in a good cause. She posted the quote on social media, leading one reader to comment: "I minored in Forestry. It takes a burned forest at least 50-100 years to fully recover. Is that what you want?"

Healey's atrocious attitude is what you get when ideologues allow theory to override common sense and decency. If violent criminals were burning Healey's offices or threatening her loved ones, she wouldn't regard it serenely as "how forests grow." In Minneapolis, the Star Tribune reports that the riots and arson "have devastated organizations and businesses that serve communities of color. Destruction . . . has hit immigrant- and minority-owned businesses already struggling amid the pandemic-induced shutdown. Now, ethnically diverse neighborhoods are grappling with the loss of jobs, services, and investments." That is how hope dies, not how forests grow.

Too many media celebrities were also quick to euphemize or indulge the eruption of lawlessness.

"Show me where it says protests are supposed to be polite and peaceful," demanded CNN's Chris Cuomo.

MSNBC's Ali Velshi denounced as "nonsensical" those pleading with angry protesters not to "do these things that are destructive." There is " socioeconomic injustice and racism," he insisted. "That's what's behind this. That's why people are prepared to come out and do damage to private property."

Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times went on CBS to insist that wrecking business and torching neighborhoods shouldn't even be called violent. The killing of Floyd was violence, she said, not the mere destruction of "property, which can be replaced."

This willful determination by politicians and journalists to downplay the savagery and seriousness of the rioting and looting — or worse, to justify it — is a terrifying symptom of a society going off the rails.

There has been so much of this.

Numerous news organizations refused to characterize last year's violent mobs honestly — i.e., as "mobs" — lest it reflect badly on the hundreds of thousands of protesters who weren't shattering windows or stealing merchandise. The Associated Press changed its stylebook, which is followed by many newsrooms, to downplay the use of the word "riot," and warned against "focusing on rioting and property destruction rather than underlying grievance." A more honest rule wouldn't require such contortions: Distinguish between peaceful protests and violent riots. What could be more straightforward? Ah, but such a rule wouldn't take progressive newsroom politics into account, and these days, politics trumps journalism. Behold the edict from Washington Post editor Marty Baron last week: "The people who breached the Capitol are not 'protesters,' they are a 'mob.'"

He's right; they were a mob. But so were the people who set police stations and courthouses on fire, killed 77-year-old David Dorn, toppled and bashed a statue of Thomas Jefferson, and repeatedly invaded, looted, and trashed the pharmacy where my 23-year-old son is the manager. But, because of politics, those mobs weren't called by their proper name.

Must it be like this? Can't journalists agree that when thugs are rampaging and rioters are wreaking havoc, the only "side" we should be at pains to protect is the victims' side? We should not be turning a blind eye to any looters, arsonists, or aggressors — regardless of the politics involved, regardless of race or ethnicity, regardless of the ideology being hailed or denounced in the streets.

Lincoln didn't say that the "mobocratic spirit" is to be feared only if it comes from the right or from the left. He understood that the threat to American democracy doesn't arise from the politics of the mob, it arises from the mob itself. Isn't it time we absorbed that lesson as well? Could he have peered into our time, Lincoln would have warned out-of-control Trump defenders convinced the election was stolen and out-of-control Black Lives Matter adherents convinced all police are racist about the same thing he warned the out-of-control activists and zealots of his own time: No matter how powerful your sense of grievance, no matter how abused you feel at the hands of government officials, you will not gain your cause by giving in to mob frenzy — and you may well lose your country.

"There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law," the future president told his audience in Springfield that day. Far from strengthening American democracy, mobs only empower demagogues — and when an ambitious political operator sees "nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down."

As we know, the "mobocratic spirit" that so concerned Lincoln in 1838 never fully dissipated. It continued to seethe and hiss and bubble, sometimes below the surface, but increasingly in the open , until the two sides could no longer tolerate or talk to each other and civil war became inevitable. Is that where contemporary America is headed? The prospect may seem crazy. But until last Wednesday, so did the prospect of armed insurgents storming the Capitol to disrupt the counting of Electoral College votes.

I don't know if our present trauma can be healed. I do know that it does not help when influential voices in the media condemn only the violence and mayhem on one side of the political spectrum. The violent assault on the Capitol last week brought unhesitating condemnation across the board. The violent assault on businesses, courthouses, neighborhoods, and police stations across the country last year did not. Again and again, Democratic politicians and liberal media personalities minimized and condoned what the rioters were doing. Some pretended to see only the many lawful and nonviolent racial-justice demonstrations, or insisted that the thugs and looters were an insignificant sliver amid "mostly peaceful" protests. Others claimed that violence, under the circumstances, was understandable — even laudable.

I wrote about this in Arguable last spring. Recounting some of the anguished reactions of shop and restaurant owners whose livelihoods and savings had been wiped out in the BLM riots, I wondered: "Who, seeing such pain and havoc, could react with unconcern or disdain?" Sadly, it was a rhetorical question. This was my answer:

Maura Healey could.

The Massachusetts attorney general, a liberal Democrat, delivered a speech via Zoom to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. She claimed that her foremost priority as AG had been to address "centuries-long systemic racism." . . . As violence and looting were shattering so many communities, this was the message Healey wanted her audience to take away:

"Yes, America is burning. But that's how forests grow."

In more than 30 years of following Massachusetts politics, I'm not sure I have ever heard a major state official utter words so callous and incendiary. Healey wasn't speaking off the cuff, she was reading from a script. She actually smiled as she brushed off the tidal wave of arson and looting — and murder — as being in a good cause. She posted the quote on social media, leading one reader to comment: "I minored in Forestry. It takes a burned forest at least 50-100 years to fully recover. Is that what you want?"

Healey's atrocious attitude is what you get when ideologues allow theory to override common sense and decency. If violent criminals were burning Healey's offices or threatening her loved ones, she wouldn't regard it serenely as "how forests grow." In Minneapolis, the Star Tribune reports that the riots and arson "have devastated organizations and businesses that serve communities of color. Destruction . . . has hit immigrant- and minority-owned businesses already struggling amid the pandemic-induced shutdown. Now, ethnically diverse neighborhoods are grappling with the loss of jobs, services, and investments." That is how hope dies, not how forests grow.

Too many media celebrities were also quick to euphemize or indulge the eruption of lawlessness.

"Show me where it says protests are supposed to be polite and peaceful," demanded CNN's Chris Cuomo.

MSNBC's Ali Velshi denounced as "nonsensical" those pleading with angry protesters not to "do these things that are destructive." There is " socioeconomic injustice and racism," he insisted. "That's what's behind this. That's why people are prepared to come out and do damage to private property."

Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times went on CBS to insist that wrecking business and torching neighborhoods shouldn't even be called violent. The killing of Floyd was violence, she said, not the mere destruction of "property, which can be replaced."

This willful determination by politicians and journalists to downplay the savagery and seriousness of the rioting and looting — or worse, to justify it — is a terrifying symptom of a society going off the rails.

There has been so much of this.

Numerous news organizations refused to characterize last year's violent mobs honestly — i.e., as "mobs" — lest it reflect badly on the hundreds of thousands of protesters who weren't shattering windows or stealing merchandise. The Associated Press changed its stylebook, which is followed by many newsrooms, to downplay the use of the word "riot," and warned against "focusing on rioting and property destruction rather than underlying grievance." A more honest rule wouldn't require such contortions: Distinguish between peaceful protests and violent riots. What could be more straightforward? Ah, but such a rule wouldn't take progressive newsroom politics into account, and these days, politics trumps journalism. Behold the edict from Washington Post editor Marty Baron last week: "The people who breached the Capitol are not 'protesters,' they are a 'mob.'"

He's right; they were a mob. But so were the people who set police stations and courthouses on fire, killed 77-year-old David Dorn, toppled and bashed a statue of Thomas Jefferson, and repeatedly invaded, looted, and trashed the pharmacy where my 23-year-old son is the manager. But, because of politics, those mobs weren't called by their proper name.

Must it be like this? Can't journalists agree that when thugs are rampaging and rioters are wreaking havoc, the only "side" we should be at pains to protect is the victims' side? We should not be turning a blind eye to any looters, arsonists, or aggressors — regardless of the politics involved, regardless of race or ethnicity, regardless of the ideology being hailed or denounced in the streets.

Lincoln didn't say that the "mobocratic spirit" is to be feared only if it comes from the right or from the left. He understood that the threat to American democracy doesn't arise from the politics of the mob, it arises from the mob itself. Isn't it time we absorbed that lesson as well?

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