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Chris Bouton: Today is the special election to fill Montana’s vacant congressional seat. Last night, GOP nominee Greg Gianforte body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs when Jacobs attempted to question him about the AHCA. This act of violence by a congressional candidate is shocking. Yet historically, elections in the United States have been anything but peaceful.

Election days in the 19th century, which were public holidays, were wild affairs, full of drinking and violence.

Candidates offered alcohol and other incentives, some positive, some not, to win over voters.

Erin Bartram: Politics more broadly have always been full of violence, and one of the ways that gets erased from the historical narrative is basically by circumscribing “civil” and “peaceful” things as politics, as though only things that match the Platonic ideal should count.

Chris: In the Jacobs-Gianforte context, our definition of politics would be narrow–focusing on elections and the “high politics” of national and state government.

While in a broader, more inclusive, and ultimately better understanding of politics, violence has long been a staple of such activity.

Take Reconstruction, for example

In either definition, however, politics has always had some form of violence.

Erin: If we think about Weber’s idea that the state holds the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, it can help us think a bit more productively about how to make sense of moments like Reconstruction

Fannie Lou Hamer in the 1960s also said “any white man that is able to wear a khaki pair of pants without them falling off him and holding two guns can make a good law officer” which I always found pretty telling.

Chris: During Reconstruction, ex-Confederates were literally battling with newly enfranchised African-Americans and their allies for control over the state.

And its claims to legitimate violence.

Erin: We often think of terrorism as violence used by non-state actors for political ends, but the Klan’s first and second iterations make that definition problematic.

When violence happens in the political arena, even if it’s not done by a state actor, does the state look away or punish?

Chris: Gianforte was charged with a misdemeanor and the sheriff in charge of the investigation donated to his campaign.

Highlighting the issues raised by your point.

Erin: And how different violent actors are treated differently. Plenty of people defended him being allowed to leave the scene, saying that’s pretty normal procedure for someone who isn’t seen as an ongoing threat, but put that alongside film of non-white children and children with disabilities getting beaten and cuffed by police officers in school, and it doesn’t hold up.

Chris: Let’s go back to the 1st Klan for a second because I think that’s worth unpacking in a bit more detail.

Especially Reconstruction is a woefully understudied topic in U.S. History classes in general.

The 1st Klan and other related white supremacist groups, I hesitate to refer to them as organizations because it involves a level of centralization that I’m not comfortable with, intimidated, murdered, and otherwise tried to prevent African-Americans from voting.

They prevented free and open elections.

These were terrorist campaigns across the South in the name of white supremacy.

I think that’s worth emphasizing and my use of the word terrorist is deliberate.

Erin: Absolutely – the laws passed in that historical moment to deal with the Klan are still used to deal with domestic terrorism, I believe.

Chris: And the enfranchisement of African-Americans through the 15th amendment prompted a new level of political violence in the South.

Under slavery, slave states could use state-sanctioned violence against African-Americans to keep them in line.

Erin:  I also want to throw in a couple of important angles to the political violence of Reconstruction that get at the private, intimate ways that that violence happened

Chris: It’s no coincidence that one of the first things that ex-Confederate states did was enact new Black Codes to provide themselves the legal cover to wield state-sanctioned violence against African-Americans

Erin: I think one of the best ways to see this is the attempts to restrict gun ownership that you see in Black Codes

Carole Emberton has a great piece on it– We’re History: Gunning for the Flag: Guns and Reconstruction


Chris: That cartoon is so evocative, it’s one of my favorites.

Erin: The attempt to restrict black American’s 2nd amendment right was pretty clearly about stripping them of any right to self-defense and establishing white America, in general, as the group that got to hold the monopoly on “legitimate” violence.

The other thing that I think is important, and that is still largely excluded from discussions of political violence _in the US_, is sexual violence

People in the US are somewhat comfortable with talking about rape as a tool of war and terror in “other places”

But it was a tool of violent repression in the Reconstruction South in a pretty explicit way, and how could it not be, given the links between race, sex, enslavement, and power

Martha Hodes, Lisa Cardyn, and others have written about this in some pretty explicit and painful articles 

Chris: And, to your point, a natural extension of the violence and power used by white southerners before the war.

Erin: Yep

Sexual violence was used against black men, black women, and white women, in different forms to accomplish different but related goals

To establish, through violence, that the social order that had existed before the war was going to go on existing

In some form

Which meant that white men would continue to see both white and black women’s bodies as their exclusive property

Chris: This ties back into the more inclusive definition of politics that you offered earlier. If we have a more inclusive politics, then we have to embrace a broader understanding of violence.

Erin: It is important to note that these scholars also talk about the way Union soldiers used sexual violence against black women during the war

Chris: As not just physical confrontations, like the one between Gianforte and Jacobs, but a spectrum of behaviors.

Erin: Absolutely

It’s interesting to compare the reaction here to the reaction to last summer’s incident in which Corey Lewandowski (I think?) grabbed and shoved a female reporter

Chris: I believe that’s the correct spelling.

The reaction has been mostly appalled by it, except from the Fox News-hardcore Trump people, who have no problem with it.

Erin: There’s been a significant amount of making fun of Jacobs this morning from those on the right, and the “just deal with it” language seems to be elevated by the fact that Jacobs is male.

Chris: Like Curt Schilling positively retweeting a photo of a t-shirt that advocated lynching journalists.

Erin: Side note: anyone mocking Jacobs for being upset his glasses were broken has either never had to pay for glasses or is rich enough that they don’t have to worry about how expensive glasses are. Either way, you should shut up.

Oh jeez

Chris: I’d be really mad about my glasses, I just got new ones and I really like them. And I need them to do pretty much anything.

Erin: And has no idea how difficult it is to exist without them while you wait for new ones

Chris: I also didn’t get new ones for the entire time I was in grad school.

Erin: I got one pair, with a 30% state employee discount. They still cost over $400. So unless you’re gonna give Jacobs that money, can it.

Chris: The response on the right to Jacobs, speaks to a hyper-masculinity and a general disdain for reporting in general.

If you want to get people on your side, it helps to paint the other side as somehow biased or evil. That way, they deserve it in some way.

Jacobs clearly deserved to be assaulted because he asked a question. It’s victim-blaming.

Erin: I saw a lot of “he was trespassing” defenses, which seems connected to castle/stand your ground defenses as well.

Laura Ingraham admitted it was bad, but compared his response to what “Montana men” would have done.

Chris: Just like African-Americans in Reconstruction “deserved” violence because they were “uppity” or abusing their voting privileges for their own enrichment.

Erin: Indeed, blaming Jacobs for having been out in public and doing his job sounds pretty darn familiar to lots of women this morning as well.

Chris: Yes, unfortunately it’s a reality that many women have to confront that white men do not.

Among about 800 other realities.

Erin: But I think there’s one other thing that we need to talk about, and put in historical context.

Obviously there’s lots of “defend the first amendment!” language right now, and that’s important

but we should not in any way convince ourselves that the press is always antagonistic to those in power, or as antagonistic as it could be

Any historian who uses newspapers from the past is well aware that papers had explicit political orientations

But in our more modern era of “pretend” objectivity, the major news organizations carry a lot of water for those in power

Chris: I’ve always enjoyed the idea that there was something as an “unbiased” press sometime in the past.

If we could only reach back to some point in American history and get that press and bring it to the present.

Or return to our roots of an “unbiased” press or some nonsense.

Erin: We remember the NYT breaking the Pentagon Papers story, but that was a break in the way they covered the Vietnam War. The photographer who captured what happened at My Lai got turned down by major papers and the story was broken by…the _Cleveland Plain Dealer_ I think?

Chris: And go back even further, there were Republican papers, Democratic papers, Whig papers, Democratic-Republican papers, and Federalist ones.

Erin: In prepping my Abu Ghraib lesson for US II, I was amazed at how few of the images and details I remembered, and I wonder if that was simply because the extent of the horror wasn’t in the papers.

I found this great piece about the same thing happening in the Gulf War.

Chris: James Callender made a career attacking Federalists and then switched over to attacking Jefferson, when he didn’t pay him hush money.

Erin: One of the peripheral characters in my research is John Louis O’Sullivan, who ran the Democratic Review, and it was basically established because he owed Van Buren a favor for getting back some money for his family from the government (his father had been a diplomat who drowned in a shipwreck and mayyyybe the valuables on that ship were illegal)

Chris: One of the most damaging parts of our current discourse is this belief that journalists should be objective and that objectivity basically means being a stenographer for those in power.

When good journalism, like good history, means critically thinking claims and judging them.

Erin: I think you often see that the most in the way we read/see headlines now, on Twitter and Facebook

There was an AP headline yesterday that said something like “CBO score shows 1 million more will have healthcare than under earlier GOP draft”


Chris: You don’t cover a debate between a flat-Earth supporter and a round Earth person as “People Disagree over Shape of Earth”


Chris: There are things that are objectively true

There’s not equal evidence on both sides

With that AP headline, talk about missing the point. It may as well have been, “New GOP bill makes earlier one slightly less bad”

Erin: You see a lot of “Trump: ‘There was no collusion with Russia'” rather than “Trump claims no collusion with Russia” – the second seems a perfectly viable option in a situation where there’s a special counsel

I bet there’s one today that says “Candidate, reporter tussle on eve of special election”


Chris: This pursuit of false equivalency is damaging and stems from a belief not rooted in history.

If there were less evidence of what happened to Jacobs, then that headline might be appropriate. But the overwhelming evidence is that Gianforte attacked him without provocation.

And the headline should reflect that

Erin: Any idea that the media is “objective” should be shattered by the fact that a Fox News crew published their account of witnessing it and Fox & Friends quoted Gianforte’s press release which is, to quote Stephen Fry, “a transparent tissue of farragoes”

Chris: So to sum up, political violence has a long history in the United States, especially in regards to state power and who wields it. And also, the ways in which we cover and analyze violence depend on problematic assumptions.