Senator wants to make Americans fight again

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Sen. Markwayne Mullin is not ashamed of his challenge to fight a union boss during a Senate hearing Tuesday.

Instead, the Oklahoma Republican is defending his behavior and actively suggesting that threats of violence have a special place in American history that should be revived.

In an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash on Wednesday, Mullin, a former professional MMA fighter, said a return to physical violence could help cure what he derided as a culture of “keyboard warriors” who “go out there and run their mouth all the time, and then they don’t ever have to face the consequences.”

Mullin’s macho feud is with Sean O’Brien, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The two tangled verbally at a previous hearing when Mullin criticized unions for trying to infiltrate his plumbing business. O’Brien later insulted Mullin on Twitter, referencing his height and suggesting he was ready for a fight with Mullin.

To the criticism that a senator should not resort to violent threats, Mullin said, “I’m a guy from Oklahoma first, and there’s consequences for doing some of this.”

He told Bash he was fully ready to fight O’Brien in the Senate hearing room Tuesday when she noted the camera showed him taking off his wedding ring.

“The first thing I thought of when I stood up, I thought: I’m going to break my hand on this guy’s face. I’m going to take my wedding ring off,” Mullin said.

Bash asked how Mullin expects his six children to view all of this, to which he argued, “You’re responsible for your words.”

“I’m not somebody that’s going to say we go around and fight all the time; I got paid to fight,” he said. “But I will say that every now and then, you do, and you should be taught a lesson.”

The Andrew Jackson excuse

This woodcut print shows Andrew Jackson killing Charles Dickinson. - Library of Congress
This woodcut print shows Andrew Jackson killing Charles Dickinson. - Library of Congress

Mullin pointed to bloody US history to justify the threat of violence today, noting the many duels of President Andrew Jackson.

These are, in hindsight, ridiculous affairs. Before he was president, Jackson once engaged in a duel with a lawyer named Charles Dickinson after a disagreement over horse racing debts, according to a Library of Congress account. Jackson, who was shot in the duel, broke the rules of dueling, code duello, by recocking his pistol before he killed Dickinson.

Bash noted, accurately, that Jackson was “not a good guy.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Mullin. Reaching for another president, Mullin said that Abraham Lincoln “challenged a guy to a sword fight.”

The reverse appears to be true, according to an account of the time a man challenged Lincoln, who was then a young lawyer. Under the weird rules of dueling at the time, Lincoln chose the weapons and opted for swords because he didn’t want to get shot. The duel didn’t happen as the men called a truce at the last minute. Lincoln was later ashamed of the events, according to the American Battlefield Trust.

Both Lincoln’s near-duel and at least one of Jackson’s had to do with insults against their wives. The taunting of Jackson’s wife, Rachel, had to do with her unhappy first marriage and whispers about whether she was actually divorced when she married Jackson. He blamed the political mudslinging for her death in 1828, just before he took office.

The caning of Charles Sumner

This cartoon by John L. Magee depicts Rep. Preston S. Brooks caning antislavery Sen. Charles Sumner in the Senate on May 26, 1856. - John L. Magee/Library Company of Philadelphia
This cartoon by John L. Magee depicts Rep. Preston S. Brooks caning antislavery Sen. Charles Sumner in the Senate on May 26, 1856. - John L. Magee/Library Company of Philadelphia

Mullin also noted that there was once a caning in the Senate, which is true. But it’s not the kind of event any American should want to see repeated. Sen. Charles Sumner, who opposed slavery, insulted pro-slavery proponents who wanted to see Kansas enter the union as a slave state.

Rep. Preston Brooks, without warning, entered the Senate and beat Sumner nearly to death with a metal-topped cane, according to the Senate historian. Brooks was not punished by the House and was rewarded by South Carolina voters who put him back in the House.

Today, the event is viewed as foreshadowing the Civil War. The Yale University historian Joanne Freeman wrote a book about violence specifically between politicians in the years leading up to the Civil War. Using an 11-volume contemporaneous diary by Benjamin Brown French, who served as clerk of the House of Representatives, she documented more than 70 violent altercations between lawmakers between 1830 and 1860.

These fights were frequently the result of intentional action by anti-slavery lawmakers to goad pro-slavery Southerners.

“The Southerners were vulnerable to such goading because of the code of honor they followed,” The New York Times wrote in its review of Freeman’s book, “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War.”

“According to the code, even a mild insult could trigger a fight or, in some cases, a duel,” the review notes.

Chief justice, duelist

One duel that caused a public sensation in 1859 was between the pro-slavery chief justice of California’s Supreme Court, David Terry, and the anti-slavery Sen. David Broderick, who worked to push Terry off the court.

Terry resigned his position shortly before killing Broderick. Murder charges were thrown out. Decades later, Terry was killed by a deputy US marshal when he attacked US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field, against whom he had a grudge.

This is not an era to which anyone should want to return.

Being manly

Reading Mullin’s unashamed defense of threatening violence as a legitimate way to keep people like O’Brien from “running his mouth” made me immediately think of another idea – one put forward by Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and others that American masculinity is under attack.

“The left want to define traditional masculinity as toxic,” Hawley said in a speech at the National Conservatism Conference in 2021. “They want to define the traditional masculine virtues – things like courage and independence and assertiveness – as a danger to society.”

Or how about PRRI’s 2023 American Values Survey, which asked Americans if things have gotten so far off track, “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” A third of Republicans agreed with that statement, compared with 22% of independents and 13% of Democrats.

Mullin argued that he, presumably as a man who can fight, is capable of standing up to O’Brien where other people cannot.

“If you push back at a bully, typically, they’ll shut their mouth up,” Mullin said, noting that O’Brien didn’t stand up but rather kept his seat at the hearing as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders intervened. “He had the fear of God in his eyes,” Mullin said.

Appearing Tuesday on “The Lead with Jake Tapper,” O’Brien offered a different version of events in which he said Mullin was the bully.

“What went through my mind was, ‘You’re one of a hundred of the most powerful people in the country, and you’re acting like a 12-year-old in a school yard,’” O’Brien said.

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