The Return of “The Reign of the Witches”: Biden and Trump are Not the First to Use “Rage Rhetoric” for Political Gain

Below is my column in the Hill on how history appears to be repeating itself in the rise of rage politics by the two major parties.  Both President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump have made headlines in labeling each other as enemies of the state. We have seen this before…

Here is the column:

President Joe Biden recently stood in front of a blood-red background in Philadelphia, framed by two Marines, to denounce millions of “MAGA Republicans” and his political opponents as “semi-fascist” extremists. In Wilkes-Barre, Pa., former president Donald Trump stood before his followers and denounced Biden as an “enemy of the state” and the FBI as “vicious monsters.”

Although I have previously expressed alarm over what I call the “age of rage,” we are seeing a more serious turn as our leaders fuel that rage in hopes of retaining or regaining power.

Not surprisingly, polls show more than 40 percent of voters now believe we are heading into a civil war. Not only are more columnists discussing the approach of a possible civil war, President Biden reportedly told a senior Democrat: “I certainly hope [my presidency] works out. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure we’re going to have a country.”

A Trafalgar poll shows a majority of Americans believe Biden tried to “incite conflict” with his Philadelphia speech. Given an opportunity to assume higher ground after that speech, Trump instead engaged in the same kind of unhinged rhetoric. Liberal and conservative pundits add to all that by discussing the gathering clouds of civil war while blaming each other.

While many insist there is a systemic failure of our political system, the United States faces not a constitutional crisis but a crisis of leadership, because both parties view rage as a political weapon.

As polls show the midterm election tightening, both parties appear to be giving up reason in favor of rage for better results.

Despite our history of highly divisive periods, this is one of the most dangerous we have encountered.

I recently completed a study of what I call “rage rhetoric” and how our country has addressed such periods, legally and politically, from colonial to contemporary times. Rage politics is the most dangerous form of demagoguery. With the rise of democracy came a rise in demagogues who sought to use rage to generate popular support. As Aristotle noted, demagogues “are like the fishers for eels; in still waters they catch nothing, but if they thoroughly stir up the slime, their fishing is good.” The fishing is particularly good today, as people tend to receive their news from siloed, partisan sources.

Rage politics is nothing new

Rage politics is not new to America, and the period that is most similar to today occurred at the very start of our republic.

At the start of the 19th century, the newly minted nation was deeply divided between Federalists aligned with John Adams and Democratic-Republicans aligned with Thomas Jefferson. President Adams labeled Jeffersonians as “seditionists,” while Jefferson referred to the Adams administration as “the reign of the witches.”

Adams sought to punish his opponents through the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts. Vermont Rep. Matthew Lyon was prosecuted for criticizing Adams’ “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.” Adams seemed eager to prove the point through partisan prosecutions. Twenty-five leading Democratic-Republicans were arrested, including journalists; others were threatened with arrest if they uttered such thoughts.

Federalist journalist William Cobbett called Jeffersonians “frog-eating, man-eating, blood-drinking cannibals” and the “refuse of nations.” Federalist newspapers predicted that if the Jeffersonians prevailed, then “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

Not unlike today, Supreme Court justices also were threatened. Then-Chief Justice John Jay was hated for his negotiation of what became known as the Jay Treaty with Great Britain; he was a target of Democratic-Republicans who considered the court a cabal of political activists. One editorial declared: “John Jay, ah! The Arch traitor — seize him, drown him, flay him alive.” Crowds burned Jay in effigy, including a Kentucky mob that stuffed its effigy with gunpowder, guillotined it, then blew it up. Jay remarked that he could travel the “country at night by the light of [my] burning effigies.”

Later, Chief Justice John Marshall also was burned in effigy after writing the famous opinion in Marbury v. Madison. While the opinion is known for laying the foundations of judicial authority, it was an outgrowth of Adams’ attempt to appoint a slew of “Midnight judges” in his final hours as president, in order to dominate the courts. (Sound familiar?)

Today’s leaders seek to garner support by leading the mob. In 2020, for example, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) declared on the steps of the Supreme Court: “I want to tell you, [Justice] Gorsuch, I want to tell you, [Justice] Kavanaugh, you have released the whirlwind and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”

Win-at-any-cost strategy

People like Schumer hardly make convincing revolutionaries. They want to tap into the energy of rage while assuming it will be directed solely at their opponents — but history often has proven such assumptions wrong. Revolutions take on an appetite of their own; French journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan famously observed during the French Revolution that “like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.”

Today’s rage rhetoric is strikingly similar to what we saw in the Adams-Jefferson period. Though many denounced Biden’s speech as inflammatory and divisive, others complained it did not go far enough. MSNBC regular Elie Mystal objected to Biden’s use of “MAGA Republicans” when, he claimed, all Republicans are white supremacists. Mystal and others have denounced the Constitution as “trash,” and even some law professors want to “reclaim America from Constitutionalism.

Rather than temper such passions, both Biden and Trump appear intent on fueling the rage to win at any cost in 2022 and 2024. With leaders on both sides trafficking in rage politics, it is hardly surprising that Americans expect an increase in political violence.

Fortunately, our Constitution was not just written for times like these, it was written and ratified in times like these. It (and we) have survived.

As we did in the 1800s, we will not commit the self-immolation advocated by so many — but the costs are likely to be high, due to the failure of leadership that is fueling this crisis of faith.

Author James Freeman Clarke once said “a politician thinks of the next election; a statesman thinks of the next generation.” Today, we have far too many politicians and far too few statesmen at an increasingly perilous moment.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

131 thoughts on “The Return of “The Reign of the Witches”: Biden and Trump are Not the First to Use “Rage Rhetoric” for Political Gain”

  1. Seriously: who needs to watch this anymore? If you are voting dem at this point, you are voting for the middle ages. It cracks me up to no end that they refer to themselves as ‘progressives’. Dave Rubin was damn right when he coined the term, ‘regressives’. Particularly, younger folks have dragged us backward by decades. Enough, already. And if you are a dem feeling uncomfortable, then man or woman the *eff* up and show it with your vote and forget what your damned coffee clatch thinks. Very few in this country could possibly be this obtuse. I am sick and tired of talking to dem friends that complain, but will not in their wildest dreams do something different in their own lives or reality or voting behavior. Laziness and complacency are not sexy to people over 35. Change or die. That’s where we are. You are NOT voting for JFK anymore.

  2. I am glad the Professor brought up the Adams Jefferson tiff. It was so severe that 2 great friends ceased talking to each other over a decade and then later reconciled with some beautiful and fruitful letters. I like the discussion that brought up the Cleveland Presidency but many forgot the Presidential Contest of 1824 and 1828 with a contested election in 1824 when John Q Adams won with a low popular vote and the support of the Speaker of the House who then was appointed to the Cabinet. He failed to get much done and then Andrew Jackson, the fiery populist and General who had lost the close 1824 election, won the 1828 election. A hallmark of the campaign was the rhetoric about the ruling classes in the Northeast and particular New York and the financial rule of the Bank of the United States, which Jackson hated. It became a fight between the moneyed interests of the East and the rise of the West. The rhetoric of the time was quite saucy also.
    I don’t mind heated rhetoric as long as it’s focused on what the people want and expect. Irrespective of the side.
    As an aside, Svelaz seems to have a concept of free speech and knowledge that is breathtaking in it’s narrowness. As a result, his adjustments of his thinking require almost no movement. My opinion.

  3. We do live in a surprising atmosphere of frenzy. (Surprising because we live in an age of general peace and abundance of food and housing.) It is a complex question that no one has a good answer for. Let me suggest two reasons. First, the rise in frenzy has been accompanied by the decline in religious belief (as in France before the Revolution). Is it possible that the frenzy replaces religious belief? Second, the frenzy has grown as the control of the federal government over all of our lives has grown. Now control of the federal government profoundly affects our lives in many ways, and new ways are imagined by “progressives.” The incentive or even need to control those decisions drive the quest for power.

  4. The bitter clingers, you say. A veritable “burden”, you say. Sit down, shut up, and eat your pudding.

  5. When Democrats act badly, it is always pointed out how “both parties are atrocious”.
    If a Republican or their party misbehaves, suddenly it is the only evil in the whole world.
    Happens every single time.

    1. Shakdi, that is a truly great observation! Another on of the same ilk is when a Democrat does something bad the liberal press will discuss the Republican reaction to it and not the act itself.

    2. When Democrats act badly, it is always pointed out how “both parties are atrocious”.

      This used to be true. What has become more common, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, is Democrats will flat out lie they ever acted badly and then project the bad act onto their political enemies.

  6. “Today’s rage rhetoric is strikingly similar to what we saw in the Adams-Jefferson period.”

    I vehemently disagree, on two counts — one rhetorical, the other substantive.

    The rhetoric then was at least clever, intelligent, and articulate. Today, it’s a hash of inarticulate leftovers, and playground taunts.

    Behind the rhetoric then was a substantive set of *ideas* — competing *principles* about political philosophy, the nature of government, and about the proper relationship between the individual and the state. Today, there are no ideas. Behind the rhetoric is just blind emotion, driving a lust for power and destruction.

  7. If you look at the 21st Century (22 year span so far) – Republican “leaders” overturned over 200 years of American history by betraying Ronald Reagan’s Torture Treaty. Reagan’s treaty is legally-binding, not just in international law but American federal criminal law.

    Reagan not only wanted the U.S. Department of Justice to criminally prosecute torture but all cruel treatment by all constitutionally oath-sworn officials (and their private contractors).

    For the first time in over 200 years, America was condemned by the International Red Cross [a Christian founded organization], Amnesty International (usually opposing communist regimes and despots) and every other human rights group.

    1. Ashcroft moans about Republicans and torture but loves Obama sending cruise missiles to kill people and even Americans as collateral damage.

      Now Ashhat, any comment on Biden sending a cruise missile into a station wagon with 7 kids in it? This was his moronic distraction a week after the Afghan pullout.

  8. Oh, by the way – Biden says those who voted against him are “semi-fascists.” I guess that makes him a semi-communist since the word fascism was invented by communists for those who oppose them.

    1. Fascists and communists are both leftist, sometimes competing, political cousins for the same tyrannical agenda. Fascists typically use corporations whereas communists want to control the corporations.

  9. This country has been festering for a long time and it’s been the most divided it’s been since 1860. I suspect the only thing that’s kept outright civil war from breaking out is simple cowardice – those with the ability and means to actually institute a revolution haven’t reached the point where they’re willing to do die for it. It’s coming though. How long is going to be determined by who wins the next two elections. Americans are far better armed than our ancestors were in 1776, we just lack the will.

  10. Great historical context, and you correctly called out current politicians. However I lament that you did not mention Nancy Pelosi and her horrific public display of partisan disrespect on the night of Trump’s State of the Union address in which tore up the copy of his speech for all to see. In my life time (I”m 71 years old) I’ve never seen such a gross incitement of hatred by a public official.

    1. 200+ years ago the peasants stormed the Bastille because they lost respect for the Crown. Kings and queens were no longer seen as an extension of God or God’s will. Now they could be attacked because they were not god, they were just people.
      The term is desacralization. Nancy Pelosi basically stormed the Bastille and showed the country that Donald Trump and his administration did not deserve respect.

    2. @Hcunningham

      Me either. That was actually the single act that made me, as an independent, vow to never vote dem again. Enough was enough THEN, now, I don’t even know what to say anymore. If that had been Obama there would have been blood in the streets. The worst the Republicans in Congress ever did to him was not applaud.

    3. Pelosi did not get to where she is by being a person of character, integrity, honor or decency. No, someone like Pelosi has risen and clung to her power precisely because she is a ruthless, cutthroat, unscrupulous, disingenous, dishonest, iron-fisted, corrupt-to-the-core, sleezebag politician of the worst kind. Same for the rest of the Democrats in Congress. They are the ones the people of this country should be in fear of, not Republicans.

  11. The irony of Turley’s hypocrisy is not surprising anymore.

    It’s notable that while he complains about “fueling the rage” he deliberately engages in it.

    Let’s keep in mind that it was Trump who normalized this kind of rhetoric in his rallies. It was the purpose of those rallies, to incite anger and build rage. It was only when Biden pushed back using rhetoric that accurately described the current state of “maga republicans”.

    Republicans have mastered the art of manufactured rage to rile up the base whenever republicans need to push an agenda or oppose an idea or policy.

    Turley sure focused a lot more on democrats as examples than Republicans despite republicans being the ones constantly engaging in manufacturing rage.

    1. Sevvy:

      “The irony of Turley’s hypocrisy is not surprising anymore.”
      What is truly surprising is that aboslute zeal you have to go onto a site where you detest the host and are routinely bludgeoned by commenters possessing more than a morsel of knowledge or common sense or both. Like Kenny Rogers said, “You got to know when to fold ’em.”

      Oh and given that JT rarely, if ever, reads these comments maybe ponder what we call people who howl at the moon over grievances — real and imagined — expecting a reply or even slight a modification of its orbit.

      1. Mespo,

        What is truly surprising is the level of ignorance that permeates this blog regarding the principles of freedom of speech.

        The ability to criticize Turley on his own blog is the whole point this blog exists. Anybody can put their two cents in and include criticism, even anonymously.

        What other commenters do is irrelevant and you are free to ignore others.

        Pointing out the sheer hypocrisy of Turley’s columns is fair game. Just as others criticizing me is fair game.

        1. And believe me, you earn the criticism. Your world-view is narrow and shallow I get the feeling you’re the typical liberal who lives in the information bubble you claim the right lives in… For the record, there’s a reason conservatives constantly do better in political knowledge polls and understand the complexities of issues better. On average the left gets just 5% of its news from the right, OTOH, the right gets about 35% of its news from the left. Since both sides curate the news to their audience to paint a certain picture and you only look at half the painting…

          Just look at your first post in this thread. It’s laughable. You have no historical context, you ignore your side doing same thing all through the Obama years and well into the 1960s, never mind this has been going longer than any of us have been alive! We’re talking since the days of Jefferson, Adams (both of them!) with only the possible exception of Washington.

          Sharp rhetoric and raw meat have been with us, ebbing-and-flowing, ever since this country was founded. To pretend it’s just Trump is entirely laughable. Yet there you were!

          1. Mosezd – “I get the feeling you’re the typical liberal”

            Nope, he, Norman Bates and the rest of the Clown Crew are the typical Troll. As long as we keep responding to their replies to muddy and disrupt, they win. I know it’s hard to restrain yourself from responding to their consistent irritable remarks but you must.

        2. Svelaz: You state, “The ability to criticize Turley on his own blog is the whole point this blog exists.”
          I would suggest that “the whole point this blog exists” is the professor’s interest in encouraging discussion and debate amongst the populace in general, -regarding important issues affecting all of us.
          Thank you for representing among the populace that “level of ignorance that permeates this blog [your words].”

          1. Lin, discussion and debate involves criticism as well. To criticize Turley is to express disagreement on his views. It’s just a basic function of freedom of speech.

            I am not afraid to admit there have been some times when even I have been ignorant on an issue. That doesn’t bother me as long as I can at least learn from it and recognize it. I don’t think you would be able to say the same for the majority of the conservative and libertarian posters here. Their ignorance is far more troubling than they would care to admit.

    2. If you think Trump normalized this, you slept through US history. This has been normal since the days of Thomas Paine who was a vociferous critic of President John Adams. Adams supporters labeled Jefferson: “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mullatto father.” That was pretty damn rude and strong stuff in those days, and it came right out of Adam’s political rhetoric.

      Really, the big difference between today and back then is they had to use pamphleteers instead of TV and the Internet. But to think Trump normalized this… It really demonstrates historical illiteracy. This is how America has worked for over 200 years. All this hand-wringing that happens is just part of an ebb-and-flow. With Biden (the moron who just reads what’s on the prompter) and Trump (the moron who should what’s on the prompter) we’re having some peak.

      But we haven’t gotten to the levels of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Party-riots where their own rhetoric and party-division got so strong they rioted against each other! Then later rioted and terrorized (with bombs not just mean tweets) America into the 1970s.

  12. “I certainly hope [my presidency] works out. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure we’re going to have a country.”
    Let me play Doctor Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee who made famous the concept of remote diagnosis of Terry Schiavo: Biden: Narcisstic personality disorder with an overlay meglomania. Apres moi, la fin! Bouffon!

  13. Roberts does have some Constitution stretching issues but by and large they’ve been in favor of democrat legislatures.
    If we look at activst courts nearly all of those decisions are Constitution trashing leftism.
    Textual and original are antithetical to those.

    1. Can you explain how the American public can ignore Clinton’s direct role in the slaughter of 800,000 innocent, unarmed black folk? Can anyone?

  14. The big difference though is that Biden turned the rage on voters — those he presumed voted for Trump — while Trump has focused his rage on politicians and the corrupt bureaucracy. We might look to another era and another country to see the consequences of this: when the opposing side was demonized, just before being sent to the camps. There is no comparison on the Right to what the Left is doing to this country. From indoctrinating school kids (who will never learn there even is a Constitution) to harassing its political opponents, trashing the Constitution and threatening the Supreme Court. But they forget one important demographic fact: not all Trump voters are Republicans, and many of them bounced back and forth from Obama to Trump to Biden. They’re called Independents, and they’re the largest constituency in the country. Dem rage rhetoric may appeal to its brain-dead base, but I’m pretty sure the Independents are disgusted by it.

    1. Excellent point. Hillary did the same: criticize voters as “deplorables” and all it got her was a one-way ticket to Chappaqua and a box of chardonnay!

    2. GioCon: Nice comment, particularly the reminder in the very first sentence. I also see Biden’s “rage” as preemptive and proactive, -particularly to garner votes. I have generally seen Trump’s “rage” as reactive. Both are unpleasant and below the dignity afforded the presidency.

      1. Lin,
        That is an interesting perspective.
        I do get the feeling that Biden’s handlers are writing his speeches with a goal in mind, to pit one side of America against the other. To appear to be the side of law and order, just ignore that whole 2020 Summer of Love, fiery but mostly peaceful riots, arson, looting, and 35 deaths, the defund the police movement, and the current skyrocketing crime, violence in Blue cities that in some cities are exceeding y-o-y records. Various COVID policies that were struck down as unConstitutional. The recent questionable unConstitutional debt forgiveness that even Pelosi said was unConstitutional. An unsecure border that Harris just tried to claim was secure and it was Trump’s policies that they are fixing. Even a blind man in a coma can see through that gaslighting.
        Us Independents see through it. Most the Independents I know think the Dems are trying to incite violence. A number of them are put off by the Dems embrace of the far left. The majority do not anything to do with it. We all know the importance of the mid-terms and 2024, but I know some are contemplating staying home.

    3. GioCon,
      As an Independent, I can say I sure as heck did not vote for the lesser of two “evils” in 2016 or 2020. Still evil.
      The 2020 election, Biden was not voted as the most popular president ever. It was more people voted against Trump. Not FOR Biden.
      And that is reflective in his low energy rallies, poor attendance. Polls show is own base does not want him to run in 2024. Many in his own party are tight lipped or will not say if they will support him. Candidates running for the mid-terms do not want him to appear at their rallies. His entire admin has been nothing but a charlie fox. Their gaslighting is positively epic. The sad part is they believe they are fooling the public. We are not fooled! We see through it all! And I AM disgusted by it.

      Well said about the rage against voters or nearly half the country. From deplorables to fascists, the aim is AT Americans. Some Dem Senator just tired to compare 9/11 to Jan6th. Really?
      From this Independent’s point of view, Biden and the Dems are the ones escalating dangerous rhetoric toward violence.

  15. Turley does well to remind us that “each age thinks itself eternal,” as the poet says. In 1884, Grover Cleveland ran as a Democrat against James Blaine of Maine. Each candidate harangued the other with slogans: “Blain, Blaine, the Liar from Maine” was countered by cartoons of a crying woman holding a baby reaching out for a corpulent Cleveland and crying, “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Paw?” It was revealed during rhe campaign that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child years before. Well, the election was won by Cleveland who, after becoming president, convinced the media to run a cartoon of the crying baby with a rejoinder: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Paw?” Answer:”He’s in the White House, Haw, Haw, Haw!” The more things change, the more they remain the same!

  16. Good comparison. The years before thiose two divisions were similar too. Today, Jan 6th demonstrators and Trump are called insurrectionists routinely. The 56 signers of The Declaration of Independence were called that too and they all knew they could be hung for signing it. Trump knows they are after him and so did the signers.

  17. Democrats are the FIRST to use Fascism in America!

    Democrats installing Obama have unleashed a reign of lawlessness on America….where the DOJ and FBI are arms of the DEMOCRAT Party!

    Hillary and Democrats used a foreign spy to work with Russians with the help the DOJ, FBI, NSA, etc to overthrow the election of Trump!

    Darkest period in American History…worst than the CIVIL WAR 1.0!

  18. Still with the “they’re both the same” rhetoric. One man has a position of supreme power and tells Americans the other political side is the enemy while marines back him up. The other doesn’t. One side threatens the lives of Supreme Court Justices who don’t rule the way they want. The other side doesn’t. One side locks up its “enemies” on trumped up charges and lets accused prisoners rot in jail without rights. The other side doesn’t. They’re not the same. I knew this had to be a Hill article just from the headline. In order for them to publish you you have to write some variation of “The orange man is still bad.”

    1. Amazing, isn’t it? Today’s democrat party is truly demonic and millions either can’t see or don’t want to see it.

  19. I have to recognize your skill in rhetoric, Jon. The ability to keep the ‘rage building’ full court press on at all times. Biden is making observational statements…, and they’re infuriating the right with their accuracy, and also with their seeking to use the tactics the right has used and has come to be expert in. I hope he keeps up his honesty.

    1. Anonymous: Even in the face of what Turley wrote about, you inject the so-called purely innocuous comments of Biden. Only “observational” you say. Really? I know you are serious which to me is sad. Turley has hit a grand slam home run here by proving that as the Bible says, ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. In some ways, it is refreshing to know we have been here before and survived. Will that always be the case? Probably not, and that is the bad news.

    2. You are worse than Biden. He is senile and not in control of what the White House says. You supposedly are in control, but mentally you are ‘incontinent’.

    3. Anonymous wrote, “Biden is making observational statements…”


      Biden is a liar that’s psychologically projecting.

      Absolutely everything President Biden said about the Republicans are extrapolations to absurdity, pure psychological projections, propaganda and outright lies. Yes, I’m calling the President of the United States a bald faced intentional liar. President Biden’s speech was pure unbridled propaganda and absolute demonization of the entire political right, not just the MAGA Republicans, and he made that point perfectly clear…

      Who Is Assaulting Our Society’s Building Blocks?

      I’ve been writing about who is assaulting our society’s building blocks for a few years and it’s certainly not the Republicans.

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