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. This is the crap we can expect if we go to a cashless society. Gives you an idea why so many leftists want it.

    “Visa has joined Mastercard and American Express by applying the International Organization for Standeration’s (IOS) new merchant code to categorize gun sales in gun shops.”

    They start with guns and then move to practically everything else.

    Use cash.

    1. “This is the crap we can expect if we go to a cashless society.”

      And yet another example of the Left’s fascism.

      They know that the government cannot criminalize gun ownership directly. So indirectly, they control gun ownership through private industry.

      Mussolini must be smiling.

    1. Interesting. There was a “government remote viewer” on late night radio who said there would be an extremely destructive false flag event before November. Where is Paul Revere when you need him?

  2. Democrats have avoided debating the disastrous consequences of their policies by assassinating the character of their critics, usually Republicans. If you support a work requirement in welfare, you hate the poor. If you support legal immigration, which is mostly of minorities, but oppose illegal immigration and want a strong border, you’re a racist xenophobe. If you criticize putting children who appear uncomfortable with their gender on puberty blockers, giving them hormones, and in some cases, castrating boys and giving girls a mastectomy and hysterectomy, then you’re transphobic. And on and on.

    Democrats control most of the media, most newspapers, Hollywood, the public education system K-12, teachers unions, academia, social media, and Google. They control most of the information that is taught in schools, shown on the silver screen and tv, what news you view or read, and what you learn in college. Americans are bombarded from every angle that unless you agree with each and every Democrat policy, no matter how extreme, you’re evil and should be impoverished, crushed, and set out at the curb. They even went after J. K. Rowling for having the temerity to opine that she could define her own gender. They went after Ru Paul for not allowing transgender who’ve surgically “transitioned” on Drag Race.

    We’re really tired of it, but we mustn’t speak out. That would be rude. Divisive.

    We must meekly ignore our lying eyes as Democrats looted, burned, committed arson, assaulted whites, Asians, and Jews, confronted people dining in restaurants to demand loyalty oaths for BLM, hurled firebombs at cop cars and federal buildings, assaulted and murdered cops, defunded police which lead to astronomical increases in violent crime, and seized entire city blocks at gunpoint, holding it for a year. We’re supposed to applaud this as “the good fight” by people who are “just mad”. If we complain, we’re racist colonizer white supremacists with white fragility. We’ll get fired, harassed, ostracized, lose grants, and/or be impoverished. Mustn’t complain. That would be rude and divisive.

    We must meekly sit on our hands as the one, single, solitary time Republicans engaged in a protest that turned into a small riot at the Capitol, in which the only one killed was an unarmed protester. We must nod our heads and agree that it was an insurrection, and an attempt to overthrow the entire US government, and the military, through the clever use of body paint and bison horns. There were no firearms found inside the Capitol, but we must agree that it was a coordinated attempt at treason. We must agree that the many thousands of people who attended the family friendly Trump rally, having absolutely no idea what was going on at the Capitol, are also insurrectionists, and seditionists, who should be fired, incarcerated, humiliated, and excised from family and friends circles.

    We mustn’t bring up the Democrat riots that went on for a year. That would be rude and divisive.

    I must say that the most effective politicians at making a witty, though classy, comeback, were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

    1. Karen S: you’ve been corrected over and over again for claiming to speak for “we”–if you mean MOST Americans. You don’t, so stop pretending that you do. Your generalilzations are just wrong. Bill Clinton imposed a work requirement for welfare. Democrats also support legal immigration, but are opposed to abusing migrants by kidnapping their children and/or calling them “murderers, rapists, animals, vermin” like your hero did. You’ve also been corrected several times over the lie that children are given gender-affirming surgery. That is never done–it is against the law, and no amount of lying by that ignoramus Marjorie Taylor Green and her fake photoshopped picture is going to convert this into the truth. This is just another culture-wars lie calculated to stir up undiscerning people like you who are starry-eyed disciples of Fox.

      Democrats DO NOT control:all of the things you listed, and please stop harping about the George Floyd protests that turned violent. The Democrat party did not instigate this, unlike Trump who told his disciples to “fight like hell or you’re not going to have a country any more”. Jan 6th was NOT a “small, family-friendly protest”: it was a coordinated, planned assault on our Capitol to try to prevent the peaceful transfer of power based on the Big Lie by a man who lacks the integrity to admit that he lost a free and fair election, and who took advantage of ignorant people like you. Jacob Chansley was just one of the thousands who unlawfully entered, occupied and trashed our symbol of Democracy. You are lying when you claim there wre “Democrat riots” that went on for a year.

  3. The election of 1800 ended in an electoral college tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The Encyclopedia Virginia reports what followed, including threats from two Democratic-Republican governors to use their militias if the Federalists continued to block Jefferson’s election and the threat by a Federalist governor to use his state’s militia to counter any military action by the two Democratic-Republican governors. Say what one will about the 2020 election, nothing rose to that threat level (except in some very fevered imaginations).

    “Unfortunately, many Federalists saw this tie as an opportunity to keep Jefferson out of the presidency, an outcome they would pay almost any cost to achieve. The Constitution specified that a tie had to be resolved by the House of Representatives, voting by state. As the Federalists still controlled key House delegations, they blocked Jefferson’s election for thirty-five long roll-call votes over a contentious six days, February 11 to 16. Seeking assurances from Burr that he would support some critical party policies, the Federalists ignored mounting cries from Democratic-Republicans that they were stealing the election. Rumors flew that Federalists, pointing to the constitutional deadlock, might try to insert a member of their own party into the presidency. Jefferson reportedly told Adams that any attempt “to defeat the Presidential election” would be met with “resistance by force & incalculable consequences.”

    “Democratic-Republican governors were incensed, and reports suggested that some were ready to march with their militias if the Federalists stole the election from Jefferson. In a letter to Jefferson, dated March 21, 1801, Governor Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania described his plan to use the Pennsylvania militia to arrest for treason anyone involved in what Jefferson had previously termed a “usurpation.” In a letter to Governor James Monroe of Virginia, dated February 11, 1801, Samuel Tyler, observing the debate on Monroe’s behalf, told the governor that Pennsylvania already had 22,000 men ready to take up arms and that Virginia should be ready for action, including secession, if the Federalists tried to steal the election. In response to such rumors, the Washington Federalist openly boasted that any effort by Republicans to use force against the Constitution would be met by 60,000 trained militia men from Massachusetts who could easily defeat the untrained mob from Pennsylvania and Virginians practicing military maneuvers with “cornstalks.”

  4. Rage politics is really all the MAGA republicans have and all they are. If you tried to figure out what else MAGA Republicans stand for it is really whatever Donald Trump says today (and might be different tomorrow), but the only guiding principle they have is rage.

    It is interesting that Turley did not notice that MAGA Republicans have been raging for six years – Trump has even given speeches before calling his opponents fascists or the press enemies of the people. But he presents it here as something Biden did first and Trump is only doing it because Biden started it.

    1. MAGA Republicans aka 95% of ALL Republicans are not into hate; they are into Making America Great Again.
      The left is the hateful party. It has nothing to run on except racism and hate.
      The left hates our Constitution,
      Hates our babies (would rather abort them up till the day of birth)
      Hates our businesses
      Hates capitalism
      Hates our military
      Hates our freedoms
      Hates good education/school choice
      Wants to mutilate our children in the name of transgenderism
      Wants to poison our kids with puberty blockers
      Wants to indoctrinate our kids
      Wants to corrupt our kids with pornography in schools
      Patriotic Americans will vote out the dems, starting in November

    2. From this Independents point of view, MAGA Republicans want things anyone with any degree of common sense would want:
      Safe neighborhoods, not defunding the police
      Quality public education, not indoctrination
      Legal immigration, not an unsecure open border
      Safe cities, not no cash bail, increase crime and violence
      Age appropriate sex education, not grooming children who cannot even understand the concept of sex
      Limited government, not forcing small businesses to close, put citizens under house arrest, close schools, no jab no job
      Voter ID, not questionable mail in voting

      If you want to call that rage, then I guess you lack common sense.

  5. Would love an example of where this ‘rage’ is coming from, but for the left. Responding to the left’s malfeasance isn’t ‘rage’. Trump is no longer a public official. Let it go. The only public civil war rhetoric that I see is coming from those that engendered it. Those on the *left*. Seriously: what does it take to get generational democrats to let go? It is tough at this point, after Biden’s idiotic speech, to believe that is not exactly what the left wants so they can ‘save’ us.

    This is so far beyond absurd now I find myself believing supporting the American left is indeed a brain defect in an otherwise healthy mind. Germany let it go too far for similar reasons. Let us not make that mistake. If people like the Professor, who writes these posts, and is a professional witness, STILL votes blue for some inexplicable reason, I don’t know how we change the minds of those that don’t pay half the attention.

  6. We’ve arrived at that banana republic ethos. That’s well beyond rhetoric, and the pale also.

  7. “…courts…must…declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void.”

    “…men…do…what their powers do not authorize, [and] what they forbid.”

    “[A] limited Constitution … can be preserved in practice no other way than through the medium of courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void. Without this, all the reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing … To deny this would be to affirm … that men acting by virtue of powers may do not only what their powers do not authorize, but what they forbid.”

    – Alexander Hamilton

    “It’s the [manifest tenor], stupid!”

    – James Carville

    Now you understand the profound words of Hamilton, that the “manifest tenor” of the Constitution must prevail.

    Everything “Crazy Abe” Lincoln did to “fundamentally transform” the Untied States was unconstitutional.

    Lincoln’s acts as Karl Marx’s “earnest of the epoch” leading America toward the “RECONSTRUCTION of a social world” were unconstitutional.

    Marx letter to Lincoln:

    Every act of collectivism and communism “progressively” and incrementally implemented since Lincoln, from Wilson and FDR to the “Great Society,” has been unconstitutional.

    Obamacare and the acts of Roberts and McCain to support it were unconstitutional.

    The entire communist (liberal, progressive, socialist, democrat, RINO) American welfare state is unconstitutional.

  8. I think Trump’s rhetoric is terrible but like many commentators here, I believe the Democrats are infinitely worse. They have politicized the IRS, the intelligence agencies, the FBI, DAs, etc. And they are the censors and the authoritarians. How rich that they call us fascists! Talk about projection. How can any of the intelligence officials who signed the Hunter Russian disinformation letter be trusted? They had the information and lied to cover themselves. They ARE the enemy of America, not the Republicans.

    1. Truth be told, Biden is an enemy of the state.
      The man is woefully compromised through his son’s business dealings with dictators.
      He wages war on America’s energy
      He refuses to safeguard the border
      He raided his opponent’s house on false pretenses

    2. The FACT is that only the GOP MAGA folks are the one who tried to overthrow the results of a free and fair election that they lost by over 7 million votes. THAT is not only against the Constitution, but IS fascist when they use force to get rid of elected officials and to prevent the victory of Biden. Then there is the absurd contention that Pence had the right and duty to toss electoral votes he did not like. Then you have Trump threatening to use the DOJ to “persuade” the GA Sec. of State with criminal prosecution if he did not “find” the votes to carry GA for Trump. Too bad Turley he no respect for facts or our Constitution, unless he thinks Trump is right in saying he won by a landslide and that his actions to overthrow the electoral vote was correct.

  9. STOP IT, you being a liberal just can’t bring yourself to admit the Left Wing are a bunch of Fascist out of control Authoritarian nut jobs. You have tp try and say Trumps at fault, well sir you are FOS.

  10. The narrative of the lefts political tripe is “vertiginous” – frequent or pointless change with limited benefits.

    The left has shown profane impious assaults on the Constitution, Law and Order, Average Citizens and now drifts towards tyrannical form(s) of Governance.

    Left= Constitutional Heretics’
    Middle=Fence sitters swayed by the Wind
    Right= indelibly fearful of Left

  11. The Democrat party has been taken over by Communists. There was a time when the Communist Party USA ran their own candidates in Presidential elections no more. Biden was elected because when it came to overt Marxism he appeared to be the least extreme. Now he serves at the pleasure of Obama’s leftovers who make Joseph Stalin seem like a moderate. These people are godless and EVIL They are traitors, and should be given the historical cure for witchcraft “The ordeal of Fire and Water”

  12. Nicely done Professor. We need people to simply yell STOP, at both sides. Honest debate about the future of the country and what we want to be.

    1. Honest debate? How can you have honest debate when the entire bureaucratic state lies constantly while they & the Legacy Media censor doctors and right wing journalists that print truth? You might as well demand we have unicorns for every yard and then we will finally have utopia?

  13. Sorry Jonathan, we had a civil war in this nation where both sides called each other enemies of the state. One side was wrong and one side was right. Now we have it where one side created a document that declared the leader of the other side to be a foreign agent in order to maintain their power. According to the premise of your post both sides are wrong but you yourself continually point out the flagrant undermining of constitutional principles by the left. The Constitution is the definition of what are nation is. It must follow then that if you are an enemy of constitutional principles you are an enemy of the basic principles on which are nation is founded. I appreciate your concern but equal consideration of one side or the other is not born out in your voicing of your opinions concerning the left on this venue.

  14. Trump called the media the enemy, Hillary a crook and the DOJ corrupt, he never called voters fascists, communists or anything else. Biden is the most corrupt president since Hoover, the worst president maybe ever, the least sentient president ever and the most compromised president ever.

    Think about all of Biden’s positions and then think about how they all help the CCP:
    -Open border? Weakens the nation, kills our young with fentanyl, raises crime and allows terrorists to land here.
    -The “Green” Movement? Who makes solar panes? Who has the elements needed for EVs? Who has the most fossil fuel
    reserves (the US)?
    -The new attacks on fertilizer and farming? China is trying to increase their production of farmland and food crops.
    -Spies? Biden undid the law that had the FBI monitoring students and professors from China that are stealing our intellectual
    -Spending bills? What is more important to China than ruining the dollar? After Biden we may have Chinese currency being used instead of the dollar around the world.
    -Iran Nuke Deal-Chine Russia and Iran are our enemies so of course Biden supports Iran just as Obama did.
    -Planning to indict Trump? Who did more to combat China than Trump?

    In the 1980s we had the Soviets funding and supporting leftists that DEMANDED that we end nuclear power and the useful idiots all went along with it. Guys like Ed Markey were at the forefront of the antinuke movement and now he wants to ban oil and gas.

    The left was DEMANDING that Reagan pull out our short range nukes from Europe as he was negotiating with the Soviets to have s both remove them. Reagan hung tough and BOTH sides removed them. If Ed Markey got his way only the US would have removed them.

    The left mocked and screamed about the SDI calling it Star Wars etc and yet this is what the Soviets feared and was a major component in their demise.

    The left always, ALWAYS does and supports what harms AMERICA. Every activist event helps our enemies. If you don’t think so then please show me one thing the left clamors for that the CCP is against? They left doesn’t say a peep about Chinese slave labor? They have no issue with Chinese use of coal, or nukes or anything else. The left doesn’t call for a boycott of China even though they are Russia’s strongest supporter regarding the invasion of Ukraine?? Why no outrage? Why no boycotts? Why only want to boycott Israel? Because Israel is our friend and the left hates them as they hate the US.

    1. I would also like to add the ending of cash bail to my list of things the left does to hurt America. Do you know anyone that supports ending cash bail, especially after seeing what it is doing to NY? Of course not. But today IL is making it a new statewide “reform”. NOBODY supports these actions and yet we can’t stop them??

      1. @Hullbobby…

        Hate to break it to you..
        In IL Pritzker already signed legislation into law that goes into effect Jan 1.
        Nothing in the state’s Senate/House is being done to stop it, in light of what we see in NY and CA.

        The reason you’re seeing a lot of ads around this issue is that we’re hitting midterms and elections for state officials including GOV.
        You want it changed.. you need to vote out Pritzker. His campaign staffers helped to promote Bailey in the hopes that he is too radical for Crook County.

        So our best option is to vote out Pritzker and deal w Bailey who may not be as bad a choice as Pritzker.

        Personally, I’d vote out any of the incumbents on my ballot. This state is a pit.


    2. Liar. Trump never called the media the enemy.
      He called FAKE NEWS the enemy of the people.
      Stop lying, dude.

  15. No comparison at all. President Trump attacks corrupt governmental organizations, corrupt media or elected politicians. That is his civic duty. Biden and the Democrats attack the American People. Huge difference. Fascists always fear the enemy within, and fear the people they seek to rule. Trump seeked to represent the voters, and did a great job at it. No one can claim Biden does that, unless voters want to dehumanize 50% of the population.

  16. There is no comparison between the two sides because the side that controls the federal government has weaponized it against the opposition. Crimes have been committed from inside the government to effect a coup and the perpetrators allowed to escape any consequences. If you would like to attempt an equivalence between the treatment of Kevin Clinesmith vs. Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, go ahead. It’s an absurdity, Clinesmith even got his law license back. He did the same thing as lie to a federal grand jury, really much worse given his position inside the FBI.

    Go look at the Tablet magazine piece, “Open Season On Jews in New York City’. This kind of behavior is all over the country. It’s like a war against the citizens by a domestic terror force made up of repeat offenders allowed to walk right out no matter what they are arrested for. One of the Antifas arrested for trying to burn down the federal courthouse and then having the multiple charges dropped was just arrested for trying to buy sex from a child–and immediately released again. Meanwhile Chad Skaggs, a US Marshal injured while trying to defend that federal courthouse, faces destruction by civil lawsuit from the ACLU for doing his job as a federal employee. Yet the Biden administration has decided it is “not in the interest of justice” to defend him.

    The alleged news media is a partner in crime. 2 Antifas arrested caught in the act trying to derail a train? No news. Murders by repeatedly released illega alien criminals? No mention of immigration status. See any edition of the NY Post for a repeat cycle. Yesterday it was “500 crimes committed by 10 repeat offenders after end of cash bail”.

    1. Thank you. This obsession with false equivalency prevents true accountability. I do not blame Trump at all for his words. For one, he was pointing to the corruption of one man and one deep state bureau who wield incredible power when he is, although wealthy, just one man with one family doing combat unjustly against the combined power of this uni-party state. Biden was targeting, at the very least, a full half of the citizens of this country and, if you truly extrapolate his words, the vast majority of the country since he seemed to be lashing out at anyone who disagrees with the democratic party’s insane policies. And, Biden was flanked by the presidential seal and our military. Trump was not. I respect Turley and I believe he is well-intentioned in this “the other side does it to” as it’s become so ingrained in the DC class that they don’t even recognize how insidious it’s become, but trying to equate the two is similar to the absolute soulless ghouls who were equating 9/11 to “1/6.”

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