Everyone who has watched a western has seen gallows. Often situated at the center of town, they stood as the focal point where justice was meted out on criminals. The gun and the gallows were inseparable in the old west of law, order, and justice.
No surprise then, that the gallow would make an appearance at the failed January 6Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. In the minds of some of the so-called “patriots”, their hastily built gallows was the place where justice would prevail over their imagined injustice of a stolen election. Fortunately, their plot was foiled; no one was executed by the mob. What did die that day was the illusion that democracy and patriotism have the same meaning for Americans. The violence of the mob revealed to the world that America was drunk on its illusion of being the beacon of democracy to the world. The reality was, and still is, that its political regime is fragile. America, like any country, can fall into disarray and disunion.
What hung on the gallows that day was democracy itself. Eager to share their enthusiasm for the hoped-for violence to come, eager executioners built the gallows, posed for selfies by it, and inscribed messages on the wood. Trump 2020 Philadelphia. “God Bless the USA. Hang Em High.” “Hang For Treason.” “WHERE ARE YOU, THOMAS JEFFERSON?”. “In God we Trust.” While Trumpers swarmed the stairs of the capital, engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Capitol police, chants of “Hang Mike Pence” echoed on the steps and the hallways of the building.
In their quest for their twisted vision of morality, some may be prepared to commit the ultimate immoral act: murder.
For the insurrectionists, the gallows represented both the practical and the ideal. It was a place to punish those who had subverted the will of their “We the People,” as well as conveying the power they believed they held. They were to be both judge, jury, and executioners. The bloodlust of their hatred produced the gallows, a symbol of the old west justice brought to the Capitol grounds.
But what to make of the intentions of those hopeful executioners? Nothing good. They were in fact, a lynch mob. They took the time to build the gallows hoping that they would be able to execute politicians that they disliked. Like the lynchers who hunted and killed countless numbers of people, including women, children, African Americans, Jews and others, they hoped for a spectacle. Their God was surely on their side, and would deliver their enemies to them.
These beliefs do not coalesce in a vacuum. People don’t build gallows as a hobby. The gallows were built for the ultimate political retribution. Threats of violence against politicians and media figures are no longer anathema, but a regular feature of the right-wing media complex. In the case of the insurrection, a muscular, violent image of punishment, coupled with prayers and violence, turned the men and women of the Capitol insurrection into instruments of God’s punishment on those who opposed their (and their God’s) choice for the nation’s leader.
These ideas about retribution, punishment, and judgment are part of their Americanized Christianity, where babies, guns and Jesus rule the land, and good Christian patriots build gallows. The gallows were a symbol of their moral righteousness, the need to shed blood to bring back righteousness to the land.
Looking at the pictures of the gallows reminded me of how Christians in America participated in lynching and hangings. President Lincoln ordering the hanging of 38 Dakota Native Americans on December 26, 1862 in Mankato, MN. Over 2000 African Americans were lynched in America. Hanging was a preferred method, to watch people suffer more as their breath exhaled from their bodies, they soiled themselves, and contorted as they tried to breathe. Hangings were designed to be deterrents: to warn, to frighten, to subjugate.
Had Pence been captured and marched out to the gallows, it would have been the moment that all the barbarity and murderous intent that has undergirded American history would have been undeniable. But we’ve seen this before, whether in Daley Plaza, or at the Lorraine Hotel, or at the Ambassador Ballroom. Violence is as American as apple pie.
Finally, the gallows, more than many of the other symbols surrounding the capitol on 1/6, show the depth of the intent and intimidation that the rioters hoped they would achieve with executing Vice President Pence in public. By building the gallows, they signaled that they were done with democracy. Murder was the only way they could put Trump back into office. Rather than prayer, rather than engaging in a democratic process in the next election, murder was the choice they made.
What did die on those gallows was American democracy. As long as there is a political party whose members are willing to kill to remain in power, it is American democracy that is hanging on by a thin breath on those gallows. Let’s hope that the stand won’t be kicked out from under it.
Anthea Butler is Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and chair of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her recent book is White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America on The University of North Carolina Press. A sought-after commentator, Professor Butler is an op-ed contributor for MSNBC and served as a consultant to recent PBS series including Billy Graham, and The Black Church.