“The Birth of a Nation” was a scurrilous attempt to defame anti-slavery Radical Republicans. It sought to discredit racial progress during Reconstruction, and justify the systematic, often violent, White backlash that ensued. And, as a study in pathological projection, it was nakedly obvious: Racist depictions of newly empowered Black citizens as barbarians were a deflection, thinly masking the actual barbarism of the white supremacists Griffith’s film elevated and sentimentalized.
That projection now feels oddly prescient, especially in light of legislators’ recent behavior at the U.S. Capitol.
It was in that hallowed temple of democracy last week that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) verbally accosted her colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, accusing the New York Democrat of supporting terrorists and being a “radical socialist” who “doesn’t care about the American people.”
No sooner had House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for an investigation of that unsettling episode, noting that Greene’s behavior was “beyond the pale” of institutional norms and professional decorum, than a video surfaced Friday showing Greene literally stalking Ocasio-Cortez in 2019. In the 38-minute political un-thriller, Greene, then a private citizen, can be seen roaming the halls of Congress with a group of fellow culture warriors until they finally find Ocasio-Cortez’s locked office, where they taunt her staff through the mail slot and mug for the camera.
As a film, the stunt owes more to Michael Moore — and, frankly, “Single White Female” — than D.W. Griffith. But it also gives the lie to one of the most pernicious sequences in “The Birth of a Nation,” when a group of Black legislators leers threateningly at Southern White women in the statehouse’s gallery. In Greene’s movie — produced to hype her own-the-libs bona fides — she jokes with two Black allies that what scares Ocasio-Cortez most is “a Black man in a MAGA hat.” In this alternately pathetic and creepy scene, it couldn’t be clearer who the real aggressor is.
None of this should be shocking. In fact, the Republican Party began holding bipartisan comity in contempt decades ago. In the 1980s, when Newt Gingrich began asserting control over Republicans still chastened by the Watergate scandal, he famously advised them to stop apologizing and start going negative, treating politics like a cage match and turning opponents into enemies, never missing a chance to other-ize Democrats as “sick,” “radical” and “un-American.”
Gingrich, whose rise coincided with the arrival of C-SPAN, might have been the first politician to perfect the art of empty political theater — literally empty, when he would deliver intemperate jeremiads before a vacated chamber, simply for the benefit of the television cameras. (“If you’re not in The Washington Post every day, you might as well not exist,” he once told a Newsweek reporter.) The animus displayed by Greene and her fellow provocateurs is just as calculated. But now its end use is more likely to be on Twitter, TikTok and YouTube.
To the degree that Democrats have adopted Gingrich’s playbook, they’ve often been just as cringeworthy, if not as convincingly pugilistic. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) didn’t cover herself in glory when she said, “We’re going to impeach the motherf---er” regarding Donald Trump in 2019. More recently, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) looked like a petulant schoolboy when he snapped “You’re ridiculous!” during a hearing with former acting Pentagon chief Christopher C. Miller.
In the quarter-century since Gingrich’s dubious revolution, congressional comportment has been defined steadily downward — from Trump’s bogus birther claims about Barack Obama to South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson’s disrespectful “You lie!” outburst during Obama’s first address to a joint session of Congress. We’ve seen it when gun-toting grandstanders such as Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) make a self-righteous burlesque of going through the Capitol’s metal detectors, and in Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) reportedly boasting about his sexual exploits to his fellow lawmakers. We saw it on Jan. 6 when Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) gave a fist pump in support of hundreds of Trump fans poised to storm the Capitol — many of whom carried Confederate battle flags and one of whom was photographed insolently putting a foot on a desk in Pelosi’s office, “Birth of a Nation”-style.
In that image, the buried truths of Griffith’s toxic vision came shockingly to light. A once-sacred space has become little more than a backdrop for petty sideshows and brazen violence on the part of real-life barbarians. The Radical Republicans are back, this time on behalf of disenfranchisement, dysfunction and delusion.
According to a comprehensive story published in The Post on Sunday, nearly 70 of the accused rioters were current or former government, military or law enforcement officials — icons of the very judiciousness and probity lionized by Griffith at the expense of cruelly caricatured Black interlopers.
Even more sobering — and surreal — some Republicans have begun to claim that Jan. 6 wasn’t an insurrection at all. It bears noting that the week ended with progress in establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate the events of Jan. 6. But that outbreak of common sense was the exception in a period dominated by theatrics and bitterness. On Wednesday — the same day that Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming was defenestrated as chair of the House Republican Conference and Greene went into her latest hallway tirade — Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) called the Jan. 6 rioters “peaceful patriots,” while Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.) actually compared the day’s death and destruction to “a normal tourist visit.”
From where most Americans sit, what looks “peaceful” to Gosar and “normal” to Clyde is anything but. Like the lies of “The Birth of a Nation” that have now come full circle, theirs won’t stand the test of time.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Rep. Liz Cheney represents Utah. She represents Wyoming. The article also incorrectly said that a man was photographed with his feet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk. The photograph shows one foot, and it was in her office but not her desk.