But on Tuesday, Beshear also laid some blame for the violent imagery on Republican legislators in his state, whom he accused of contributing to the increasingly tense atmosphere at protests of restrictions.
“You cannot fan the flames and condemn the fire,” Beshear said Tuesday.
As President Trump and his close allies have turned pandemic restrictions into a partisan battle, pitting ideological loyalties against public health advice, Democratic governors overseeing hard-hit states have faced increasingly heated protests from people frustrated with the stay-at-home orders and business closures that started in March.
Beshear is the second governor to face an implied threat of assassination by way of an effigy. On May 14, protesters tussled over a brunette doll hanging from a noose on the steps of the Michigan Capitol, just days after local reports had surfaced Facebook posts making threats against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D).
Whitmer also accused the GOP of inciting the violent protests. The governor told “Axios on HBO” on Monday that Republicans in the Michigan legislature had been encouraging protesters in her state. She added that she had asked the Trump administration to dial back the president’s provocative rhetoric on Twitter, where he has called to “LIBERATE” Michigan and voiced support for armed protesters there.
“The heat is ratcheting up,” she told Axios.
In Kentucky on Sunday, protesters hung a sign around the dummy’s neck that said “sic semper tyrannis,” a Latin phrase meaning “thus always to tyrants” that John Wilkes Booth claimed he shouted after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln. The violent symbol marked the crescendo of a protest attended on Sunday by the Kentucky Three Percenters, a chapter of a far-right militia group affiliated with the “patriot movement.”
“Let’s start by calling it what it was and what it is, actions aimed at creating fear and terror,” Beshear said, describing the protesters’ actions.
Beshear said they had “chanted and heckled” on the other side of a window where his children often play. His children, ages 10 and 9, were not home during the protest, he added.
“I will not be afraid, I will not be bullied, and I will not back down,” Beshear said Tuesday.
Beshear pointed to recent rhetoric from GOP legislators as a source of the extreme hostility displayed at Sunday’s protest. A couple of Republican state legislators had attended a similar protest in early May and gave speeches that bashed Beshear in dramatic terms, he said.
“Standing in front of a radical militia group, these elected officials claimed that people including me aren’t Christian, and even told them that people wanted babies to be murdered,” Beshear added. “What do you think was going to happen after throwing out those type of claims to this group? Shouldn’t they have known what was going to happen?”
State Rep. Savannah Maddox, one of the Republican legislators Beshear criticized, said she wasn’t at Sunday’s rally and stands with her caucus “in condemning all acts of hatred in the context of political discourse.” But she also fired back at the governor and her political opponents who criticized her for taking a photo with the man who hung the effigy at a past event.
“His remarks are part of a greater initiative that he has unveiled in conjunction with the Kentucky Democratic Party to deflect responsibility for the economic turmoil his actions have created,” she said in a statement.
Many other high-profile Republicans in Kentucky denounced the effigy quickly and forcefully.
Kentucky House Speaker David Osborne said he and his fellow Republicans were “outraged” by the violent imagery displayed on the Capitol grounds.
“The party of Lincoln will not condone this,” he said, invoking a direct contrast to the phrase protesters attached to the hanging dummy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the protesters went too far by hanging the effigy.
“As a strong defender of the First Amendment, I believe Americans have the right to peacefully protest,” he said in a statement. “However, today’s action toward Governor Beshear is unacceptable. There is no place for hate in Kentucky.”
Daniel Cameron, the state’s Republican attorney general, called the imagery “sickening."
“We have to learn to disagree without threats of violence,” he tweeted Sunday.
The swift backlash brought consequences on at least one of the men who strung up the effigy. Neil Huffman Automotive Group, which runs several car dealerships in Kentucky, said on Tuesday the company had fired an employee involved in the incident after an internal investigation.
“There is no place for hate or intolerance in any of our dealerships,” the company said in a statement.