Viewers who were scanning cable news on Tuesday might have thought they’d stumbled onto a sort of bizarro coverage of professional wrestling.

“I got elbowed in the back, and it kind of caught me off guard, ’cause it was a clean shot to the kidneys. And I turned back and…there was Kevin,” the tan-jacketed man, standing on the steps outside, told the reporter.

“Kevin,” in this case, was no spandex brawler. According to NPR’s Congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales, it was former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader recently felled in an intra-party coup. McCarthy ran off after the attack, Grisales posted on X.

Giving chase was Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee, one of the eight Republicans who’d voted to oust McCarthy, and who later appeared on conservative TV channel Newsmax, where the host suggested a colleague of Burchett “could come back at [McCarthy] with some stuff that he doesn’t want out there in the public.”

That wasn’t all. At nearly the same time, in a nearby Senate hearing room, M.M.A. fighter-turned-Senator Markwayne Mullin suddenly rose to his feet to fight a union boss testifying before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“If you want to run your mouth, we can be two consenting adults. We can finish it here,” the Oklahoma Republican said to Teamsters President Sean O’Brien. O’Brien had made fun of Mullin’s height after a previous congressional showdown. 

Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the committee chair, pleaded with Mullin to calm down, reminding him, “You’re a United States Senator!”

But as Sanders likely knew, and Mullin was eager to point out, physical violence has a deep-seated history in Congress. One year after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump, Retro Report produced a segment for “Preserving Democracy,” a PBS documentary that interwove ruminations on the democratic process from multiple filmmakers.

The 10-minute segment, beginning at 22:15, examines the fraught beginnings of American democracy, and how the slavery question eventually led politicians to blows. By comparison, the personality-driven, chest-puffing nature of this week’s Congressional beef seems a throwback to the most nascent era of American politics when, more than policy positions, nebulous disputes over personal honor led politicians to feud, and sometimes duel.

Time may, with increasing absurdity, be a flat circle.

MATTHEW SPOLAR, a Retro Report producer, created the historical segment in “Preserving Democracy.” 

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