( – President Trump’s use of the word “lynching” in a tweet complaining about the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry set off a firestorm of racism allegations on Tuesday, even though the term is frequently used figuratively – including by Democrats – to describe a political process thought to be egregiously unfair.

From 2020 presidential hopefuls Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker to Congressional Black Caucus chair Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) to Council on American-Islamic Relations executive director Nihad Awad, critics slammed Trump.

Bass accused him of lobbing “the red meat of racial rhetoric” while Awad of CAIR said the comment displayed the president’s “racist, white supremacist mindset.”

Our country has a dark, shameful history with lynching, and to even think about making this comparison is abhorrent,” tweeted Biden. “It’s despicable.”

Then a video emerged in which Biden used precisely the same term in 1998 in relation to the then-looming impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

“Even if the president should be impeached, history is going to question whether or not this was just a partisan lynching or whether or not it was something that in fact met the standard, the very high bar, that was set by the founders as to what constituted an impeachable offense,” the then Delaware senator told CNN.

Biden overnight apologized for having used the word in 1998, but suggested that Trump was driven by darker motivations than he had been 21 years ago.

“This wasn’t the right word to use and I’m sorry about that,” Biden tweeted. “Trump on the other hand chose his words deliberately today in his use of the word lynching and continues to stoke racial divides in this country daily.”

In December 1998, the House of Representatives in a 228-206 vote agreed that Clinton had lied under oath before a federal grand about his relationship with former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

During the floor debate ahead of that vote, at least three members – all black Democrats – referred to lynching as they criticized the Republicans.

“I will not vote for this ‘nightmare before Christmas,’” said Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.). “I will not vote for this lynching in the people’s House. I will vote against these resolutions.”

“What we are doing, or what we are doing here, is not a prosecution. It’s a persecution,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.). “And indeed, it is a political lynching.”

Fellow New York Democrat Rep. Charles Rangel agreed.

“This is about getting rid of the president of the United States. Whether it’s the FBI files, whether it’s Whitewater, whether it’s discussing something that Hillary has done, or whether it’s Lewinsky, the whole idea is a lynch-mob mentality that says, this man has to go.”

The term also got an airing off the House floor. A day after the vote, the Hartford Courant in Connecticut quoted Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Ct.) as saying of the process, “This has been a partisan lynching. They have hijacked the Constitution to impeach our agenda and to impeach our ideas.”

Rangel retired from Congress in 2017. Davis, DeLauro and Meeks are still in the House. In response to Trump’s tweet on Tuesday, Meeks tweeted, “I don’t expect Trump to be sensitive to the weight of that word, or see how insulting and hurtful it is to invoke it here. I do expect Republicans to not even dare defend this language.”

A commonly-used term

“Lynching” is a form of mob violence usually culminating in murder. The term is most often associated with racially-motivated violence in the United States following the end of the Civil War.

Researchers have recorded 4,743 cases of lynching in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968. Of those, 3,446 (72.6 percent) of the victims were black.

Even when used in the literal sense, the term “lynching” is not exclusive to the American context.

When a Palestinian mob attacked and burned to death two Israeli soldiers who had taken a wrong turn into Ramallah in 2000, media reports around the world called the killings a “lynching.”

The word was also widely used in media reports in 2013, when a Pakistani Christian couple was burned alive in a brick kiln after a mob accused them of desecrating a Qur’an.

The term has also been used to describe mob killings in Sri Lanka, Haiti, South Africa, India and elsewhere.

“Lynching” is also commonly used figuratively. A Nexis search brings up nearly 2,000 examples of the use of the expression “political lynching” since 1982, often in contexts unrelated to race.

A July 1984 Associated Press story on a Senate call on President Reagan to withdraw his appointment of a (white) Environmental Protection Agency administrator: “Some conservative Republicans complained bitterly the resolution was a political lynching.”

French far-right leader Jean-Marie le Pen declared himself the victim of “political lynching” when his presidential campaign was rocked by controversial remarks on the Holocaust, UPI reported in 1987.

Russian politician and future president Boris Yeltsin was described as the victim of “political lynching” in a Los Angeles Times column in 1987.

In 1988, numerous media outlets used the term “political lynching” in quoting critics’ reaction to the U.S. Senate’s rejection of Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert Bork.

In 2011, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko described her trial on charges of abusing her powers as “a classic case of political lynching.”

The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was accused of a “political lynching” when he attempted to prosecute a political opponent on corruption charges.

The term also appears in English-language reports from Brazil, Mexico, Israel, Italy, Britain, Ukraine and elsewhere, again, with no reference to race.