Behind the GOP gaslighting over Pelosi attack: They know it won't happen to them

Republicans wink and nod and spread grotesque memes. They only pretend to disapprove — because the tactic works

By Heather Digby Parton


Published October 31, 2022 9:55AM (EDT)

Police take measurements around Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi's home after her husband Paul Pelosi was assaulted with hammer inside their Pacific Heights home early morning on October 28, 2022 in San Francisco, California (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Police take measurements around Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi's home after her husband Paul Pelosi was assaulted with hammer inside their Pacific Heights home early morning on October 28, 2022 in San Francisco, California (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

We've heard a lot about "gaslighting" over the past few years, and often the term doesn't really apply to whatever phenomenon is being discussed. But this past weekend we saw a perfect example, with Republicans and their media allies working overtime to convince Americans that political violence is found on "both sides" of the partisan divide. In the final week of a hard-fought midterm campaign, one might wish be generous and excuse them for bending the truth or being hyperbolic. But this wasn't an ordinary weekend.

In the wee hours of Friday morning, a man wielding a hammer broke into the San Francisco home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and confronted her 82-year-old husband, Paul, repeatedly asking, "Where's Nancy?" and threatening to tie up Paul Pelosi and wait for the speaker to return home. (She was thousands of miles away in Washington.) Pelosi covertly alerted police and when they arrived, the assailant hit Pelosi in the head with the hammer, fracturing his skull and seriously injuring his arm and hand.

It's obvious to all rational people that the assailant intended to abduct, injure or kill Nancy Pelosi, based on those facts alone. (CNN reported on Sunday night that the attacker was carrying zip ties in a plastic bag.) It's also reasonable to suspect the man had a political motive, since he was echoing the chants that rang through the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as Trump's rampaging headed for Pelosi's office. It also turns out, unsurprisingly, that the alleged attacker, 42-year-old man David DePape, also left a long social media trail of unhinged right-wing conspiracy theories, racist and antisemitic rants, incel complaints, QAnon lunacy and more. (CBS News reported Monday morning that DePape had a list of other possible targets. We don't know who else was on it.)

This story is still unfolding and we certainly don't know all the facts yet. But it's pretty clear that yet another right-wing kook committed calculated political violence, and this time the target's spouse took the hit. Imagine how people on the right's hit list must have felt when they heard about this. Their families are in danger.

Honestly, that's nothing new. Last August, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., shared a chilling recording on Twitter:

As it happens, on Friday a different man pleaded guilty to threatening to kill Swalwell. Apparently, he called the congressman's office and told him he had an AR-15 and was coming after him. Last Wednesday, three men were found guilty for their involvement in the plot to kidnap against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who has been a particular target of right-wing rage.

All of that happened in the span of just three days, and that's the tip of the iceberg. The country is awash in right-wing violence, from overt threats and assaults against Democratic lawmakers to threats and intimidation directed against election workers and voters themselves.

It's almost miraculous that something hasn't happened to Nancy Pelosi before now. She has been the most demonized political figure in America for many years, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, her fellow target of right-wing misogyny. Every election cycle, but particularly during the midterms, those who hate her trot out depraved attacks that will turn your stomach. The memes are the stuff of nightmares.

According to the Capitol Police, threats against Pelosi have proliferated in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack. One vicious creep was sentenced to a year and half in jail earlier this year for threatening to behead both Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

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Max Boot at the Washington Post elaborates:

The New America think tank found last year that, since Sept. 11, 2001, far-right terrorists had killed 122 people in the United States, compared with only one killed by far-leftists. A study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies last year found that, since 2015, right-wing extremists had been involved in 267 plots or attacks, compared with 66 for left-wing extremists. A Washington Post-University of Maryland survey released in January found that 40 percent of Republicans said violence against the government can be justified, compared with only 23 percent of Democrats.

But let's not put the blame only on the delusional malcontents who are deep down the MAGA rabbit hole. How do we explain the cowardly behavior of the Republican leadership? Yes, we expect the fever swamp avatars to push disinformation. (Apparently the new boss of Twitter will also do that, as he did on Sunday.) We can certainly expect the prime-time stars of Fox News to have a fully-formed alternate-universe theory of the Pelosi assault. (The seeds are already planted.) But once upon a time you might have expected more from actual elected officials, if only because they might feel some self-interested empathy for their fellow politicians: There but for the grace of God...

But Republicans believe they don't have to worry about this kind of stuff. They know the current spate of violence isn't aimed at them, don't they? (It's like Donald Trump telling the Secret Service at the Jan. 6 rally to let armed people in: "They're not here to hurt me.") The response of prominent Republicans has been nothing short of stunning. Oh, sure: Mitch McConnell said the attack was "disgusting" and Kevin McCarthy said that "violence or threat of violence has no place in our society." And quite a few others sent the usual pro forma thoughts and prayers. But that's about it.

Republicans believe they don't have to worry about this kind of stuff. They know the current spate of violence isn't aimed at them, don't they? So they wink and nod and suggest it's all part of the game.

Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, last seen mocking John Fetterman, the Democratic Senate nominee in Pennsylvania, for his stroke-related disability, has protested that it's deeply unfair to suggest that Republicans' irresponsible rhetoric is somehow to blame. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who may yearn to be Trump's 2024 running mate, came right out of the gate with a crude campaign message, saying, "There's no room for violence anywhere, but we're going to send her back to be with him in California. That's what we're gonna go do." Another member of the so-called Team Normal weighed in with this fatuous false equivalency:

No, street protests — even if they include looting and property damage — are not equivalent to violent assaults on lawmakers and their families. They are very different forms of political behavior. The first represents a long-standing and legal form of political expression, which is punishable by law if and when it veers into violence. Political assassination is another order of magnitude altogether, aimed at disrupting political order through lethal and unpredictable acts of violence. In historical terms it's  certainly not confined to the right, but in recent years in America, only the right has been reaping political profits from it. We are fortunate that so far no prominent political figure has literally been killed, but the intimidation factor is having an effect all over the political system.

The Republican base is highly motivated by the Big Lie and its ongoing hatred for what they perceive as the forces that are destroying American culture — immigrants, Black people, "cosmopolitan" city dwellers (often meaning Jewish people), feminists, liberals (aka "communists"), LGBTQ people and so on. The proliferation of crazy conspiracy theories feeds this hate and leads to the kind of violent attack that severely injured Paul Pelosi on Friday, as well as the ongoing threats against Democrats and civil servants. Republican officials, by and large, cannot quite bring themselves to condemn this. If anything, they wink and nod and suggest that it's all part of the game: Democrats deserve this at least a little, they are prepared to win by any means necessary and, anyway, both sides do it too. No, not really. In fact, not at all. And on the vanishingly rare occasions when that may happen. Democrats step up and strongly condemn any such actions.

To this point, Donald Trump has not said one word, which is probably for the best. I shudder to think what he would say. His eldest son reposted an utterly vile Instagram meme, and you just know Dad is itching to top that.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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