On December 4th 2022, eight bullets struck the home of Bernalillo County Commissioner Adriann Barboa. On December 11th, 12 bullets followed. On January 3rd this year, three bullets hit the house of Linda Lopez, New Mexico senator representing District 11. They went through the window of her 10-year-old daughter’s bedroom, who was asleep at the time of the attack, and was awakened by the gunfire. State Representative Javier Martínez, having heard of the attacks, checked his house—and found bullet holes. All of the targets were elected Democrats.
The man arrested for allegedly orchestrating the shootings is the former GOP candidate for the 14th congressional district, Solomon Pena. Pena had lost his election by a large margin, but has since refused to concede. He repeated the mainstream Republican line of the Big Lie—that the election had been stolen by Democrats. According to Pena, however, it wasn’t just Trump whose victory was stolen due to election fraud, but his as well. On Dec. 28 in response to someone calling him a criminal on social media Pena said:
“Everyone in the NM government who helped overthrow Trump are the active treasonists who must be placed in Guantanamo Bay Cuba for natural life. Once they are gone I can work on rebuilding Albuquerque.”
Pena was part of the insurrection on January 6th 2021. And, unsurprisingly, he’d turned up unannounced at the Democrats’ houses to argue that he’d actually won his election. Pena has since been charged with shooting at a home, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, conspiracy and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The case is already a disturbing one: A Republican congressional candidate paid four men to shoot at the homes of his Democratic rivals. As if that weren’t horrifying enough, the choice of targets seems relevant: They didn’t merely target the Democrats’ offices, but their homes as well, endangering their families in efforts to intimidate—or even to kill or maim. This was a conscious act to not simply invade their personal space, but to act as a warning should they dispute Pena’s claims.
These attacks targeted Democratic officials, yes—but they were also aimed at the heart of American democracy: the peaceful transfer of power after an election by the American people. Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said:
“APD essentially discovered what we had all feared and what we had suspected — that these shootings were indeed politically motivated. They were dangerous attacks not only to these individuals … but, fundamentally, also to democracy.”
And while these attacks are shocking, they’re not surprising. Yes, it’s a new escalation that they were ordered by an official GOP congressional candidate. But isn’t that the logical consequence of a party whose current leader, Donald Trump, ordered a mob to attack Congress, including his own Vice President, because they didn’t bow to his will? As Natascha Strobl, Austrian fascism expert, said at a Vienna event held last week: “Fascism combines elite rule with the power of the mob.”
This became apparent on January 6th 2021, and the GOP has continued to mainstream political violence—not just the events of that day, but in general—ever since. GOP midterm campaigns featured thinly veiled threats of violence—like Blake Masters publishing a campaign video of him shooting a gun with a silencer in the desert (despite the fact that his opponent’s wife had barely survived being shot in the head).
Only two weeks ago, Hakeem Jeffries was the one to hand over the gavel to the new Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy. Pelosi, his Democratic predecessor, had refused to do so, because McCarthy had joked that he wouldn’t be able to resist hitting her with it after she gave it to him. In December, Republicans made headlines by cruelly joking about the second attack in two years on Pelosi’s life, which left her 80-year-old husband with a head wound from being struck on the head by an intruder who believed in right-wing conspiracy theories. The attack occurred less than two years after a mob had ransacked the Capitol, screaming “Nancy” in search of the then-Speaker. The gallows had already been set up in front of the Capitol.
Violence is the catharsis which conspiracy movements like QAnon promise: that the evil-doers will be punished, echoing the “Day of the Rope” in the neo-Nazi bible The Turner Diaries, which in many ways has provided a blueprint for the attack on the Capitol, as historian Kathleen Belew has argued. Fantasies of public executions of politicians were all the rage amongst Covid-deniers since the start of the pandemic, who dreamed of a “Nuremberg 2.0,” a tribunal where the villains would be punished, blood would be shed, and the innocent avenged. Not long ago, White supremacists had planned to kidnap and publicly execute Michigan’s Democratic Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, over her Covid policies.
Insurrectionist Marjorie Taylor Greene, freshly appointed by the new Speaker to both the Homeland Security Committee and the Oversight Committee, told a crowd of supporters that Democrats had dispatched death squads who were going door to door killing conservatives and their families. Prominent Republicans like Elise Stefanik have called the Democratic Party the “pedo grifters” and “groomers,” lumping Democrats in with child molesters and sexual predators who hunt down children.
It’s an old rhetorical trick: Since those who commit sexual assaults on children are among the—if not the—most reviled in society, many would at the very least look the other way were violence enacted upon them. It’s no surprise, sadly, that we’ve seen attacks on LGBTQ venues rise, with the deadly shooting spree at a LGBTQ friendly club in Colorado Springs in November the most devastating example—for now.
Pena had enough red flags to indicate that he shouldn’t have been supported as a candidate for the GOP nomination in the primary, The New York Times argues. Not only had Solomon Pena been demoted twice by the U.S. Navy and served nearly seven years in prison for burglary, he also “promoted conspiracy theories about solar power, feminism and ‘the demonic theories of the Globalist Elites.’”
Yet the latter is, as the Times fails to mention, a mainstream position within the GOP. So it shouldn’t be surprising that prominent Republicans in New Mexico endorsed Pena and supported his campaign financially. The comment by influential state Republican Michael Candelaria to the Times regarding their support for Pena sheds light on their willingness to tolerate the far-right views of their supporters and candidates for political gain:
“You don’t take a group of people whose support you want and tell them, ‘You’re a bunch of crazies.’ You’re going to have some extremists that you have to figure out how to keep their support.”
Experts have warned, again and again, of the danger that emanates from the increasingly violent language used by the GOP in recent years and months. Permitting and peddling violent rhetoric has consequences: words become deeds, as trite as that might sound.
The glue that holds all of these violent fantasies together is, of course, White Christian nationalism: The belief that the nation, that “true Americans,” are under existential, mortal threat and need to defend themselves and to be defended against these enemies at any cost. The Right’s constant self-victimization allows them to present violence as a defense mechanism against a mortal enemy in league with evil forces out to destroy their “way of life”—or even out to end their lives altogether.
White Christian nationalism creates a permission structure for violence, which becomes a defensive tool, a survival tool even, sanctified by God. His ultimate authority cannot be challenged, and thus violence sanctified by Him is above any earthly condemnation. And while authoritarians and fascists may not have a majority in the U.S.—fascism usually doesn’t—they don’t need one because any opposition is suffocated by the threat of imminent violence.
Republican politicians might distance themselves from acts of political violence committed by others, but they’re still complicit. They knowingly continue to peddle the incendiary lies and conspiracy theories that not only create permission structures, but even the urgent moral imperative, to subject the opponent to political violence.
They’ve seen what it leads to. They’ve read the news stories about the lives lost at the hands of QAnon believers; they’ve seen and heard from the police officers beaten and battered on January 6th by a mob, sent by Trump, who believed the election had been stolen; and they’ve now seen one of their own, Solomon Pena, orchestrate shootings at Democrats’ homes—even being present at at least one of the shootings—urging the men he’d hired to “aim lower,” to make the threat more poignant. They try to wash the blood off their hands, claim ignorance and feign horror at the violence committed—while continuing to spread the lies that sparked it, furthering the narrative that led to bloodshed. And yet, some stains will never come off.
Again, authoritarians and fascists don’t have a majority in the U.S., but with the Big Lie, conservatives have found a myth, a stab-in-the-back-myth, which serves directly as a tool of demonization and mobilization. As religion scholar and podcaster Bradley Onishi put it in an article in Religion Dispatches last year:
“By telling the story of the Big Lie, Trump legitimizes his followers’ grievance. But it goes further than that. The myth legitimizes violence against those who are trying to ‘steal’ the country that his supporters’ ancestors supposedly ‘won with their own courage, defended with their own blood, etc.’ And Trump’s martyrdom, at least in the eyes of the American Right, justifies vigilantism, political vengeance, and even civil war.”
And now that we’re seeing vigilantism, vengeance, and even, as Jeff Sharlet puts it, a slow civil war, one thing is abundantly clear whether we choose to see it or not: Solomon Pena’s story is no accident and it’s not an anomaly. It was an utterly predictable consequence of a dangerous game the GOP has been playing with increasing fervor for years.