A couple of weeks before the midterm elections, a man broke into the San Francisco home of Nancy Pelosi, who is second in line to succeed the president, in order to kidnap, torture—and maybe even kill her. She wasn’t home—but her 82-year-old husband Paul was. He managed to call the police before the attacker struck him with a hammer, breaking his skull.
The police report shows the clearly premeditated nature of the attack: The attacker had brought zip-ties, tape, a hammer and gloves. It quickly turned out to have been a deliberate, planned act of political violence, committed by a man named David DePape who believed in a variety of right-wing conspiracy theories. In fact, he even shouted “Where is Nancy?”—just like the attackers on January 6th 2021, when they were roaming the halls of the Capitol hoping to find, and possibly kill, the nation’s third-highest-ranking Democrat.
But this attack on the life of the Speaker of the House—that landed her husband in the hospital severely injured—was not the act of a “lone wolf,” no matter how many GOP politicians are trying to paint it that way. It happened in the context of a Republican Party that has, along with the broader American Right, peddled a plethora of conspiracy theories in which Democrats are not merely a political opponent, but an evil, deeply un-American force, out to destroy everything the Republican base holds dear.
The attacker, David DePape, had reached the only logical conclusion, if one were to believe the Right’s lies: If Democrats truly are conspiring to destroy the country, dispatching death squads that kill conservatives, molest children, drink their blood and sell them into sexual slavery—what else is left but a desperate act of violence?
The attack itself was shocking. What’s been truly chilling though, were the responses of elected GOP officials and candidates. Few expressed their condolences. Those who did, failed to acknowledge their own or their party’s complicity in this brutal act, instead claiming more broadly that political violence isn’t the answer—as if there were an equivalent to be found on the Democratic side. Many have remained completely silent.
Right-wing disinformation systems were immediately buzzing with unhinged conspiracy theories, many of which were homophobic. After the police report was published, right-wing politicians didn’t retract their false statements but instead implied that a sinister cover-up was afoot. Tricia Flanagan, former Republican primary candidate for New Jersey’s 4th Congressional District, tweeted: “New day, new narrative.”
Fox News contributor David Webb said: “Look for what’s missing and what doesn’t add up.” His colleague, Jesse Waters, meanwhile claimed it was outrageous that Pelosi’s attacker had been charged with kidnapping and attempted murder—and that if he hadn’t attacked a member of the Democratic elite, he would already have been out on bail. “A lot of people get hit with hammers,” he declared.
Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, the former libertarian-turned White Christian nationalist think tank, went even further, proclaiming that an “amazing patriot” should become a “midterm hero” by bailing him out of jail “and then go ask him some questions.” Right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza claimed the police were involved in a cover-up.
The most jarring reactions were those of Republicans who mocked Pelosi and the attack on her husband, like Republican gubernatorial candidate for Arizona, Kari Lake (who is, as of publication, losing by the thinnest of margins in an extremely close race), who quipped at a campaign event in Scottsdale:
“Nancy Pelosi, well, she’s got protection when she’s in D.C.—apparently her house doesn’t have a lot of protection.”
Similarly chilling was the reaction of the other people present at the gathering: the moderator was laughing so hard he had to cover his face with his cue-cards, while the audience cheered, reveling in their cruelty.
Governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, who was lauded by pundits during his campaign as a moderate Republican, and who won the governorship by zeroing in on the racist anti-CRT moral panic, joined the ranks of those who thought the attack on Pelosi was a laughing matter. At a campaign event, Youngkin declared—again, to cheers and jeers of the crowd:
“Speaker Pelosi’s husband had a break-in last night in their house, and he was assaulted. There’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re gonna send her back to be with him in California. That’s what we’re going to go do.”
Youngkin has since apologized following public backlash regarding his comments, but he has shown his true colors. Unsurprisingly, Eric Trump has been posting jokes about the attempted attack on the life of the Speaker of the House and the assault on her husband, posting a picture of underwear and a hammer, tweeting “Got my Paul Pelosi Halloween costume ready.”
It’s this glee and contempt of the crowd, the cruel mocking of a victim of political violence by the movement’s figureheads, the relishing in the suffering of another human, that’s central to fascism and its obsession with physical strength—as is the gaslighting of the victims of their own violence. Journalist Jay Griffiths gives an apt summary of the fascist urge to revel in an opponent’s physical suffering after an attack:
“Fascism is hostile to egalitarianism and loathes liberalism. It champions ‘might is right,’ a Darwinian survival of the nastiest, and detests vulnerability: the sight of weakness brings out the jackboot in the fascist mind, which then blames the victim for encouraging the kick. Fascism not only promotes violence but relishes it, viscerally so. It cherishes audacity, bravado and superbia, promotes charismatic leaders, demagogues and ‘strong men,’ and seeks to flood or control the media. Even as it pretends to speak for the people, it creates the rule of the elite, a cult of violent chauvinism and a nationalism that serves racism.”
It took Kevin McCarthy several days to respond to the attack—and even then, his response was to frame political violence as a “both-sides” problem:
“Thankfully he’s gonna be okay but thankfully the attacker, he’s a deranged individual, but thankfully he was arrested. And we’ve watched this with Lee Zeldin, we’ve watched this with Supreme Court Justices. This is wrong. Violence should not go. You watch what happened to Steve Scalise and others. This has got to stop.”
DePape’s crime cannot be seen outside of the context of the constant radicalization of the Republican base through the conspiracist lies their leaders have been telling them for years. Yet all the names he references are Republicans. Steve Scalise wasn’t shot because Democrats were painting him as the devil incarnate and Lee Zeldin’s attacker testified that he didn’t know who the Republican was.
Brett Kavanaugh and his fellow right-wing judges are merrily chipping away at the rights of anyone who dares to live outside of conservative sensibilities. Criticizing and pointing this out is not the same as calling for violence—and the Right knows that. But painting the other side as monsters so that violent attacks can be framed as self-defense is an integral part of the fascist narrative, which is all about creating a permission structure for unleashing violence upon its political opponents.
Once political violence is introduced as a legitimate tool of the political discourse, it cannot be controlled or even stopped. Republicans and the American Right have long played with the violent imagery of guns and skulls, but in the lead-up to the midterms, the masks that hadn’t fallen yet are now completely off.
Rather than take this disturbing act of political violence as a prompt to keep things on the down-low, Republicans have doubled down. Just a few days after the attack on Pelosi, McCarthy’s Super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund launched a new attack ad on Nancy Pelosi, blaming her for “destroying the country,” and stressing all the narratives that had led to the hammer assault in the first place. McCarthy himself has made jokes about assaulting Pelosi physically before: “I want you to watch Nancy Pelosi hand me that gavel. It will be hard not to hit her with it,” he told a crowd at a Nashville fundraising event in 2021.
Meanwhile, Republicans have cynically used this act of political violence to flood their media systems with disinformation about an alleged surge in violent crime ahead of the midterms—a narrative based not on facts, but to rile up their base with racialized fear-mongering—and to blame the attack on Pelosi on “rising crime rates.” (It doesn’t seem to have worked as well as they’d hoped, as the anticipated “red wave” appears to be more of a ripple.)
The only reason to joke about political violence, or to not categorically rule it out is to normalize it so it can be used against one’s political opponent. Some Republican candidates are blatantly open in their threats against their declared Democratic enemies: Like Blake Masters, senate candidate in Arizona, who in a previous ad declared: “This is a long barreled rifle. It wasn’t designed for hunting. This is designed to kill people,” while gesturing with the weapon towards the camera.
Masters made clear how he saw violence ahead of the midterms when he tweeted a picture with police and sheriff insignia, alongside fascist flags—next to him a large gun. The tweet said: “Locked and loaded. Four more days”
The American Right has moved past dog whistles. They’re shouting it from the rooftops: In their quest to get and remain in power, everything goes—even violence, democracy be damned. And, while it may not have been the resounding victory they’d counted on, from what it looks like, they’re only getting started.