Last week’s attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, at the couple’s San Francisco home represents another in a long series of stress tests for American democracy. And as at past such inflection points—the January 6 insurrection, the mobilization of a vast corps of election-denying and conspiracy-mongering candidates in the GOP, the pillaging of social media platforms by feckless billionaires—the system is showing every sign of impending breakdown. An assassination attempt targeting the person third in line for the presidency—Paul Pelosi’s hammer-wielding assailant, David LePape, reportedly shouted, “Where is Nancy?”: the same refrain raised by January 6 rioters vandalizing the speaker’s office—largely registered within key segments of the American right as a regrettable and over-ardent case of propaganda-by-deed , if not indeed another conspiracy targeted at their movement.
Virginia GOP Governor Glenn Youngkin, out stumping for Virginia congressional candidate Yesli Vega in the homestretch of the election season, saw fit to joke about the assault; after a pro forma disclaimer denouncing political violence, he said of the House speaker, “We’re going to send her back” to be with her seriously injured husband. The crowd applauded. Fox News, meanwhile, stoutly hewed to general GOP policy messaging amid news of the assault; contributor Leo Terrell announced that the attack should serve as a “wake-up call” on crime to permissive liberal Democrats like Pelosi—as though Democrats were withholding approval of hammer-counterinsurgency measures in the nation’s police departments.
By the weekend, Donald Trump Jr. had repurposed this phony talking point into a rally-grade demagogic slogan, tweeting, “Imagine how safe the country would be if the democrats [sic] took all violent crime as seriously as they’re taking the Paul Pelosi situation. They just don’t care about you.” GOP Texas Senator Ted Cruz, in what now passes for statesmanlike conduct on the right, weighed in with a dogmatic yet content-free pronouncement clearly aimed at providing cover for rampant speculative nuttery. “I don’t know what the hell happened at Nancy Pelosi’s house and I suspect none of us will ever know for sure,” he tweeted. “But I do know that trying to paint a hippie nudist from Berkeley as some kind of militant right winger is absurd and will always be absurd.”
Other party influencers sought to harness both violent Q fantasies and a rapidly burgeoning (and Elon Musk–endorsed) conspiracy theory about the attack on the right, holding that the alleged attacker and Paul Pelosi were lovers. Former Trump treasury official and Nixon amanuensis Monica Crowley darkly tweeted: “The Pelosi house is the kind of place that looks normal from the outside but has all kinds of crazy-ass stuff going on behind closed doors.”
Not that the preexisting chorus of MAGA Twitter users really needed this sort of prompting from movement figures such as Cruz, Trump Jr., and Crowley. Perhaps feeling especially belligerent the day of Musk’s takeover of the platform, they continued spewing hateful anti-Pelosi rhetoric. Former radio and TV host John Cardillo made a point of professing zero sympathy for the “evil motherfuckers” Paul and Nancy Pelosi; Substacker and self-styled independent journalist Jordan Schachtel said he “couldn’t care less what happened or happens to the Pelosi crime family.” As Never Trump conservative Christian Vanderbrouk noted, both men were guests of Florida GOP Governor Ron DeSantis at a dinner marking the anniversary of January 6.
Needless to say, the attacker himself very much seconded these views. DePape took earlier tours through lifestyle experimentation in the Bay Area mold, designing hemp jewelry and practicing nudism, but, like so many other Americans, he settled firmly into right-wing extremism and conspiracy-mongering around the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. He published a gnomically formatted blog (now belatedly suspended under WordPress’s terms of service) with repeated and lurid callouts to QAnon, anti-vax conspiracies, Gamergate, and Holocaust denial.
DePape’s extremely online political odyssey is not so oddball as it may seem at first glance, and certainly not out of line with the present paranoid and apocalyptic fantasies driving discourse on the American right. With QAnon, the violent and apocalyptic conspiracy movement commanding the allegiance of some 30 million Americans, similar attacks and assassination attempts seem likely to become a new normal, much as school shootings have become routine occurrences in an over-armed and undernourished American civitas.
Indeed, there’s been a clear and distressing arc of declension in the America right’s response to political violence over the past decade. When Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot by a disturbed constituent in 2011, there was a full bipartisan denunciation of the act and the shooter. But come 2020, when Kyle Rittenhouse killed two protesters in the Kenosha, Wis., protests over a racialized police shooting, the American right adopted him as a folk hero. (Rittenhouse was also back in full influencer mode this weekend, triumphantly celebrating his renewed Twitter clout in the Musk era.) Meanwhile, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who brandished firearms at peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters on their street, were invited speakers at the 2020 GOP convention.
“Unquestionably, we can expect more incidents like this,” says Joe Lowndes, political science professor at the University of Oregon and author of From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism. “We’re at a moment when Republican elected officials can use the language of violence openly and demonize opponents as enemies in a way that’s as harsh as it gets.”
At the same time, Lowndes notes, the recourse to violent intimidation has deeper roots among right-wing leaders and activists. He observes, for example, that Fox News’s rapid transposition of DePape’s ideologically motivated attack into another campaign-cycle crime story directly echoes George Wallace’s response to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, which he attributed to generalized “lawlessness” and a “breakdown of law and order in this country.”
The migration of such responsibility-dodging rhetoric into the political mainstream is another symptom of the American right’s overt authoritarian makeover in the Trump era. “The clichéd way to say it is that the needle has moved on the legitimacy of political violence on the right,” Lowndes says. “Not only is more of it allowed, but the very logic of it has shifted, as the GOP has become a far-right party of the European variety.” While American politics has been steeped in violent confrontation going back to the origins of the republic, he adds, “what’s distinctive now is that one of the two major parties seems to be all in for political violence. Before, the party system had served as this mediating institution between citizens and government to siphon off these tendencies. But now you have a party that sees itself as the outlet for them.”
Hannah Gais, a researcher for the Southern Poverty Law Center who focuses on the extreme right, likewise notes that tolerance for violence on the right has lately entered an accelerationist mode. “Especially after January 6, but certainly before it, the rhetorical bar for political violence has been greatly lowered. That’s true for opponents of Trump and Democrats in particular—if you just look at some of the comments generally made about Pelosi, you see the background for this. The SPLC just did a poll, where we asked, ‘Do you think some violence might be necessary to protect the country from radical extremists?’ Forty-one percent of Republicans agreed.” (The Democratic share of yeses was also strikingly high, at 34 percent, while one-fifth of all respondents said that political assassinations were justified.)
“The partisan conflict has been increasingly framed as an existential issue,” Gais says. “The right talks about the left as a quasi-demonic force, a threat to a certain type of white American. It’s leading to a very bad place.”
The typical Republican tactic is to downplay or deny the threats of violence within the conservative movement—and in some cases, to fold them into the broader churn of free-form conspiracy-mongering, as we’re already seeing in the wake of the Pelosi attack. “We saw that happen after January 6, with Ray Epps, the guy that they’re now claiming was a fed,” Gais adds. “They don’t want to deal with the consequences of their actions. They want the benefits of street actions and political violence, but they don’t want to deal with the consequences of where that goes.”
Which leads back to DePape’s January 6 battle cry in the Pelosi residence: “Where is Nancy?” The Capitol insurrection and its aftermath are furnishing much of the playbook for the militant GOP, leaving party leaders with no way to maneuver out of range of violent extremists. Increasingly, they are the base of the Republican Party. “There’s not a lot of space for Republicans to denounce it, because already the political culture of the Republican party is openly antidemocratic, founded on the feeling they’re living under the illegitimate rule of an illegal usurper,” Lowndes says. “If that’s the territory, things like attacking Democratic political officials become legitimate in a way.” Gais agrees: “January 6 is, more than Charlottesville, this unfinished chapter. I suspect that’s going to be the case for quite some time.”