After the Attack on Paul Pelosi, the GOP Again Is the Party of No Shame

After the Attack on Paul Pelosi, the GOP Again Is the Party of No Shame

After the Attack on Paul Pelosi, the GOP Again Is the Party of No Shame

As recently as 2006, Republicans could take an internal political scandal seriously. Not anymore.


Like every unhappy family, every political scandal is different. But the assassination attempt that targeted Nancy Pelosi and gravely injured her husband, Paul, offers some grim points of reflection for students of recent Republican politics. These lessons stand out in especially high relief when you cast your mind back to the last midterm cycle that brought an October surprise to the GOP faithful: the 2006 scandal involving Florida Representative Mark Foley, who sent a string of sexual e-mails and texts to adolescent boys who were working as pages for the House.

Of course, the particulars of the two scandals are distinct. Foley was an elected official and a closeted gay Republican, and the story broke two years after the GOP had demagogued the issue of gay marriage to help reelect George W. Bush. Paul Pelosi’s attacker, David DePape, is a right-wing conspiratorialist who told the San Francisco Police Department that he intended to wrest “the truth” from Nancy Pelosi by threatening to break her kneecaps. Still, each incident should have prompted a crisis of conscience for a political party interested in responsible governance.

To be sure, the GOP’s response when the Foley bombshell dropped in early October 2006 was far from exemplary: Then–House Speaker Dennis Hastert tried to coordinate messaging among party leaders who should have testified independently before a pending ethics committee investigation. But there was, at bottom, a recognition that the episode was real and serious. Foley resigned, at the leadership’s prompting, just prior to the 2006 balloting, and a Democratic challenger took his historically safe GOP seat. And Republican leaders realized that this betrayal of trust would have immediate consequences: While the incumbent GOP majority in Congress was already endangered by the disastrous course of the war in Iraq and the corruption of the Bush White House, the Foley scandal rendered a Democratic takeover of Congress a virtual certainty.

“I was working on a congressional campaign back then,” says Timothy Miller, the communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. “I always felt we lost that race because of Mark Foley—we had a narrow lead, and it broke the other way.”

To say that none of the restraints that Republican leaders felt circa 2006 apply to the Trump-era GOP is a cosmic understatement. In the main, party leaders and influencers responded to DePape’s horrific attack not by straightforwardly addressing the epidemic of political violence on the right but through broad-stroke denunciations of it, which they, as usual, attributed as much to Democrats as to their own election-denying, apocalypse-minded base. Right-wingers rushed to blame the attack on Democrats’ allegedly lax crime policies—and in the wake of the news that DePape is a Canadian national who overstayed his visa, launched into full anti-immigrant mode.

In other words, in this instance as in so many others, the party is acting just as Donald Trump would. Thus it was fitting that Donald Trump Jr. stormed through Twitter blasting out any and all available conspiracy theories, vicious memes, and right-wing talking points relating to the attack. It’s hard to isolate a low point on Trump Jr.’s feed, but a retweeted image of a pair of underpants and a hammer, tagged as Paul Pelosi’s Halloween costume, was right down there; it was a reference to an early conspiracy theory that DePape was Paul Pelosi’s lover.

A big factor in the Foley scandal’s reception on the right was the press—the St. Petersburg Times had been reporting an investigation on Foley’s conduct for the better part of a year before ABC News ran its own report. GOP leaders knew that if they stonewalled or downplayed the Foley scandal, they would come across as moral cowards and enablers.

But the Trump playbook has rendered such concerns a dead letter on the right. After years of GOP-sanctioned assaults on “fake news” purveyors as “enemies of the people,” the party feels no compunction about spreading lies and throwing conspiracy theories against the wall to see if they’ll stick with its base. The right has indeed built its own media ecosystem dedicated to just these aims. “The more-or-less fascist Tucker Carlson of 2022 makes the Sean Hannity of 2006 look like an old-fashioned, courtly conservative,” says William Kristol, who was Carlson’s boss when he edited the conservative Weekly Standard.

The GOP has never looked back after the Trump campaign’s belligerent handling of the 2016 Access Hollywood scandal, Miller notes, when the presidential nominee was caught on tape bragging about past sexual assaults. In prior moments of scandal, “the old Republican guard made the call that the best thing for the overall brand of the party was to distance yourself from scandal and indecent behavior,” he adds. “Now the conventional wisdom among Republican candidates and strategists is to just mock the opposition.”

Amid these near-hermetic conditions of ideological insulation, it’s no great surprise that Foley himself has wandered back into the Republican mainstream as a prominent Trump supporter. At a 2015 Palm Beach party fundraiser, he joked that “the Democrats were so interested in my e-mails, they don’t seem to worry about Hillary Clinton’s. I hope they focus on her e-mails as much as they did on mine.” In other words: lesson learned.

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