The GOP has embraced violence as a political tactic
Democrats have become targets each of the last three election cycles.
By Noah Berlatsky
Last week, a seemingly disturbed individual deluded by right-wing conspiracy theories broke in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home and attacked her husband with a hammer, sending him to intensive care. As chilling as the attack on Paul Pelosi was — the attacker told authorities he intended to kidnap the speaker and break her kneecaps — it also had an air of inevitability.
Democratic leaders have been targeted for violence by right-wing radicals, insurrectionists, and would-be assassins in every election since 2018. This is part of a GOP embrace of violence that, in its terrifying escalation, threatens both democracy with a small d and the physical safety of Democratic leaders, partisans, and voters.
Republican efforts to distance themselves from the attack aren’t convincing, nor are they meant to be. They are instead part of a long-standing campaign to justify violence against Pelosi and against other Democrats by demonizing them and then refusing to condemn any excess of rhetoric, or indeed violence, directed against them. Some elected Republicans even think the brutal violence against Paul Pelosi is something to laugh about.
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The right-wing campaign against Pelosi goes back years, and long-since moved from vocal opposition into out right incitement. In 2010, Republicans ran a campaign to “Fire Pelosi” which included images of the Speaker’s face in flames. She’s been a major target of campaign ads this cycle, too. More frighteningly, her image is frequently reproduced in hard-right propaganda, where she is often portrayed with devil horns and swastika.
This kind of imagery and rhetoric has been increasingly accompanied over the last six years by actual violence. It’s impossible to chronicle every incident, but here are some of the most disturbing.
— In 2015 and 2016, while campaigning for President, Donald Trump urged people at his rallies to physically attack and beat protesters in the crowd. “Knock the crap out of him, would you? I promise you, I will pay your legal fees,” was one typical statement.
Thus encouraged, Trump’s fans did in fact pummel, kick, and forcibly remove protesters. Virtually no Republicans condemned the violence, and Trump went on to win both the GOP nomination and the White House.
— In May 2017, Montana US Rep. Greg Gianforte body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs for daring to ask him a policy question. Gianforte, who went on to win a special election later that month, was convicted of misdemeanor assault, but the GOP did not repudiate him. In fact, Trump praised him for the attack, saying, “Any guy who can do a body slam, he is my type!” Gianforte is currently governor of Montana.
— In August 2017, Neo-Nazis and white supremacists organized a violent demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia. One radical drove a car into leftist counterprotesters, injuring several and murdering one, Heather Heyer. President Trump half-heartedly condemned the violence, but couldn’t stop himself from saying some of the right-wing demonstrators were “very fine people.”
— In 2018, in the run up to the midterm elections, Republicans such as Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, and Trump himself pushed the false, antisemitic, and racist conspiracy theory that Jewish billionaire Democratic donor George Soros was paying undocumented refugees from Central America to come to the United States. This lie inspired one far-right fascist vigilante to target the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, which had helped resettle many refugees. The shooter killed 11 people in an explicitly political act targeting left, pro-immigrant Jewish people.
Republicans did denounce the attack, but there was no effort to condemn Soros conspiracy theories, a ubiquitous form of antisemitism on the right.
Instead, conspiracy theories about Soros were ramped up again during the George Floyd protests, when many on the right blamed Soros, and implicitly Jews, for manipulating Black demonstrators.
— In 2018, again in the period just before the midterm elections, a Florida Trump supporter mailed homemade pipe bombs to Democrats and media figures whom he viewed as enemies of Trump. That included former VP (and now president) Joe Biden, Trump’s 2016 Democratic presidential opponent Hillary Clinton, former President Barack Obama, Rep. Maxine Waters, actor Robert DeNiro, and, inevitably, George Soros. Trump rejected any suggestion of culpability, saying, “There’s no blame,” and even threatening, “I think I’ve toned it down. I could really tone it up.” (The bombs turned out to defectively designed and didn’t detonate.)
— In 2020, Trump lost the presidential election to Joe Biden, and incited an insurrection. He hoped to himself lead a violent mob to the Capitol to force Vice President Pence and Congress to overturn Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Trump didn’t march himself, but many others did. Among those endangered in the attack on the Capitol was Nancy Pelosi, which means that she has been threatened with violence and death in the last two elections.
— Republicans have since largely embraced the insurrection and its goals. In the run-up to 2022, election officials in Texas have been targeted for harassment and threats intended to drive them out of their positions so that MAGA loyalists can take over election administration. Armed right-wingers have been staking out ballot boxes in Arizona, intimidating voters.
So the attack on Paul Pelosi last week was far from an isolated incident. It was part of the web of violence and fascism which now defines the Republican Party.
Over the last six years, Republican leaders have variously called on their followers to physically beat opponents, have physically attacked reporters themselves, have spread conspiracy theories which have led to mass shootings, have plotted and cheered on a violent insurrection, and have embraced the violent intimidation of election officials.
Republicans not only tolerate this stuff — they encourage it
Some officials may repudiate particular acts of violence. Republican Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP congressional leaders strongly denounced the attack on Pelosi, for example. But other GOP figures like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Congressman Clay Higgins, and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin mocked the Pelosis, or suggested the attack was a fake or a conspiracy.
And basically no Republicans blamed Trump for encouraging violent rallies, violent coups, and violent white supremacist vigilante violence for the last six years. Nor have Republicans spoken against Cruz or Youngkin.
Even those in the GOP who say they reject violence won’t ostracize those in the party who encourage or minimize violence. Trump is still the head of the party. Gianforte is still the governor of Montana. Right-wing media still spreads Soros conspiracy theories.
And as the post-2020 election coup attempt makes clear, violence isn’t just tolerated in the current GOP. It is a central tactic, and its validation a central partisan ideological test. Republicans who oppose the coup attempt or denounce Trump have been booted from the party. Meanwhile, terrorizing poll workers and using state resources to frighten voters have become a standard part of GOP campaigns, like stump speeches or polling. Violence against Democratic leaders or Democratic voters and partisans is treated by Republicans as a legitimate way to energize voters and to demobilize opponents.
The GOP no longer believes in the peaceful transfer of power. If the choice is between accepting an election loss and violence, they have shown they prefer violence.
Democrats have been hesitant to state the danger clearly. They tend to frame the problem as irresponsible rhetoric, as if GOP representatives and media figures are being careless or don’t really understand the consequences of their words and choices.
“The [violent] talk has to stop. That’s the problem,” President Biden said.
Violent rhetoric does radicalize many on the right. But Republican leaders are not going to stop the violent rhetoric. And why not? For the simple reason that the GOP is a fascist party that has embraced insurrection and violence. The has gone beyond choosing the wrong words. The plain fact is that many Republicans, elected and otherwise, want to do violent harm to Democratic political leaders and voters as a matter of policy and tactics.
The GOP is the party of fascism, insurrection, and bloodthirsty violence. Democrats and the media need to start identifying them as such.
Aaron’s clip room
Fox News helps out JD Vance during town hall event with Tim Ryan
Tim Ryan and JD Vance took part in a Fox News town hall on Tuesday, and despite the crowd being seemingly stacked for Vance and hosts doing everything they could to help him, Ryan more than held his own, getting huge applause for his populist energy policy and even at one point turning boos to cheers within a single response about January 6.
But the moment that stood out to me was one that encapsulated Vance’s fraudulence.