December 8, 2022
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The Paul Pelosi attack aftermath highlights what’s broken in politics

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There are still questions surrounding last week’s attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). But what is known, particularly since the release of a federal indictment on Monday, is fairly uncomplicated.

A man with an apparent history of abusive behavior who had increasingly embraced conspiracy theories and delusions broke into the Pelosis’ San Francisco home and awoke Paul Pelosi. The suspect, David DePape, indicated he was looking for the House speaker. When police arrived, they found Paul Pelosi and DePape struggling over a hammer. DePape managed to strike Pelosi before being subdued and is now in custody. Paul Pelosi remains in the hospital.

This core set of facts, though, lands in the center of a political and media whirlpool sped up by years of polarization and churned to a roil by the midterm elections. In the days since the attack, we’ve seen disconcertingly familiar responses rooted in some of the most toxic and dishonest patterns in America.

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We can begin with DePape’s professed views, as posted online and reviewed by The Washington Post. In recent weeks, he amplified a barrage of views that are unquestionably associated far more with the political right than the left. Those include “support of fringe commentators and far-right personalities” and many posts “filled with screeds against Jews, Black people, Democrats, the media and transgender people.”

When a man ascribing to the QAnon conspiracy theory allegedly committed a murder on Staten Island and after a fervent supporter of Donald Trump mailed inert pipe bombs to members of the media, I spoke with a psychologist about the overlap of violence, delusions and political rhetoric. Cheryl Paradis, professor of psychology at Marymount Manhattan College in New York, explained that the increased presence of politics in American culture had supplanted past triggers for delusional behavior.

That put political figures at more risk, she said. “Whenever people are identified as targets, it increases the likelihood that someone might act against them.”

While Paul Pelosi hasn’t been a common target of political discussion in recent years, that’s not whom DePape was looking for when he arrived at the Pelosi house. He was seeking Nancy Pelosi, who has for years been a target of right-wing hostility. If DePape is shown to have been suffering from mental illness that contributed to his actions, it’s clear that political rhetoric about Pelosi was a key factor in bringing him to the house.

The attack is inextricable from a broader concern about political violence in the United States. That DePape was allegedly seeking out the speaker immediately drew comparisons to the attack at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. That riot was unique in one way that isn’t common to other acts of political violence: There was no question about sanity or intent. Individual acts of violence can often be attributed to questions about the perpetrator’s mental health, as was the case with Cesar Sayoc, the man who sent those inert pipe bombs. Similarly, some of the response to DePape’s having promoted right-wing rhetoric led to his actions being attributed to mental illness.

But that’s not the narrative that gained the most traction. Instead, many observers tried to link the attack to a rise in crime in San Francisco and, by extension, in many cities with Democratic leaders. This is a central argument for the Republican Party as the midterm elections loom, despite being at best loosely tied to available evidence. That’s the appeal: It turns a violent attack against a frequent target of the right by a suspect espousing right-wing rhetoric into a political ding on Democrats. It allows the narrative to be about what Democrats are doing wrong, instead of having to talk about where right-wing rhetoric is problematic.

That was the less grotesque response. Many on the right went further, claiming without evidence that DePape and Paul Pelosi were engaged in some sort of intimate relationship. On Monday, this nonsense was trending on Twitter.

It cannot be expressed frequently enough that this is baseless. It’s largely based on incomplete or inaccurate early reports about what happened in the attack. It also defies credulity from the standpoint that DePape spent weeks sharing right-wing and conspiratorial content on the web, something that fits far more neatly into the real story than the contrived one.

The contrived, false one, though, holds other appeals. It plays into the unceasing assumption by many on the right that non-Republicans in positions of power lie constantly about everything. It shifts the blame from the rhetoric of the right to the perceived sins of the left. Most importantly, it allows the right to treat Paul Pelosi as an object of ridicule instead of a victim. To treat Democratic leaders not as actual targets of violence but, instead, as the real wrongdoers.

What made this particular narrative so potent — and what made it trend on Twitter — was that it was juicy chum for the right’s social media sphere. Media Matters’ Matt Gertz summarized the system well over the weekend: There’s an audience for extreme conspiracy theories and an infrastructure for vetting and promoting them. There’s also very little interest in self-correcting, as made most obvious in the response to Donald Trump’s false claims about the election. So once the attack became news, there was an entire attention economy ready to pounce and sell anti-left claims to right-wing consumers. Grotesque memes emerged and were shared by people including Donald Trump Jr.

Think about the effect here: Instead of there being a discussion about how an 82-year-old man was beaten with a hammer simply because his wife is a prominent Democrat, the discussion was instead about how Democrats are bad on crime or, worse, how the husband of that prominent Democrat is a deviant who brought it on himself. The currency of that latter frame was so robust that Elon Musk, new owner of Twitter and an expert in the business of appealing to the fringe right, shared a baseless conspiracy theory on his platform.

According to the federal indictment, DePape told San Francisco police that he wanted to hold Pelosi hostage and break her kneecaps if she lied to him. His alleged attack on Paul Pelosi suggests that he was willing to go further, but it’s not clear that he was engaged in a clearheaded effort to assassinate the Democratic leader as a function of his considered political beliefs.

But even if that was some consolation, which it really shouldn’t be, the aftermath of the attack was perhaps worse. It’s not simply that a man seriously injured Paul Pelosi unquestionably because of his spouse; it’s that there’s an ecosystem interested in scoring points against the left regardless of how morally repulsive doing so might be.

Donald Trump Jr., the son of a former president of the United States, did briefly share an even more repulsive homophobic image.

This is the son of a former president of the United States. That post was later deleted or removed, but, when viewed on Monday afternoon, the comments left by his followers were appreciative.





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