After last month’s violent assault on Paul Pelosi — the 82-year-old husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — denunciations of the attack came quickly from both sides of the political aisle. Yet that moment of unified condemnation quickly passed.
Before long, a few Republicans, such as Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, shed light on the situation. On the other side of the political aisle, liberals like Hillary Clinton and Democratic strategist David Axelrod lamented the unique pervasiveness of right-wing political extremism. New Twitter CEO Elon Musk fell into the mix pushing a conspiracy theory involving the personal life of Paul Pelosi.
Assault suspect David DePape appears to have been active in online conspiracy theories. Upon entering the speaker’s home while Nancy Pelosi was in Washington, DePape reportedly shouted, “Where’s Nancy?” several times. Paul Pelosi suffered a fractured skull after confronting hammer-wielding DePape, authorities say. Federal and state prosecutors have filed charges against DePape, including for attempted murder and attempted kidnapping of a U.S. official.
Political violence is not new in this country. From 1865 to 1901, the United States saw three presidents assassinated. This trend continued steadily throughout the 20th century. Theodore Roosevelt was shot while campaigning for a third term as president. Franklin D. Roosevelt was nearly shot a month before his first inauguration. (The assassin’s bullet instead struck and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who was standing nearby.) John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963. Almost two decades later, Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley Jr. In the past decade, two U.S. Representatives have been shot in assassination attempts: Democrat Gabby Giffords in 2011 and Republican Steve Scalise in 2017.
Yet when it comes to violence from the political right, some pundits have worried about a trend that may date back to Jan. 6, 2021, the day a pro-Donald Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington. A recent Associated Press report revealed that the attack on Paul Pelosi was a “disturbing echo” of January 6. In The New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd noted that DePape was shouting “Where’s Nancy?” was eerily reminiscent of the cries of some of the Capitol rioters. President Joe Biden also made the connection in his primetime speech on Wednesday, pointing out that Jan. 6 protesters used those “same words.”
It is tempting to view political extremism through the prism of its most notorious recent example. But January 6 was only a symptom of the disease that afflicts our politics. This is by no means the only symptom.
As recriminations still loomed over the attack on Pelosi, news broke that Chicago resident Scott Lennox was charged last week with threatening to torture and kill Republican presidential candidate Darren Bailey. Illinois as Governor. Prosecutors say Lennox became enraged after watching one of Bailey’s political ads and felt pressured to deliver his threats in a profanity-laden voicemail. According to authorities, in his voicemail, Lennox accused the gubernatorial candidate of being a racist and peddling misinformation and criticized his stance on abortion. (Bailey is adamantly anti-abortion.)
Last June, a man carrying a pistol, ammunition and zip ties staked out the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Authorities arrested Nicholas Roske before he could carry out his alleged plan. Roske later told investigators he was motivated by the impending overthrow of Roe v. Wade.
Just a month before police foiled the attack on Kavanaugh, the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal feared the lives of Supreme Court justices were in danger following a leaked draft opinion. . “It’s an awful thought,” wrote the editorial board, “but we live in fanatical times.” It seems hauntingly foresighted. But why was it so predictable?
Probably because supporters see themselves as fighting for the future of the country while seeing the other side as an existential threat. Ahead of the riot that broke out on Jan. 6, Trump gave a raucous speech to his supporters, advising the crowd to “fight like hell.” And if you don’t fight like hell, you won’t have a country. He further indicated that if Biden becomes president, “our country will be destroyed and we are not going to tolerate it.”
Tuesday’s midterm elections are also framed in dire terms. A seemingly endless stream of advertisements warns that your rights and freedoms may be taken away if this or that party wins the election. Or, as Biden recently put it, “democracy itself is on the ballot.”
The political hyperbole – that America will be destroyed or democracy overthrown – may agitate the political base, but it will also resonate with those who have been politically radicalized online. When the stakes are portrayed as being this high, these people may feel motivated to take drastic action. Politicians are not responsible for the actions of disturbed and violent individuals, but it is important to recognize that words matter.
The loudest voices in the political arena have managed to capture the political narrative. The moderate voices being drowned out by the more partisan ones, the center necessarily gives way to the fringe. If politicians are to regain control of the country’s passions, it is high time to put aside heated political rhetoric and let cool heads prevail.
Tyler Michals is a Chicago attorney.
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