The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Accused Pelosi attacker’s history shows blurry lines of radicalization

David DePape’s online extremism mutated across fringe movements. Analysts say this ‘side switching’ is increasingly common.

Police stand at the top of the closed street outside the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her husband, Paul Pelosi, in San Francisco on Oct. 28. (Eric Risberg/AP)

The path that led an attacker to the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was long and meandering, with evidence suggesting that he dabbled in fringe movements of all sorts before embracing the right-wing vilification of Democrats.

The complex history of accused attacker David DePape’s radicalization unfolded over more than eight years and several different ideologies, moving from Green Party support and nudist activism, to a hateful mix of racist, anti-Jewish and misogynistic rhetoric, according to terrorism analysts who’ve studied his writings and social media posts.

They say DePape’s evolving beliefs show how today’s extremist threat complicates easy left-right categorization, a shift that’s confusing to the public and a bonanza for trolls who exploit the messiness to push disinformation and justify violence.

“You get stuff that just feels contradictory, but when you understand how online exposure to propaganda works, it makes perfect sense,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who heads the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University. “It’s a choose-your-own-adventure type of radicalization.”

By the time DePape, 42, allegedly broke into the Pelosis’ residence Friday and attacked 82-year-old Paul with a hammer, his writings were laden with far-right messaging that indicated a dark, conspiratorial spiral. His blog posts in October were a mix of bloody images and hateful screeds aimed at a variety of targeted groups including Jewish, Black and trans people, as well as Democrats. He also shared delusional thoughts about an invisible fairy that sometimes appeared as a bird; a purported former romantic partner, Oxane “Gypsy” Taub, has told reporters that DePape is “mentally ill.”

Those details were largely ignored by right-wing figures — including elected Republicans and MAGA stars with millions of followers — who instead reached years back to portray him as a leftist, hemp bracelet-peddling “hippie,” perhaps part of a “false flag” operation to blame the right for the assault. An alternative, unsubstantiated scenario that DePape and Paul Pelosi had a sexual relationship blazed across right-wing news outlets, boosted by high-profile figures such as Elon Musk and referenced by Republican officials.

“That moment you realize the nudist hippie male prostitute LSD guy was the reason your husband didn’t make it to your fundraiser,” tweeted Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) alongside a photo of a distressed-looking Nancy Pelosi.

Analysts say such reactions are dangerous, bad faith attempts to score political points while playing down the seriousness of a violent attack targeting the most powerful woman in Congress. Federal prosecutors on Monday filed attempted kidnapping and assault charges against DePape, noting that, in addition to the hammer allegedly used to strike Paul Pelosi, authorities recovered “a roll of tape, white rope, a second hammer, a pair of rubber and cloth gloves, and zip ties.” After being taken into custody, DePape told authorities that his plan was to hold Nancy Pelosi hostage and potentially break “her kneecaps” to make an example of her as “leader of the pack” of what he considers lying Democrats, according to court papers.

“Calling this guy a left-wing fanatic today is disingenuous when his chosen path for the last eight years was clearly Alt Right,” extremism researcher J.J. MacNab wrote in a Twitter thread that laid out her research into DePape’s far-right descent.

DePape’s turning point appears to have come in 2014 with Gamergate, the vicious campaign of online abuse against female video game developers and critics, a precursor to the rise of coordinated right-wing or bias-fueled troll attacks.

“How did I get into this. Gamer gate it was gamer gate,” DePape wrote, according to research compiled by Erin Gallagher, a research assistant with the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard Kennedy School.

Analysts say such shifts often occur not by a singular seismic event but through a gradual process, typically online, where people can click through a smorgasbord of fringe ideologies, picking and choosing what resonates. Sometimes that leads to a melding of extremism — such as white supremacists borrowing Islamist militant phrases — and other times it can lead to a full flip of the political spectrum, such as moving from the far right to the far left, sometimes called “side switching.”

“Side switching across mutually exclusive or hostile ideologies is really not that uncommon,” said Daniel Koehler, a terrorism analyst in Germany who has written extensively about the transnational phenomenon.

Koehler, founding director of the German Institute for Radicalization and de-Radicalization Studies, has identified key “bridging areas” that span disparate ideologies — chief among them are antisemitism, misogyny and anti-government or anti-establishment beliefs. Those bridges, he said, work “as a kind of ideological highway between these environments that are usually very exclusive and consider each other to be mortal enemies.”

In Germany, Koehler said, he sees the blurriness these days in anti-vaccination and covid-19 denial movements, where far-left protesters have openly mixed with white supremacists.

“There have been times where they produce memes and propaganda that calls upon antifascists or anarchists even to form an alliance against the democratic Western society,” Koehler said. “They think they could unite forces on the shared premise of, ‘We reject dualism, we reject democracy, we reject a free-market society.' ”

Recent years have provided several examples of such bridges leading to plots and violence, such as white nationalists overlapping with the misogynistic “incel” movement or borrowing leftist climate talking points to whip up right-wing fears over racial competition for resources. White supremacist mass shooters in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso both dropped environmentalist themes into the notes they wrote before their deadly attacks.

One of the highest profile cases involving blurred influences was in 2020, when 22-year-old Army Pvt. Ethan Melzer was charged with planning an ambush against his own unit. He had browsed ISIS and other jihadist propaganda and even slipped information to someone he believed to be an al-Qaeda operative, according to prosecutors. But they allege that his main motivation was violent white supremacy. A federal indictment accused Melzer of passing sensitive military information to fellow members of a satanic neo-Nazi network, the Order of the Nine Angles. The Justice Department described Melzer’s beliefs as “a diabolical cocktail of ideologies.”

Judith Faessler, an extremism analyst at Bavarian State Office for Protection of the Constitution, a domestic intelligence agency for the German state of Bavaria, said the overlap can be used strategically to broaden movements, finding mutual interests among “incoherent and sometimes contradictory ideologies.”

The extremism might mutate, but the threat of mobilization to violence remains constant.

“A demonized concept of the enemy is being constructed, the worldview becomes dualistic — ‘we’ and ‘they,’ “ Faessler said. “‘They’ want to destroy us. Self-defense is the only way out.”