The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t blame ‘both sides.’ The right is driving political violence.

Rolls of toilet paper with edited images of President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 27 in Orlando. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

It should not be controversial to say that America has a major problem with right-wing political violence. The evidence continues to accumulate — yet the GOP continues to deny responsibility for this horrifying trend.

On Friday, a man enflamed by right-wing conspiracy theories (including QAnon) entered the San Francisco home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and attacked her 82-year-old husband with a hammer, fracturing Paul Pelosi’s skull. “Where is Nancy?” he reportedly shouted, echoing the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, at President Donald Trump’s instigation. This comes after years of Republican demonization of the House speaker, a figure of hatred for the right rivaled only by Hillary Clinton.

The same day as the Pelosi attack, a man pleaded guilty to making death threats against Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). Two days earlier, three men who were motivated by right-wing, anti-lockdown hysteria after covid-19 hit were convicted of aiding a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). In August, another man died after attacking an FBI office because he was so upset about the bureau’s search of Mar-a-Lago. “We must respond with force,” he wrote on Trump’s Truth Social website.

Then there are all the terrible hate crimes, in cities including Pittsburgh, El Paso and Buffalo, where gunmen were motivated by the kind of racist rhetoric — especially the “great replacement theory” — now openly espoused on Fox “News.”

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This is where any fair-minded journalist has to offer an obligatory “to be sure” paragraph: To be sure, political violence is not confined to the right. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) was shot in 2017 by a gunman with leftist beliefs, and in June, a man was arrested for allegedly plotting to assassinate Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh after becoming incensed about court rulings on abortion and guns.

Republican leaders cite those attacks to exonerate themselves of any responsibility for political violence. “Violence is up across the board,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said on Sunday, arguing that it’s “unfair” to blame anti-Pelosi rhetoric for the assault on Pelosi’s husband.

Violence is unacceptable whether from the left or right, period. But we can’t allow GOP leaders to get away with this false moral equivalency. They are evading their responsibility for their extremist rhetoric that all too often motivates extremist actions.

The New America think tank found last year that, since Sept. 11, 2001, far-right terrorists had killed 122 people in the United States, compared with only one killed by far-leftists. A study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies last year found that, since 2015, right-wing extremists had been involved in 267 plots or attacks, compared with 66 for left-wing extremists. A Washington Post-University of Maryland survey released in January found that 40 percent of Republicans said violence against the government can be justified, compared with only 23 percent of Democrats.

There is little doubt about what is driving political violence: the ascendance of Trump. The former president and his followers use violent rhetoric of extremes: Trump calls President Biden an “enemy of the state,” attacks the FBI as “monsters,” refers to the “now Communist USA” and even wrote that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has a “DEATH WISH” for disagreeing with him. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has expressed support for executing Nancy Pelosi and other leading Democrats. Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Tex.) has tweeted that “the America Last Marxists … are radically and systematically DESTROYING our country.”

That type of extremist rhetoric used to be confined to fringe organizations such as the John Birch Society. Now it’s the GOP mainstream, with predictable consequences. The U.S. Capitol Police report that threats against members of Congress have risen more than tenfold since Trump’s election in 2016, up to 9,625 last year.

The sickness on the right was on display after news broke about the attack on Paul Pelosi. While leading Republicans condemned the horrific assault, the MAGA base seethed with sick jokes making light of the violence and insane conspiracy theories. (Filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza suggested that the attack was “a romantic tryst that went awry.”)

Karen Tumulty: Glenn Youngkin's riff about the attack on Paul Pelosi is not just tasteless but dangerous

There was, alas, no sign of the GOP taking responsibility for fomenting hatred. Kari Lake, the GOP nominee for governor of Arizona, blamed “leftist elected officials who have not enforced the laws.” Naturally, Republicans accuse Democrats of being “divisive” for citing Republican rhetoric as a contributing factor to political violence.

It’s true that, by calling out GOP extremism, Democrats do risk exacerbating the polarization of politics. But they can’t simply ignore this dangerous trend. And it’s not Democrats who are pushing our country to the brink: A New York Times study found that MAGA members of Congress who refused to accept the results of the 2020 election used polarizing language at nearly triple the rate of Democrats.

So please don’t accept the GOP framing of the assault on Paul Pelosi as evidence of a problem plaguing “both sides of the aisle.” Political violence in America is being driven primarily by the far right, not the far left, and the far right is much closer to the mainstream of the Republican Party than the far left is to the Democratic Party.

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