The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the right keeps telling awful lies about the Pelosi attack

David DePape, the suspected attacker of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband. (Michael Short/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

The “big lie” is morphing into something even more virulent and ugly. Call it the “big flex.”

In 2020, Donald Trump’s lies about voter fraud provided a fake pretext to overturn his presidential election loss. Now that has metastasized: Many Republicans in the MAGA vein are employing “big lies” on numerous fronts, but their purpose has taken a dark new turn: It’s as if all the lying is becoming an assertion of power in its own right, a kind of end in itself.

The embrace of political lying as a declaration of power — of the power to say what reality is — has long been studied by academics. Some see it as a harbinger of autocratic political tendencies.

All this is brought to mind by The Post’s new report that U.S. Capitol Police have viewed footage of the attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D), at their California home. David DePape faces federal and state charges, including attempted murder, for allegedly hitting Paul Pelosi in the head with a hammer, severely injuring him.

The footage, which reportedly shows a man with a hammer breaking a glass panel to enter the Pelosi home, comports with details in the federal criminal complaint. That shows DePape admitting he broke through a glass door, hoped to break the speaker’s “kneecaps,” and wielded his hammer against her husband instead.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Taken together, all this thoroughly undermines the lies and crackpot theories we’ve heard from the right. DePape wasn’t a wild-eyed leftist (he admitted anger at Democrats and echoed Trump’s “big lie” rhetoric). They weren’t friends or lovers (Pelosi told police he didn’t know DePape). And Pelosi didn’t let DePape in (as is now confirmed yet again).

The Post's View: Paul Pelosi’s attack is not grounds for jokes and unfounded rumors

If you think the new information will slow down the dissembling among some on the right, I have a Trump University get-rich-quick real estate scam to sell you.

Democrats have responded to all this with outrage, shaming and fact-checking. But that’s about as effective as shooting spitballs at a balloon.

This is partly because the falsehoods have spread wildly through a right-wing media ecosystem that has been constructed to be impervious to outside challenge, as Matt Gertz details at Media Matters.

But it’s also because the whole point of all the lying is to assert the power to manufacture an alternate story in the face of easily demonstrable facts and outraged condemnation — and, importantly, to assert that power unabashedly and defiantly.

I can’t prove this is what’s driving the response. But prominent right-wing personalities have blithely asserted that the media is spreading misinformation about the attack, trumped up absurd “false flag” theories about it, spewed truly vicious mockery and even turned the hammer into an online meme.

Watching all those figures, it’s hard not to conclude that the key act here is a political faction unshackling itself from even the most minimal standards of public conduct. The louder the shaming and the fact-checking get, the greater the assertion of power in defiance of them becomes.

Dana Milbank: Here’s what Paul Pelosi has in common with litter boxes

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor who studies authoritarian systems, sees this as the latest example of “autocratic political culture” taking over parts of the GOP and the right.

“The ability to assert a false reality in the face of empirical evidence is itself an act of power,” Ben-Ghiat tells me. Those on the right pushing this line, she says, are placing themselves “above the truth” and “above democratic custom.”

At the core of this politics, says Ben-Ghiat, is the flaunting of the ability to “get away with it,” whether the “it” is serial lying, the abandonment of basic norms, or even deliberate cruelty to a longtime colleague and member of the political opposition.

The assertion of power through political lies can be seen on other fronts as well.

For instance, the federal courts are hearing legal challenges to obvious voter intimidation by a right-wing group in Arizona. Its members sought to openly carry guns and sport body armor in the vicinity of polling places, and to actively spread falsehoods about the state’s voting laws.

As election law expert Richard L. Hasen notes, these activities violate the constitutionally protected right to vote, because the presence of “what appear to be armed vigilantes” seems designed to dissuade people from voting.

What’s interesting, though, is that this show of force is accompanied by deliberate deception about voting rules that also appears designed to discourage voting. Here, the lies and the display of (lethal) power are fusing into one.

On another front, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has endorsed a few Democratic candidates challenging GOP election deniers. But these Republicans are now flaunting Cheney’s opposition as a badge of honor, believing it will galvanize the base. The unabashed embrace of lies about 2020 — as a display of defiance in the face of widely established truths — has itself become a source of political energy and inspiration.

We talk a lot about whether political rhetoric inspires political violence such as that directed at Pelosi, and what that might portend. But the mass denial of the violence — and its functioning as a proud marker of political identity — might be just as ominous.