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The ugly Paul Gosar debate

The House of Representatives voted on Nov. 17 to censure Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) and to eject him from his committee assignments. (Video: The Washington Post)

The House of Representatives on Wednesday formally censured one of its members for only the second time since 1983 after he posted an animated video depicting him killing a fellow member.

The whole thing reinforced how truly difficult it will be to return from the brink that the video itself betrayed.

The debate over Rep. Paul A. Gosar’s (R-Ariz.) ultimately successful censure and removal from committees quickly devolved in to the kind of partisan food-fighting, whataboutism and name-calling that we’ve come to expect from our politics in this era. But better than almost anything we’ve seen on the floor of Congress, it drove that new reality home.

The GOP defense of Gosar was especially strained — and right from the start sought to avoid anything resembling a factual representation of what he had done.

Gosar had published a video depicting him killing an animated character featuring Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) likeness. His GOP allies pretended he had apologized for it, even though he had explicitly rejected that premise.

Republicans on Tuesday previewed their strategy of suggesting this was a momentary and regretted lapse, and it continued into Wednesday’s floor debate. The problem was that Gosar made clear Tuesday that he hadn’t apologized for the video and that he saw the backlash as akin to censoring his free and legitimate speech.

In case there was any doubt about how disingenuous the defenses of him were, after the vote Gosar retweeted a tweet featuring the same video he had been sanctioned for, before later also deleting that tweet. It was perhaps an inadvertent retweet, if we’re being charitable, but it did the opposite of suggesting a truly chastened member.

As we wrote after Wednesday’s vote, the situation also led to the latest entry in the GOP leadership’s growing efforts to combat such things by threatening retribution — even to exploit the supposed new standards by stretching them further. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) spoke at length on the House floor likening the situation to controversial comments by certain House Democrats and suggested that Republicans, once in the majority, could also strip them of their powerful posts.

“A new standard will continue to be applied in the future,” he concluded.

Left unsaid: None of those Democrats had promoted violence against their GOP colleagues. Republicans suggested this was a slippery slope to more frequent and similar sanctions, but one would think you could make an argument that even toying with violence against one’s own colleague is a special case, and perhaps you could simply establish that specific standard.

Instead it was suggested that censuring Gosar could lead to Republicans stripping committee assignments from high-profile Democrats who made controversial comments not involving their colleagues (and actually apologized for them) or expressed opinions about ongoing legal matters over which they have no actual control, like Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) passing judgment on the Kyle Rittenhouse case. (Gosar himself has accused a Capitol police officer of “murder” in the case of Ashli Babbitt, despite no charges being filed.)

The debate arguably reached its low point when one of Gosar’s fellow House GOP provocateurs took her turn in defending him. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) decided to use her very brief time on the floor to label Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) a member of the “jihad squad.” She also referred to unproven rumors that Omar had married her brother, calling him her “brother-husband.”

Gosar himself took his turn in the theater of the absurd at one point. In an appearance that notably didn’t include the type of contrition and regret Republicans suggested he had felt, the later-censured congressman compared himself to none other than Alexander Hamilton.

“If I must join Alexander Hamilton, the first person attempted to be censored by this House, so be it,” Gosar concluded.

Hamilton was indeed the first person to be targeted for censure, but the vote failed, and it was over Hamilton supposedly mishandling government loans as treasury secretary.

The idea that there is any true comparison between the two situations is ridiculous. Gosar, despite being one of the most extreme House members and often pursuing provocations in line with the likes of Boebert and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), hasn’t attracted anywhere near their followings. Indeed, that’s probably why he hasn’t been targeted for such things before, including when he appeared at an event with white nationalists earlier this year.

Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) responded to Gosar’s comment by intoning, “Mr. Gosar, you are no Alexander Hamilton.” Cicilline, like many others during the debate, was admonished to abide by House rules dictating that remarks be addressed to the speaker and not other members.

Cicilline also used his time to offer his own comparisons, noting there is plenty of recent precedent for people targeting lawmakers with violence. These include the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection in which the rioters chanted “Hang Mike Pence” and even erected a mock gallows outside the Capitol, as well as the shooting of Republican lawmakers at a congressional baseball practice in 2017.

But Cicilline at one point took this too far, citing the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in 2011 and tying it to such rhetoric.

“This kind of rhetoric is not just unfitting of a U.S. representative; it’s dangerous, and it can be deadly,” Cicilline said. He specifically cited the 2011 example, “when an individual shot then-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords after Sarah Palin sent out a video with shooting targets on various congressional districts, including Gabby’s.”

Ten years later, there remains no link between Palin’s map and the actions of Jared Lee Loughner, as The Washington Post reinforced in 2017 after the New York Times editorial board also sought to tie the two together. (The Times later issued a correction.) Giffords had complained before that shooting about the violence that could result from such things, but Loughner appeared to suffer from mental illness and had no discernible political views.

While Democrats often sought to portray Gosar’s actions as deliberate incitement and even a threat, there is no question that careless rhetoric and allusions to even figurative violence can influence the decisions of people who would resort to actual violence. We have seen where that can potentially lead, regardless of whether specific and repeated suggestive comments about violence by a politician like Donald Trump lead to people taking up arms.

The House on Wednesday sought to take a corrective measure when it comes to the building tinderbox beneath our politics. It wound up demonstrating how difficult it will be to do anything about the factors and incentives that contribute the kindling.