In 2010, Republicans launched a “Fire Pelosi” project — complete with a bus tour, a #FIREPELOSI hashtag and images of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) engulfed in Hades-style flames — devoted to retaking the House and demoting Pelosi from her perch as speaker.
And this year, Pelosi — whom Republicans have long demonized as the face of progressive policies and who was a target of rioters during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — emerged as the top member of Congress maligned in political ads, with Republicans spending nearly $40 million on ads that mention Pelosi in the final stretch of the campaign, according to AdImpact, which tracks television and digital ad spending.
The years of vilification culminated Friday when Pelosi’s husband, Paul, was attacked with a hammer during an early-morning break-in at the couple’s home in San Francisco by a man searching for the speaker and shouting “Where is Nancy? Where is Nancy?” according to someone briefed on the assault.
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Police arrested the suspect, 42-year-old David DePape, who attacked Paul Pelosi, 82, and authorities plan to charge him with attempted murder and other crimes, San Francisco Police Chief William Scott said at a news conference Friday. Paul Pelosi was taken to a hospital and is expected to make a full recovery, the speaker’s office said.
The Washington Post corroborated that a voluminous blog written under DePape’s name and filled with deeply racist and antisemitic writings — as well as pro-Trump and anti-Democratic posts — belonged to the suspect. In a single day earlier this month, the blog had seven new posts. The titles included: “Balcks Nda jEwS,” “Were the Germans so Stupid?” “Who FINANCED Hitler’s rise to Power” and “Gas chamber doors.”
For many Democrats, the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband represents the all-but-inevitable conclusion of Republicans’ increasingly violent and threatening rhetoric toward their political opponents — a phenomenon that escalated under former president Donald Trump, who prided himself on his inflammatory oratory and who was often reluctant to denounce white nationalists and others spewing hate speech.
“Sadly this attack was inevitable. Political violence is on the rise,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said. “And instead of GOP leaders condemning it, they condone it with silence or, even worse, glorification.”
Swalwell, from a neighboring Bay Area district, has been a stalwart Pelosi ally since entering Congress a decade ago and has had an up-close seat for the attacks regularly leveled against her. On Friday afternoon, the Justice Department announced that a 22-year-old Pennsylvania man pleaded guilty to calling Swalwell’s office and, in conversations with his staff, threatening to kill him. The man told Swalwell’s aides that he had many AR-15 rifles and that he intended to come to the Capitol.
Swalwell wrote a thank-you note on Twitter to the federal investigators and prosecutors, while also urging Republican leaders to speak out in a plea that seemed to apply equally to both his and Pelosi’s situation. “MAGA political violence is at peak level in America,” he wrote. “Somebody is going to get killed. I urge GOP leaders to denounce the violence.”
After the Friday hammer attack, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tweeted, “Horrified and disgusted by the reports that Paul Pelosi was assaulted in his and Speaker Pelosi’s home last night.” McCarthy said he contacted the speaker “to check in on Paul and said he’s praying for a full recovery and is thankful they caught the assailant,” according to a statement.
But McConnell and McCarthy declined to respond to Democratic accusations that GOP rhetoric has crossed the line into fomenting violence.
For a wide swath of Republicans, Pelosi is Enemy No. 1 — a target of the collective rage, conspiratorial thinking and overt misogyny that have marked the party’s hard-right turn in recent years.
Among far-right extremist groups, the anti-Pelosi memes are often cruder and more violent, but the demonization of the Democratic House leader is no fringe phenomenon. Her face — sometimes adorned with devil’s horns or a swastika — was plastered on signs at all the national rallies that led up to the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. Pelosi is such a frequent target that it’s common for right-wing pundits and protesters to refer to her only by her first name, as Jan. 6 insurrectionists did when roaming the halls of the Capitol searching for her while yelling: “Where are you, Nancy?”
Political violence trackers say the attack on Pelosi’s husband appears to be a high-profile version of the same threat that has simmered for months at the local level, with the targeting of election workers, librarians and school board members — virtually any public servant perceived as an obstacle to a hard-right agenda.
But DePape’s ability to breach the Pelosi residence underscores the chilling threat faced by even more vulnerable targets.
“If somebody sets their sights on these individuals and then they decide to mobilize, there’s virtually nothing stopping them,” said Michael Jensen of the University of Maryland’s START consortium for terrorism research, which is conducting a federally funded study of extremist violence.
Democrats are hardly the only ones to face political violence and threats, and Republicans have often chafed at the idea that it is solely their supporters who pose a potential risk to lawmakers. In 2017, for instance, a gunman opened fire on a group of Republican lawmakers practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game in an attack that wounded, and nearly killed, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).
In June, police arrested a man with a gun and knife near the Maryland home of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. The man had threatened to kill Kavanaugh, whom Trump nominated to the court. The following month, a man was charged with attempted assault after attacking Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), the Republican candidate in the New York gubernatorial contest, onstage during a campaign event and declaring, “You’re done.”
But the threats against Pelosi have often been particularly ferocious and date back more than a decade, when Republicans worked to make her one of the faces of former president Barack Obama’s health-care law.
More recently, CNN reported that in 2018 and 2019, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — who was elected to Congress in 2020 and quickly became known for her conspiracy theory-laden views — repeatedly expressed support for executing prominent Democratic politicians, including Pelosi.
Greene liked a Facebook comment that said “a bullet to the head would be quicker” as a way of removing Pelosi as speaker, CNN found. And in a video of a speech Greene gave promoting a 2019 petition she’d launched to impeach Pelosi for “crimes of treason,” Greene calls Pelosi “a traitor to our country” and says the speaker could be executed for treason.
“It’s a crime punishable by death — is what treason is,” Greene says in the video, according to CNN. “Nancy Pelosi is guilty of treason.”
In February, a Republican vying for his party’s Senate nomination in Arizona to run against Sen. Mark Kelly (D) released a Western-themed ad that featured himself dressed as a sheriff shooting at actors playing President Biden, Kelly and Pelosi. A caption dubs the speaker “Crazy Face Pelosi” before the Republican candidate announces, “The good people of Arizona have had enough of you” and begins shooting at the trio of Democrats.
Kelly’s wife, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), was shot in the head in 2011 while meeting with constituents outside a Tucson supermarket in an attack that killed six people.
Vilifying Pelosi has not always proved a successful political strategy for Republicans. In 2018, much like in previous election cycles, Pelosi regularly appeared in Republican attack ads and found herself the target of mockery and scorn — yet Democrats went on to retake the House that November.
Pelosi herself has regularly condemned heated Republican rhetoric and disinformation. In August, after the Justice Department and FBI raided Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound in search of classified documents he had improperly taken and refused to give back, the speaker was asked at a news conference about the increased level of violence against law enforcement and public officials.
“We need no more evidence than a presidential incitement of an insurrection on the Capitol to know about causing concern about the safety of members of Congress, of our Capitol, of our Constitution and of our law enforcement,” she said, before lamenting that the opposing party seemed unwilling to tamp down its members’ most incendiary language.
“You would think there would be an adult in the Republican room that would say, ‘Just calm down, see what the facts are, and let’s go for that,’ instead of, again, instigating assaults on law enforcement,” Pelosi said.
Some Democratic lawmakers grumbled Friday that many Republicans were slow to denounce the attack or remained silent, and that some did so while simultaneously seeming to mock Pelosi and her husband. In several tweets Friday, Mike Loychik, an Ohio Republican state representative, called political violence “unacceptable” and said he hoped Paul Pelosi made a full recovery, but he also took a swipe at the calls from some liberal lawmakers to “Defund the police.”
“I hope San Francisco dispatched their very best social worker to respond to the brutal assault of Nancy Pelosi’s husband,” he wrote.
While campaigning Friday for a House candidate in Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.) quipped, “There’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re going to send her back to be with him in California.” And Friday afternoon, Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, attacked the speaker at an event for Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance: “Are you ready to fire Nancy Pelosi?”
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said the U.S. Capitol Police and local law enforcement do an incredible job protecting members, but she said that the threats of violence have increased so much that “it’s impossible. You can’t keep that many people safe all of the time. If someone is crazy, they are going to find a way to get at you.”
She said it’s incumbent on local and national leaders to “dial down” the rhetoric: “Can’t we try as leaders to stand up to the violence and not add to the vitriol?” she asked, condemning Youngkin’s comments.
Tensions between Democrats and Republicans have plagued the last two years on Capitol Hill, markedly ramping up in the wake of the Jan. 6 attacks. As pandemic restrictions for large gatherings began to lift last year, Democratic members privately expressed concerns routinely to leadership about security back home as violent threats continued to rise. In May 2021, Capitol Police reported that threats against lawmakers had increased by 107 percent since Jan. 6, 2021, compared with the prior year.
Members have begun to pay out of their own pocket to increase security in their district offices or install security systems in their homes. The Federal Election Commission also allows members to use campaign funds to put toward security expenses for protection of themselves and their families.
It has become much more common to see members flanked by a security detail around Capitol Hill, a sign that violent threats had escalated to a point of concern for the Capitol Police. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — both women of color and members of the House Jan. 6 select committee — were often seen with security at varying points of the year.
Almost a year ago, House Democrats voted to strip Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) of his committee assignments for tweeting an anime video depicting him killing Ocasio-Cortez, a move Pelosi instigated to demonstrate that advocating political violence would not be tolerated. At the time, some Republican lawmakers dismissed the video as a joke or noted that cartoons are often violent; others said Gosar took down the video and that should be enough.
McCarthy sided with Gosar throughout the debacle and promised to reinstate him to his committees if Republicans win back the majority in November.
Jensen, who is studying extremist violence, said he’s been updating data lately for the number of reported incidents and was startled to see “a tremendous increase” in threats and intimidation against local politicians and judges.
“There’s always been threats against the president. There’s always been threats against senators and governors, but now you’re getting local school board members,” Jensen said. “They don’t have the security and the protection. A local school board member, a health board member, an election volunteer — they’re not walking around with bodyguards. They don’t have a Marshal Service protecting them.”
Jensen said Jan. 6 was a wake-up call, as well as a missed chance for an off-ramp to the political extremism that is steadily spilling into violence.
“There was an opportunity for the more moderate elements of the Republican Party to distance themselves from the more radical elements and marginalize them, and be the start of the end of this wave,” Jensen said. “The exact opposite happened. What we saw instead was a doubling down on moving extremism into the mainstream.”
Tim Miller, a former Republican strategist and ardent Trump critic who works as a writer for the Bulwark website, said, “We should all be very concerned about the escalating violent rhetoric leading to more violent real-world action.
“After Jan. 6, there’s all this concern about how election deniers getting elected will impact 2024,” Miller said. “But I don’t think there’s enough focus on the risks of violence and danger in the next few weeks around elections.”
Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland who served as RNC chairman when it launched its “Fire Pelosi” campaign, said that on the day the project debuted, he and Pelosi had appeared together at a political event “kibitzing and talking about the coming campaign.” The “Fire Pelosi” effort, he said, was political, not personal.
“We were not advocating violence against anybody,” Steele said. “We were literally talking about firing someone from their job as speaker of the House, so we are a long way from that today.”
But the political climate has changed, he said.
“The difference now is you have political leaders who have personalized this and their rhetoric is hot and inflammatory — it’s not contextualized — so when Donald Trump back during the 2016 campaign talks about beating the hell out of someone, he meant that literally and people took it literally,” Steele said.
He added: “People took it literally that if I don’t like your political position or what you’re saying, it’s okay to get up in your face physically.”
Leigh Ann Caldwell, Paul Kane, and Azi Paybarah contributed to this report.
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Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.
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