The Memo: Experts warn of new violence amid Gosar storm
Experts are warning of more political violence amid a furor over Rep. Paul Gosar’s (R-Ariz.) animated video that featured him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and attacking President Biden with two swords.
The firestorm over the video, which was shared through Gosar’s official accounts on Twitter and Instagram, dominated much of Washington Tuesday.
But the uproar was almost entirely on the Democratic side, with a striking lack of condemnation from the congressman’s fellow Republicans.
The one-sided response leaves those who study extremism and violence more worried than ever.
“The problem is now particularly on the Republican side. They are not willing to marginalize and punish their own extremists,” said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and an expert on dangers to democracy.
Diamond made clear that he believed there was a growing overall problem with heated political rhetoric. But, he added, it is simply wrong to suggest the contagion has spread evenly across both parties.
“I am not going to say that the problems or our political polarization are only on one side of the political spectrum. I am worried about the increasing stridency coming from the progressive left. But there is nothing like this [the Gosar video] coming from the progressive left that I have seen — the encouragement to political violence against sitting office-holders. Wow. That is a very dangerous development.”
Gosar has long been a peculiar and controversial figure. His own siblings recorded a campaign ad against him in 2018. In June of this year, he denied that he planned to attend a fundraiser with Nick Fuentes, a far-right operative, even though an invitation to such an event featured a photo of both men.
The Washington Post noted at the time that the original invitation included contact information for Gosar’s campaign and said it was authorized by his campaign committee.
Monday’s video featuring animated figures altered to look like Gosar, Ocasio-Cortez and Biden is part of a broader pattern of militant GOP figures encouraging violence.
The most famous example is clearly former President Trump. He arrived in office after a 2016 campaign where he encouraged supporters to beat up protesters at his rallies, and left office as the only president to be twice impeached, the second time for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection.
But the trend is not confined to the former president.
Video emerged at the weekend of Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) protesting about COVID-19-related mandates and those who advocate them:
“Be prepared to defend your position. … We would rather die on our feet than live on our knees. … Some of us are prepared to carry that fight with every drop of our blood,” he said.
As a candidate for office, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) juxtaposed an image of herself holding a gun alongside photos of Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Greene in May verbally accosted Ocasio-Cortez outside the House chamber.
“We are talking about this one video but we are really talking about a bigger picture,” Bridget Todd, the communications director for gender justice organization UltraViolet, told this column, referring to the Gosar tweet. “They are counting on this idea of ‘Oh, it was a joke, it’s just Twitter.’ But we have to do something to make sure this kind of behavior is not normalized.”
Todd added that the video was “emblematic of a deeper culture toxicity, and we need to call it out for what it is.”
Gosar’s office has indeed suggested the video was intended light-heartedly.
“Everyone needs to relax,” his digital director Jessica Lycos said in a statement. On Tuesday, Gosar tweeted another image suggesting critics were getting the video out of proportion.
But that cuts little ice with experts on extremism.
“Politicians will say they were joking or it is a cartoon animation — that it’s not serious,” said Jennifer McCoy, a political science professor at Georgia State University who has written extensively on how democracies can come apart.
“However, by even implying that this is legitimate treatment of one’s opponents, we are saying that we are willing to completely discredit opponents and even to threaten them.”
Late Tuesday, Gosar issued a new statement, saying that he does not “espouse violence or harm towards any Member of Congress or Mr. Biden.” The video, he insisted, was “a symbolic portrayal of a fight over immigration policy.”
But that came only after the original video was met with a chorus of condemnation from Democrats, including a spokeswoman for President Biden.
“There is no place for any type of violence or that type of language in the political system,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at Tuesday’s media briefing. “It should not be happening and we should be condemning it.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for investigations by Congress and law enforcement, and described the video as “horrific.” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called it “disgusting.”
But multiple media outlets reported that they had not gotten any response to requests for comment from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
Ocasio-Cortez herself asserted that Gosar’s actions, and McCarthy’s inaction, were part of a broader picture where “institutions don’t protect” women of color.
That view was amplified by Ocasio-Cortez’s fellow “Squad” member, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who called Gosar’s video “heinous.” Pressley said that such attacks “perpetuate and normalize violence against women — a reality far too common” for women of color.
Female public figures generally face more intense online harassment, according to experts such as McCoy.
“What they face is a combination, often, of sexual innuendos and depictions of sexual violation, along with physical violence,” she said. “So, yes, I think female politicians face a double standard.”
Viewed through the widest lens of all, the Gosar video is just one more landmark on an ever more ominous road. The path seems to make more political violence all but inevitable. And there is no sign at all that the body politic, or the nation at large, can find a more constructive course.
“It is a very extreme version of the degradation of our political culture, and the rise of political polarization and intolerance on the one hand, and the willingness to condone or even encourage violence on the other,” said Diamond.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.