The Memo: Gosar censured, but toxic culture grows

House Democrats tried to draw a red line against incendiary political rhetoric on Wednesday. They only half succeeded.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) became the first member to be censured in more than a decade. But the vote came by a slim margin and almost entirely along party lines.

The action was taken in response to Gosar’s tweeting of a video depicting an anime version of himself killing a cartoon version of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and attacking a character made to look like President Biden with two swords.

Gosar has since deleted the video, which was posted Nov. 7. But he has not apologized for it, and again declined to do so during the censure debate. 

Instead, he said he had taken the video down because “some thought” it was a threat. Arguing that these unnamed critics were wrong, he claimed it was instead “depicting a policy battle” over illegal immigration — an explanation that all but the most credulous Gosar supporter would find risible.

The vote was a reminder that even on the basic question of whether such bloody imagery is permissible, Congress — and perhaps the nation — is hopelessly divided.

The final vote in the House was 223-207, with every Democrat voting for Gosar’s censure but only two Republicans, Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), joining them. 

Cheney and Kinzinger have been outliers in the Republican conference for some time, largely because of their willingness to criticize former President Trump in forthright terms. The one surprise came when Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) voted “present.”

Gosar became only the 24th member in the history of the House to be censured, a measure that is more severe than a reprimand, though it falls short of expulsion. He was also stripped of his committee assignments.

Yet, the debate was a salutary reminder of how Democrats and Republicans appear to inhabit two separate universes.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), introducing the resolution, asserted that Gosar’s actions were flatly unacceptable.

“We cannot have a member joking about murdering [another member], or threatening the president of the United States,” she said.

Ocasio-Cortez lambasted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for “venturing off on a tangent” during his remarks to include complaints about President Biden’s policies and problems such as “gas prices and inflation.”

“What is so hard about saying this is wrong?” the New York congresswoman asked. “This is not about me. This is not about Rep. Gosar. This is about what we are willing to accept.”

But Republicans, including McCarthy, lined up to denounce the push for censure.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) complained that Democrats were bent on “chilling debate.” 

Several GOP members complained that the move to censure Gosar was taking up valuable time when the nation was faced with more serious problems. 

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) contended that the outrage over Gosar was taking place while Democrats were “treating parents as terrorists” — an allusion to the rowdy debates around school boards, and a move by Attorney General Merrick Garland to have the FBI address threats made in that context.

Perhaps predictably, a debate about civility descended into hyperbolic incivility at times. 

Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) accused Democrats of wanting to seize “totalitarian control” of the country. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) referred to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) as “the Jihad Squad member from Minnesota.”

That’s the kind of language that appalls those who remember an earlier, less venomous era — and unnerves those worried about where American democracy is headed. 

But it’s also the stuff that today’s hyper-polarized political and media ecosystem often rewards.

It’s tough for Republicans to credibly make the argument that incendiary political rhetoric is not a problem. 

The nation is still dealing with the reverberations of the Jan. 6 insurrection, which Trump was impeached for inciting. Partisan enmity has been heating toward a boil for years. When 13 House Republicans voted for the recently-passed infrastructure bill, some of them received death threats.

A poll earlier this year from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative organization, found that almost 4 in 10 Republicans believe that “violent actions” would be justified in certain political circumstances where “elected leaders will not protect America.”

Hot rhetoric is not confined to one side of the partisan divide. During Wednesday’s debate, McCarthy drew attention to comments from Omar and from Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). 

Omar apologized in 2019 for earlier anti-Semitic tweets. 

She sparked another controversy in June when she listed Israel and the United States, as well as Hamas and the Taliban, as being guilty of “unthinkable atrocities.” Many historians would agree with her. But political commentators took offense at what they saw as unjustified moral equivalence.

Waters in April told Black Lives Matter protesters to “stay in the street” and “get more confrontational” if they did not think justice was served in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis police officer who was ultimately convicted of murdering George Floyd. In 2018, Waters called for citizens to harass members of Trump’s Cabinet if they saw them in public places.

McCarthy also highlighted Rep. Hakeem Jeffries’s (D-N.Y.) tweet a week ago pertaining to the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wis. 

“Lock up Kyle Rittenhouse and throw away the key,” Jeffries tweeted.

Such comments are pretty clearly inappropriate.

But they also aren’t fantasies about murder.

Ocasio-Cortez, taking aim at McCarthy’s remarks about supposed Democratic misdeeds, said: “Not once did he list an example of a member of Congress threatening the life of another.”

No Republican rebutted her point.

But Republicans did suggest they would seek revenge if and when they take back the House majority.

McCarthy and others alluded to their willingness to use Wednesday’s precedent to act in the future against Democrats whom they believe have ventured out of bounds.

Gosar’s censure showed a House majority willing to act against toxic threats.

But the debate also exposed, once again, a political culture hurtling along a downward trajectory.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Adam Kinzinger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Chip Roy Clay Higgins David Joyce Donald Trump Gosar censure Hakeem Jeffries Ilhan Omar Jim Jordan Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Lauren Boebert Liz Cheney Maxine Waters Members of the United States Congress Merrick Garland Nancy Pelosi Paul Gosar political rhetoric
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