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Political violence and the fire that may consume democracy itself

Paul and Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her husband Paul Pelosi pose for the media outside of 10 Downing St. in central London on Sept. 16, 2021, as she arrives for a meeting with Britain’s former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

So vitriolic is our discourse, so virulent our tribal truths, that when an act of political violence is committed, both sides become consumed by the reaction instead of the action itself. The latest example is last Friday’s brutal hammer attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) husband, Paul.

After the news broke that Pelosi had been attacked by a deranged conspiracy theorist, I was struck by how the violent thrusts of hammer against bone became subject to fanciful political spin. Let’s put aside the grotesque social media post of Donald Trump Jr. (an illustration of a hammer and men’s underwear). Donald Trump Jr. reminds me of a juvenile delinquent who used to pull the legs off mice with sadistic glee. At this point, anything he says, tweets, posts should be defined as a sad, tormented cry for attention. So, let’s stop paying attention.

I’m more concerned about other responses to the attack on Pelosi: the parsing of words, the crafting of sound-bytes, the desperate attempts at moral equivalency.  Political violence is abnormal but not invisible in American democracy. The 1960s and 1970s saw a surge in violent attacks against American political leaders and activists. But I’m hard pressed to find a responsible national leader or journalist who publicly minimized, mocked or marginalized the events. In fact, I’m hard pressed to find evidence of a major leader or journalist who remained silent.

Until now.

The days immediately after the attack on Pelosi saw the four stages of grief in our poisonous political discourse: shock, revulsion, revisionism, deflection.

Fox News’s Jesse Waters reacted to criticism that his often-overheated attacks on Nancy Pelosi were enflaming those who would do her harm by, well, attacking Democratic polices on drugs and immigration; questioning why the attacker, a Canadian, hadn’t been deported.

Former President Trump told the conservative Spanish-language network Americano Media that the attack was a “terrible thing.” Then, he quickly pivoted to “Look at what happened to San Francisco generally. Look at what’s happening in Chicago. It was far worse than Afghanistan.”

(For context, consider Nancy Pelosi’s statement after the June 2017 shooting attack on Republican Whip Steve Scalise: “This morning, the U.S. Congress suffered a despicable and cowardly attack. My thoughts and prayers are with Whip Steve Scalise and the others wounded, Capitol Police and staff, and their families.We are profoundly grateful for the heroism of the Capitol Police, whose bravery under fire undoubtedly saved countless lives.  On days like today, there are no Democrats or Republicans, only Americans united in our hopes and prayers for the wounded.”)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former Vice President Mike Pence vocally condemned the attack on Pelosi. But Kevin McCarthy, the ever-cautious House GOP Leader, seemed to hedge. According to a report in The Hill, he “avoided making any public statements about the attack in the hours after the news broke, though his spokesman told The Hill on Friday that the congressman had reached out to the Speaker to check on her husband and was praying for his recovery.” Later, he condemned the attack on Breitbart radio, but not before reminding the audience that Republicans have been victims as well.

Politico Playbook summarized the more bizarre attempts by Republicans to play down if not yuck up the attack: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) endorsed the idea that the alleged assailant couldn’t be a militant right-winger because he was once a Berkeley nudist. Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) tweeted and deleted a baseless, salacious conspiracy theory about Paul Pelosi. Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake mocked the attack.

As troubling as these reactions are, they are symptoms of a much deeper problem. David Frum reminds us in a piece in The Atlantic magazine that both parties suffer partisan bloodshed, “but one seems to glorify it.” He points to  Missouri Republican candidate Eric Grietens’s toxic campaign, “culminating in a video ad that pictured him carrying a gun as he broke open the door of a house. Accompanied by two armed goons, he urged: Get a RINO-hunting permit. There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country.”

Then there was Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), who  released what Frum described as a “deliberately absurd ad that cast him as a movie superhero. All in good fun, until the final scene that showed him apparently smashing a car windshield to reach and destroy two lurking political adversaries.”

Last June, the Department of Homeland Security warned that, as the midterms approached, “calls for violence by domestic violent extremists directed at democratic institutions, political candidates, party offices, election events, and election workers will likely increase,” especially from “racially or ethnically motivated or anti-government/anti-authority” extremists.

Perhaps they were just channel surfing campaign commercials. 

Let’s face it, political violence has always wracked America: the 1856 clubbing of Sen. Charles Sumner by pro-slavery Rep. Preston Brooks; Lincoln’s funeral train to Springfield; the long sad march to bury JFK at Arlington; the shooting of the segregationist George Wallace; the police beatings of peaceful protestors at the Democratic Convention in Chicago; the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan; and now, the assault on Paul Pelosi. With only recent exception, America’s leaders and journalists immediately put aside their politics to condemn the act.

The problem with political arson is that the wind shifts. Flames don’t lick only to the right, only to the left. Those who condone, mock or equivocate on political violence are playing with fire that may consume democracy itself.

Meanwhile, get well, Paul.

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael. 

Tags Dan Crenshaw David Frum Donald Trump Jr. Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Nancy Pelosi Paul Pelosi paul pelosi attack political violence Steve Scalise Steve Scalise

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