Column: ‘It’s getting worse.’ The sad part of the Pelosi attack is it doesn’t surprise us
Forget the insurrection. The immediate future of political violence in America is much more likely to be a lone man with a hammer and a head full of fascist propaganda.
“This is the thing we should be afraid of,” Eric K. Ward, an extremism expert with the Western States Center, told me Friday afternoon, in the wake of the attack by a 42-year-old man on Paul Pelosi, who is married to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Though authorities haven’t yet announced a motive, social media posts attributed to suspect David DePape are filled with the now-usual treasure trove of right-wing nightmares, including screeds against transgender people and references to “alien-human hybrid infiltrators.”
More on that later, but suffice it to say, as Ward pointed out, “We are not in normal times.”
Still, while the assault on the 82-year-old Pelosi is abhorrent and terrifying, it was anything but unexpected to Ward and those who have been tracking the growing wave of right-wing hate that threatens to topple our democracy. For several years, long before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, trackers of extremism have been screaming from rooftops that one-off violence by people seeped in the lies and propaganda of MAGA Republicanism is a real and growing threat.
If this attack means anything beyond the shock of violence, it’s that we can’t ignore our democracy’s precarious hold on the rule of law. We can’t write real menace off as the unfortunate antics of a bunch of crackpots on Truth Social or the ravings of walking headaches such as infotainment star Tucker Carlson and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has suggested Jewish-owned space lasers started a California wildfire.
This isn’t politics. This isn’t a culture war. This is how countries slide out of decades of human rights into chaos, then authoritarianism.
“This is not stopping,” Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, told me. “It’s getting worse and the insurrection was just a major interchange on that freeway, not a dead end by any means.”
But Levin and Ward are quick to point out that the people actually engaging in the violence are hammers themselves.
The hammer attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband at their San Francisco home grew out of a culture that rewards stridency and provocation.
The deeper problems are the ugly falsehoods, racism and antisemitism perpetuated by those who, for reasons of philosophy, hate or just old-fashioned grifting, would like to a see a form of government other than democracy. Preferably a Christian nationalist set-up where religion dominates law — at least as a method of control.
That despicable conglomerate of power-at-any-cost folks is engaging in a strategic war of stochastic terrorism — basically terrorism by proxy — spewing so much venom into the atmosphere that it inevitably infects someone who will take action.
By now, we all know it viscerally, because we’re exposed to its contagions — and those with its disease deep in their veins — every day. It’s the other pandemic that has never slowed and that requires more than a mask to avoid. But unlike the coronavirus, we’ve let this one flourish without putting it under the microscope and asking how we stop it, even though it’s not that hard to decipher.
Demonization, dehumanization, desensitization and denial. That’s the age-old formula to turn a regular-if-disgruntled Joe into a weapon, and a movement of political destruction.
Demonization is Kanye West with Jewish people, villainizing them for all the ills in the world. It’s the campaign against transgender people as “groomers,” and predators out to sexualize and abuse little kids. It’s the belief that “liberal elites” don’t just enable crime in our cities, but want it — want freedom for the terrifying, vile hordes of immigrants who are both invaders and voters.
It’s their frenzied hate of Nancy Pelosi and everything she stands for, writ large — and it’s nonbelievers ignoring how all these attacks are part of the same cloth.
As Republican Sen. Josh Hawley distilled it on a recent episode of the Tucker Carlson show, MAGA Republicans believe, “that [Democrats] don’t like ... America’s, let’s be honest, Christian culture.”
Democrats abhor “the way that working people and middle class folks live. It’s the values that we hold. They don’t like any of those things and they want to destroy the economic underpinnings of America’s middle class and working class,” Hawley continued.
Stoking fears of pain and loss over and over again turns the people in those targeted groups into something less than human, a creeping evil that can’t be reasoned with and, if left unchecked, will destroy all that is good and right. That’s dehumanization, or as Levin describes it, “a cadre of villains being presented in a caricatured way.”
That otherness goes so far as theorizing that Pelosi and other Democrats are lizards.
There are an alarming number of people who believe a reptilian alien race is posing as humans in order to enslave us in a new world order (which, by the way, appears to be largely derived from the 1980s television show “V”) — enough so that one California man killed his own children, believing that Qanon fantasy. DePape had references to the theory on his social media.
Throw all that garbage in the washing machine with a big scoop of violent rhetoric — nothing too direct, all deniable — and put it on an endless spin cycle until we’re all so sick of hearing about it or so certain it’s true that none of it even registers as abnormal.
Such as Carlson and Manhattan Institute fellow Chris Rufo talking about drag queen story hours recently, and the “deeply disturbing sexualization of children” that they claim LGBTQ communities engage in.
“It’s something that people should trust their instincts on, people should push back against this, and of course people should arm themselves with the literature,” Rufo said.
“People should definitely arm themselves, I agree with that,” Carlson quipped, warning to “leave the kids out of it, period.”
Those systemic attacks have more victims than Paul Pelosi.
The Buffalo mass shooter spouted replacement theory — the fear that white Americans are being outnumbered by the growing population of non-white people — before killing Black people in a grocery store. The El Paso shooter did the same before targeting immigrants.
In California, two men pleaded guilty earlier this year on federal charges that they were plotting to blow up the John L. Burton Democratic headquarters in Sacramento as a response to Donald Trump’s loss to Joe Biden. One of those men, Ian Rogers, texted his friend that, “the dems need to pay.”
And in Contra Costa County, an anti-vaccination U-Haul worker with three kids, Eric Traina, was convicted in September on felony charges for threatening state Sen. Scott Weiner, an openly gay politician who has championed vaccine legislation.
“Vax my kids without my permission and expect a visit from me and my rifle,” Traina emailed Weiner.
The madness is about to get even more intense. Friday, one day after free speech absolutist Elon Musk announced he purchased Twitter, the use of the n-word increased nearly 500% on the platform, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute — driven in part by posts on right-wing social media sites such as 4chan that are encouraging users to amplify derogatory slurs.
“There are no guardrails,” said Levin, who believes, as I do, that we need to impose accountability on the machine spewing out people like DePape.
Because it is a machine, purposeful, calculated, predictable — and dangerous.
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