Fears of political violence are growing as the 2024 campaign and conspiracy theories heat up

A large sign outside the Capitol reads "Voters Decide: Protect Democracy."
As the 2024 campaign accelerates, experts fear the threat of politically motivated violence will only intensify. Above, a sign outside the U.S. Capitol on the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot by supporters of then-President Trump.
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

The man who attacked then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband with a hammer last year consumed a steady diet of right-wing conspiracy theories before striking less than two weeks before the midterm election.

As the 2024 presidential campaign heats up, experts on extremism fear the threat of politically motivated violence will intensify. Conspiracy theories such as “Pizzagate,QAnon and “Stop the Steal” that demonized Donald Trump’s enemies are morphing and spreading as he leads in polls for the Republican nomination.

“No longer are these conspiracy theories and very divisive and vicious ideologies separated at the fringes,” said Jacob Ware, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on domestic terrorism. “They’re now infiltrating American society on a massive scale.”


A federal jury convicted David DePape on Nov. 16 of attacking Paul Pelosi at his San Francisco home on Oct. 28, 2022. DePape had testified that he planned to hold Nancy Pelosi hostage and “break her kneecaps” if the Democrat lied as he grilled her on government corruption. She was in Washington at the time of the assault.

David DePape, who is accused of attacking Paul Pelosi with a hammer, had faced mental illness and drug abuse and ‘deteriorated’ into far-right extremism, according to people who knew him.

Nov. 14, 2022

In previous online rants, DePape echoed tenets of the pro-Trump QAnon, which has been linked to killings and other crimes. Adherents falsely believe Trump is trying to expose prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites as Satan-worshiping child sex traffickers.

Trump has amplified social media accounts that promote QAnon, which has grown from the far-right fringes of the internet into a fixture of GOP politics.

Many of those whoattacked the Capitol onJan. 6, 2021, espoused apocalyptic QAnon beliefs online before traveling to Washington, where Trump held a “Stop the Steal” rally that day. A message board once known as buzzed with plans for violence days before the siege.

Many Trump supporters had also embraced the debunked “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that prominent Democrats were running a child sex trafficking ring out of a D.C. pizzeria’s (nonexistent) basement. In 2017, a North Carolina man was sentenced to prison for firing a rifle inside the restaurant.

Trump has ramped up his combative campaign rhetoric with talk of retribution against his enemies. He recently joked about the attack on Paul Pelosi and suggested former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mark A. Milley be executed for treason.


Donald Trump is already laying a sweeping set of policy goals should he win a second term as president

Nov. 12, 2023

Threats against lawmakers and election officials are rampant, with targets spanning the nation’s political divide. A California man is awaiting trial on charges of plotting to kill Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, a Trump nominee.

Trump’s loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 election did not end the spread of QAnon-influenced conspiracy theories or its unrealized prophecies. The leaderless movement often adopts beliefs from other conspiracy theories.

“It’s been really good at evolving with the times and current events,” said Sheehan Kane, data collection manager for the University of Maryland-based Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START.

In a 2021 article, Kane and START senior researcher Michael Jensen examined QAnon-inspired crimes attributed to 125 adherents since the movement originated on 4chan in 2017. The researchers found that more “extremist offenders” were connected to QAnon than to any other extremist group or movement in the U.S.

“In 2020, millions of people were radicalized on behalf of this conspiracy theory. It’s really hard to tell who is going to mobilize on behalf of a conspiracy theory,” Kane said.

DePape, the Paul Pelosi attacker, testified that his interest in right-wing conspiracy theories began with GamerGate, an online harassment campaign against feminists in the video game industry. Starting in 2014, misogynistic gamers terrorized female developers and other women in the industry with rape and death threats.


David DePape was found guilty in a San Francisco federal court of trying to kidnap former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and assaulting her husband.

Nov. 16, 2023

Brianna Wu, one of the original targets of GamerGate, said she wasn’t surprised to hear it was linked to a politically motivated attack nearly a decade later. She said the misogynistic campaign emerged from the same online recesses that spawned far-right conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and QAnon.

“This is a pattern of radicalization that we’re seeing over and over and over in every single bit of politics,” Wu said. “This is not a right-versus-left issue. This is a radicalization issue that is happening online. We need a policy response.”

DePape testified that he had gone to the Pelosi home with plans to interrogate the speaker about Russian interference in the 2016 election. He said he’d intended to wear an inflatable unicorn costume while videotaping her interrogation to share online.

DePape allegedly told authorities that his other targets included a women’s and queer studies professor at the University of Michigan. He told jurors that he’d heard about the professor while listening to a conservative commentator.

DePape’s spiral into conspiracy theories is a textbook tale of radicalization, according to experts on extremism, who say that the mainstreaming of false, bigoted and other harmful ideas on radio shows, cable news, social media and other online forums has made them far more accessible.

The problem is exacerbated by lax content moderation on social media and a growing “conspiracy-creating cottage industry” looking to use extreme rhetoric to cash in or widen their audience, according to American University professor Brian Hughes, associate director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab.


“Some of the people in that wide audience are going to be people like DePape, who are intentionally going to commit an act of violence based on this false and harmful information that they’ve been served,” he said.

Conspiracy theories are alluring by design, and some people become completely immersed in them, said Amarnath Amarasingam, an extremism researcher and professor at Queen’s University in Canada. DePape testified that before the attack, he often played video games for hours on end while listening to political podcasts.

Repeatedly hearing that the political opponents or government leaders are responsible for evil acts gives believers a scapegoat for their troubles and a “moral mission” to do something about it, Amarasingam said.

Election years in the U.S. are often characterized by violence, said Ware, of the Council on Foreign Relations, including hate crimes in response to a candidate’s identity or violent reactions to unfavorable results. “So we should absolutely expect such incidents in 2024,” he said.

Trump’s return to the ballot next year, as well as his current legal battles, are sure to amplify politicized rhetoric and could drive more extremist violence, experts said.


“Donald Trump has a knack for tacitly endorsing violence without saying anything that’s really a clear endorsement of it, necessarily,” Hughes said.

To combat potential violence, Americans should try to turn down the temperature of political rhetoric and look out for loved ones who may be on a path toward radicalization, experts said.

“Spending hours and hours consuming conspiracy theory material is intoxicating,” Hughes said. “It anesthetizes you from the worries of your day-to-day life in the same way that certain drugs do.

“And I think that we need to reorient our thinking a little bit in that direction, so that we can begin to view this as the public health problem that it really is.”