Republicans have landed on a dual-track response to the misfire of an assassination attempt on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that put her husband in the hospital: Officially, from what passes for the respectable establishment top levels of the party, they’re both-sidesing it, pointing to acts of political violence, real and fake, against Republicans. But bubbling just below that is the predictable conspiracy theory, because Republicans these days always need a conspiracy theory. And this one’s a doozy.
But first, the official both-sides response, calculated to appeal to the media in an all too successful bid to keep the attacker’s right-wing stances from being taken seriously as a motivating factor in the attack.
RELATED STORY: This was a GOP-inspired assassination attempt against Pelosi, and the media needs to say so
In a Sunday CNN appearance, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott called the attack on Paul Pelosi “disgusting,” saying, “This violence is horrible.” Then he quickly pivoted, saying, “We had a door knocker in Florida that was attacked. I mean, this stuff has to stop.” Republicans have repeatedly insisted that the assault on a canvasser was politically motivated, but police haven't substantiated that claim.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel pointed to the attack on New York Republican gubernatorial nominee Lee Zeldin, in which a drunk veteran took a swing at Zeldin with a sharp object, not knowing who Zeldin was but having been told he was “disrespecting veterans.” Zeldin was not injured. McDaniel also falsely claimed that President Joe Biden “didn’t talk about the assassination attempt against” Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. (Which was less an attempt than a plan that ended when the would-be assassin turned himself in ahead of time.) In fact, Biden did condemn that.
And Republicans like to talk as if the political violence scales sit at Paul Pelosi on the one side and the Florida canvasser, Kavanaugh, Zeldin, and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (who was shot in 2017) on the other. In reality, “The same day as the Pelosi attack, a man pleaded guilty to making death threats against Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.),” Max Boot notes. “Two days earlier, three men who were motivated by right-wing, anti-lockdown hysteria after covid-19 hit were convicted of aiding a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). In August, another man died after attacking an FBI office because he was so upset about the bureau’s search of Mar-a-Lago.” That’s not mentioning the man who threatened to kill Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
But “both sides” is not the only angle Republicans are taking on the attack on Pelosi. A conspiracy theory was inevitable—it’s the Republican stock-in-trade, the reason a man showed up with a hammer and zip ties intending to attack the speaker of the House to begin with. The conspiracy theory of choice about the Pelosi attack is that it was a drunken gay tryst gone wrong, Paul Pelosi out partying while his wife was working in Washington, D.C.
That claim started spreading quickly, with new Twitter owner Elon Musk coyly hinting at it with a link to a fraudulent news source, then deleting his tweet. It wasn’t just the likes of Musk, though:
Donald Trump Jr. was less direct about it, but went in the same general direction.
Matthew Gertz of Media Matters explained how this conspiracy theory would quickly be embraced by “a sizable percentage of the GOP base,” due to the right-wing media bubble and the fact that Republicans need a distraction from who the assailant really is, politically speaking:
Thanks to a few confusing details in early reports about the assault—and their own particular set of obsessions—Republicans lit on the conspiracy theory tweeted and deleted by Musk and Higgins. Hours before Higgins’ tweet, Gertz predicted:
So those are the choices from Republicans: hand-wave it away as sad but also a simple both-sides kind of thing, or turn it into a fake story designed to cover up a supposed adulterous tryst between the 82-year-old husband of the speaker of the House and a man who, for the sake of the narrative, now has to be framed as a sex worker. Because it does not work for Republicans to have people focusing on the Jan. 6 echoes of a man equipped with zip ties and yelling, “Where is Nancy?” while attacking her husband with a hammer. While Gertz is right that the right-wing media will run with whatever it wants and the Republican base will fall for it, the rest of the media needs to be very clear that this was an assassination attempt inspired by Republican messaging. To do anything else is to enable the continued ratcheting-up of violence from Republicans.
On The Brief podcast, we speak with Way To Win’s co-founder and vice president, Jenifer Fernandez Ancona. Ancona comes in to discuss how grassroots progressive groups are spending money in the hopes of getting as many voters as possible out for the midterm elections. She also talks about which campaign advertisements are effective and which are not. One thing is for sure, though: We are living in historic times, and what that means for these midterms cannot be easily predicted—so Get Out The Vote!
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