It’s hard to be surprised anymore by the Republican Party’s further descent into the political sewer. Yet, somehow the GOP’s response to the assault on the 82-year-old husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still able to shock and disgust. Even when the barest modicum of common decency and empathy is required, that is, for most Republicans, a bridge too far.
One might expect that a home invasion and savage assault on a political leader’s spouse would be politically off-limits. Ideally, it would lead to a moment of introspection about the inherent dangers of increasingly unhinged political rhetoric. But if you believe that, you must be new around here.
For years, Republicans have demonized Nancy Pelosi – and quite simply, they can’t quit it.
Only hours after news of the assault, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin kicked things off at a rally for a Republican House candidate in Virginia. While nodding to the fact that “there’s no room for violence anywhere,” he quickly riled up his supporters by telling them, “we’re going to send her (Nancy Pelosi) back to be with him in California.” Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, joined in by joking at a campaign event, “Nancy Pelosi, well, she’s got protection when she’s in D.C. — apparently, her house doesn’t have a lot of protection.”
In both cases, rallygoers laughed and applauded these heinous comments. Such language from Lake is not a surprise, but for Youngkin, who, when he successfully ran for Virginia governor in 2021 sought to portray himself as the opposite of Donald Trump, it seems more out of character. Youngkin has national aspirations, however, and he surely understands that to win over Republican voters, there’s no upside to being a nice guy.
Other Republicans like Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, “dodged” the issue by referring to the 2017 shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise by “a Bernie Sanders supporter.” Sen. Rick Scott of Florida brought up a recent assault against a canvasser for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, even though there is no evidence it was a politically motivated attack. And Rep. Mike McCaul and Sen. John Cornyn, both of Texas, blamed Democratic law enforcement and immigration policies for the assault.
Then there are those who are simply gaslighting. Conservative Twitter is ablaze with lurid assertions that Pelosi knew his attacker and that the assault was a sexual assignation gone awry. Why won’t Pelosi release CCTV videos or the full audio of Paul Pelosi’s 911 call, these right-wing trolls wondered? Fox News, former president Donald Trump and congressional Republicans like Ted Cruz have all fanned these flames of misinformation.
Portraying an attack on the husband of a leading Democratic politician by a seemingly deranged individual spouting Republican talking points as the fault of Democrats is the political equivalent of a child standing next to a broken lamp and saying, “It was like that when I got here.”
Most Republicans almost certainly are making a cynical judgment that expressing sympathy for her husband would appall their supporters.
But the GOP response is not just meant to sow doubt and evade responsibility or introspection – it’s about politics.
For years, Republicans have demonized Nancy Pelosi – and quite simply, they can’t quit it. This year alone, Republicans have spent $40 million in campaign ads attacking her – more than the amount they’ve spent on ads about immigration and criminal justice reform. For rank-and-file Republicans, a powerful woman from San Francisco (the modern equivalent of Sodom to the far right) is practically the devil incarnate. Just last year, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy joked that if he becomes speaker of the House, it would be hard not to hit Pelosi with the gavel. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose rhetoric is probably the clearest reflection of the median MAGA voter, has called Pelosi a “traitor to our country,” accused her of treason, and has said that the appropriate punishment for such a crime is “death.”
And lest we forget that many of the insurrectionists who broke into the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 chanted the same words as David DePape, “Where’s Nancy?”
Surely, there are some Republicans – like Greene and Lake – who believe the terrible things their party says about Pelosi. But most Republicans almost certainly are making a cynical judgment that expressing sympathy for her husband would appall their supporters. Just as most have taken the deeply cynical path of refusing to acknowledge that Joe Biden won the 2020 election for fear of inflaming Trump and his rabid supporters, they are making the even more cynical and cowardly calculation that there is no political upside to treating the Pelosis as human beings worthy of respect.
Those Republicans who still seek office in today’s MAGA-dominated GOP long ago realized that their first political imperative is to tell their base of angry and resentful voters exactly what they want to hear – no matter how sick and depraved it might be.
In 2017, after Scalise’s shooting, Pelosi took the high road: “On days like today, there are no Democrats or Republicans, only Americans united in our hopes and prayers for the wounded.” After a gun-wielding man was arrested outside Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s house, Democrats condemned the potential assault and pushed a bill through Congress to increase security for Supreme Court judges.
Democrats don’t deserve praise for those actions. Expressing revulsion at the violent targeting of your political rivals is, should be, and once was the default political response. But for the modern Republican Party, demonstrating even the most basic virtues of kindness and decency is too much to ask. And if keeping their jobs means playing to the grievances, resentments and delusions of their political base, why in the world would they do anything differently now?