Nov 2, 2022

The attack on Paul Pelosi.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose husband was attacked last week. Photo: Gage Skidmore
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose husband was attacked last week. Photo: Gage Skidmore

The attack has ignited a debate about political rhetoric and violence.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

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The attack on Paul Pelosi and an important story about 2024. Plus, some quick hits that include updates on elections abroad.

Quick hits.

  1. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro broke his silence on losing the election Tuesday, saying his administration has agreed to begin the presidential transition to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva but without conceding his loss. (The election)
  2. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears primed to win a narrow majority in Israel's fifth election since 2019. (The results)
  3. A member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has called on Congress to ban TikTok, citing concerns over the app exposing Americans' data to Chinese companies. (The suggestion)
  4. U.S. job openings grew from 10.3 million in August to 10.7 million in September, according to the Labor Department. (The rise)
  5. The Supreme Court declined Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-SC) request for a stay to avoid testifying in Georgia's election interference case. (The denial)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

Paul Pelosi. On Friday, reports broke that Paul Pelosi, the 82-year-old husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had been assaulted in their home. The Pelosis live in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco.

According to a Department of Justice filing on Monday, Pelosi was at home when he awoke to an intruder inside his bedroom. The man, identified by police as 42-year-old David DePape, told officers that he broke through a glass door in the home with a hammer. He asked Pelosi to wake up, and informed him that he was "looking for Nancy," to which Paul Pelosi replied that she wasn't there (the House Speaker was not home during the break-in). DePape responded that he would sit and wait for her.

Pelosi tried to access a phone in the home's elevator to call 911, but DePape stopped him. Pelosi eventually called 911 from the bathroom and left the line open so the dispatcher could hear their conversation. That dispatcher eventually sent officers to their home. DePape later told police that he felt he had to "respond" to Pelosi calling 911, since there was “no way the police were going to forget about the call.”

When police arrived at the door at 2:31 a.m., they found Pelosi and DePape struggling over a hammer. Officers asked the men what was happening, to which DePape responded "everything’s good." When police instructed them to drop the hammer, DePape allegedly pulled it from Pelosi's grip and struck him in the head with it, knocking him unconscious. Pelosi is recovering in the hospital with a fractured skull that required surgery and injuries to his hands.

Police say the attack was politically motivated, and DePape is being charged with attempted kidnapping and assault on an immediate family member of a federal official. In interviews with police, DePape said he planned "to hold Nancy hostage and talk to her,” and would "let her go" if she told the “truth.” But if she “lied,” he planned to break “her kneecaps” so she would have to be wheeled into Congress. He described Pelosi as the "leader of the pack of lies told by the Democratic Party." Police recovered zip ties, cash, a roll of tape, a hammer, white rope, and a pair of rubber and cloth gloves from DePape and the home.

When the initial news of the attack broke, there were several inaccurate reports that led to viral conspiracy theories. Several articles, including a Politico story, suggested an "unknown" person had opened the door, which many interpreted as a third person, though police later clarified nobody else was present. A local reporter said the attacker was "in his underwear" when police arrived, but later retracted that detail (Pelosi was in his underwear as he slept, and a security guard for a neighbor's home reported seeing a man in all black with a book bag approach the house).

When Pelosi called 911, he told the dispatcher “he doesn’t know who the male [DePape] is, but he advised that his name is David and that he is a friend." Pelosi was reporting to 911 that DePape was claiming to be a friend of Pelosi's, but this led some commentators to allege that Pelosi knew the attacker, which police have said definitively was not true.

Ultimately, those rumors culminated in the spread of a story from an unreliable news source called the Santa Monica Observer, which was shared in a now-deleted tweet from new Twitter CEO Elon Musk, that purported the attack was actually a drunken fight between Pelosi and a male prostitute. Several conservative commentators, including Donald Trump Jr., repeated this theory.

According to DePape's most recent employer, he had evolved from a longtime Green Party voter to someone who had become immersed in right-wing conspiracies online, including ones that frame Pelosi as an enemy of the country. DePape's social media feed is full of allegations that the 2020 election was stolen, that teachers are grooming children to be trans, and that the Jews were never actually gassed at Auschwitz. According to police, DePape was clear he was targeting Pelosi because she was second in line for the presidency.

Others have pointed to DePape's history of mental illness, which has been documented in several news reports. His former partner and mother of his children, who is currently imprisoned, has purported that he has "been mentally ill for a long time" and once disappeared for an entire year before re-emerging and claiming to be Jesus.

It's not the first time Nancy Pelosi has been the subject of death threats. In the last year, three men have been sentenced to prison for threats against Pelosi. Capitol Police installed cameras around Pelosi's house eight years ago, which captured the break-in on tape, but her security detail had left the residence with her when she traveled from San Francisco to D.C. in the days before the attack.

This incident is not the only recent case of politically motivated violence. In June, a California man drove across the country to the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh with zip ties and a gun, before confessing to police he was considering killing him. He has been charged with attempted murder. In 2017, a Bernie Sanders supporter opened fire on a Congressional baseball game, wounding Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA). Meanwhile, the U.S. Capitol Police have recorded a drastic rise in threat cases — up 144% since 2017.

Today, we're going to look at some commentary about the attack, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left says the attack is a scary reminder of the power of right-wing conspiracies and rhetoric.
  • Many point to rhetoric of prominent conservatives who downplay or even encourage violence.
  • Some argue that it is Republicans' reaction to the attack that is truly distressing.

In The Guardian, Jill Filipovic said this should cause a national reckoning, but instead it has just exposed indecency from the Trumpist right.

"Threatening and menacing Democrats has become a staple not just of conservative big mouths on YouTube and talk radio, but of Republicans seeking office. Trump, notoriously, used his rallies to encourage supporters to chant 'lock her up' about Hillary Clinton. Republican representative Paul Gosar tweeted a bizarre cartoon video of him killing the Democrat representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and threatening President Biden; he refused to apologize for it, and his actions were not broadly condemned on the right," Filipovic said. "The Republican representative from Georgia Marjorie Taylor Greene has said that Pelosi has committed treason, a crime 'punishable by death.' The Minnesota Republican representative Tom Emmer tweeted a video of himself shooting a gun, along with the words 'Exercising my Second Amendment rights' and the hashtag #FirePelosi.

"Blake Masters, a Republican who is running for a Senate seat in Arizona, has published campaign ads in which he is holding guns (in one of the ads, he specifies: 'It wasn’t designed for hunting – this is designed to kill people') and has said that when it comes to what he believes is a war between left and right, 'You can recite an eloquent poem about pacifism right before they line you up against the wall and shoot you.'... And finally, there is the rightwing conspiracy-mongering that predictably draws in those who are untethered to reality, and the related rhetoric that makes fixing the invented problem a kind of life-and-death battle of good versus evil," she wrote.

In CNN, Kara Alaimo stressed that this was not an isolated incident.

"This shocking episode is just the latest in a series of escalating attacks and confrontations against politicians, and women politicians in particular – many of whom face unacceptable hatred on the Internet that spills over into physical threats or violence. Social media platforms and law enforcement must act now to stop this abuse before a politician is gravely injured or killed. Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal has been harassed by a man who showed up repeatedly outside her home, armed with a handgun. Jayapal’s husband said he heard the voices of two men shouting obscenities and suggesting that they would stop harassing her neighborhood if she killed herself... Last year, Republican Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina said her home was vandalized with profane graffiti.

"And Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York receives so many threats that she has a round-the-clock security team and, at times, sleeps in different locations," Alaimo noted. "Her own colleague, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, tweeted an altered anime video of himself appearing to kill her last year. (Gosar deleted the video and did not apologize. An hour after the House voted to censure him and remove him from two committee assignments last year, he retweeted a tweet that included the video.) Earlier this week, the New York Post said they fired a rogue employee who changed the headline of an online editorial to read, 'We must assassinate AOC for America.' ... The harassment, hate and violence must stop."

In The Sacramento Bee, Melinda Henneberger said Trumpers "couldn't even muster thoughts and prayers."

"We’ve reached that point in the devolution of what used to be considered common decency when even thoughts and prayers are too much to expect," she said. "The suspect, David DePape, spewed antisemitism and racism, repeated Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and in an August post that DePape’s daughter confirmed to the Los Angeles Times had been written by him, said, 'Either Q is Trump himself or Q is the deepstate moles within Trumps inner circle.' Donald Trump has weighed in on any number of topics since Mr. Pelosi was pummeled with a hammer and had to be rushed into surgery...But here’s what he said about Paul Pelosi: Nothing, of course.

"The former president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., made his lack of empathy even clearer, retweeting a photo of underwear and a hammer, captioned, ‘Got my Paul Pelosi Halloween costume ready.’ That the son of an American president could respond so callously to violence against the husband of a Speaker of the House is stunning even now," she wrote. "When I moved to Washington in 1995, more than a few members of Congress and their families still socialized across the aisle. That some current lawmakers, like Ohio Rep. Mike Loychik, who tweeted, 'I hope San Francisco dispatched their very best social worker to respond to the brutal assault of Nancy Pelosi’s husband,' now see a politically motivated attack on the speaker’s spouse as too delicious not to make light of would have shamed many in the pre-Trump GOP. But then, as even those who can’t stop tittering will tell you, that party doesn’t exist anymore."


What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right condemn the attack, but argue that Democrats are using it to silence criticism of their politics.
  • Some point to the many incidents against a wide range of politicians that demonstrate the frightening nature of this moment.
  • Others question whether DePape was a right-wing extremist with a clear political agenda.

In The Federalist, David Harsanyi said blaming conservatives for the attack on Paul Pelosi is an effort to chill speech.

"The left’s insistence that every conservative personally 'condemn' the actions of the mentally ill man who attacked Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul has nothing to do with lowering the rhetorical temperature or averting violence, and everything to do with trying to compel Republicans to take responsibility for the incident," he wrote. "Take The Washington Post, which ran a triple-bylined, reported piece headlined, 'Attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband follows years of GOP demonizing her.' 'Years of vilification,' contend the authors, have 'culminated' in Pelosi’s husband being attacked with a hammer. By 'demonizing,' the Post means that Republicans run lots of political ads targeting perhaps the most powerful, partisan leader in the nation.

"Pelosi is demonized in the same manner Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis are demonized. Remember ads depicted Paul Ryan pushing grandmas off cliffs? Is it that kind of demonizing?" Harsanyi asked. "All three of the 'reporters' involved in writing the Washington Post piece know full well that the person accused of attacking Pelosi with a hammer was mentally unstable, his brain, according to the mother of his children, addled by long-term drug use. This is a former pro-nudist activist, convinced that 'he was Jesus for a year,' who lived in a bus on a semi-commune and has embraced conspiracy theories from the left and right. Even if he wasn’t unstable, of course, it doesn’t mean the GOP has any responsibility to stop pointing out that Pelosi’s policy ideas are bad for the country.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called it "another sickening example" of political violence in our disturbed culture.

"Mrs. Pelosi was fortunately in Washington at the time. Her office said her husband, who was hospitalized with head and body trauma, 'is expected to make a full recovery.' The assailant’s motives weren’t clear by the time of publication, but he seems to have been caught up like many others in conspiracy theories spun on the internet," the board said. "Mr. DePape posted links regarding right-wing election claims and he called the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer convicted of killing George Floyd, a 'modern lynching.' He also sold hemp bracelets with peace signs and posted rants about Jesus being the antichrist. In other words, he fits the profile of an alienated, perhaps mentally ill, person who latches on to internet obsessions, some of which turn out to be political.

"The U.S. is full of such people, and their political targets are on the left and right, Democrats and Republicans," they added. "The gunman who nearly killed GOP House whip Steve Scalise in 2017 at a Congressional baseball practice was a Bernie Sanders supporter. The man with weapons and ill-intent arrested outside Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s home this year was angry about the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade... More security will have to be provided to public officials, and candidates will have to take precautions. The growing risks will deter many people from considering politics. The political and media classes can help by avoiding hateful rhetoric aimed at their opponents."

On Fox News, Tucker Carlson said the police called to the scene should release the body camera footage for the public.

"That's often done immediately in cases like this, cases that attract heavy public scrutiny. Transparency restores the public's faith in the system. It is the only thing that does. In fact, that's the whole point of body cams, to reassure people that they can really know what happened," he said. "Transparency is the antidote to 'misinformation.' On the other hand, if you want people to fall headfirst into crazed conspiracy theories, then you would keep lying and hiding things and yet for some reason, the San Francisco Police Department is refusing to release Friday's body cam video. We learned that today when we filed a records request. No chance, they said.

"Apparently, DePape was camping full-time in a dilapidated Ken-Kesey-style school bus, complete with a gay pride flag out front and a sign that reads 'Berkeley Stands Against Hate.' Behind the bus hangs a BLM banner," he noted. "Today, Fox's Bill Melugin learned that DePape, who was originally from Canada, has long overstayed his visa, so he is currently in this country illegally. So, to restate, the perpetrator in this violent crime against Paul Pelosi is a mentally ill, drug addicted illegal alien nudist who takes hallucinogens and lives in a hippie school bus in Berkeley with a BLM banner and a pride flag out front. Take those uncontested facts and let them rattle around your brain for a moment until a recognizable pattern emerges. What does this sound like to you? If you guessed, this is obviously a textbook case of homegrown right-wing extremism, well, then, obviously, you've been watching a lot of cable news today."


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • This is a really horrifying episode, and a scary time in politics.
  • It's clear there were political motivations at play.
  • Many conservatives response to this has ranged from gross to insufficient.

We should first just note how horrifying this all is. An 82-year-old man was bludgeoned in the head with a hammer inside his own home because he is married to the Speaker of the House. It's fortunate Nancy Pelosi wasn't there, sure. Given what DePape said his plans were, a kidnapping or torture seems to have been likely. But if she had been there, the house almost certainly would have been surrounded by more security and this entire ordeal may not have actually happened. I have criticized Pelosi and her husband (over stock trading, political rhetoric and public policy) in the pages of this newsletter, so let me just say unequivocally that I wish him a speedy recovery and wish them both well.

The debate about whether the attack on Paul Pelosi was politically motivated or the result of a mental health crisis is a silly binary to set up. DePape was very obviously politically motivated: He wanted to hold the Speaker of the House hostage, he wanted to break her kneecaps to teach her a lesson about lying, and he decided to smash in her 82-year-old husband's skull with a hammer in front of police when he couldn't get to her. His social media posts are a litany of political conspiracies from the right. His boss, who was employing him up until a week before the attack, said "he really believed in the whole MAGA, ‘Pizzagate,’ stolen election — you know, all of it, all the way down the line."

His "political leanings," if you want to call them that, are also clearly not simple. He was a longtime Green Party voter who evidently lived in some kind of encampment featuring Black Lives Matter and gay pride flags. It may be a fool's errand to try to suss out any clear political ideology. But we can say pretty confidently based on interviews with his family, friends and employers, along with his social media feed, that he seemed totally taken by far-right conspiracies in the last year. That's about as far as we can go, and that's enough to be reminded that such conspiracies are actually dangerous in the real world.

It's also clear he had some mental health and drug issues. Reports of delusional behavior and erratic actions were common among the people interviewed. There's no need to deny this fact. Often, political violence happens when mental health issues intersect with the worst of our political rhetoric. That we haven't yet learned that, or can't simply state it, is unendingly frustrating to me.

What we can also say with confidence is that the response from prominent conservatives has been disgusting. There were condemnations, sure. But they weren’t nearly as widespread or unanimous as they should have been, and many prominent people on the right took the opposite route. Trump Jr's "joke" tells me all I need to know about him, and fits a pattern of his childish and deranged behavior (and yes, it is deranged to joke about someone who was just violently beaten with a hammer). We have normalized the absurdity and indecency so much that it hardly makes the splash it used to. But imagine for a moment if Mitch McConnell's wife were bludgeoned with a hammer (I will repeat it until it sinks in) during a home invasion and Sasha Obama tweeted out her "Halloween costume" mocking the attack. Really imagine it. That is how you should feel if you are a conservative watching this unfold.

Kari Lake, running for governor in Arizona, quipped that "apparently" Nancy Pelosi's house "doesn't have a lot of protection." She got some good laughs at her campaign event for that one. Hours after the attack was reported, Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin said violence was unacceptable, but used the story as a punchline to say voters were going to send Pelosi home to her husband. Charlie Kirk, one of the most influential and widely listened to conservatives in the country, suggested to his fans that someone bail DePape out of prison so we could get the real story. These are not random jerks on Twitter. They’re some of the most recognizable faces in today’s right-wing political world.

Many of the early reports that came out around this story were wrong, misleading, or inaccurate. Online, many conservatives used that to stir up conspiracy theories and nonsense — deflecting from the reality that political rhetoric about Democrats in Congress sex trafficking children or stealing elections will lead some people to violence. Republicans are not alone in sensationalist, elevated political rhetoric. But they have been relying on it a lot more in the last three campaign cycles, with advertisements and comments that would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. It’s not partisan hackery to point this out.

As I said after the Buffalo shooting and the Kavanaugh threats, political commentators are not responsible for the actions of others. Nancy Pelosi called Trump's tax cuts a moment of "life and death," and "the end of the world," and even "Armageddon." I wouldn't blame her if that rhetoric resulted in threats on Trump's life at the time. But I also wouldn't absolve her of overreaching in a dangerous way.

Short of what we try to do in Tangle, I don't have a great solution for getting people to step back off the cliff’s edge. But we are in desperate need of course-correction. We have to reject politicians and political influencers who traffic in conspiracies, intentionally inflame their audiences with lies, and use language that can predictably lead to violence. We should expect more from our leaders. If we don't, we'll only keep getting more of the harrowing incidents we’ve seen in the last five years.


Your questions answered.

Today's main topic took up some extra space, so we are skipping our reader question for today. If you want to ask a question, you can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


Under the radar.

For all the noise about what is coming in 2024, one option appears to be increasingly likely: a Trump vs. Biden rerun. The Washington Post reported this week that Biden is "quietly but clearly" preparing for a reelection bid. He and Jill Biden have been meeting with senior advisers to prepare a campaign, and senior advisers during his 2020 campaign have been involved in talks. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that Trump is preparing for a post-midterm launch. "I'm like 95% he's going to run," Reince Priebus, Trump's former White House chief of staff, told AP News. You can read The Washington Post's story here and The Associated Press's story here.


Numbers.

  • 3,839. The number of documented "concerning statements and threats" toward members of Congress in 2017.
  • 9,625. The number in 2021.
  • 7. The number of days until election day.
  • 10. The number of House races where Cook Political Report’s ratings moved toward Republicans.
  • 53%.  Following their most recent simulations, the likelihood Five Thirty Eight gives for Republicans to control a majority of the Senate.

Have a nice day.

Neighborhoods all over America are being taken over by "bike buses." Many families are ditching cars for adult-lead bike groups, giving kids an opportunity to get outside and get some exercise first thing in the morning. The effort is simultaneously a call to combat climate change by limiting the use of vehicles for parents and students who can bike to school. Parents involved in the bike buses say the event just seems to make parents and kids happier, and in some neighborhoods people line up on their front porches in the morning and cheer the kids on. Good Morning America has the story.


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