On June 14, 2017, just five months into the Trump White House, a lone gunman opened fire upon a group of Republican Congressmembers and their staff during their baseball team practice, wounding four people. The injured including the majority whip of the House, Steve Scalise, who required extensive medical attention.
The gunman, who had once volunteered for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign, apparently had targeted the group because they were Republicans and because he was distraught about the 2016 election.
President Trump immediately condemned the attack as a “very, very brutal assault” and added:
"We may have our differences, but we do well in times like these to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country.”
Then-minority leader Nancy Pelosi said:
“It's an injury in the family. For the staff and for our colleague and for his leadership."
"We cannot let that be a victory for the assailant or anyone who would think that way."
"So tomorrow, we'll go out on the field, we'll root for our team, and want everyone to do his or her very best, and we will use this occasion as one that brings us together and not separates us further."
Senator Sanders was also emphatic in his denunciation, saying:
“I am sickened by this despicable act.”
"Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society, and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms.”
Just over five years later, that era of common condemnation of politically-motivated violence is apparently at an end.
Following the attack by an assailant wielding a hammer against the 82-year-old husband of Speaker Nancy Pelosi in their San Francisco home, instead of issuing universal messages of support, many GOP leaders have mocked the incident and spread baseless, homophobic conspiracy theories.
Former President Trump is leading the charge.
He said in a radio interview on Tuesday:
“Weird things going on in that household in the last couple of weeks.”
Trump cast doubt upon the official police report by repeating a lie spread by far-right media about the supposed location of broken glass.
He did this despite a confession obtained by the San Francisco police that the attacker intended to kidnap the Speaker and break her kneecaps, and despite the fact the attacker had zip ties and duct tape on his person when arrested.
Dismissal of the attack and the use of it as the butt of jokes was widespread.
Gov. Youngkin of Virginia, who had presented himself as a more affable and values-oriented candidate, turned the incident into a punchline at a campaign rally for a GOP candidate, saying:
“There’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re going to send [Nancy Pelosi] back to be with him in California.”
Gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake of Arizona followed suit, saying at a campaign stop:
“Nancy Pelosi, well, she’s got protection when she’s in D.C.—apparently her house doesn’t have a lot of protection."
Her comments drew laughter from the moderator and some in the crowd.
Congresswoman Claudia Tenney, who is in a tight race against Democratic challenger Steven Holden for reelection in upstate New York, shared an anti-gay meme showing men in shorts wielding hammers outside of a home with a cannabis pride flag remarking “LOL.”
GOP leaders have also stoked conspiracies rather than step-up to condemn the attack.
When right-wing troll Matt Walsh claimed it was “absurd” to “paint a hippie nudist from Berkeley as some kind of militant right winger” (despite a mountain of evidence from the assailant’s social media he was deep into militant right wing conspiracies), Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz responded simply “truth.”
Donald Trump, Jr. leaned into the false and homophobic narrative of a gay relationship gone awry by retweeting a meme showing a hammer on top of a pair of white underwear. “Got my Paul Pelosi Halloween costume ready,” the first tweet read, with Don Trump, Jr. adding:
“The internet remains undefeated…Also if you switch out the hammer for a red feather boa you could be Hunter Biden in an instant.”
What has happened to American political discourse that it has become so poisonous, riddled with conspiracy and misinformation, and outright dangerous in just five years?
As Ben Collins noted on MSNBC, comparing the shooting of Steve Scalise and others back in 2017:
“Nobody created a secondary story that denied the reality of that happening."
"Nobody gloated about it."
"Barack Obama did not laugh at this."
One factor is of course the former President himself, who has shown other political leaders in his party that you can get away with and even fundraise on the back of being a horrible person, all while spreading outright lies to your own base and facing few consequences for it.
Add to that a social media ecosystem that has grown more polarized and siloed than ever, where the most outrageous, inflammatory and false statements are rewarded with the highest engagements.
And underneath it all, we now have a far more fetid and murky swamp of online disinformation where conspiracies and lies bubble up from sites like 4chan and The Gateway Pundit to be echoed and amplified on larger platforms by influencers.
No better example of this was when Elon Musk himself, who is now the owner of Twitter, sought to troll a tweet by Hillary Clinton by replying in classic sh*t-poster, just-asking-questions form, “there is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye”— while linking to a site known for spreading conspiracies and false stories, including that Clinton herself was actually dead.
Facing backlash, Musk took down the post, but not before many of his over 112 million followers saw the fake news and seized upon it.
Without leadership in the GOP willing not only to speak out against political violence but also, and perhaps more importantly, to condemn those in their own party who leverage and capitalize upon it, the descent of the Republican Party into a deeper, more deplorable state is inevitable.
This is not a problem that the roundly demonized Democrats can fix.
It is a sickness from within the GOP.
And until more Republicans can manage somehow to say they actually aren’t okay with minimizing, joking about, or outright dismissing political violence—we really have reached that point now—this dangerous, downward spiral will continue.
It’s often said “there is no bottom” to their behavior.
It is far past time for Republicans to set one.