The dangerous context of the Pelosi attack

John M. Crisp
Tribune News Service (TNS)

Apart from football, mixed martial arts, hockey, boxing, television, movies, books, video games and the most powerful military force in world history, Americans abhor violence.

And political violence is emphatically condemned on both ends of the political spectrum. At least it used to be.

After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, had his skull fractured with a hammer wielded by an angry Trump supporter, some Republicans responded to the attack with condemnations of political violence of any sort. Some were probably sincere.

Police tape is seen in front of the home of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Oct. 28, 2022, in San Francisco. Paul Pelosi, her husband, was violently attacked in their home by an intruder. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/TNS)

Paul Pelosi is a victim of poisoned politics. Those inciting violence must be held to account

Republican leaders invoke imagery of violence, then express shock at its use

Other responses were less sympathetic: Kari Lake, who has a good chance of becoming the next governor of Arizona, got a big laugh from a sympathetic crowd with this line: “Nancy Pelosi, well, she’s got protection when she’s in D.C.—apparently her house doesn’t have a lot of protection.” Very funny. Paul Pelosi, 82, was still in the hospital.

Clay Higgins, a Republican congressman from Louisiana, chose the conspiracy theory route, tweeting a picture of an apparently distressed Nancy Pelosi with this despicable caption: “That moment you realize the nudist hippie male prostitute LSD guy was the reason your husband didn’t make it to your fundraiser.”

And Donald Trump Jr., with all the class of a junior high school bully, posted a picture of a pair of men’s underwear and a hammer, with this caption: “Got my Paul Pelosi Halloween costume ready.”

These may seem like especially mean-spirited fringe responses to what could easily have been a tragedy, but they didn’t come from the fringe. And even more decorous Republicans were quick to minimize the incident.

Some embraced “whataboutism,” the misleading theory that the left is just as guilty as the right when it comes to political violence. In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard Rep. Steve Scalise mentioned so often.

Scalise was shot by a deranged Bernie Sanders supporter at the annual Congressional Baseball Game in 2017, but it would be difficult to find Democrats who took pleasure in — or made cruel jokes about — the attack.

Other Republicans took exception to the use of the term “Trump supporter” to describe Paul Pelosi’s attacker, preferring to dismiss him as an unbalanced lunatic. The attacker was certainly disturbed, but it’s impossible to imagine that the attack would have occurred outside of the context of Trump’s "big lie" about a stolen election or the Jan. 6 attack, during which Trump supporters roamed the Capitol chanting ominously: “Where’s Nancy?”

In other words, the attack on Paul Pelosi fits naturally into the angry, aggrieved context in which a significant number of citizens have been beguiled into believing that an election has been stolen from them. And Trump and many of his adherents aren’t queasy about their right and responsibility to fix the stolen election, even if it requires violence.

Unfortunately, this is the same context in which this week’s election will occur.

Recently a reader ended his disgruntled email to me with this quotation, attributing it to Benjamin Franklin: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”

This quotation is mistaken in several ways. The first is that Franklin never said it. But the part that caught my attention was the phrase “well-armed.” I’m certain that this phrase is the chief reason this bogus quotation is popular in right-wing circles.

And it helps explain why well-armed poll watchers are a thing. AR-15s, wielded by body-armored Oath Keepers, have become a persistent symbol of the violence that runs just beneath the surface of American politics.

The enigma of the attack on Paul Pelosi isn’t that some Republicans casually dismissed it or made fun of it. The great mystery is that we’re not more shocked by it.

We should be equally shocked by an armed attack on the Capitol. We were, briefly. But now we’ve gotten used to the idea that violence is so embedded in our politics that many are inclined to dismiss or trivialize it. That’s the dangerous context of this week’s election. We ignore it to the peril of our republic.

— John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Texas.