• Politics
  • extremism

What the GOP Response to the Paul Pelosi Attack Reveals About Our Miserable Political Discourse

6 minute read

As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 82-year-old husband Paul lay in a San Francisco hospital with a skull fracture from a late-night home intruder over the weekend, Donald Trump Jr. thought it would be a good time for jokes.

The son of a former President on Sunday retweeted a photo of a “Paul Pelosi Halloween costume” showing underwear and a hammer, a reference to a debunked conspiracy theory about the attack. On Monday, he posted to Instagram a lewd cartoon image promoting the same conspiracy theory. “Dear fact checkers this has nothing at all to do with anything going on in the news,” he wrote.

The mean-spirited digs after an act of political violence highlighted the devolved state of American political discourse just over a week before a crucial midterm election in which control of Congress hangs in the balance.

“Some fringe figures think it somehow enhances their reputation to articulate disgusting and revolting messages in the wake of a tragedy,” says Whit Ayres, a prominent Republican strategist and pollster. “Our political discourse continues to spiral down below what acceptable political discourse has been in the past. We will see if there is any bottom. There doesn’t appear to be.”

David DePape, the 42-year-old man accused of breaking into the Pelosi home with zip ties and attacking Paul Pelosi with a hammer, was federally charged on Monday with assault and attempted kidnapping. DePape allegedly broke into the Pelosi home prepared to “detain and injure” Nancy Pelosi, and break “her kneecaps” if she “lied,” to him, according to a sworn affidavit submitted by an FBI special agent.

Some senior Republicans who had locked horns with Pelosi over the years in tough legislative negotiations were quick to express their condolences in the wake of the attack. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote he was “horrified and disgusted” by the assault. Former Vice President Mike Pence wrote, “This is an outrage and our hearts are with the entire Pelosi family.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said to Fox on Sunday that he had texted with the speaker. “Let me be perfectly clear, violence or threat of violence has no place in our society. What happened to Paul Pelosi is wrong,” McCarthy said.

The comments echoed those made by many prominent Democrats in 2017, when House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Republican from Louisiana, was shot at a practice for the annual Congressional Baseball Game by a 66-year-old man who had volunteered on the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and had a history of sending letters in support of liberal policies to news organizations. Nancy Pelosi described it at the time as a “despicable and cowardly attack.”

Read more: House Majority Whip Steve Scalise Injured in Shooting at Congressional Baseball Practice

But in recent days, many prominent right-wing voices have trumpeted fake stories about the politically motivated attack on Paul Pelosi, and tried to link it to broader concerns about violent crime.

That includes the de facto leader of the Republican Party. When asked about Paul Pelosi in an interview over the weekend, Donald Trump conflated the politically motivated attack with crime in American cities run by Democrats, an issue Republicans have been pushing hard in campaigns around the country. “With Paul Pelosi, that’s a terrible thing, with all of them it’s a terrible thing,” said Trump in an interview broadcast Oct. 30 with Americano Media, a conservative Spanish language news outlet. “Look at what’s happened to San Francisco generally. Look at what’s happening in Chicago.”

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, Congressman Clay Higgins, Republican of Louisiana, and right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza all mocked the attack over the weekend in social media posts, in some cases suggesting without evidence that it was part of an elaborate cover up.

Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin, who has tried to bring together Forever Trumpers and Never Trumpers within his state’s GOP, had an opportunity to take the temperature down on Friday, hours after the attack. Instead, he decided to use the violent assault as a political dig at Pelosi, and a way to tout the GOP’s effort to take the speaker’s gavel. “Speaker Pelosi’s husband, they had a break in last night in their house and he was assaulted, there’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re going to send her back to be with him in California,” said Youngkin on Oct. 28, campaigning for GOP congressional candidate Yesli Vega. “That’s what we’re gonna go do.”

Republicans have for years made Pelosi out to be a villain. In 2009, the Republican National Committee ran an ad showing Pelosi’s face at the end of a gun barrel. On Oct. 26, days before the attack, Rep. Tom Emmer, the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, posted a video of himself shooting a rifle with the messages “exercising my Second Amendment rights” and “13 days to make history. Let’s #FirePelosi.”

Read more: Analysts Warn Violent Rhetoric After FBI Mar-a-Lago Search Is a Preview of What’s to Come

Such rhetoric doesn’t happen in a vacuum and comes as the country is facing a period of heightened political threats. Local officials and senior politicians in every state have reported receiving death threats, as misinformation and conspiracy theories spread faster online. The deadly assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, saw organized, armed groups battering police officers. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was the target of a kidnapping plot disrupted in October 2020.

President Biden, speaking at a Democratic Party reception in Philadelphia on Oct. 28, said that the spread of lies about the election and COVID-19 has eroded the country’s politics and heightened the dangers that public officials now face. “What makes us think that one party can talk about ‘stolen elections,’ ‘Covid being a hoax,’ ‘this is all a bunch of lies,’ and it not affect people who may not be so well balanced?” Biden said. “What makes us think that it’s not going to corrode the political climate?”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com