For years in Congress, the unofficial rule of receiving death threats was to avoid talking about them. That seems to have changed.
As the House debated last week whether to censure Paul Gosar, a far-right congressman from Arizona, for posting an altered anime video depicting him killing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive from New York, something unusual happened. Speaking one after the other, lawmakers delivered candid and raw confessionals about the frequency with which they, too, had received violent threats.
Nikema Williams, a freshman Democrat from Georgia, described how strange it felt to drop off her child at kindergarten flanked by security officers. Jackie Walorski, a veteran Republican from Indiana, disclosed that an activist had recently tried to run her over with his car.
“The threat of actual violence against members of Congress is real, and it is growing,” said Ted Deutch of Florida, a Democrat who leads the House Ethics Committee. “Now more than ever, many of us fear for our physical safety.”
I’ve covered Congress for more than three years, and those lawmakers’ testimonials struck me as evidence of the extent to which the rising threat of political violence has loomed over American politics since the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by Trump supporters.
But the Republican response to Gosar’s eventual censure was just as striking: Party leaders in the House pointedly refused to condemn the video, and their rank and file nearly unanimously closed ranks around Gosar. A dozen or so Republicans huddled in solidarity around him as he was censured.
The vote was intended to showcase accountability for political violence. Instead, it revealed a more worrying trend: a growing tolerance in the Republican Party for the menacing, incendiary rhetoric increasingly espoused by its loudest voices. It was a preview of what could become the new status quo in Washington.
How we got here
The timeline that culminated in Gosar’s censure began when he posted the video this month. A crudely edited work, it depicted him slashing Ocasio-Cortez’s neck and swinging swords at President Biden.
Gosar, who has allied himself with white nationalists, refused to apologize. He insisted the video was meant to depict a “symbolic” policy battle over immigration.
But it was clear that the shadow of the January attack on the Capitol hung over last week’s proceedings. Democrats warned that Gosar’s comments could be perceived as the same kind of call to arms made by Donald Trump on Jan. 6 when he encouraged his supporters at a rally to march on Congress and “fight like hell.”
And while Gosar’s video was the most provocative display of violence amplified by a sitting member of Congress, it was just the latest example of Republican lawmakers using viciously suggestive language.
In the days and weeks before the riot, Trump’s closest allies in the House, including Gosar, used bellicose, inflammatory rhetoric to encourage their followers to fight against Biden’s victory. They falsely suggested that Trump was the victim of an attempted “coup” and cast Jan. 6 as the party’s “1776 moment.”
While politically motivated violence targeting lawmakers — in both parties — is not a new phenomenon, the Capitol Police say they have seen a rapid uptick in violent threats and messages over the past five years, as Trump’s style of politics became mainstream. A spokesman declined to break down the threats by party, but a review of court records indicates that both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been targeted.
Democrats stripped Gosar of his posts on two House committees. But his exile might not last long. Republicans are already vowing political retribution if they take back the House.
Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, told reporters that he would return Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican whom Democrats also booted off committees for violent comments, to their panel assignments if Republicans take back the majority in 2023. And McCarthy reiterated that Republicans would consider kicking some Democrats out of their committee seats.
Shortly after he was censured, Gosar retweeted his original violent video, and Trump rolled out a fresh endorsement of him.
The act of congressional censure is meant to cast a shadow of disgrace over a lawmaker for politicians and voters alike to see. Instead, by rallying around Gosar, Republican leaders conveyed their implicit support, even as they publicly but vaguely denounced violence.
Those ramifications will stretch beyond Gosar’s political standing.
“This is not about me. This is not about Representative Gosar,” Ocasio-Cortez said on the House floor. “This is about what we are willing to accept.”
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