Not A Joke
A dangerous response to a serious incident
In the ever-churning realities of our current news cycles, where stories and outrages sweep over our consciousness in unrelenting waves, it is too easy for something of grave importance to be overwhelmed by new events.
We have a midterm election of historic consequences less than a week away. There are the war in Ukraine, elections in Brazil and Israel, the shape of our economy, and so many other stories clamoring for our beleaguered attention. But amidst it all, we should not let go of what happened a few nights back at the San Francisco home of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House. It was a moment of reckoning about where we are as a nation.
What actually took place — the truth — is coming into focus. An intruder armed with a hammer broke into Pelosi’s house in the middle of the night looking for the speaker. According to court records, his intentions were to kidnap Pelosi, interrogate her, and break her kneecaps if he felt she “lied.” Instead he found only her 82-year-old husband, Paul, at home. Paul Pelosi is now in the hospital with a fractured skull.
The facts of this case, what we know of them so far, are harrowing. Like the events of January 6, we also are left with a sense that as bad as it was, it could have been a lot worse. But that should provide little comfort. It is imperative that we zoom out and see a bigger picture, because how some of the country reacted to this attack, particularly many prominent Republican politicians and their cheerleaders and normalizers in the media, is chilling. It should also be shocking. That many of our fellow Americans are not shocked is a sad validation of how vitriolic right-wing rhetoric has become.
Decrying violence should be a given. But instead, we have seen outrageous conspiracy theories, false equivalence, a general lack of outrage, and even people trying to turn a violent assault into a joke. A joke. It is obviously not a joke. It is the opposite of a joke.
We have Elon Musk, the world’s richest man and the new owner of Twitter, taking to that platform to mainstream a vile conspiracy theory that somehow this was a lover’s quarrel between Paul Pelosi and the assailant. Donald Trump Jr. eagerly promoted these lies. The former president’s son shared a picture of a hammer and underwear with a quote: "Got my Paul Pelosi Halloween costume ready." Such behavior is beneath contempt. It is inhumane.
Then there was Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, who said at a campaign rally, “There’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re going to send [Nancy Pelosi] back to be with him in California.” There never should have been a “but” in his sentence, and certainly nothing so heartless to follow.
Kari Lake, the conspiracy theorist and promoter of the Big Lie running for governor of Arizona, said at a campaign event, “Nancy Pelosi — well, she’s got protection when she’s in D.C. Apparently her house doesn’t have a lot of protection.” The moderator sitting on stage with Lake could barely control his snickering. The crowd laughed and cheered along.
These were but a few of the many reactions that are so far beyond the pale that they would have been unimaginable in the not-so-distant past. Now they are part of the discourse within a Republican echo chamber bouncing from the stump to the studios of Fox News to the legions of trolls on social media eager to bathe in lies and the supposed humor of political violence.
Among some of the more restrained responses from Republican politicians, there was a clear attempt at false equivalence. They might not have joked about the attack, but they argued that it isn’t only Democrats who are targeted. They pointed to the shooting of Republican Representative Steve Scalise in 2017 by a professed Bernie Sanders supporter.
It is true that violence can come in many forms and is not limited to one side of the political divide. There are unstable people driven in many directions. But when Scalise was attacked, Senator Sanders took to the Senate floor. “Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society, and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms,” Sanders said. “Real change can only come through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values.”
We didn’t hear that rhetoric from nearly enough Republicans after the Pelosi attack.
Nancy Pelosi has long been a target for Republican derision and outright hate. Part of that is undoubtedly due to her status in House leadership — and frustration at her effectiveness. But one also can’t help but imagine that if she were a man from Ohio instead of a woman from San Francisco, she would draw a lot less hostility.
Republicans have turned Pelosi into a caricature that they can pummel for their political gain. Her gender and her hometown play into their narrative. “She’s not like you,” they imply with no subtlety to their followers. The fact that Pelosi’s voting record and leadership are far from any liberal extreme doesn’t matter. The fact that San Francisco is one of the great American cities doesn’t matter. It’s all attack, attack, attack. Sneer, sneer, sneer.
This is a culture that the political right has fomented for years. Donald Trump recognized the power of divisiveness and outright hatred and exploited it. The ethos of Fox News, where political enemies are vilified, has overtaken vast swaths of the Republican Party. This is a culture in which more violence can easily take root.
This is not to suggest that there aren't strong feelings on the part of many Democrats about Republicans. But there is simply no comparable rhetoric among Democratic elected leaders or members of the mainstream press to what we see on the right.
The premise of our system of government is that we can disagree without being disagreeable. We can debate passionately our points of view while recognizing our common destiny as Americans. We can work together for the betterment of all, regardless of party. These ideals have been challenged many times over the course of our history. The present era is particularly challenging. If we are at a point when we are turning a brutal assault on an 82-year-old man at home in the middle of the night into a joke, we are in serious trouble.
Do the majority of Americans really believe this is the country we should be? Will enough recoil at this outrageous behavior? Can we repudiate this divisiveness and appeals to political violence?
There is nothing funny about what is going on. No one who cares about this nation should be laughing.
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