The attack on Paul Pelosi is the latest threat to US democracy

American politics fester in violence, intimidation, and inhumanity as another election looms amid growing risks to political figures, all of whom pose grave threats to democracy.

New details Monday about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband strongly suggest the alleged attacker had political motives and add to news reports that he was involved with social media conspiracies and election denials.

According to a federal affidavit, the defendant, David DePape, who will be charged Tuesday, told investigators he planned to kidnap a third-degree federal official and break his "kneecap" if he lied. In her absence, she said, her husband Paul Pelosi ended up "taking punishment instead" for allegedly hitting the 82-year-old woman in the head with a hammer, breaking her skull.

This version of events will be tested in court and it is too early to attribute any particular piece of political rhetoric to what happened. But the incident has left extremist politicians who use harsh words – but refuse to take responsibility for their words – even more vulnerable.

Perhaps the most remarkable by-product of the attack that appears to be aimed at the speaker is that it generates conspiracy theories and its own rhetorical atrocities. Once again, the wild and malicious torrent of falsehoods and misinformation circulating on social media and the ideological right creates alternative realities meant to obscure the truth, prevent accountability, and further pollute political discourse.

But such an increase in conspiracies and insensitive comments is not limited by the fringes on the internet; they also come from the likes of one of former President Donald Trump's sons and Republican Kari Lake, who is seeking governorship on the main battleground in Arizona. Lake appeared to mock Paul Pelosi for his attack and the security at his home. That anyone can find humor in physical attacks is troubling, especially given America's recent history of political violence.

Catalog of violence in politics

Pelosi's attack, which prosecutors in the case and outside criminal experts have described as politically motivated, did not happen in a vacuum.

It was the latest outburst of a climate of violence and abuse to overwhelm modern politics. It comes less than two years after an unprecedented violent uprising in the US Capitol rooted in Trump's false claims about stolen elections. It comes months after a man was arrested and charged with trying to kill conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. This comes five years after GOP House Minority Whip Steve Scalise was shot at congressional baseball practice. And it's less than 12 years since Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords suffered a brain injury after she was shot in the head in Tucson, Arizona.

Paul Pelosi's attack also comes against a backdrop of tension surrounding next week's midterm elections, including reports by groups monitoring voter drop boxes in Arizona. Earlier this summer, former Georgia pollster Ruby Freeman vehemently told the House election committee investigating January 6, 2021, that there is now no place where she feels safe after being involved in the Trump voter fraud conspiracy and asked, “Are you know how it feels if the president of the United States is targeting you?”

Republican politicians who tell the truth about Trump's election fraud find themselves the target of threats against them and family members. Two years after that tumultuous election, the temperature is boiling again. The Department of Homeland Security, FBI, US Capitol Police and the National Counterterrorism Center warned last week that enduring perceptions of election fraud in 2020 are radicalizing violent extremists and that shared feelings or dissatisfaction with the results could result in an increased threat to opponents. ideological. and election workers. So while Paul Pelosi's attack is a special case, it fits into a broader stream of political threats.

Calls to lower the political temperature

Millions of Americans have safely voted early and there is hope that next week's midterm elections will be largely peaceful. And violence is nothing new in two and a half centuries of turbulent US history – sometimes surfacing in times of national pressure.

But at the same time, the political atmosphere is far more alienated than it has been for decades, with disparate groups of Americans on both sides fearing their country will be taken from them. The evidence of recent years also brings with it an inkling that a growing number of Americans see violence as a legitimate form of political expression, especially under the influence of a former president who told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand” at presidential debates, then incited mob attacks on the Capitol, and who has warned of problems "as we have never seen" if he is charged as several criminal investigations revolve around him.

A Washington Post poll taken around the anniversary of the uprising in January found, meanwhile, that 34% of Americans — and 40% of Republicans — said violence against governments was sometimes justified.

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