Friday’s brutal attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of the Speaker of the House, and a new warning posted jointly by several federal law enforcement organizations are raising fears of escalating violence in this last week before Election Day.
Joint Warning on Election Threats
On Sunday, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly said, “We have no information about specific or credible threats to disrupt or compromise election infrastructure” but quickly added, “very worryingly, you have threats of harassment, intimidation and violence against election officials, polling places and voters.”
Her warnings followed a joint bulletin from DHS, FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and U.S. Capitol Police cautioning that government officials and staffs, candidates and election workers will remain “attractive targets…including at publicly accessible locations like polling places, ballot drop-box locations, voter registration sites, campaign events, and political party offices.”
Election Denialism, QAnon Driving Factors
Their bulletin added that the “most plausible” threat comes from “lone offenders who leverage election-related issues to justify violence,” with many amplifying false narratives of fraud dating back to the 2020 election.
“The overwhelming majority of threats come from the far right, and are being driven by Trump and election denialism,” Matt Bennett, Executive VP for Public Affairs at the think tank Third Way, tells Political IQ.
The man arrested for fracturing Pelosi’s skull with a hammer early Friday morning has been linked to online posts featuring QAnon and conspiracy theories about Covid vaccines, the 2020 election and the January 6 insurrection.
QAnon began as a conspiracy theory claiming that then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump was saving children from cannibalistic sexual abusers.
“It’s almost bizarre to talk about people believing in this, but they obviously do,” says Todd Helmus, Senior Behavioral Scientist for the RAND Corp. “So to me, if you’re in the mindset where you think that’s happening, and you think the only way to stop it is to do X, Y, or Z, well, that makes X, Y, or Z more likely. ”
Social Media’s Role in Escalating Violence
Helmus adds that the threat level is rising in a “combustible brew” of radicalization online. “They’re building each other up. I imagine people are spending hours and hours sitting in Facebook groups digesting this material, and that all combines to make this sort of witch’s brew that I think is happening here.”
There are no easy answers to pulling someone out of that “brew,” Helmus concedes. But he says, “Our work suggests it’s important for family members to be engaged, to listen responsibly and with empathy.”
He also points to organizations like Moonshot, which are reaching out to people invested in false ideologies by going directly to those online sites with counter-messaging.
Republicans Blame Both Sides but Data Says Otherwise
Republican Party leaders, like RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, have said it’s “unfair” to call politically-motivated violence solely a right-wing issue. She pointed to this year’s assassination attempt on conservative-leaning Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh and an attack on gubernatorial candidate Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) to underscore her argument.
However, the think tank New America found last year that since 9/11 far-right extremists had killed 122 people in the U.S., compared with only one killed by far-leftists.
And from 2015 to 2021, according to data compiled by The Washington Post and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, right-wing extremists had been involved in 267 plots or attacks, compared with 66 for left-wing extremists.
Some GOP Condemn, Others Mock Pelosi Attack
Some senior Republicans were quick to condemn the Pelosi attack and offer condolences.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) tweeted on Friday, “Horrified and disgusted by the reports that Paul Pelosi was assaulted in his and Speaker Pelosi’s home last night. Grateful to hear that Paul is on track to make a full recovery and that law enforcement including our stellar Capitol Police are on the case.”
But Bennett says, “They definitely need to do more. I mean, that’s a good start. The normal human reaction to an 82-year-old man being hit in the head with a hammer is to say that that’s bad. Not all of them were able to do that, but the ones who did shouldn’t get applause that’s overly loud.”
Meanwhile, other Republicans have been promoting disinformation and conspiracies, and even mocking the attack. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) tweeted on Sunday, “I don’t know what the hell happened at Nancy Pelosi’s house and I suspect none of us will ever be sure. But I do know that trying to paint a hippie nudist from Berkeley as some kind of militant right winger is absurd and will always be absurd.”
“It’s not just the elected officials. It’s their allies,” notes Bennett. “It’s [right-wing pundit] Charlie Kirk, who on his show was asking people to help bail out the assailant in Paul Pelosi’s attack.”
He adds, “Charlie Kirk would have never set foot in the Republican club again if he had said that, let’s say 15 years ago, but now it’s an accepted part of the rhetoric.”
Contrast this to Nancy Pelosi’s own reaction following the 2017 Republican baseball practice shooting that left Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) seriously wounded. Then Minority Leader, Rep. Pelosi (D-CA) said on the House floor, “On days like today, there are no Democrats or Republicans, only Americans united in our hopes and prayers for the wounded.”
Chilling Effect on Politicians and Election Workers
U.S. Capitol Police have reported a “sharp increase” in threats against lawmakers in recent years, including 9,600 direct or indirect threats in 2021 alone.
Former Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) said Sunday that this can only have a chilling effect, “Who’s going step up to run? Who’s going to say, ‘I’m going to subject my family to this kind of scrutiny and this kind of danger’?”
Others have already bowed out, like former Congressman Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH) who voted to impeach Trump following January 6. In September 2021, Gonzalez pointed to an “eye-opening” moment when his family needed additional security at the airport as his reason for retiring.
Election workers have also dwindled. The Boston Globe analyzed data for top county election officials in nine states and found that in eight, significantly more workers had resigned since 2020 than over a similar period after the 2016 election. And the nine states averaged an election worker turnover rate of nearly one-third from 2020 to 2022.
Further, a Brennan Center for Justice survey found that 77% of election officials believe threats against them have increased in recent years, with one in six saying they’ve been threatened because of their jobs.
Legislation to Raise Security
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chair of the Senate Rules Committee, has offered ideas for raising security for Congress members. They include extending the security details the “Big Four leaders”—the Speaker, the Minority leader in the House, and the Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate—currently receive to include their family members.
Extending that service to all 535 lawmakers would be virtually impossible, however, according to Jake Sherman, founder of the Congressional newsletter Punchbowl News.
“But what the Capitol Police have done,” Sherman said, “is they’ve expanded to give lawmakers security when they’re going through airports. They say they coordinate more intensively with local police departments to ensure the security of members of Congress.”
Klobuchar also plans to introduce an amendment after the midterms to allow Congress members to take their personal information off the internet, similar to a provision put forth for judges. And she’d like social media companies to receive reduced immunity if they’re “making money off of [anyone] amplifying election falsehoods, hate speech, you know it.”
Will a Republican-led Congress Ease or Worsen Rhetoric?
This midterm, a majority of Republican candidates for the House, Senate and key statewide offices—291 out of a total 569—have denied or questioned the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election. According to The Washington Post, 171 are running for safely Republican seats with another 48 in tightly contested races.
Neither Bennett nor Helmus see any reason to believe the rhetoric will ease up if the GOP wins Congressional majorities.
“I’m not aware of any evidence that suggests that winning the election is going to make it better,” says Helmus. “Everybody just needs to put a lid on this [negative rhetoric] because it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and what you do not want to have happen is for Democrats to feel like they have to respond in kind. Then it just cycles.”