The conservative response to a maniac attempting to abduct and torture Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has been a bracing spectacle. Just as many conservatives had insisted January 6 was the work of antifa provocateurs, or perhaps an FBI setup, so too did they claim David DePape was not a right-winger at all. Figures ranging from Elon Musk to Ted Cruz to Jesse Watters to Donald Trump had questions, so many questions. “Wow, it’s — weird things going on in that household in the last couple of weeks …” mused the former president. “The glass it seems was broken from the inside to the out so it wasn’t a break in, it was a break out.”
He was a former hippie nudist, and therefore couldn’t have migrated to the right. Or maybe he was a sex worker involved in an illicit tryst. Republicans needed to believe there was some account for his actions other than the obvious one sitting in plain sight, on DePape’s online commentaries: He subscribed to the same right-wing conspiracy theories held by millions of Republicans. “He really believed in the whole MAGA, ‘Pizzagate,’ stolen election — you know, all of it, all the way down the line. If you go to Fox News, if you go on the internet and you look at QAnon, you know, he had all these theories,” his former boss told the New York Times.
This obfuscation serves two purposes. First, it avoids a disruption in the right’s meta-narrative of victimization. The story told by conservative media is one in which innocent conservatives are relentlessly persecuted by an all-powerful progressive cabal. This persecution justifies the right’s increasingly illiberal methods, which they present as a necessary defensive response to stave off political annihilation. If they were to acknowledge even one episode of a violent maniac attacking their enemy, it would mean contemplating a reality in which evil and blame are more complex.
Second, deflecting this reality allows them to avoid having to confront a faction within their own coalition. If they conceded DePape was on the political right, they would concede that ideas like Trump’s stolen-election lie or QAnon contained at least the potential to inspire violence and criminality. Their denial grew out of an impulse to close ranks. They might be able to afford cutting DePape loose, but they could not afford to alienate those who shared his most important beliefs.
As the Republican Party has attracted a greater number of bigots, conspiracy theorists, and paramilitary members, the need to engage in these mental contortions has grown increasingly common on the right in recent years. The right has responded in a similar way to every new appearance of an unacceptable element of its coalition: QAnon, election truthers, antisemites, insurrectionists, and anti-vaxxers. Insisting the unacceptable idea does not merit condemnation is a bridge that usually leads to reconciling with that idea.
I’ve seen this dynamic most closely with Ron DeSantis’s embrace of the anti-vaccine movement. Not long ago, these ideas were considered too dangerous to be given any support within the party. But DeSantis grasped the movement’s growing appeal and courted it with a series of increasingly overt steps, beginning with opposition to mandates but progressing to direct attacks on vaccination itself.
Pro-vaccine conservatives have met any attempt to condemn or even describe these steps with a wave of angry ridicule. Conservatives like Karol Markowicz, Dan McLaughlin, and Charles C.W. Cooke have mocked the idea that their man supported anti-vaccine ideas, even as he slipped deeper and deeper into the embrace of vaccine skeptics. Now his health secretary is spreading anti-vaccine messages on QAnon channels, and they have nothing to say on the matter. Denying his embrace of vaccine skepticism simply cleared the way for its full consummation.
The Republican Party’s response to January 6 is the most vivid example of the dynamic. At first, nearly the entire party recoiled in horror. (Even the likes of Sean Hannity and Donald Trump Jr. sent messages of concern on the day of the insurrection.) But then some Republicans seed false-flag cover stories and other reasons to question the narrative. The party’s mainstream decides it is sick of being asked to condemn the episode. Eventually, it becomes perfectly acceptable for Republicans to embrace the insurrectionists as heroes and martyrs.
The right’s response to the Pelosi attack has followed the pattern. Rather than directly praise DePape, they cast doubt on the “official” account of his crime. “No one should accept at face value the strange account of what happened to Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), at their California home last week …” writes Julie Kelly. “Details continue to change while leading Democrats including Hillary Clinton blame the incident, without evidence, on Republicans and Donald Trump.”
And even if DePape did it, the key thing is to avoid conceding he was motivated by shared resentments shared by their party. “The left’s insistence that every conservative personally ‘condemn’ the actions of the mentally ill man who attacked Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul has nothing to do with lowering the rhetorical temperature or averting violence, and everything to do with trying to compel Republicans to take responsibility for the incident,” argues David Harsanyi, in a column that does not pause to condemn the attack or acknowledge that many Republicans are joking about the incident or denying it occurred. The attack on Pelosi, like the January 6 invasion, becomes fundamentally another episode of conservatives suffering persecution.
The remorseless pattern of the Trump era is that every right-wing impulse that begins as resentment of the critics of some element of their movement ultimately evolves into direct support. The anti-anti-DePape right is clearing the way for something even more sinister.