Ten years ago, after a gunman massacred 20 children and four adults in a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school, radio host Alex Jones offered his listeners a reassuring counternarrative. America’s rabid gun culture was not to blame for the deaths of so many young children, nor was the Republican Party, which has spent decades loosening the country’s gun laws and flooding its communities with military-grade weapons. The tragedy wasn’t even a tragedy—in Jones’s version, it didn’t happen at all. Rather, it was a hoax; a put-up job staged by the dastardly anti-gun, anti-American Democrats, who planned on using their false flag event to confiscate weapons from millions of law-abiding gun owners—and then take over the country.
It was a convenient and monstrous inversion. Not only did Jones take away any degree of complicity or responsibility from the right, he foisted the “blame” for the “tragedy” on the real villains: their political opponents. The harm done was heinous: Jones has recently been found liable for hundreds of millions in damages to the parents of the children who were massacred that day. But Jones’s approach—take instances of monstrous violence that the right bears a degree of complicity for and make up lies to blame Democrats—is not on the decline. Instead, his technique has been widely adopted by right-wing media.
The latest example of the right’s reality distortion engine revving into gear took place over the last few days after Paul Pelosi, the husband of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was violently attacked in his own home. Early on Friday morning, David DePape, a 42-year-old Berkeley resident, allegedly broke into the Pelosis’ San Francisco home, confronted Paul Pelosi with demands to see his wife—his “Where’s Nancy?” inquiries mirroring the question asked by several January 6 rioters as they breached the Capitol—and then beat him with a hammer. Police came to the house and arrested DePape; Pelosi was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a skull fracture and underwent brain surgery. Investigators have since said that DePape had hoped to kidnap Nancy Pelosi, break her kneecaps, and hold her hostage.
DePape is clearly unwell and, according to his ex-partner, has been for a long time. A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, DePape was a familiar fixture in Castro’s nudist community in the early aughts. In recent years, however, he was radicalized by right-wing online content; blog posts unearthed shortly after the attack found him ranting about gender identity, communism, and spreading conspiracy theories involving QAnon, Covid-19, the 2020 election, and the January 6 insurrection, among others. It is what has become a familiar arc: a mentally unstable person becomes increasingly radicalized by right-wing disinformation and conspiracy theories. Despite DePape’s purported mental illness, this was obviously politically motivated violence: He sought the speaker of the House, who Republicans have sought to transform into one of the most vilified people in American political history. DePape himself has reportedly already confirmed as much to investigators.
These are the bare facts of the case. But this is not how the brutal attack on Paul Pelosi has been depicted by right-wing media, which has either greeted the Pelosi family’s misfortune with mockery or derision, or—in a darker turn, characterized it as a Jonesian conspiracy. Some, like Ted Cruz, have fixated on DePape’s past as a nudist and the fact that he was a Bay Area resident to try paint him as some leftist hippie—despite the fact that DePape’s own writing shows him to be an obsessive of right-wing rhetoric and conspiracy theories. Many on the right have fixated on an absurd, homophobic alternate story in which DePape and Pelosi were lovers—the better to absolve the right of any complicity in the attack. Elon Musk, who only took control of Twitter three days ago, spread this conspiracy theory before deleting his post.
As Media Matters’ Matt Gertz subsequently reported, as these falsehoods gained traction, these conspiracy theories were spun out of early reporting of the incident, in which reporters and their sources, on a similar scramble to nail down the facts, allowed imprecision to enter the reporting: a retracted report that both Pelosi and DePape were found in their underwear; a 911 call in which Pelosi referred to DePape as a “friend” (it later came to light that Pelosi was trying to communicate his predicament to the police without tipping DePape off); an early report that said there were no signs of forced entry, even though a window was broken; and another ambiguous report from police that may have implied the presence of a third individual. This narrative has been completely debunked, both by subsequent reporting and by recent federal charges brought against DePape. And yet it persists on the right.
It’s not uncommon for the first reports of these kinds of incidents to experience some substantial revision; while it might be preferable for reporters to exercise greater restraint while in the fog of emergency, it can be a tricky balancing act in the moment. But the post that Musk shared, among others, combined these minor inaccuracies with lies and other falsehoods to suggest that DePage and Pelosi had gotten drunk together and were engaged in some kind of lover’s quarrel. This absurd version of events, after being shared by Musk, was spread by other figures on the American right, including Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, Dinesh D’Souza, and others.
It should be easy to condemn the barbaric attack on Paul Pelosi. It should even be easy for many on the right to wash their hands of it as they condemn it because of DePage’s obvious mental instability. This might have been written down as a tragic attack by someone mentally unwell. It wasn’t so long ago that right-wing luminaries might simply offer “thoughts and prayers” and an admonition against politicizing a tragedy as way of offering some measure of moral condemnation of brutal events that intersect in harsh ways with their political prerogatives. This was the time-honored way of responding to the school shootings that are uniquely prevalent in the United States: write them off to a toxic mix of mental illness and video games; propose more guns as the obvious solution. As for larger right-wing movements that more flamboyantly promote right-wing political violence, such as the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers, it’s often sufficient to suggest that these violent gangs pale in comparison to the specter of antifa.
The right has spent years allowing all manner of conspiracy-mongers—from Alex Jones’s brand of ersatz newscasting to the online fever swamps that bred a generation of QAnon-pilled lawmakers—to operate under or adjacent to its institutional political brand. Now, this is all dovetailing with the Republican party’s long-standing tradition of demonizing Nancy Pelosi. There are lines of connection between all this fermented incendiary rhetoric, binding conservative institutions to the cultish fringe, creating conditions in which the old ways of changing the subject are simply no longer sufficient.
Instead, right-wingers at all levels of government and throughout their extensive media network are hard at work concocting and promoting insane conspiracy theories to absolve themselves of any complicity in this country’s worsening scourge of political violence. Paul Pelosi isn’t the first to be mocked and belittled by those who should be looking at their own involvement in the ecosystem that helped create his attacker. Sadly, he likely won’t be the last. And that’s probably how the Republican Party wants it.