NEW YORK – In the past week, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar tweeted a video showing a character with his face killing a figure with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's face. Several of the 13 House Republicans who backed a bipartisan infrastructure bill said they faced threats after their vote. In one profanity-laced voicemail, a caller labeled Rep. Fred Upton a “traitor” and wished death for the Michigan Republican, his family and staff.
The response from Republican leaders? Silence.
Less than a year after former President Donald Trump's supporters staged a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in an effort to halt the peaceful transition of power, the GOP's refusal to broadly and forcefully condemn more recent examples of disturbing rhetoric and behavior suggests an unsettling shift. One of the nation's two major political parties appears increasingly tolerant of at least some persistent level of violence in American discourse, or at least willing to turn a blind eye to it.
In an interview, GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, who has emerged as a top Trump critic in her party, said Gosar should be censured “for his continued indefensible activities.” And she blasted House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy for his silence on the matter.
“It’s a real symbol of his lack of strength, the lack of leadership in our conference right now, and the extent to which he and other leaders seem to have lost their moral compass,” said Cheney, who was ousted from her leadership post after voting in favor of Trump’s second impeachment. “In a moment where you’ve got an avowed white nationalist in Rep. Gosar who has posted a video advocating the killing of another member, the idea that our leader will not stand against that but that he’s somehow going after and allowing attacks against 13 members who are conducting themselves in a serious and substantive way is really outrageous.”
Representatives for McCarthy did not respond to requests for comment.
Pressed on violent rhetoric in their own ranks, Republicans often point to protests in Portland, Oregon, involving left-wing antifa activists. But President Joe Biden has said those engaged in violence should be prosecuted. And in 2018, then-House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi criticized fellow California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters for calling on supporters to harass Trump administration officials.
The GOP's reluctance to crack down on — or even mildly criticize — violent rhetoric in its own ranks is part of a broader pattern in which the party tries to minimize such behavior. Gosar removed the tweet aimed at Ocasio-Cortez, but the Arizona congressman and his digital director said those offended by his tweet should “relax.” Trump, meanwhile, has attempted to divert attention from the Jan. 6 violence at the U.S. Capitol by saying that last year's Election Day was the “real insurrection.”
There was no insurrection on Election Day. There was a free and fair election won by Biden.
While threats and violent political imagery are nothing new in American politics, they became increasingly normalized under Trump. The former president embraced violence as a political tactic from the earliest days of his 2016 campaign, egging on his supporters to rough up protesters who interrupted his rallies. At one point during a speech, he called on them to “knock the crap out of" potential disruptors, and even promised to pay their legal bills.
In office, Trump mulled having U.S. officials shoot at people trying to cross the border illegally and spoke of the good old days when he said police could rough up suspects with impunity. He labeled the press the “enemy of the state” and praised as “my type” the now Montana governor who physically assaulted a reporter.
In 2017, Trump tweeted a doctored World Wrestling Entertainment video that depicted him body-slamming and pummeling wrestling promoter Vince McMahon, whose face had been replaced by a CNN logo. The video quickly became the former president’s then most-shared post on the site.
And he spent months convincing his supporters the 2020 election had been stolen, culminating in the violent storming of the Capitol building in an effort to halt the certification of Biden's win. In an interview with ABC's Jonathan Karl for an upcoming book, Trump further defended the rioters who had chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” as they stormed the building, saying they were “very angry” and that he believed his former vice president was “well-protected" as he fled for his life, according to a partial transcript published by Axios.
Trump “seems to have wanted to promote opponents as being intimidated by wielding violent rhetoric," creating a culture, especially in the Republican Party, of “violent threats as being excused as offbeat humor,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, of the precedent Trump had established.
Nonetheless, he said that having a congressman threaten somebody, “whether it's in a cartoon or words," puts a target on her back.
“Knowing that AOC is facing serious death threats and then to turn it into a meme or a dark twisted fantasy joke is reprehensible. And it’s hard to imagine that somebody in 2021 would feel that that kind of behavior was acceptable in a civil society,” he said, calling for criminal prosecution. “We cannot go around and threaten people’s lives and call it humor."
Former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who suffered extensive brain damage during a 2011 assassination attempt, said threats against political figures “have no place in our democracy.”
“Not only do they threaten the personal safety of our public servants, their staff, and their families — they undermine the very foundation of our democracy,” she said in a statement. “All leaders must decisively condemn violent rhetoric and threats in our politics, and recognize the danger to our democratic process posed by armed threats, harassment, and intimidation.”
Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, said it was time for the party to rein in the rhetoric.
“I do think GOP leadership has to step up and address issues of members who step out of line as it relates to misconduct or incendiary comments," he said. "They should be very forceful to those who are bringing discredit to the institution.”
Ocasio-Cortez spokesperson Lauren Hitt declined to comment on the volume of threats against her, citing security advice.
Lilliana Hall Mason is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the upcoming book “Radical American Partisanship," which examines Americans' attitudes toward political violence. She said that, in general, around 10% to 20% of self-identified Democrats and Republicans tell researchers they support the use of violence for accomplishing political goals.
But their studies found those attitudes can be strongly influenced by messages they hear from political leaders. When politicians use pacifying rhetoric, she said, people from both parties respond by becoming less approving of violence. But when Democrats hear violent rhetoric from Republicans, and vice versa, it feeds into perceptions that the opposite party is more approving of violence than it really is, and encourages them to respond with the same.
“It seems that people respond to violence events by increasing their approval to violence," she said of their findings. “Violence begets violence" in what she described as a “vicious cycle" that make using violent rhetoric “a really dangerous game.”
“It's just so irresponsible,” she added.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report from Washington.