Pelosi, vilified by Republicans for years, is a top target of threats
By Annie Karni, Catie Edmondson and CarlL Hulse
In 2006, as Nancy Pelosi was poised to become the first female speaker of the House, Republicans made a film spoof that portrayed an evil Democratic empire led by “Darth Nancy.”
In 2009, the Republican National Committee ran an advertisement featuring Pelosi’s face framed by the barrel of a gun — complete with the sound of a bullet firing as red bled down the screen — a takeoff on the James Bond film “Goldfinger” in which the woman second in line to the presidency was cast as Pussy Galore.
This year, a Republican running in the primary for Senate in Arizona aired an ad showing him in a spaghetti western-style duel with Democrats, in which he shoots at a knife-wielding, mask-wearing, bug-eyed woman labeled “Crazyface Pelosi.”
The name echoed former President Donald Trump’s many derisive monikers for Pelosi, including “Crazy Nancy.”
The attack on Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, on Friday, which left him with a fractured skull and appeared to be part of a planned attack on the speaker herself, came after a yearslong campaign by Republicans to demonize and dehumanize Nancy Pelosi in increasingly ugly ways.
For the better part of two decades, Republicans have targeted Pelosi, the most powerful woman in American politics, as the most sinister Democratic villain of all, making her the evil star of their advertisements and fundraising appeals in hopes of animating their core supporters. The language and images have helped to fuel the flames of anger at Pelosi on the right, fanned increasingly in recent years by a toxic stew of conspiracy theories and misinformation that has thrived on the internet and social media, with little pushback from elected Republicans.
Pelosi is now one of the most threatened members of Congress in the country.
After the grisly assault on Paul Pelosi, 82, many Republican lawmakers and leaders denounced the violence, but hardly any spoke out against the brutal political discourse that has given rise to an unprecedented wave of threats against elected officials. Most instead tried to link the incident to rising crime rates across the country that the party has made a centerpiece of its campaign message before the midterm elections that are just days away.
“You can’t say people saying, ‘Let’s fire Pelosi’ or ‘Let’s take back the House’ is saying, ‘Go do violence.’ It’s just unfair,” Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And I think we all need to recognize violence is up across the board.”
Yet it is clear that the targeting of Nancy Pelosi, who was not at home during the attack, was not random violence. The suspect, David DePape, 42, who is accused of yelling “Where is Nancy?” after entering the couple’s home, had zip ties with him when he entered the home, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation. He appears to have been obsessed with right-wing conspiracy theories, including false claims about the 2020 election being stolen and the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, as well as concerns about pedophilia, anti-white racism and “elite” control of the internet. Pelosi in recent years has been a leading character in such viral falsehoods about Democratic misdeeds, including QAnon, and Republican leaders have blamed her groundlessly for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack.
“How did he get to that point?” said Mona Lena Krook, a professor of political science at Rutgers University who began studying violence against women in politics in 2014, referring to the suspect. “This has to do with things that he sees in the media, things he sees on social media, the people he socializes with that he felt like it was necessary and justified to attack her.”
As a wealthy woman from the progressive bastion of San Francisco, and her party’s leader in the House for 20 years, Pelosi has long represented a singular target for her political opponents.
“It is gender. It is class. The whole idea of a wealthy San Francisco liberal woman. The whole package is there,” said David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist and former top adviser to President Barack Obama. “The difference is what began as a way to raise money and gin up turnout has now become a much more deadly game.”
Even in 2012, when Pelosi served as minority leader, wielding less power than Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader at the time, Republican television ads were six times more likely to mention Pelosi than to mention Reid, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising.
As she has risen in prominence, Pelosi has become a more frequent target. Since 2018, Republicans have spent more than $227 million on advertisements featuring her, according to data provided by AdImpact, an organization that tracks political advertisements. They aired nearly 530,000 times. This year alone, Republicans poured more than $61 million into advertisements featuring Pelosi that aired about 143,000 times.
The efforts to vilify Pelosi have yielded mixed political results; Democrats managed to win the House majority twice as attacks against her surged over the past 16 years.
But they have persisted, even as Pelosi has become a reviled figure in the far-right reaches of the internet and social media platforms. Before taking office, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who at the time openly embraced QAnon, claimed that Pelosi was “guilty of treason,” adding, “it’s a crime punishable by death, is what treason is.” She liked a Facebook post that advocated “a bullet to the head” for Pelosi, according to posts unearthed by CNN.
(When it surfaced, Greene claimed that not all of her Facebook likes had been by her or reflected her views.)
Such statements have brought no consequences from Republican leaders. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the minority leader, rebuked Greene for the comments but declined to punish her, instead elevating her within his conference.
When asked to address it in an interview on Breitbart radio on Friday, McCarthy called it “wrong” and condemned political violence, noting that he had reached out to Pelosi with a text message.
For those close to Pelosi, the attack at her home was something they have long dreaded. Few lawmakers have been targeted and threatened as routinely as Pelosi, according to a review by The New York Times of people charged with threatening lawmakers since 2016, which found the speaker was the target of more than 1 in 10. Threats that were serious enough to result in criminal charges appeared to spike after the 2020 presidential election and through January 2021, around the time of the attack on the Capitol and President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
But Republicans have been taking aim at Pelosi for far longer. In 2010, John Dennis, who challenged Pelosi in her reelection race, circulated a campaign advertisement in which an actor playing Pelosi was presiding over an animal sacrifice, and another that depicted her as a wicked witch from “The Wizard of Oz.” In the ad, Dennis threw a bucket of water labeled “freedom” to melt her away.
The vilification of Pelosi increased in recent years, when she emerged as the Democrats’ most potent foil to Trump. Where the left turned her into a sunglasses-wearing icon, Trump branded her “crazy as a bedbug,” and circulated a photograph of her telling him off at the White House, branding her “Nervous Nancy” and accusing her of having an “unhinged meltdown.”
Pelosi for years has shrugged off the attacks, characterizing them as a badge of honor.
“If I weren’t effective, I wouldn’t be a target,” Pelosi told Time magazine in 2018.
“She would flick at her shoulder and say, ‘It is just dust on my jacket,’” said Brendan Daly, a former spokesperson. “I think she would always take it as a point of pride.”
But in a letter to her colleagues Saturday, the speaker said she and her family were “heartbroken and traumatized by the life-threatening attack” on her husband.
Pelosi has usually taken the vitriol aimed at her in stride. She understood when Democratic candidates had to distance themselves from her to win elections and has internalized the attacks as part of her political identity, people close to her said.
When Biden addressed House Democrats in March at their retreat in Philadelphia, he lamented the abuse he receives across the country, including signs that address him with an expletive. “Little kids giving me the finger,” Biden said. “You guys probably don’t get that kind of response when you go out some places.”
Pelosi interjected, “I do.”
The crowd chuckled.