The premeditated attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband in the early morning of October 28th is worrying for political figures all across the United States. The assailant, David DePape, planned to restrain Ms. Pelosi with zip ties—which eerily echoes the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in which rioters carried zip ties while ransacking Speaker Pelosi’s office and spoke of shooting Ms. Pelosi.
As the Speaker of the House, Pelosi has long faced public scrutiny. In 2006, just before becoming the first female Speaker of the House, Republicans released a parody film in which “Darth Nancy” led an evil empire run by the Democratic Party. Pelosi was the most powerful woman in American politics from 2007 until 2021, when Kamala Harris was sworn in as Vice President. Prominent conservatives have failed to denounce the violent language, images, and actions directed at Speaker Pelosi from their constituents.
While there has been an uptick in threats against lawmakers in recent years, few politicians have dealt with the level of vitriol that Pelosi has. She has become a symbol of the wealthy coastal elite: a powerful person living in San Fransisco’s most expensive neighborhood. As a woman with immense power, Pelosi has long been the target of Republican messaging. Even when she had less power than Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, Republican ads were six times more likely to mention Pelosi than Reid. Republican candidates often focus on Pelosi in their advertisements and fundraising messages in the hopes of spurring their supporters into political action. In 2022 alone, Republicans have spent over $61 million on ads with Pelosi in them, which have aired 143,000 times.
The focus on Ms. Pelosi is part of a larger pattern of political rhetoric surrounding female politicians. According to an analysis by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, across the United States women and minorities receive an outsized amount of online abuse. The Carnegie Endowment found that women in politics around the world are the targets of an immense amount of gendered defamation. While male politicians are also harassed online, harassment of male politicians usually centers on their capabilities and professional life, while harassment of female politicians often focuses on their personal life, physical appearance, and sexuality, and is far more likely to “include threats of sexual violence and humiliating or sexual imagery.”
During the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary, female candidates were more likely to be mentioned in tweets by right-wing or bot accounts, and these tweets were more likely to focus on the personal character of female candidates and the electability of male candidates. Gendered misinformation in politics creates an online environment in which women are not free to participate in office, express their opinions, and speak out against oppression. This type of rhetoric pushes women out of positions of power and away from running for office.
Far too often, online threats and abuse become real-life action. Men convicted of plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 met in a private Facebook group, in which one of them called Governor Whitmer a “tyrant b—-.” Online misinformation and threats turned to real-life action in this case, with people writing detailed plans for the kidnapping and even buying weapons.
What began as a way for Republicans to garner support from their constituents has turned dangerous and deadly. The widespread rhetoric surrounding Pelosi ranges from advertisements centered on demonizing her to death threats. While there has been an uptick in threats against all politicians across the United States, the sheer volume of threats directed at Pelosi has translated into a life threatening attack. The assault on her home and husband has brought into focus the danger that violent political rhetoric poses—not just to Pelosi, but to politicians and their families everywhere.