8 min read

Anatomy of a right-wing myth

Conservative influencers have rushed to promote a false theory of the Paul Pelosi attack. Here are the facts.
Anatomy of a right-wing myth
Good morning! It’s Monday, October 31, 2022. The 2022 election is 8 days away. The 2024 election is 736 days away. And happy Halloween!

Debunking the right-wing lies about the Paul Pelosi attack

If you logged onto Twitter last night, here are the topics you would have seen trending:  

The war in Ukraine, the Brazillian election, the new season of “White Lotus,” and then, sandwiched right in between them, a viral hashtag: #PaulPelosiIsGay.

To be clear, Paul Pelosi is not gay. Or, at least, there is no credible evidence — none — to suggest so. Paul Pelosi, the husband of House speaker Nancy Pelosi, is in the hospital after being attacked with a hammer at their San Francisco home on Friday. But it has quickly become an article of faith in right-wing Internet circles that there is more to the story than “the media” would have you believe.

Everyone from Elon Musk, Twitter’s new owner, to Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s eldest son, has promoted these theories to their enormous platforms, so I think it’s worth taking a moment to walk through and debunk them. (Musk later deleted his tweet, which linked to a website that previously claimed Hillary Clinton had secretly died.)

As with most conspiracy theories, somewhere beneath all of the lies and misinformation, there are kernels of truth — so let’s unpack how this theory came to be, and what it tells us about the broader political environment that led to the Pelosi attack in the first place.

To do that, let’s take this tweet from right-wing influencer Charlie Kirk, a Trump ally who commands a following of 1.7 million on Twitter, which is fairly representative of the questions conservatives have raised about the attack. I’ll address his points one by one.

1) This comes from the dispatch recording in response to Pelosi’s call to 911, which he surreptitiously made while telling his attacker, David DePape, he was going to the bathroom. The dispatcher does report that Pelosi called the intruder a “friend,” but the San Francisco district attorney has said that the two did not know each other before the attack, puncturing the myth that they were lovers in some sort of spat.

Instead, according to the Los Angeles Times, officials believe Pelosi was speaking in code to signal to the dispatcher that something was wrong without angering DePape. The San Francisco police chief has praised the dispatcher, Heather Grimes, for being able to “interpret what she was being told,” which led to police officers arriving at the home within two minutes and finding Pelosi and DePape struggling over a hammer.

2) DePape was not in his underwear. This claim comes from an erroneous report by KTVU, a local California television station. KTVU is the only news outlet to have reported that DePape was wearing underwear, and it has since retracted the detail.

KTVU has corrected their story, and the original reporter has tweeted that he got it wrong, but that has not stopped the false detail from spreading rapidly across the Internet, propped up by conservative influencers.

3) The idea that there was someone else at the Pelosi home at the time originated with a Politico story that states that the police were let into the home “by an unknown person.” But that does not mean it was a third person, just that it’s unclear whether it was Pelosi or DePape who opened the door.

The San Francisco district attorney has firmly stated that only those two men were present at the time of the attack.

4) It is not atypical for police officers to refrain from releasing such footage during an ongoing investigation such as this one. DePape is expected to be charged for the attack today, and then he will be arraigned on Tuesday, when a press conference is slated to be held to share more information with the public.

There is likely more that will come out about this attack, but it’s still early in the criminal case, which is why we haven’t yet seen body cam or security footage.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her husband

While we’re on the topic, here are a few more facts we know about the Pelosi attack:

  • DePape was once affiliated with left-leaning causes but had recently veered into right-wing conspiracy theories. His recent social media and blog posts are littered with hallmarks of the far-right, promoting false claims about the 2020 election and Covid vaccines, content tied to the QAnon conspiracy theory, and statements like “Hiterly did nothing wrong.”
  • DePape had been identified in a 2013 article as a “hemp jewel maker” and previously linked to a group of nudist activists; migration from the far left to the far right has not been an altogether uncommon transformation in recent years.
  • Elements of the attack were eerily reminiscent of January 6. Multiple news outlets have reported that DePape yelled out “Where is Nancy?” as he searched for the House speaker, the same question that rioters could be heard chanting at the Capitol on January 6. The police have also said DePape had a bag of zip ties with him, just like some January 6 rioters.
  • It is only the latest major example of political violence in America. Just in the 21 months since January 6, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in New York, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a conservative Supreme Court justice, and now the liberal speaker of the House have been targeted by attempts to hurt or kill them.

That’s in addition to the tenfold increase in threats made against members of Congress in the past five years, making for a chilling soundtrack of menacing voicemails left at Capitol offices.

Such threats are only expected to grow in the weeks ahead. A joint intelligence assessment sent Friday by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, U.S. Capitol Police, and National Counterterrorism Center warned that the 2022 election will “likely” be followed by “heightened threats of violence against a broad range of targets―such as ideological opponents and election workers,” just like the 2020 election was.

The right-wing conspiracy theories about the Pelosi attack are not irrelevant to this broader threat environment. Although threats have been made against officials of both political parties recently, there is no analogue on the left for the glee with which some on the right reacted to Paul Pelosi’s hospitalization — or the speed with which prominent voices from Musk to Trump Jr. rushed to promote alternative theories for the violence, looking for anything that wouldn’t tie it back to right-wing rhetoric.

To be clear: although Nancy Pelosi has long been held up as a singular villain in Republican speeches and advertising, there is nothing that has emerged yet linking such rhetoric to DePape’s attack.

But to watch the false theories about the attack spread in real-time has been to witness how permission structures are set up for such violence to take place. These theories have traveled the same social media routes that have carried false — and violent — theories in the past, from the 2020 allegations of voter fraud (which gave way to January 6) to claims about Pizzagate (which led to the Comet Pizza shooting).

Just like the 2020 election claims, these theories started in the grassroots, then went to the influencer accounts, and have now been espoused by at least one Republican member of Congress. Suddenly, the entire conservative media ecosystem is running with it — which is exactly how something false becomes widely accepted as true.

Studies show most people will believe false claims if they see them enough, making it important to address and rebut these claims head-on.

At the same time, the official Republican response to the attack on Paul Pelosi has been tepid at best. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader who once joked about hitting his counterpart Pelosi with a gavel, has yet to release a public statement on the attack against her husband.

Glenn Youngkin, the Republican governor of Virginia, waited only hours before invoking the attack as part of a political pitch to oust Pelosi. “There’s no room for violence anywhere,” he said, “but we’re going to send her back to be with him in California.”

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the fear is palpable that one of these close shaves will eventually become something worse. “Somebody is going to die," Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) told Axios bluntly.

🚨 What else you should know

BBC: “Brazil has taken a turn to the left as former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva beat far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in the presidential election. After a divisive campaign which saw two bitter rivals on opposite sides of the political spectrum go head to head, Lula won 50.9% of the votes.”

Axios: “GOP reaches deeper into Biden-land”

FiveThirtyEight: “Overturning Roe Has Meant At Least 10,000 Fewer Legal Abortions”

WaPo: “As Washington wavers on TikTok, Beijing exerts control”

WSJ: “Senate Candidate Evan McMullin Says He Won’t Choose a Party if He Wins. History Shows That’s Hard.”

🗓 What your leaders are doing today

All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch or listen to it.

Executive Branch

President Biden will start his day at his home in Delaware, where he spent the weekend. He’ll receive his daily intelligence briefing (8 am) and then travel to New York City, where he’ll attend a memorial service (11 am) before returning to Washington.

This evening, Biden will host local children of firefighters, nurses, police officers, and National Guard members at the White House for trick-or-treating (5:15 pm).

Vice President Harris has nothing on her public schedule.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has no briefing scheduled today.

Legislative Branch

The Senate (10 am) and House (11 am) will both convene for brief pro forma sessions without conducting any legislative business. Neither chamber is scheduled to hold votes until November 14, after the midterms.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two major affirmative action cases, one stemming from the University of North Carolina (10 am) and the other coming from Harvard (11:30 am).

University affirmative action policies — in which colleges consider the race of applicants during admissions in order to benefit historically underrepresented groups — have a long history before the Supreme Court, dating back to 1978. The court has upheld such policies each time, most recently in 2016.

However, after the court’s 6-3 conservative majority flexed its willingness to overturn long-held precedents last term, university officials are preparing to a lose in today’s cases — which would mark a sea change for the American college admissions process.

Both cases are being brought by Students for Fair Representation, which argues that UNC and Harvard (the oldest public and private universities in the country, respectively) are discriminating against white and Asian students with their policies. SFFA also brought the 2016 case, which it lost, and was rebuffed in the lower courts for these lawsuits. (The two cases were originally going to be heard as one, but were separated because Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson has recused herself from the Harvard case, as a former member of the school’s Board of Overseers.)

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Thanks for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe