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Trumpier-Than-Trump Candidates Threaten to Regain Partial Control of Congress

The Republican Party has broadly reshaped itself in the image of its demagogue, Donald J. Trump.

Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana leaves a House GOP caucus meeting at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C., on September 20, 2022. Higgins was one of several members of the Republican Party circulating far right memes in the aftermath of the attack on Paul Pelosi.

Last week, when an intruder broke into the Pelosi’s San Francisco residence and attacked 82-year-old Paul Pelosi with a hammer, while demanding to see “Nancy,” I briefly hoped that the horror of the event would shock the GOP back into moral decency. It was, of course, a hope misplaced.

In this Trumpier-than-Trump election season, the GOP couldn’t resist piling in with conspiracy theories and memes to twist the meaning of the attack. First there was Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin who, at a campaign stop for a congressional candidate, dutifully acknowledged that the attack was awful but then couldn’t resist adding, “There’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re going to send [Pelosi] back to be with him in California.”

That, of course, was milquetoast compared to the ghastly meme that Donald Trump Jr. sent out showing a hammer and underwear on a bed, and the caption “Got my Paul Pelosi Halloween costume ready.” And that, in turn, was nothing compared to Trump Jr.’s monstrous (and now deleted) social media posts that paid homage to a conspiracy theory (perhaps vaguely modeled on a particularly violent scene from the 1960s movie Midnight Cowboy) doing the rounds on “alt-right” and conspiracy websites suggesting that Paul Pelosi and his much younger attacker were actually lovers.

If how one treats the elderly — especially an elder who has just been violently assaulted — is any moral indication of how one was raised, clearly Trump Jr.’s parenting left something to be desired.

Not to be outdone, Kari Lake, the conspiracy-espousing GOP gubernatorial candidate in Arizona, who is now frequently talked about as a potential vice-presidential running mate for Trump Sr. in 2024, chose to use one of her raucous campaign rallies to mock Pelosi’s home security precautions. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has also retweeted conspiracy theories about David DePape, the alleged attacker. Despite DePape’s social media pages being filled with references to January 6 and “stolen” elections, Cruz apparently adheres to the idea that DePape was a “hippie nudist from Berkeley.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Clay Higgins, a far right figure from Louisiana, went even further into the realm of the grotesque. He posted a tweet — since removed — that showed a photo of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, her hands covering her eyes and the tagline: “That moment you realize the nudist hippie male prostitute LSD guy was the reason your husband didn’t make it to your fundraiser.”

These astounding reactions within the GOP to the attempted murder of the husband of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives are a window into the ethos of extremism and crude violence now coursing through U.S. politics. Many still have a vague expectation that U.S. political discourse will in some way be rational, yet, on a daily basis, we are now served up masterclasses of bile from provocateurs who substitute appeals to violence in place of genuine political debate. The GOP’s carnival of empathy-eschewing ridicule that ensued after the attack on Paul Pelosi is Trump’s gift that keeps on giving, his peculiarly destructive legacy. It is his fascist embrace of the violent attentat, the spectacle of bloodshed intended to tap into the emotive and bloodthirsty parts of the psyche. It is the stripping-down of the political language into its basest, most brutal, most vicious constituent parts.

Across the country, GOP candidates, especially those nearly 300 or so candidates who embrace election-denialism, are competing to generate evermore extreme “solutions” to what they see as the pressing issues of the day.

Some are, at this point, so well-known on the national stage that their names have become synonymous with irrational fanaticism, or with just plain ignorance. They include congressmembers such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, from Georgia, who believes Jews with space lasers cause California’s wildfires and also take literal potshots at Santa Claus; Paul Gosar, from Arizona, who takes pride in speaking at white nationalist events; Matt Gaetz, from Florida, who recently launched fatphobic insults against women who oppose abortion bans; and Jim Jordan, from Ohio, who accused Anthony Fauci of wanting to “cancel” the utterance of “Merry Christmas” because he urged people to think twice before traveling during the holidays at the height of the pandemic.

But many of these extreme-right candidates are less high profile. There’s Doug Mastriano, the GOP candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, who believes that women who have abortions should face murder charges, and who in recent months has made something of a sporting hobby out of repeatedly lobbing antisemitic barbs at his Democratic opponent, Josh Shapiro. There’s Texas State Rep. Bryan Slaton, who authored a bill last year that, had it passed, would have allowed for the Lone Star State to pursue the death penalty against people who have abortions — supposedly in the name of “life.” There’s Mark Finchem, the GOP candidate for secretary of state in Arizona, who apparently kept a “treason watch list” of political figures, including President Obama, with whom he disagreed. There’s J.R. Majewski, a congressional candidate in Ohio, whose social media pages, before he attempted a pivot to the middle, were filled with pro-QAnon hashtags and rants. There’s Carl Paladino, GOP candidate for a congressional seat in western New York, who said that Attorney General Merrick Garland “should be executed,” and then tried to walk it back by saying he had only been jesting.

The list of horrific, extremist, violence-encouraging acts by these candidates goes on. In fact, earlier this year the Anti-Defamation League identified 100 far right candidates around the U.S. running for office under the auspices of the GOP. They include members of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers (both essentially paramilitary, or street-fighting, organizations); nearly four dozen people who promoted QAnon conspiracies; and several avowed white supremacists.

In the year 2022, this is what passes for conservative politics in the United States. The party that now appears poised to potentially regain at least partial control of Congress now resembles a hybrid of a frat house and a fascist summer camp. The political language of its rising stars is defined by banality, cruelty, crudeness and bombast. If any more evidence was needed, it is abundantly clear that the Republican Party has broadly reshaped itself in the image of its demagogue, Donald J. Trump.