Since Friday morning, every new detail about the violent assault of Paul Pelosi—an apparent assassination attempt on Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the third in line for the presidency, who was in D.C. during the attack—has been more chilling than the last. We now know the hammer-wielding assailant was a far-right, QAnon conspiracy theorist identified as David Depape, who had a long history of of disturbing online activities ranging from disparaging George Floyd to denying the Holocaust. And we know his language and tactics during the attack eerily reflect those of Jan. 6 insurrectionists.
Then, over the weekend, as former President Donald Trump remained conspicuously silent about the attack for several days, other top Republicans weighed in—by pushing a baseless, homophobic conspiracy theory that Paul had been attacked by his gay lover and joking about the brutal assault that left an 82-year-old man with a skull fracture.
The conspiracy theory was born when a local Fox affiliate misreported and then retracted a baseless claim that Depape had been in his underwear when police arrested him. Since, the Santa Monica Observer—a website known to publish fringe, far-right lies (including that Hillary Clinton had died and been replaced by a body double for a presidential debate)—has successfully pushed an entirely false story that Depape was a gay sex worker who shared a prior relationship with Paul, and that Paul had willingly let Depape into his home. By Sunday morning, Elon Musk, the new CEO of Twitter, had shared the theory in response to a tweet from Clinton about the attack. Before Musk deleted the tweet hours later—without an apology or retraction—it had drawn well over 100,000 likes and tens of thousands of retweets. (If this is the man now in charge of discerning misinformation on Twitter going forward, it should go without saying that we’re in serious trouble.)
Right-wing media and influencers have further claimed Depape was a leftist agent whose far-right social media activities were a fabrication, citing reports that Paul spoke in code to the police dispatcher, referring to Depape as a “friend,” as evidence of a prior gay relationship. The lies have spread widely despite how a newly released summary of the FBI’s interviews with Depape make it clear he broke into the home and intended to kidnap the Speaker.
By Sunday night, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) had posted a since-removed “joke” mocking Nancy: “That moment you realize the nudist hippie male prostitute LSD guy was the reason your husband didn’t make it to your fundraiser,” he captioned a photo of the Speaker. Don Jr., the former president’s large adult son whose social media activities include posting bizarre memes appearing to sexualize his own sister, then joined in, sharing a tweet with a photo of male underwear and a hammer captioned, “Got my Paul Pelosi costume ready.” Trump’s eldest son quote-tweeted the tweet, “The internet remains undefeated,” adding a quick, pitiful little jab at Hunter Biden, too.
It’s impossible to overstate how deeply stupid and cruel the conspiracy theories and jokes about the attack on Paul are. They’re a product of years of disturbingly violent right-wing rhetoric targeting Nancy and other Democratic leaders—namely women—stemming from both top Republicans and popular right-wing media. Not so long ago, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) was at the center of a right-wing kidnapping conspiracy. And often enough, the threats of violence come from Democratic politicians’ very own co-workers: Just last year, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) shared videos of an anime version of himself murdering Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene famously once shared a post claiming Nancy Pelosi could be handled with a “bullet to the head.”
Conspiracy theories all but blaming Paul for the attack were almost inevitable, given the current state of right-wing media and its hold on Republican elected officials. And considering one of the most popular right-wing lines of attack these days is accusing Democrats of being gay groomers, a story framing Paul as a closeted gay man worthy of blame and mockery for being severely beaten by a right-wing intruder was inevitable, too. From the attack itself to the twisted rumor mill it’s since conjured, every aspect of this devastating story can essentially be traced to right-wing media and rhetoric from top Republicans.