Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
An increasingly ridiculous Republican Party has offered political observers no shortage of absurd stories, but this is a new low: This week, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar tweeted out an animé video featuring Gosar, a 62-year-old dentist from Wyoming, as a flying, sword-wielding hero who appears to kill his colleague, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and attacks President Joe Biden.
Let us first stipulate that this video is extremely badly done. While Gosar’s spokesperson whined that “The left doesn’t get meme culture” when Democrats objected to a congressman tweeting out an animated video of him killing his colleague, the truth is that Gosar’s animé film was less a reflection of a sophisticated understanding of meme culture and more analogous to the point evoked by Steve Buscemi’s “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme – that is, it was pretty sad and extremely lame, a prime example of what the kids might call “cringe.”
It was also wildly inappropriate. If just about any other person in the US tweeted out a bizarro fantasy cartoon of them attacking and killing a coworker, they would definitely have a big HR problem on their hands, likely face termination from their jobs and possibly be getting a visit from the cops.
If a high school student tweeted out a similar video targeting the student body president and the coolest girl in school, you can bet school administrators would immediately treat him as a potential violent threat (and if his video was as thoroughly embarrassing as the one Gosar shared, he’d also face widespread mockery from his peers).
But since the person who tweeted the video wasn’t an average employee or a high schooler and is instead a Republican member of Congress, apparently he will face no consequences.
The keyword there is Republican member of Congress. Democrats (rightly) apologize when they mess up, as Rep. Ilhan Omar did, for example, when she tweeted “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” in reference to previous attacks on her over her criticisms of Israel. That, she recognized after the fact, was an anti-Semitic trope, even if she says she hadn’t intended it that way. By contrast, Gosar has hosted fundraising events with White nationalists and Holocaust deniers. His extremist ally in the GOP, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, has compared Covid restrictions to Nazism and shared a whole slew of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
While some Republicans expressed moderate distaste for Greene’s comments, she remains in Congress. So does Gosar. Greene did lose her committee assignments (because of House Democrats, with 11 Republicans joining), but the GOP also ousted Liz Cheney from leadership, a woman whose only offense was not offering unequivocal Dear-Leader-esque support of former President Donald Trump.
When liberal comedian Kathy Griffin shared a photo of herself holding a fake severed head of then-President Donald Trump, the outrage was intense and sustained, and she paid for that transgression with a huge portion of her career. A CNN spokesperson called her act “disgusting and offensive”; she apologized, but the network terminated her contract anyway. Griffin’s “joke” was condemned on the left and right alike.
Now that a conservative with real power – a politician in elected office, not a comedian mouthing off – has engaged in the similarly egregious behavior of fantasizing about a violent attack on a president (and added in a congresswoman), it’s crickets from the Republican Party, and defensiveness and deflection from Gosar’s team. Gosar’s digital director told The Washington Post that “Everyone needs to relax.”
It’s awfully hard to relax, though, when your coworker makes a video fantasizing about your death. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that Gosar had “shared a fantasy video of him killing me” and “he’ll face no consequences bc @GOPLeader cheers him on with excuses.”
And Gosar’s video isn’t just a threat to Biden and Ocasio-Cortez. It’s a threat against American democracy and the stability of the nation.
It’s one thing to virulently disagree over values and policy, as Republicans and Democrats long have. It’s another to position the opposition party as an enemy so hostile that the threat of physical violence up to and including the point of murder is funny. That’s a world where the answer to political disagreement isn’t elections, or reliance on long-standing democratic institutions – but rather where something more sinister can seem justified.
Unfortunately, the country has already seen the result of the growing brand of Trumpist and right-wing extremism Gosar’s so-called meme represents. Less than a year ago, a thwarted attempt at an insurrection in the Capitol, spurred on by former President Donald Trump has his Republican Party, left scores injured and five dead.
In the aftermath, the GOP hasn’t just deflected accountability; they have actively stood in the way of efforts to understand what happened and identify those involved. Trump’s legal team has tried to stop the committee investigating the attacks from accessing the records of what he did on January 6; members of Trump’s administration and election team have refused to respond to subpoenas, and the GOP refused to support the creation of an investigatory committee in the first place.
To add absurdity to injury, the Republican Party has made an art – showcased most recently in elections in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere – of accusing Democrats of extremism. But while Republicans are blaming Democrats for school administrators – some of whom can be ham-handed or overzealous in how they teach America’s long history of racism – members of their own party are promoting racist conspiracy theories and tweeting out videos of them appearing to kill a colleague.
The Republican Party has a serious problem with extremism. Instead of cleaning house, they’re doubling down in defense – finger-pointing at Democrats, refusing to take any responsibility for their actions, and frothing up the most dangerous fringes of their base. This is apparently what they think is the easiest route to power.
It’s also a fast route to division, violence and the dissolution of a democratic society.