Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
The House vote to censure Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona was the only appropriate thing for members of Congress to do. It signaled that violence and misogyny have no place in our politics – and neither do politicians like Gosar who promote them. While all 221 House Democrats voted for censure, they were joined by only two of their Republican colleagues.
What prompted the vote was Gosar’s tweet of a photoshopped anime video showing him appearing to kill Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and attacking the President of the United States with swords. Gosar has since taken the video down. He said he does not “espouse violence or harm towards any member of Congress or Mr. Biden” and called the video “truly a symbolic portrayal of a fight over immigration policy.”
The resolution also removed Gosar from two committees – including the Committee on Oversight and Reform, where he works with Ocasio-Cortez.
Gosar’s video was straight out of former President Donald Trump’s playbook, which we’ve learned had a toxic effect. In his book “Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It,” Helio Fred Garcia found that after Trump verbally attacked groups – including Hispanics and Muslims – hate crimes against them increased.
It is especially chilling that Gosar would tweet such a video in a year in which we have already seen online extremism spill over into deadly violence at the Capitol. On the heels of these events, Gosar’s video will serve as a Trump-like nod to his supporters to take matters into their own hands when they disagree with the politics of certain politicians.
Gosar’s singling out of Ocasio-Cortez in the video is especially alarming. Congresswomen are already the targets of a disproportionate amount of online abuse. A 2020 study of congressional candidates found that women received two to three times more abusive online messages than their male counterparts. Women from ethnic minority backgrounds, like Ocasio-Cortez, contended with the most abuse on social media.
And we’ve seen this kind of misogyny against female lawmakers turn into efforts at physical violence recently as well. Just last year, six people were charged in federal court for conspiracy to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. One man has pleaded guilty to the charge, and five have pleaded not guilty. A trial is scheduled for some time in early 2022.
She, too, had been singled out for disparagement by Trump. After a crowd chanted “lock her up” at a Trump rally last year, Whitmer’s then-deputy digital director, Tori Saylor, tweeted that “every single time the President does this at a rally, the violent rhetoric towards her immediately escalates on social media.”
Jeopardizing the safety of our lawmakers threatens the democratic system created by America’s founders more than two centuries ago. If members of Congress and the president of the United States cannot safely do their jobs, they cannot represent their constituents – and the structure of our government becomes unstable. That’s why every American should be outraged that anyone – let alone a sitting member of Congress, from whom we expect respect for his own office – would share a video like this.
Gosar’s tweet could be especially harmful to women, discouraging them from running for political office. We all know that there are misogynists online. But if women contemplating political careers also have to consider the prospect that a male colleague might implicitly call for violence against them – and that they might even be expected to continue working directly with such a man – I am fairly confident that fewer women will throw their hats in the ring.
That’s especially unfortunate for Gosar’s party. Of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, only 31 of them are Republican women (89 are Democratic women). At a time when we really need to see these numbers increase to ensure that women’s priorities and perspectives are represented in the lawmaking process, it’s unconscionable that Gosar would do anything that discourages women from serving their country.
That’s why Gosar should be facing particular wrath from the women of his own party right now. Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming has said it’s “indefensible” that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has not fully condemned Gosar. McCarthy said he called Gosar about the tweet, but McCarthy didn’t specifically denounce it. He also claimed that Democrats haven’t held their own party members to the same standards and said that if Republicans retake the majority in the midterm, they may take similar action against certain Democrats.
Given McCarthy’s stance, it is no surprise that Congress did not meet Gosar’s promotion of violence and misogyny with a unanimous, resounding rebuke. However, our country cannot function if lawmakers cannot safely do their jobs. Those who endorse such a system – implicitly or otherwise – have no place in elected office.