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 @JillFilipovic. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The GOP bills itself as the party of law and order. But more and more, it risks becoming the party of criminality and chaos.
This week, Solomon Peña, a Republican former candidate for the state legislature in New Mexico, was arrested as the alleged ringleader of a criminal conspiracy to shoot at the homes of several elected Democrats – motivated, police say, by election denial. The mayor of Albuquerque said an investigation confirmed “these shootings were politically motivated.” (CNN has contacted Peña’s campaign for comment and has been unable to identify his attorney.)
According to the allegations, Peña and four men he contacted fired shots at the homes of four Democrats, two county commissioners and two state legislators. One of them, Bernalillo County Commissioner Adriann Barboa, said she narrowly missed being in the house when bullets tore through it. “It was terrifying,” she said in a statement. “My house had four shots through the front door and windows, where just hours before my grandbaby and I were playing in the living room.”
Luckily, no one was shot in any of these assaults. But people could have very easily been injured or killed.
It’s easy to imagine how conservatives might spin this in coming days: Peña is on the fringe, an aberration, not representative of anything. Oh, and remember the Bernie Sanders supporter who shot Rep. Steve Scalise in 2017? See, Democrats do it too!
But Peña’s involvement in an alleged criminal conspiracy in which he is accused of pulling the trigger at least once in a series of shootings at Democrats’ homes is not aberrational. That he was a Republican candidate for office speaks both to the caliber of person this party is attracting and to a broader pattern of right-wing violence, fueled by the rhetoric coming from Republicans who hold some of the most powerful positions in the country.
This is a GOP problem. Yes, there are many Republicans who are law-abiding and condemn political violence and the Republican Party of New Mexico issued a statement to the Associated Press saying that “if Peña is found guilty, he must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” Still, the New Mexico shootings are the entirely predictable outcome of a party that pulls in gun-obsessed conspiracy theorists divorced from reality not just as voters – which is bad enough – but as leaders while also feeding its base a steady stream of unhinged lies about its political opponents and working overtime to stop even the most basic efforts to regulate access to deadly weapons.
The “Stop the Steal” movement, which culminated in mobs breaking into the Capitol building intending to overturn the results of a free and fair election, left multiple people dead, and should go down in history as one of the greatest stains on American democracy since our founding. And it is just one of many examples. In 2020, a group of far-right militia members engaged in something of a practice run for Jan. 6, when they conspired to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the state government. (Whitmer called out then-President Trump after the plot was thwarted, saying he had “comfort to those who spread fear and hatred and division.” Over a year after leaving office, Trump referred to the plot against Whitmer as a “fake deal.”)
Those men were convicted. And hundreds of January 6 rioters have been arrested and charged as well; some are going to prison. Still, a majority of Republicans continue to believe that the 2020 election was stolen – and they believe it because it’s what their leaders are telling them. And that’s an inherently dangerous situation, one that carries with it the risk of violence.
Right-wing terrorism has long been a more widespread problem than left-wing terrorism or Islamic extremism, and according to the ADL, most right-wing terrorism comes from anti-government extremists, who often self-identify as “patriots,” or White supremacists; rounding out the right-wing terrorist triad are anti-abortion and Christian extremists. Instead of rejecting these forces, too many members of today’s Republican Party play footsie with them – or flat-out embrace their rhetoric and ideas.
Trump, the party’s so-far undisputed leader and figurehead, routinely uses the same language that White supremacists and other far-right groups deploy. Just one week after announcing his bid for the presidency in 2024, he hosted Nick Fuentes, one of the nation’s most prominent White nationalists and a Holocaust denier, to dine with him at Mar-a-Lago (Trump said Fuentes was there as a guest of Kanye West). And there is significant crossover between the “stop the steal” conspiracy, which Trump invented and then promulgated, and White nationalist and supremacist groups and individuals – Fuentes, for example, has been an enthusiastic organizer of “stop the steal” rallies. Fuentes was present on the grounds of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
But it’s not just Trump associating with such people. Several Republicans in national office have attended and even spoken at events sponsored by Fuentes’s organizations, including Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. Greene has dabbled in all kinds of conspiracy theories and made a series of antisemitic and racist comments herself. In 2019, before her election to Congress, Greene suggested in a speech that then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could be executed for treason. In court testimony last year, Greene said, “I never mean anything for violence. All of my words never, ever, mean anything for violence.” Gosar has also repeatedly aligned himself with the far-right fringe, posting a violent video of himself, in photoshopped anime, attacking President Joe Biden and appearing to kill Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Gosar’s ties to White supremacist and White nationalist figures and groups go back years and years,
In a statement released after the video garnered significant outrage, Gosar said he does not “espouse violence or harm towards any member of Congress or Mr. Biden.” When CNN’s KFile reached out to Gosar’s team about his many associations with racists, a spokesman declined to comment on specific questions about the congressman’s “associates.” Greene has said she simply “stumbled across” these conspiracy theories and, for the most part, doesn’t believe them (the exception: she still says the 2020 election was stolen). “I was allowed to believe things that weren’t true,” she said on the House floor in 2021. “I would ask questions about them and talk about them and that is absolutely what I regret.”
Both Greene and Gosar have been among the loudest election deniers and “stop the steal” proponents in the GOP.
And yet both faced few consequences from their own party.
After Gosar and Greene spoke at an event organized by Fuentes in February 2022, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said back then that there was no place in the Republican Party for “white supremacists or anti-Semitism” and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, now the House Speaker, said “There’s no place in our party for any of this.” And yet, the Republican Party leadership – and McCarthy specifically – have, in fact, made plenty of space for these same members.
After Democrats stripped Gosar and Greene of their committee assignments, McCarthy promised them better ones and signaled his intent to exact retribution on Democrats. On Tuesday, the House GOP Steering Committee agreed to place Greene on the House Homeland Security Committee, which has jurisdiction over the border, and gave Gosar a seat on the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Not only has McCarthy been unwilling to penalize members of his party, but he will apparently punish anyone who tries to hold them accountable. McCarthy, who has privately voiced serious concerns with the path his party is on, has nonetheless also gone out of his way to support election deniers and undermine efforts to restore American democratic norms. He was one of 147 Republicans who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
When people who embrace White nationalist rhetoric and all sorts of conspiracy theories emerge as your party’s candidates for seats across the country, you can no longer say that these ideas and the people who hold them are all simply a vocal fringe or deny that they speak to – or for – your base. And when these ideas lead to violence again and again, it gets increasingly difficult to say that the violence is aberrational.
This violence is a Republican Party problem. And the Republican Party needs to solve it – or we’re going to see even more violence and bloodshed.