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Cranking Out Violence: Conspiracies are Driving More Politically-Motivated Attacks 

Cranking Out Violence: Conspiracies are Driving More Politically-Motivated Attacks 
23rd November 2022 Erica Barbarossa
In Insights

In the early hours of October 28th, Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was awoken by an assailant intent on harming the politician. The perpetrator, 42-year-old David Depape, allegedly sought out the House Speaker to force her into admitting “the truth.” His desired confession was thwarted, as Nancy Pelosi was away from the couple’s San Francisco home at the time. Yet Mr. Pelosi did not walk away unscathed; Depape struck the 82-year-old businessman with a hammer before police could intervene. Mr. Pelosi underwent surgery, having suffered a skull fracture and extensive injuries to his right arm and both hands. Though Pelosi is expected to make a full recovery, what is left in the wake of this attack is the reality of an alarming and increasing trend of conspiracy theories driving individuals towards political violence. 

In the last decade, the public has been witness to the addictive and violent nature of conspiracy theories. No longer are these theories amusing light-hearted debates over the assassination of JFK or the moon landing; instead, conspiracy theories have been increasingly tied to violent events like the Christchurch massacre and the deadly siege of the U.S. Capitol building on January 6th, 2021. From first exposure to these theories to the occurrence of a violent attack is a process that involves conditioning a person’s psyche and reframing their worldview in which violence is not only a possibility, but a necessity for survival. 

An examination of Depape’s online presence reveals a patchwork of conspiracy theories that inform his worldview and attack. This is illustrative of most conspiracy theorists; they rarely believe in just one conspiracy theory, given their layered and addictive nature. Believers in these harmful theories and ideologies become addicted to finding the ‘truth’. In many contemporary conspiratorial communities, adherents speak of the ‘red pill,’ alluding to the pill in the Matrix that allowed the protagonist to see the dystopian realities of his world. This ‘enlightenment’ enables believers to rationalise a world they previously felt they did not understand, as well as empowers their sense of superiority over those who have not yet ‘awoken’.

Gamergate stood as a catalyst for Depape’s own journey to enlightenment. From there, his blogs and social media posts reveal that he gravitated most heavily towards antisemitic narratives. Depape’s beliefs range from the existence of a Zionist Occupied Government (ZOG) and a global White Genocide to the COVID-19 pandemic being a depopulation scheme. Each of these conspiracy theories alleges malicious Jewish involvement in the establishment of a Jewish-controlled political system and the persecution of the white race. Central to these conspiracy theories is the action of ‘othering’—determining an out-group that is perceived to intrinsically threaten the survival of the in-group.  This ‘othering’ incites the proliferation of narratives alleging the presence of an existential threat, war, or need for self-defence against an enemy, and establishes conditions for discrimination, hatred, and extreme violence against the out-group. As for Depape, his social media profiles reveal the intensity of his ‘othering’ of the Jewish population, with blog posts titled “Global Elites Plan To Take Control Of YOUR Money! (Revealed)” and “Who FINANCED Hitler’s Rise To Power”, in clear allusions to antisemitic conspiracy theories. Other blog posts, titled “Jewish Reparations” and “Gas chamber doors” accuse the Jewish population of orchestrating the Holocaust in a ploy to eventually achieve global power. The severity of Depape’s antisemitism demonstrates his strong adherence to these antisemitic conspiracy theories. 

Depape was also an adherent of the infamous QAnon conspiracy theory and its splinter theories, such as Pizzagate and the belief that the LGBTQ+ community is the epicentre of child grooming activity. These narratives align with Depape’s preconceived beliefs of Jewish shadow groups causing harm to innocents, yet up the ante by expanding his list of perceived enemies—in this case, Democratic officials. These hate-based conspiracy theories are particularly inflammatory due to their positioning of children as victims. Situating vulnerable minors as those harmed elicits an emotional reaction by adherents, and thus causes their hatred for their enemy to fester. This appears to be the case for Depape, as a Facebook friend of his recounted that his posts were “so phobic in so many ways” and contained “so much anger.” Eventually, adherents of these conspiracy theories can become so outraged by the perceived inhumane offences of their enemy that they adopt the perspective that taking no action is synonymous with complacency. From this view comes the realisation that in order to rectify the offences, adherents must take violent action against the out-group, as Depape attempted to accomplish. 

Hatred for politicians reached a fever pitch for Depape and his fellow QAnon believers, as President Joe Biden was announced as the winner of the 2020 Presidential Election. Following this announcement, former President Trump amplified his radicalised political base by consciously propagating the false ‘Stop the Steal’ narrative. Portraying the election as stolen further reinforced the notion that ‘evil’ politicians wield too much power, resulting in a political base that heavily adhered to narratives of a tyrannical American government. During Depape’s assault on Mr. Pelosi, Depape allegedly voiced that “we’ve got to take them all out”, in a reference to American politicians. 

Furthermore, the belief that the enemy is in a position of power, specifically in government, is a dangerous notion – it leads adherents to believe that there is no political solution that can enact justice or bring about change. To them, the only viable solution is through violent means, a sentiment especially exacerbated by the militant accelerationism movement. Accelerationists posit that society has been so irreparably damaged by the tenets of modern liberalism that the only solution is societal collapse. To hasten this collapse, accelerationists employ a number of tactics, one of which is acting as force amplifiers in pre-radicalised spaces. Adherents of conspiracy theories represent such spaces and thus are a key demographic in the carrying out of accelerationist violence. The Great Replacement theory, of which Depape was an adherent, stands as the main inspiration behind accelerationist attacks, such as the massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand and the recent attack in Buffalo, NY

Violence as a solution has also been demonstrated in attacks like the Wolverine Watchmen militia group’s targeting of Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer in October 2020, in response to increased COVID-19 policies, as well as the August 2022 attack on an FBI building in Cincinnati in retaliation for the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. In both instances, the perpetrators believed that they were rectifying evil from within the American government; David Depape similarly believed that his attempted attack on Nancy Pelosi would liberate the American people from malicious government tyranny. However, Pelosi does not appear to have been Depape’s sole target; San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins explained that Pelosi is suspected of being only the first target in a series of attacks planned by Depape. Court documents similarly reveal that Depape named a number of other targets, including politicians at state and federal levels along with their relatives. This is indicative of Depape’s deeply-held hatred of politicians in line with his adherence to anti-government conspiracy theories.

Depape’s politically motivated attack builds upon an unfortunate pattern of conspiracy theories driving individuals towards violence, a trend that has been increasing in the last decade and doesn’t show signs of slowing. This is largely due to conspiracy theories’ recent traverse from the edges of the internet into mainstream discourse. Further, these theories now play a significant role in American politics, as many of those who ran in the recent Midterm elections vocalised an adherence to theories that Depape himself supported. The significant presence of these theories in public discourse and politics bestows upon them a perceived legitimacy, as well as an ability to reach a wider audience. Conspiracy theories should be regarded with grave concern, as these beliefs have proven to wholly reframe an individual’s worldview, to knock them off course and reposition them on a path that leads towards hate and violence. 

Erica Barbarossa is a Research Lead for the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC) 
Isabela Bernardo is a Digital Extremism Analyst for the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC)