Paul Gosar, censure, and the further decline of civility in Congress

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
On Wednesday, the Democratic-led House voted to strip GOP Rep. Paul Gosar of his committee assignments for tweeting a video showing a character with his face killing a figure with Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's face.

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On Wednesday, Democrats in the House of Representatives, joined by two Republicans, voted to censure Rep. Paul Gosar and strip him of his committee assignments for tweeting an altered cartoon video that depicted him killing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and brandishing two swords at President Joe Biden.

If nothing else, the incident demonstrated the depth of animosity that has developed between the majority and minority parties in the House. To Democrats, there was nothing amusing about the Japanese anime-style clip. They saw it as a ratcheted-up example of the threats of violence that have emanated from some corners of the Republican Party in recent years.

Why We Wrote This

A GOP congressman is censured in what GOP leadership calls abuse of power. Democrats say Republicans, unlike in the past, refuse to rebuke their own. The result is a further decline in civility and elected lawmakers working together for the good of the country.

“Depictions of violence can foment actual violence and jeopardize the safety of elected officials, as witnessed in this chamber on January 6, 2021,” read the censure resolution.

This isn’t the first time this year that the Democratic majority has moved to sanction a GOP lawmaker. In February, the House voted to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia of her committee assignments in response to a list of antisemitic and racist social media posts, including some that appeared to endorse violence against Democratic members of Congress.

GOP Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, like many Americans in the age of Facebook and Twitter, has discovered that posting something inflammatory on social media can have consequences in the real world.

On Wednesday, Democrats in the House of Representatives, joined by two Republicans, voted to censure Representative Gosar and strip him of his committee assignments for tweeting an altered cartoon video that depicted him killing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and brandishing two swords at President Joe Biden.

If nothing else, the incident demonstrated the depth of animosity that has developed between the majority and minority parties in the House. To Democrats, there was nothing amusing or entertaining about the Japanese anime-style clip. They saw it as a ratcheted-up example of the menacing threats of violence that have emanated from some corners of the Republican Party in recent years.

Why We Wrote This

A GOP congressman is censured in what GOP leadership calls abuse of power. Democrats say Republicans, unlike in the past, refuse to rebuke their own. The result is a further decline in civility and elected lawmakers working together for the good of the country.

“Depictions of violence can foment actual violence and jeopardize the safety of elected officials, as witnessed in this chamber on January 6, 2021,” read the censure resolution.

Democrats also expressed outrage at what they said the incident revealed about GOP priorities. Many Republicans have been bashing their 13 fellow party members who broke ranks and voted in favor of President Biden’s infrastructure bill. But the party seems willing to let Mr. Gosar’s video slide, despite the lawmaker’s documented history of consorting with white nationalists.

“The fact that they would not take some action themselves or make some comments themselves ... is a testament that perhaps they are rationalizing, as they rationalize other types of criminal behavior, this particular action,” said Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland on Tuesday at his weekly meeting with reporters. 

Republicans countered that the Democratic outrage was largely political, a kind of pearl-clutching by politicians professing to be upset by something Mr. Gosar clearly intended as a joke. 

The GOP also argued the retaliation went too far. If the Democrats had simply tried to rebuke Mr. Gosar, they might have drawn a more bipartisan vote. But by expanding the punishment to remove him from committees, the Democrats turned the vote into a larger issue, said GOP leaders – namely, whether the majority can dictate to the minority who can sit on important House panels. They predicted it will invite a dangerous tit-for-tat retaliation in future Congresses.

“That’s a dangerous, dark road for the institution to go down,” said Rep. Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, on Tuesday.

After calling the resolution an “abuse of power,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy concluded his floor speech in defense of Mr. Gosar by saying, “A new standard will continue to be applied in the future.“

Mr. Gosar himself appeared to try to distance himself from the video. He apologized to GOP members for the situation, blaming his staff for the incident. In a statement, he called the clip a “symbolic cartoon” and “not real life.”

He told conservative media that the whole thing was an attempt to reach out to younger voters who use social media as a form of communication, perhaps inadvertently emphasizing the dangers of older politicians without experience in the medium trying to use memes and other visual entertainment as a means of expression.

This isn’t the first time this year that the Democratic majority has moved to sanction a GOP lawmaker over perceived threats. In February, the House voted to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia of her committee assignments in response to a list of antisemitic and racist social media posts made prior to her election, including some that appeared to endorse violence against Democratic members of Congress.

As recently as two years ago, the GOP responded to a similar controversy by moving to police its own caucus. In January 2019, Republican House leaders removed Rep. Steve King of Iowa from the Judiciary and Agriculture committees following an interview with The New York Times in which he said, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization – how did that language become offensive?”

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report from Congress.

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