When does speech become dangerous? Rep. Gosar’s ties to white nationalists added to concerns about his video – USA TODAY

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Weeks after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Rep. Pramila Jayapal fired off three letters asking the House Ethics Committee to investigate whether three of her colleagues helped instigate and aid the insurrection.

Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington, told the committee that her colleague Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., “urged supporters to take action against election certification, repeatedly insisting that the election had been stolen and participating in rallies alleging voter fraud.”

Gosar insisted he had done nothing outside the realm of normal political discourse. “Know this: I have never instigated violence,” he wrote in a 30-page response . “I have no criminal record of any type. I have never aided or abetted violence. I have not urged or supported violence.”

Democrats and Republicans have disagreed for the better part of the year over when speech becomes dangerous, and on Wednesday, House Democrats said Gosar had gone too far with his latest move: an anime video depicting him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and attacking President Joe Biden with swords.

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

The House passed the motion 223-207, with the vote falling largely along party lines. Two Republicans joined Democrats in supporting it.

Gosar was defiant, as he had been earlier this year over his actions leading up to Jan. 6. Referring to the anti-immigration theme of the anime video, the congressman said there was “no threat” in it other than “the threat that immigration poses to our country.”

But Democrats vehemently disagreed.

“There is a full line between what the rhetoric leaders use in violently attacking us and the ways in which those who follow them and listen to them threaten our lives,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. She told USA TODAY in an interview that death threats against her over the past two years have been traced back to violent rhetoric that politicians like former President Donald Trump have used on television.

Gosar won his seat in 2010 with Tea Party support and has drifted further right since then. The 62-year-old former dentist is one of Trump’s staunchest allies in Congress. He aligns himself with some of the House’s farthest-right members: Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.

The congressman’s hardline immigration views include a July proposal to ban all immigrants from entering the country for 10 years. He has been criticized in recent years for associating with white nationalist figures and dabbling in conspiracy theories. 

Kurt Braddock, a professor at American University specializing in far-right communication, said Gosar is a classic example of someone who uses images that normalize violence and even glorify it, without meeting a legal definition for inciting violence.

“What a lot of these individuals do,” he said, “they say statements that they can maintain plausible deniability and they can say, ‘Well, I never told them to do something. They just took up and (did) it.’ To me, that doesn’t much matter.”

Ties to white nationalists, embrace of conspiracy theories

While Gosar described the video as merely a commentary on his immigration views, Rep. Sean Maloney, D-N.Y., said the lawmaker’s past interactions with white nationalists “absolutely” added credibility to the threats against Ocasio-Cortez and Biden.

Gosar ran for Congress in 2010 on the slogans of “secure our border” and “no amnesty.” His top endorsements came from sheriffs known for hardline immigration views: Maricopa County’s Joe Arpaio, a major supporter of S.B. 1070 that encouraged local authorities to check drivers’ immigration status at vehicle stops; and Pinal County’s Paul Babeu.

Gosar’s brother, Dave, one of six siblings who are estranged from the congressman over his political stances, said in an interview with USA TODAY that during the 2010 campaign, he confronted Gosar over his support for the widely debunked conspiracy theory that then-President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.

In 2014, Gosar paid a visit to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who allied with anti-government extremist Oath Keepers in an armed a standoff with the federal government. The rancher has made racist comments about Black people and Mexican Americans. 

The Oath Keepers organize people with police and military training into a private militia. Armed members attended protests over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and called themselves security. The group’s leader has threatened civil war. 

During his 2018 reelection bid, Gosar campaigned at a meeting of the Chino Valley Oath Keepers and praised the group as “America’s true patriots.” He added: “We discussed the rule of law and judges. They said, ‘Our main concern is to return you to Congress as our warrior.’”

Enjoyed my town hall meeting with Chino Valley Oath Keeper’s, America’s true patriots. We discussed the rule of law and judges. They said “our main concern is to return you to Congress as our Warrior” I also said “get your friends and family to vote … but not MY family” pic.twitter.com/GygqhqlfV6

— Paul Gosar (@DrPaulGosar) October 13, 2018

In 2019, when the Oath Keepers asked for people to serve as armed security at Trump’s campaign rallies, Gosar tweeted: “If local police weren’t ordered to stand down by leftist mayors @Oathkeepers wouldn’t have to step in.”

Without evidence, Gosar told Vice in an interview that the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally that attracted neo-Nazis to Charlottesville may have been created by the left. He then repeated a version of a false, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory peddled by Alex Jones of InfoWars: “George Soros is one of those people who actually helps back these individuals. Who is he? I think he’s from Hungary. I think he was Jewish, and I think he turned in his own people to the Nazis.”  

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In June 2018, Gosar spoke on the House floor in support of an anti-Muslim activist whose name has become a far-right rallying cry: “His real crime is his refusal to agree to the government’s efforts to cover up crimes by Muslim gangs who are raping British girls, almost with impunity, and with little apparent regard by the British government.”

In the leadup to the Jan. 6 insurrection, Gosar promoted unfounded theories of widespread fraud during the 2020 presidential election and appeared at “Stop the Steal” rallies with Ali Alexander, a top organizer of the Jan. 6 protest. On the afternoon of the protest, Gosar tweeted that Biden should concede, adding, “Don’t make me come over there.”

In February, Gosar headlined a conference for anti-immigration livestreamer Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist Holocaust denier who calls for preserving Christian and European values. Gosar used his speech to rail against immigration, and Fuentes followed, saying, “White people are done being bullied.”

Gosar later used his power as a congressman to press the federal government on Fuente’s alleged placement on a no-fly list.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said she believes past stances and actions underscored the need to hold Gosar to account over the video.

“I think we should have taken action before but I’m glad we’re taking action now,” said Escobar, who added that she thinks Gosar should be expelled from Congress.

5/5 I’ve written to the FBI to get information about this problem. My letter is attached. Today young America First supporters like @NickJFuentes and tomorrow anyone else the regime dislikes. Secret tribunals and no ability to challenge in court is immoral. pic.twitter.com/ncHWgOvwkA

— Paul Gosar (@DrPaulGosar) May 13, 2021

In a May hearing on the Jan. 6 insurrection, Gosar pressed a witness on the death of Ashli Babbitt, the Q-Anon supporter who was shot when she forced herself through a broken window in the House chamber. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., introduced legislation to censure Gosar, but the measure went nowhere.

Anime video played to a young, male audience

The video Gosar posted Nov. 7 features a blood spattered screen framing the images of immigrants of color crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, followed by mostly white border patrol agents standing tall and proud. A series of words fill up the screen in quick succession: “drugs, crime, poverty, money, murder, gangs, violence, trafficking.”

After some shots of border patrol agents policing in cars and riding horses in the desert, the video cuts to an anime character first covered with Gaetz’s face, followed by Greene’s face, then Boebert’s, then Gosar’s. Gosar’s character then kills a man-eating humanoid wearing Ocasio-Cortez’s face, and then attacks with knives a big villain, who has Biden’s face.

Near the end of the minute-and-a-half video, the state flag of Arizona ripples over the screen with theme music still playing. The video ends with still shots of Trump, Gaetz, and then Gosar sitting in his office smiling with his feet on top of his desk. 

It’s a take on the intro to the anime show “Attack on Titan” that airs on Adult Swim, a programming block popular with younger men. The show is about humans – such as the one depicted as Gosar – who are under siege by a race of humanoids – depicted as Ocasio-Cortez – trying to take over their territory.

Braddock said the video promotes “the idea that immigrants pose a moral threat to the American way of life” – similar to the Great Replacement Theory – and “adds to the notion that immigrants are inherently violent, and need to be fought.”

In a thread on Reddit, users debated whether the post was funny or derisive to immigrants. Commenters on an anime magazine’s website questioned whether the person who made the meme had watched all seasons of the show.

Elizabeth Ann Yates, a senior researcher specializing in domestic radicalization at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, said the meme speaks to a decade of young people who grew up with memes and know that the show’s theme music represents a fight between good and bad. 

“People are looking for community and a sense of identity and shared ideas and friends,” Yates said. “Having these sort of inside jokes, basically – absolutely – makes people feel comfortable, makes them feel like they belong.”

‘Silly’ and ‘mean-spirited’ or a call to violence

Despite a decade of moving steadily to the fringes of the right, Gosar has won his past five elections with more than two-thirds of the vote, and largely escaped discipline in Congress until Wednesday.

Part of Gosar’s success is the district he chooses to run in. For his first race, in 2010, Gosar ran in a moderate district and beat a Democratic incumbent by 49.7 percent to 43.7 percent. The state legislature re-drew the district in 2012 to be more liberal, prompting the Democrat, Rep. Anne Kirkpatrick, to announce she would run to take back the seat, while Gosar opted to run for a nearby district that is deep red.

Even in 2018, when six of Gosar’s nine siblings appeared in an ad condemning his behavior, he won re-election with 68.2 percent of the vote.

“Not only do they put up with it, but some of them very fervently support it,” said Gosar’s youngest sister, Jennifer. “That district is a wonder of gerrymandering. I don’t know how Paul could lose it.”

Gosar’s brother, Dave, added: “If something really bothered you, you would want somebody different to take his place. He says what they want him to say, which is, ‘Kick all of the immigrants out, and don’t let anybody in.’”

Another of Gosar’s brothers, Tim, said he lays the blame at the feet of Democratic leadership, who until the anime video did not formally sanction his actions, and Republican leadership, who he said have been either mum or supportive.

“We’ve warned you now for three years plus, and I don’t believe you’ve heeded the warning,” Tim Gosar said. “Jan. 6 should have driven that home. It hasn’t, it doesn’t look like. This is another chapter of those thuggish, bullying-type tactics. And it needs to stop. And you need to do something about it.”

Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., called Gosar’s video “dumb,” “silly” and “mean-spirited” but rejected that it was a “call to violence.” He accused Democrats of not applying the rules of Congress “equally” between the two parties.

But Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., one of two Republicans who voted to censure Gosar, called it a sad day but a necessary step to say that “violence has no place in our political discourse.”

“I think that it’s very clear that his actions demand censure, and I don’t think this should be an issue about party, about partisan politics,” she said.