‘Rise in Violent Rhetoric’: Lawmakers in Both Parties Report Spike in Death Threats

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WASHINGTON — The voicemail begins innocuously enough. “Yeah, this voicemail is for Madison,” a man says, casually, as if he’s trying to get in touch with an old friend.

But then steel enters his voice. “I am armed. I am dangerous. And I know where you and your staff are.”

That threat against Madison Cawthorn was just one of thousands sent to members of Congress last year. It may not surprise many that Cawthorn, a North Carolina Republican who himself once urged his supporters to “lightly threaten” their representatives, inspired such vitriol. But controversy hunters like Cawthorn are hardly the only members of Congress facing a bombardment of death threats.

CQ Roll Call asked every member of Congress whether they had received a death threat since 2020. Of the 147 who responded, 110 — or about 75% — said yes. While more Democrats replied to our inquiry than Republicans, 95 to 52, death threats were pervasive among both parties: 74% of Democrats said they had received one, compared with 77% of GOP respondents. 

The threatened run the gamut of the House and Senate, from the hyper-partisan moths who fly toward the latest controversy to the little-known wallflowers toiling away in near anonymity. While prior reporting has tracked a spike in threats using yearly totals from the Capitol Police, our informal survey suggests just how widespread the problem has become.

“I don’t know many members of Congress who haven’t received a death threat,” said Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J.

Most congressional offices do not comment publicly on threats, but several members agreed to use their names, and dozens more replied on the condition of anonymity. Cawthorn’s office responded with the voicemail above but declined an interview request.

‘Gotten rid of’

Democrats described a wave of invective around the time pro-Trump rioters attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, saying it engulfed rank-and-file members, not just party leaders. “We’ve seen a 100% increase in death threats since Jan. 6,” said Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota.

Threats against Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania surged in 2021. “The greatest increase in threats came after the congresswoman ran the debate on a resolution to invoke 25th Amendment against the former president,” her spokesperson said.

Capitol Police estimate they reviewed 9,600 disconcerting messages and direct threats against members in 2021, an increase from 3,939 in 2017. The 2020 tally was 8,613.

Those counts include multiple threats against the same people, as well as nasty communications that may not cross the line into targeted threats. Our survey asked only about “death threats,” which capture just a portion of what lawmakers receive.

A spokesman for Indiana Democratic Rep. André Carson, who has received both kinds of messages, illustrated the distinction. After Carson, one of three Muslims in Congress, condemned Islamophobic comments made by Colorado Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert, he received a slur-soaked voicemail.

“This caller said Muslims would be gotten rid of,” his spokesperson said. “Unfortunately, many of these types of messages members of Congress receive, including this one, may not explicitly state the desire or intention to kill, and therefore may not officially be considered death threats by some law enforcement organizations.”

Capitol Police declined an interview request.

But at a hearing this month, Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger warned that with critical staffing shortages on the force after Jan. 6, in part because of the pandemic, it wasn’t easy to keep up. “We’re investigating the threats against Congress, but I will tell you we’re barely keeping our head above water for those investigations,” he told lawmakers.

‘Head on a swivel’

The threats against members of Congress don’t surprise Andrew Mines, a research fellow at George Washington University, who said both Republicans and Democrats have dehumanized their political opponents in recent years, characterizing them as malevolent perils rather than different-minded compatriots.

“No party is immune,” he said. “When members of your party bring that kind of dialogue … into the mainstream, sometimes it backfires.”

Congressional staffers usually bear the brunt of the verbal onslaught fired at their bosses. Sometimes, they’re the targets. One longtime Senate Republican aide, who asked not to be named to speak candidly, said he’s considered leaving the public sector.

“Hell, I think there’s not one of us in the office who hadn’t felt that at some time or another,” he said. “For a long time, living in the state, I told people I sold insurance because it’s easier than telling them you worked for Congress.”

Craig similarly worried threats will keep good people from running for office. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them run me off,” she said, referring to the individuals who have threatened to bomb her office and go after her kids. “But … if this were me today, and I were evaluating whether to run for Congress, I don’t know.”

The promises of violence have already led some members to retire. Ohio Republican Anthony Gonzalez, who voted to to impeach former President Donald Trump, cited his family’s safety as one reason for not seeking reelection.

Earlier reports suggested most threats against politicians come from conservatives and are aimed at Democrats. A Quartz analysis in 2018 that looked at cases going back to 1990 found about 75% of individuals charged for threatening politicians were right-wing. That same analysis found an overwhelming majority of threateners were white, male and suffering from some form of mental illness.

But Mines warned extremism is intensifying across the political spectrum, pointing to recent surveys showing more Americans on both ends believe political violence can be justified.

A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found 34% of Americans think violence against the government can be justified sometimes — a large increase from 23% in a 2015 CBS News poll and 16% in a New York Times poll in 2010. The recent survey also found 40% of Republicans and 41% of independents saw violence as acceptable, compared to just 23% of Democrats.

“The harassment doesn’t just come from the other side of the aisle,” said Stephanie Murphy, a moderate Democrat who announced her retirement just days after speaking to CQ Roll Call. “It’s from all angles these days.”

“It<meta charset="utf-8">’s basically head-on-a-swivel type stuff because it can come from people on the left, it can come from people on the right,” said the Senate Republican staffer. “You used to be able to at least tell where it was going to come from, reasonably left or right. Now it’s 360, man.”

Collateral damage

More than targeted assassination attempts, members and staff said they fear another mass shooting like the attacks that nearly killed Republican Whip Steve Scalise in 2017 or Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords in 2011.

“I’m afraid we’re heading toward not a great situation, to be honest with you,” said the Senate GOP staffer. “I mean Gabby Giffords — you don’t want to ever see that happen again.”

“It seems like when people go off the rails, their goal is to hurt everyone present — not just the member of Congress, but everyone present,” said one long-serving House Republican granted anonymity to be candid.

The members and staff CQ Roll Call interviewed echoed Murphy’s call for “toning down the partisan rhetoric.” But most seemed unwilling to unilaterally temper their own statements.

“There are folks in Congress just there to stir s— up, they’re not there to pass legislation,” said Pat Fallon, R-Texas.

Fallon recounted his first death threat experience. As a Texas state representative in December 2017, he shared a picture on his campaign’s Facebook page of a stick figure doodle of Texas kicking California in the junk. Fallon picked a particularly inopportune time to joke around, though: Wildfires had just begun to spread across California. The San Diego Union-Tribune soon ran a story: “As wildfires burn, Texas politician mocks California.”

According to Fallon, the doodle punctuated a series of posts criticizing California’s more liberal policies on immigration and criminal justice, but the paper never asked him to comment. The article inspired death threats. Fallon blamed the Union-Tribune. “Because they wanted the clicks, they wanted people to get enraged,” he said.

Fallon noted he’s called out other conservatives for spreading selectively edited videos of former President Barack Obama that make him appear to say outrageous things.

But when asked about Republican rhetoric around proposals like the sweeping social safety net and climate change package known as the “Build Back Better Act” and his own role in portraying Democrats as an existential threat to the country, Fallon didn’t back down: “It’s not just a slight disagreement. I do think it’s the road to socialism.”

“The new [Democratic] brand is hard left, like Cori Bush wanting to give convicted felons the right to vote while in prison,” he added, referring to the Missouri Democrat. “That’s a … Marxist position.”

Rank-and-file members in each party said they want leaders to guide them back from the partisan brink.

“It’s the national leadership in both parties,” said the veteran House Republican. “It’s making it hard … to do the people’s business.”

“I just don’t think that right now senior leadership in the House — majority or minority — speak to each other, let alone work with each other,” he added.

Craig said leadership needed to tamp down on intemperate rhetoric, but then focused her criticism on the GOP leader.

“[Kevin] McCarthy had every opportunity to condemn in the strongest possible terms the anime that Paul Gosar released killing one of my colleagues,” Craig said, referring to a video the Arizona Republican posted on Twitter showing a cartoon character with his face attacking another character with New York Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s superimposed head. “The fact that a party leader can just ignore this behavior in his ranks is normalizing it.”

McCarthy’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office did not address the members’ concerns. A House Democratic leadership aide said in an email: “There is enhanced security for members in the wake of 1/6. For example, [it’s] well publicized that Sergeant at Arms staff assists members with security needs at regional airports in the DC area. Also, there [is] now USCP regional presence.”

Reasons for hope

While extremism has slipped into mainstream discourse and support for violence has increased, Mines sees reasons for hope.

First, he said law enforcement at all levels — Department of Homeland Security down to local police offices — now take domestic terrorism seriously and are coordinating “to better monitor, understand and ultimately counter the different challenges that … we all face in the extremist threat today.”

Institutions beyond law enforcement, including Congress, are also starting to look at how to combat extremism before someone becomes irredeemably radicalized, Mines said.

Both Democrats and Republicans lamented how many voters, egged on by countless special interest groups and partisan media, now demand total resistance to the other party’s agenda.

“The one comment I’ve had made to me several times in 2021 from constituents back home goes like this: ‘Don’t vote for anything, don’t let them do anything,’” said the experienced GOP lawmaker.

A few people interviewed focused on the need to address the forces underpinning hostility to governance and compromise.

“The more vitriolic the message, the more money is raised, and the more attention is given,” Murphy said. “That incentive structure is really at the root of why some of these folks engage in this type of behavior.”

“The root cause is not that constituents are crazier than they used to be. We just have a system that spends all its time … riling people up,” the long-serving GOP lawmaker said.

“I know PACs were created in 1974 to take money from the parties, and I know McCain-Feingold and the Citizens United court case were designed … to give more opportunities for public speech and discourse,” he said. “But the net effect has been that you have members on both sides … saying things that are so shrill in order to maximize those $50 and $100 contributions.”

Despite it all, this House Republican remains optimistic, believing voters would stop wanting to burn it all down if the flood of propaganda dried up.

“This representative democracy is an amazing thing we have. It creaks, and it cracks, and it pops, and it can be under strain, but it’s still an amazing thing,” he said. “And if we ever let it go away … I just don’t know how we recreate it.”