In late February, the internet was aflame with speculation that the shape of the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida was a secret nod to the Nazis. Like most topics of conversation on the internet, this was a stupid waste of time. And the focus came with an important opportunity cost, as it buried a real story about a real sitting congressman, Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar.
Gosar had spent that same weekend, in the same city, attending and speaking at a shadow conference organized by white nationalists. Addressing the America First Political Action Conference, Gosar gave an anti-immigrant warmup speech to the conference’s organizer, Nick Fuentes. Fuentes was at both the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and told the conference that they needed to protect America’s “white demographic core.”
Gosar has spent much of the year toiling as a B-story to the shinier objects sowing mayhem on the right. Following Jan. 6, much of the focus for Trump’s enablers landed on rally speakers like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene—the shiniest object of all—or Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks or North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn. But it was Gosar who was most closely involved with the characters planning “Stop the Steal” rallies, starting with rallies in his home state of Arizona and building to the Ellipse rally in January. “Once we conquer the Hill,” Gosar said at a December rally in Arizona, “Donald Trump is returned to being president.”
Gosar faced no immediate punishment for that, nor for speaking at the white nationalist conference in February. In April, he was linked with an effort to start an America First Caucus in the House that, according to a draft memo, sought to defend “a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions” and, among other things, call for an infrastructure that “befits the progeny of European architecture.” While his colleague in that since-abandoned effort to start the caucus, Greene, had already been punished by a House vote to strip her of her committee assignments for her history of conspiracy theories and threatening statements, Gosar just kept sliding. He maintained his standing on the Natural Resources Committee, a valuable résumé item for any member from Arizona.
What finally brought Gosar to the forefront—and to the vote Wednesday to censure him and strip him of his committee assignments finally—was an edited anime video that he tweeted in early November.
It’s not as if Gosar only began tweeting baffling material now. His feed has never read as well adjusted. But early last week, Gosar posted an altered anime video that depicts a likeness of himself stabbing a likeness of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the neck and leaping with two swords at a likeness of President Joe Biden. It was, as he has tried to explain both in public statements and in awkward speeches to the House GOP conference, a metaphor for the need to address surges of immigrants at the border. The counter, though, is that he could’ve chosen a better metaphor to rail against the administration’s border policies than one in which he kills a colleague who faces constant streams of death threats.
Gosar’s initial statements responding to the firestorm were to explain the metaphor. “The cartoon depicts the symbolic nature of a battle between lawful and unlawful policies and in no way intended to be a targeted attack against Representative Cortez or Mr. Biden,” he said in a statement. “It is a symbolic cartoon. It is not real life. Congressman Gosar cannot fly. The hero of the cartoon goes after the monster, the policy monster of open borders.” He would later compare the calls for his punishment to the criticisms Charlie Hebdo magazine faced in 2015 for its depiction of the Prophet Mohammed, something which led to a massacre of the magazine’s staff.
After a chitchat with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, though, Gosar ultimately took the video down. As he said in his floor speech Wednesday, ahead of the censure vote, “I voluntarily took the cartoon down not because it was itself a threat, but because some thought it was. Out of compassion for those who generally felt offense, I self-censored.”
But it wasn’t just the cartoon. The decision to punish Gosar—a decision that one can only assume Democrats did not make on a whim, given that it is the first censure of a member since 2010—is inseparable from Jan. 6, Gosar’s so-far-overshadowed role in the planning and hyping of the events of the day, and Democrats’ heightened alert of violent rhetoric at the top of the Republican Party inspiring violent actions from elements of its base. At the censure proceedings, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer observed that “piercing tweets become sharp knives, words bring out firearms, and cartoon killing begets real-life bloodshed.” Florida Rep. Ted Deutch, the Ethics Committee chair, noted that “just 10 months ago this chamber was attacked in an act of brutal, bloody savagery.”
“The threat against members is real,” he said, “and it is growing.”
There were few direct defenses of Gosar from Republicans. The typical GOP member’s speech during the censure debate began with some throat-clearing that while they may not have posted that video, this censure was a sideshow, a distraction from the Democrats to cover for bigger problems under their watch like inflation, an overrun border, supply chain woes, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Texas Rep. Louis Gohmert said that while he watched the offending video in “freeze frame,” he still couldn’t tell that Ocasio-Cortez was the one being stabbed. (Nevertheless, he said, “if that was supposed to be her, that was really unfair.”) After the vote—which passed 223 to 207 with all Democrats and two Republicans, Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney, voting in favor—a dozen or so Freedom Caucus members stood with Gosar in solidarity, with Greene asking, to no one in particular, “What about Eric Swalwell, sleeping with a Chinese spy?” Numerous Republican speakers in their floor remarks said that censures of Democrats, and their removal from committees, will be flying when Republicans retake control of the chamber.
Censures are essentially symbolic. It’s a recorded reprimand from your colleagues for ethical transgressions. But members still treat a censure as grave punishment, a stain they can’t rinse out. Perhaps that’s because while a member who’s censured is free, following the censure, to proceed with their normal job duties, they first have to undergo a medieval public shaming. The censured member must walk to the well of the House, before all of his colleagues, and have the resolution of censure read before them. For Gosar, this meant hearing about his “threats of violence against the president of the United States and a fellow member of Congress.”
Speaking of that member: Ocasio-Cortez, the target of Gosar’s metaphor, spoke at the censure proceedings as well, saying that “as leaders of this country, when we incite violence with depictions against our colleagues, that trickles down into violence in this country.” As the vote was about to be gaveled shut, Ocasio-Cortez moved to the front row of the chamber, taking a prime seat to watch as Gosar, at long last, got the close-up he deserved.