Faced with the growing threat of right-wing extremism, progressives are exploring fresh ways to help protect their highest-profile allies in Congress.
Key supporters who helped elect Democratic officials are using their rank-and-file networks to aggressively target Republicans in their home states, with the ultimate goal—in some cases—of creating a pressure campaign around expulsion. They are also calling for more government-sponsored security on Capitol Hill, and some are discussing plans to further press tech companies to remove radicalized content before harmful rhetoric turns into dangerous action.
The discussions come after several progressive members recently expressed concerns about feeling unsafe serving in Congress.
“The entire time that I worked with Alexandria we were concerned about her safety,” said Corbin Trent, a former top staffer who helped launch Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) bid in 2018. “You’re getting things from the Capitol police about the people that have threatened your life that day… It’s some sick fucking shit. And it’s not just random internet trolls.”
“Having a couple police officers hanging out with some of the most vulnerable and high-profile members I think makes sense,” Trent said.
The desire for more precautions has been clear for some time. Democratic members of color, in particular, experienced terrifying threats under former President Donald Trump and have said publicly that their experiences as officeholders are tied to the scare of violence. That perspective became even more apparent this week.
Ocasio-Cortez took to Instagram live during a late-night streaming session to share an intensely personal account of her traumatic experience during the Jan. 6 insurrection. She admitted hiding inside her office building and bathroom and, at one pivotal moment, bluntly said she thought she was going to die.
“I felt that if this was the journey that my life was taking, that, I felt that things were going to be okay, and that, you know, I had fulfilled my purpose,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Monday night.
By Wednesday, a stream of Republicans had used Twitter to accuse the New York congresswoman of lying about her location while being locked inside the Capitol complex. One newly elected official, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), cast doubt on her claims by tweeting: “My office is 2 doors down. Insurrectionists never stormed our hallway. Egregious doesn’t even begin to cover it.”
Ocasio-Cortez responded by calling it a “a deeply cynical & disgusting attack” and followed by questioning her credibility. “Wild that @NancyMace is discrediting herself less than 1 mo in office w/ such dishonest attacks,” she tweeted. “She *went on record* saying she barricaded in fear. @NancyMace who else’s experiences will you minimize? Capitol Police in Longworth? Custodial workers who cleaned up shards of glass?”
Mace, a freshman Republican, previously said that she felt “threatened” during the riots, telling NPR the day after the event took place that “it was scary” and “at one point, the Cannon Office Building, where my office resides, was evacuated due to threats.” She used the word “anarchy” to describe the scene.
The back and forth between the two members was part of a growing sense of partisan animosity that has lingered since last month’s riot. Now, with the House vote to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) of her committee assignments and Trump’s impeachment looming, right-wing media figures are ramping up attacks on the most outspoken progressive members.
Republicans, in defense of the bombastic freshman, refocused their attention on a favorite target: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). In a reference to Omar, Greene tweeted that Democrats “marry their brother to get him in our country,” an Islamophobic hoax endorsed by many on the right without a scrap of evidence.
Omar has faced criticism from congressional Republicans and the House leadership of her own party for past remarks about Israel and monetary influence from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which they contended were anti-Semitic. Republicans, who petitioned for Omar to be removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2019, reinvigorated that effort this week. Omar called it “whitewashing.”
But most of their attention has focused on Ocasio-Cortez’s recent account of her own experiences. Her critics on the right dubbed her “Alexandria Ocasio Smollett,” a reference to Empire star Jussie Smollett allegedly faking a hate crime against himself.
Like Mace, One America News personality Jack Posobiec, a prolific promoter of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory and other hoaxes, claimed that Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t close enough to the Capitol building to be worried about her own safety. In a tweet that went viral on the right, Posobiec posted a map of the Capitol complex that he claimed proved Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t near the rioters. Ocasio-Cortez disputed Posobiec’s diagram, pointing out that it failed to illustrate the size of the rioting crowd or the fact that they had attacked multiple entrances to the Capitol complex.
Posobiec’s assertion that only people in the Capitol itself were at risk is also contradicted by an OAN special hosted by Posobiec himself. In late January, OAN aired an “investigation” that focused on accounts of the riot from other staffers, two of whom were in lockdown in the Russell Senate Office Building during the riot. OAN correspondent John Hines told Posobiec that he saw a woman fleeing in the Russell Building, suggesting that people in the congressional office buildings had reason to fear for their safety.
The Capitol grounds continue to be a target for those sympathetic to the pro-Trump insurrectionists, underscoring the ongoing nature of threats. National Guard troops, along with thousands of police officers, still patrol the area, and some have advocated that the barbed-wire fences that were quickly erected to encircle the seat of government be made permanent. On Jan. 27, a West Virginia man was apprehended by police just steps from the Rayburn House Office Building—he was carrying a firearm, ammunition, and papers endorsing election fraud conspiracies.
“We’ve heard from a number of members who have genuine concerns about their safety who get routine and repeated threats. It seems obvious that when elected officials get those kinds of threats, the House ought to provide for people’s security needs,” said Joe Dinkin, national campaigns director at the Working Families Party. “Not everybody has the ability to pay for that privately.”
Ocasio-Cortez shared a similar concern on Thursday while speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill.
“I don’t think that members should be using campaign funds, and then asking for donations, in order to get security when they feel that that’s necessary,” she said when asked if she needs more security. “That’s an ongoing conversation. I think that’s something that the Congress hears and that we’re just trying to figure out.”
Inside the building, tensions are continuing to flare between the parties over safety issues. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) decision to install metal detectors at the entrance points to the House floor—to check members for firearms—has enraged Republicans, who have flouted the measure, even at the risk of newly approved fines. Democrats believe the extra security is warranted, given the ties of new GOP representatives to far-right groups, and their preference for carrying weapons.
Before those threats can have a chance to materialize in person, however, activists point to cyber communities where violent plots and rhetoric are already rampant. From the outside, some are discussing plans to apply new pressure to Twitter and other social media companies.
“We were talking about this yesterday in a DM group,” said Sawyer Hackett, a senior adviser to former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro. “Putting together a group of people who have an influence that can identify potential misinformation or violent extremist organizing taking place on a platform and then en masse reporting it.”
Hackett said his informal discussion included others who worked on Democrat campaigns who have significant social media followings that could be used as a potential component of a broader approach to helping enhance security for at-risk members.
“I don’t think we can separate the work to monitor social media from the work that organizers are doing to put pressure on the GOP caucus to hold members accountable,” he said. “That is part and parcel of the strategy.”
Other progressive advocates are targeting prominent Republican members on their home turfs in an attempt to build momentum and consensus around the notion of expelling them. MoveOn and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), two activist-led outfits boosting top figures in the House and Senate, are workshopping a variety of accountability measures around removal. The PCCC purchased billboards in Texas and Missouri, where Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley live, to enhance the initial moves by Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) and other officials to remove lawmakers who most vocally supported fraud conspiracies.
Ocasio-Cortez specifically called out both GOP senators, who are not up for re-election until 2024, during her Instagram live appearance, saying that she gave them ample opportunity to apologize for their role in inflaming the violent riots.
“We’re making sure that every time Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley go home, they can’t escape accountability for inciting insurrection against America and voting to overturn our democratic election,” said Adam Green, the PCCC’s co-founder. “The cries are getting louder for them to be expelled.” The group recently added a new billboard in Tyler, Texas, where one of Cruz’s Senate offices is located. A recent poll released by MoveOn and Data for Progress found that 51 percent of voters in Texas support Cruz’s resignation.
Beyond Ocasio-Cortez, Bush has said she feels constantly threatened just weeks into her first term. Before her election victory, Greene voiced support for violence against members of Congress, including a 2019 “like” of a Facebook comment calling for Pelosi to receive “a bullet to the head.” When Greene, as Bush described it, “berated” her while walking down the hall, she decided to physically move offices. Since then, Greene appears to have become more emboldened, fundraising off of her controversy and clashes with Democratic members.
“What we’re seeing is the Republican Party, instead of being committed to removing the problem in their own party, they’re actually gaslighting the situation and embracing it,” said Rahna Epting, executive director of MoveOn. “It’s one thing to have a home security system so you know someone is outside your door trying to break in. But ultimately, you need to get that person off your property.”
Greene, even in the thick of the maelstrom, remained undeterred.
“We owe them no apologies,” Greene tweeted. “We will never back down.”