WASHINGTON — Members of Congress have watched warily in recent years as threats and harassment against them have crescendoed, privately worrying that the brutal language and deranged misinformation creeping into political discourse would lead to actual violence.
The assault of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, inside their San Francisco home early Friday morning by an intruder who shouted “Where is Nancy?” and bludgeoned him with a hammer before being taken into custody by police seemed to confirm their worst fears, vividly bringing to life the acute danger facing elected officials amid a rise in violent political speech.
It revealed the vulnerabilities in security around members of Congress and their families — even for a lawmaker as powerful and wealthy as Ms. Pelosi, who is second in line to the presidency and has her own security detail — as midterm congressional campaigns reach their frenzied final push.
And it highlighted how Ms. Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House of Representatives and a longtime fixture of Democratic politics, has been increasingly demonized by Republicans. For the better part of two decades, she has starred in G.O.P. attack advertisements and fund-raising appeals that portray her as a partisan villain, and more recently has figured prominently in right-wing conspiracy theories about Democratic misdeeds, including QAnon.
She was a prime target of the rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — who hunted for her, calling, “Nancy, Nancy, where are you, Nancy?” — and has been a top recipient of an unprecedented stream of violent threats from far-right extremists who have come to view her as the face of the Democratic Party.
Nearly two years after supporters of former President Donald J. Trump invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6, inspired by his lies of a stolen election, sending members of Congress and the vice president fleeing for their lives, the toxic stew of violent language, conspiracy theory and misinformation that thrives in digital spaces continues to pose a grave threat.
“When we see things like what happened last night at the speaker’s home; when we see things like plots to kidnap governors; when we see overt acts ramping up; we see, frankly, a whole host of indicators suggesting that we’re really at a crisis point,” said Peter Simi, an associate professor at Chapman University who has studied extremist groups and violence for more than 20 years.
Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, who is among the most threatened members of the House, said the attack on Friday was a “realization” for her and her husband.
“We used to theoretically talk about what would happen if they found our children when they came to look for us; what would happen if they found our loved ones when they came to look for us,” Ms. Omar said on MSNBC. “Now we know.”
While threats have proliferated from every corner of the political spectrum, the Department of Homeland Security has warned that the United States faces growing danger from “violent domestic extremists” emboldened by the Jan. 6 attack, and motivated by anger over “the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives” — a reference to Mr. Trump’s claims that have been echoed by Republicans and right-wing activists.
The impact of conspiracy-laden forums that helped fuel the Jan. 6 riot can be seen at congressional town halls across the country, where Republican lawmakers often field questions based on disinformation from angry constituents convinced that they are facing not just political opponents with whom they disagree, but evil actors who must be destroyed.
“As we wait to hear more, every single American needs to be lowering the temperature,” Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, said in a statement on Friday. “This is increasingly obvious: Disturbed individuals easily succumb to conspiracy theories and rage — the consequences are bloody and un-American.”
Political violence is hardly a new phenomenon. Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, then the third-ranking Republican, was shot and gravely wounded in 2017 at a congressional baseball practice in a suburb of Washington, D.C., by a man with a grudge against Republicans; Mr. Scalise has said the presence of his security detail saved his life.
But since the attack on the Capitol, members of Congress have reported feeling increasingly vulnerable both in Washington and at home in their districts. The number of recorded threats against members of Congress increased more than tenfold in the five years after Mr. Trump was elected in 2016, according to figures from the Capitol Police, the federal law enforcement department that protects Congress, with more than 9,625 threats reported in 2021.
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Many of those threats have come from people with mental illness who are not believed to pose an immediate danger, a spokesman from the Capitol Police said, and even fewer of those threats result in an arrest or indictment.
But lawmakers have reported an increase in jarring confrontations that have sent them dipping into their campaign accounts to bulk up their security and minimizing their public footprint.
A man who had sent an angry email to Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington State, for example, repeatedly showed up outside her house, armed with a semiautomatic handgun and shouting threats and profanities. An unknown visitor came to the house of Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and smashed a storm window.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a senator or House member were killed,” Ms. Collins said in an interview earlier this year. “What started with abusive phone calls is now translating into active threats of violence and real violence.”
In a review by The New York Times earlier this year of more than 75 indictments of people charged with threatening lawmakers since 2016, more than a third of the cases involved Republican or pro-Trump individuals threatening Democrats or Republicans they found insufficiently loyal to the former president.
Nearly a quarter of the cases were Democrats threatening Republicans, many of them threats driven by anger over lawmakers’ support for Mr. Trump and his policies, including Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and one of his Supreme Court nominees, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
More than one in 10 of those cases featured threats against Ms. Pelosi, underscoring how she has been a prominent target for politically inspired violence.
The rest were difficult to categorize, considering the often disjointed and conspiracy-minded rationales given by people who resort to political violence against elected officials.
Authorities investigating the attack on Mr. Pelosi were looking into whether the suspect was responsible for blog posts by someone using the same name who had expressed antisemitic and other hateful views, including concerns about pedophilia, anti-white racism and “elite” control of the internet, Brooke Jenkins, the San Francisco district attorney, said.
Even rhetoric not followed by action can be frightening. In 2018, a Florida man called the office of Representative Brian Mast, Republican of Florida, nearly 500 times and threatened to kill his children over the congressman’s support for Mr. Trump’s family separation policy at the southern border.
J. Thomas Manger, the Capitol Police chief, testified to lawmakers earlier this year that the threats had overwhelmed his department. Each threat forwarded to Capitol Police is assessed for the potential for targeted violence and the immediate risk to the victim, and in some cases, they work in tandem with the F.B.I. to investigate.
“We’re barely keeping our head above water for those investigations,” Mr. Manger said. “We’re going to have to nearly double the number of agents who work those threat cases.”
A police spokesman later said the department had since met that goal. It has also opened two field offices in Florida and California, which have the most threats against members of Congress, and has hired an intelligence director tasked with improving data collection and sharing.
The attack on Mr. Pelosi will likely prompt new discussions among lawmakers about how to protect themselves and their families, especially those facing competitive re-election races who will be expected to heavily campaign in the last two weeks before the midterms. Many lawmakers had sought to reduce their physical footprint in their communities even before the assault by pivoting from in-person town halls to telephone events.
Members of Congress are allowed to use campaign funds to pay for home security systems and details, and they have spent a total of more than $6 million since the start of last year, according to an analysis by The Times of campaign finance and congressional data.
Mr. Manger sent a memo on Saturday to lawmakers and staff outlining the resources available to them through his agency, including an evaluation of home security and the option to request more frequent patrols in their neighborhoods in Washington and in their districts.
The attack on Mr. Pelosi, he said, “is a somber reminder of the threats elected officials and families face in 2022.”
Stephanie Lai and Charlie Savage contributed reporting from Washington, Alan Feuer from New York and Kellen Browning from San Francisco.