As It Happens·Q&A

Republican who led 'Fire Pelosi' campaign calls on politicians to tone down the rhetoric

Doug Heye, who once led a Republican fundraising campaign to fire Nancy Pelosi, is now calling on both U.S. political parties to tone down their rhetoric in light of a violent assault against the House Speaker’s husband. He spoke to As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

‘Normalizing threats of violence’ could bring the U.S. to ‘a point of unravelling,’ says Doug Heye

A close-up portrait of an older woman with a brown bob, dark lipstick and a string of pearls.
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was the intended target of a recent assault against her husband, prosecutors say. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The man who once led a Republican fundraising campaign to fire Nancy Pelosi is now calling on both U.S. political parties to tone down their rhetoric in light of a violent assault against the House Speaker's husband.

Paul Pelosi, 82, husband of U.S. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, is in critical condition after a man broke into the couple's San Francisco home and struck him in the head with a hammer, fracturing his skull.

Prosecutors have charged Canadian-born David DePape, 42, with assault and attempted kidnapping. They say he broke into the home in search of the politician, intending to kidnap her and break her kneecaps.

Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, has long been vilified by some members of the public and the media, especially Republicans, who have branded her with derisive nicknames, including "Darth Pelosi" and "Crazy Nancy."

Doug Heye played a role in the anti-Pelosi rhetoric. As former communications director for the Republican National Committee, he helped spearhead a fundraising campaign around calls to have her fired. 

Now he's speaking out against what he calls "toxic politics." Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

I'm wondering, Doug, what were your thoughts were when you heard about the attack on Paul Pelosi?

The first thing was shock and sadness. Sadness, because obviously he was injured, and critically so. And shock because of 1) These things are always shocking, but also 2) That somebody would be able to break into the house of, not just the Speaker of the House, but the No. 2 in line to the presidency [after the vice-president]. I've worked a lot with Capitol Hill protective detail for leadership, and I would have assumed that that House would have been secured.

And then, again, just real sadness over what happened to Paul Pelosi specifically, and what's happening to us collectively as a nation.

What does this attack signal to you about what's happening to you collectively as a nation?

What we're seeing is just more and more overheated rhetoric that's inspiring people to try to commit violent acts. And this time it was Paul Pelosi. Previously, it was somebody arrested in front of [U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Brett Kavanaugh's House. It was the kidnapping plot of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer [and] the shootings of [Republican Rep.] Steve Scalise and [former Democratic Rep.] Gabby Giffords.

We're seeing more of this. And my biggest fear is that so far we've been lucky that none of these attacks have been successful. At some point, one of these is going to fall through the cracks and somebody's not going to get hurt; they're going to get killed. And that makes, I think, our political discourse even more important, and even more dangerous.

An older man and woman stand smiling side by side in front of a black door with the number 10 on it.
Pelosi, left, and her husband Paul Pelosi, in London in 2021. The U.S. Speaker's husband had his skull fractured during a home invasion. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

You wrote in your opinion piece in the Washington Post, "As a Republican, I know the original sin begins with us." What part did you and the Republicans play in where your country is right now?

I think it really comes from what we saw in the early rallies with [former U.S. president] Donald Trump, where he was openly advocating violence: The "knock the hell" out of them, I'll pay your bail if you beat somebody up. And this kind of fervour that he incited to, you know, scream at people you disagree with, scream at journalists [and] confront people.

And yes, we see that on the right and on the left. But nobody had the power and the command and the attention that Donald Trump did in a way that made the Jan. 6 attack not just possible, but inevitable.

You talk about even before all of that and the "Fire Pelosi" efforts that you were a part of. Why was the discourse in that vein? You know, instead of attacking people on policies, attacks were very personal coming from your party, and others as well. But why have the Republicans taken that route for so long?

I think both parties do this. It's that our party, especially under Donald Trump, has done it a lot more and a lot louder. 

You know, with the "Fire Pelosi" campaign, it was a pretty obvious place to go politically. We were talking about a Republican takeover of the House. We launched it the day that the Obamacare bill passed the House. And the thing that a lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill would tell you is nobody thought that that passed because Nancy Pelosi was incompetent. It's because she's extremely effective in her job.

But in retrospect, after what we saw on Friday, I don't draw a straight line to it — just as I wouldn't when [Senate minority leader] Chuck Schumer was talking about the whirlwind that Brett Kavanaugh was going to reap directly led to somebody being arrested in front of his house with a gun.

But you can start to draw crooked lines to that. And with a media environment and a social media environment today that's dramatically different than what we had 10 years ago, or certainly 15 or 20 years ago, I think it's more important for everybody to try and be as responsible as they can in their rhetoric.

What are you doing now, or what can you do now, to try to change things?

The first thing for me is to try and look in the mirror and [ask], you know: What did I do that, you know, helped? What did I do that hurt? And how can I change and improve that?

And then, obviously, writing and talking about that as much as I can with colleagues, Republican and Democrat, you know, about where we've gone wrong and how we can improve that in the future.

And my biggest fear is that, while I've gotten good feedback and some negative feedback, certainly, from friends and colleagues, Republican and Democrat, in the media our current political incentive structure rewards the loudest and the angriest voices. 

Since the attack on Paul Pelosi, we have seen jokes about it, even conspiracy theories coming from some folks. How do you deal with that?

These aren't necessarily fringe voices that people don't pay attention to. You know, the jokes were coming from Donald Trump Jr. Conspiracy theories were coming from Donald Trump. We had members of Congress tweet things out making light of this. And that's appalling.

And, again, part of why we should know better is that this could happen to anyone — anyone in public life, whether you're talking about a president, a senator, or as we're seeing, a board of elections official in a local county.

And that's part of what my concern is, is that this normalizing of threats and violence, the revelling in it after the fact, it puts us in a very dangerous place. And we're coming out of a dangerous place as well from Jan. 6 and just kind of coming out of COVID to where we all have an increased anxiety and isolation and so forth. We're in a tender place right now, and one of these attacks being successful could put us at a point of unravelling.

What do you need to hear these parties say and do that will actually make a difference?

Part of it is less. Just say less. You don't need to tweet a joke. And that shouldn't be your initial thought. You don't need to tweet anything other than rightful condemnation of that, and calling for us all to do better.

You really need to step back and not fill the space with noise that often is ugly.

Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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