Congress narrowly averted a federal shutdown on Saturday, voting to continue funding the government for 45 days. The move was a massive defeat for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and House Republicans, who had sought to condition funding on both draconian spending cuts and permanent changes to immigration policy before ultimately folding and passing the extension with Democratic votes, and may trigger the speaker’s ouster in the days to come. But the right’s disciplined propaganda apparatus, which is laser-focused on grabbing attention via feigned outrage and largely uninterested in policy outcomes, has come to McCarthy’s rescue.
Right-wing media influencers and pundits spent the weekend trying to refocus the public’s attention on a Democratic member of Congress who blundered by pulling a fire alarm in a House office building during the voting process. They have accused Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) of “insurrection,” comparing his actions to those of participants in the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, as part of Donald Trump’s attempt to subvert the results of the 2020 election to remain in power. This comparison’s moral bankruptcy is a feature, not a bug, serving to drive more attention to the right’s claims — and away from McCarthy’s failure.
Here’s a small sampling of the widespread right-wing schtick:
- Fox News contributor Mollie Hemingway: “Former school principal and current Democrat insurrection participant Jamal Bowman lies regarding his criminal act, telling reporters he believed pulling fire alarms opened doors.” [Twitter/X, 9/30/23]
- Human Events streamer and Pizzagater Jack Posobiec: “Congressional immunity does NOT apply to Jamaal Bowman as interfering with Congress and breaching the peace is INSURRECTION.” [Twitter/X, 9/30/23]
- Donald Trump, Jr.: “If they don’t charge Rep Bowman, with a crime for endangering the lives of those in the capitol & obstructing congressional proceedings then they better let every single J6er that’s rotting in prison for nonviolent offenses out with an apology & compensation right fucking now!” [Twitter/X, 9/30/23]
- TPUSA streamer Benny Johnson: “🚨🚨🚨 BREAKING: Insurrectionist Democrat Rep. Jamaal Bowman has been CAUGHT ON-CAMERA pulling the Capitol fire alarm seconds before critical vote to keep government open. Violation of 1512(c)(2) obstruction of an official proceeding. ARREST & Prosecute Rep. Bowman IMMEDIATELY!” [Twitter/X, 9/30/23]
- Fox host Mark Levin: “Bowman is a liar who attempted to obstruct an official proceeding of the House of Representatives and should prosecuted for obstruction!” [Twitter/X, 10/1/23]
- Influential right-wing influencer Catturd2: “Good morning to every except lying insurrectionist Jamaal Bowman who should be held without bond for 3 years with no trial then given 22 years in prison - also, every person involved in the coverup story should get RICO charges, hauled into jail, and be given a mugshot.” [Twitter/X, 10/1/23]
- Fox host Rachel Campos-Duffy: Bowman “disrupted a proceeding and there are Republican voters sitting in jail in D.C. right now for having done that.” She also claimed that he felt entitled to do so because he feels he is “the right race” as a Black man. [Fox News, Fox & Friends Weekend, 10/1/23]
McCarthy, the most extreme members of his caucus, and much of the right-wing media are united by their commitment to downplaying the January 6 insurrection. As Tucker Carlson put it earlier this year after McCarthy gave him access to security footage from the events of that day, “the overwhelming majority” of the Trump supporters present at the Capitol were “orderly and meek,” and only a “small percentage” of the people present at the Capitol were “hooligans” who “committed vandalism.”
The right has previously sought to stir up a political storm by making inapt comparisons that minimize the events of January 6. But even by their own low standard, comparing Bowman’s actions to January 6 is morally abhorrent.
On Saturday afternoon, Punchbowl News’ Jake Sherman — perhaps the mainstream reporter with the most access to McCarthy and his circle — posted on X, “Capitol Police are circulating this photo of a man pulling the fire alarm in Cannon. Looks a lot like Jamaal Bowman.”
Republicans and their right-wing media allies quickly converged on the narrative that Bowman had pulled the alarm in an effort to help Democrats slow down the voting process in the House (they had been trying to buy time so they could review the continuing resolution, which Republicans wanted to vote on immediately after it had been filed). If that were the case, Bowman’s actions (while obviously well short of insurrection) would merit punishment, as institutions cannot function if their members are able to halt proceedings in that manner.
But notably, this theory doesn’t make sense on its face. Bowman pulled the fire alarm in the Cannon House Office building, where his office is. It’s unclear what “proceeding” he would have interrupted — his actions caused the alarm to sound in the Cannon building, which was evacuated, but not the Capitol, where votes are held.
Bowman subsequently released a statement, in which he explained his actions as follows: “Today, as I was rushing to make a vote, I came to a door that is usually open for votes but today would not open. I am embarrassed to admit that I activated the fire alarm, mistakenly thinking it would open the door.” He apologized for his mistake, adding, “I want to be very clear, this was not me, in any way, trying to delay any vote.”
Bowman’s explanation — that he was rushing, got flustered when he came to a door that was unexpectedly locked, and made a dumb mistake — is consistent with reports that members of Congress often try to go outside to get from their offices to the Capitol for votes, and Cannon’s doors are closed and alarmed on weekends, when members of Congress are typically not present. Moreover, photos posted on X show a set of confusing signs at that door.
While McCarthy has promised Bowman will face “punishment” for his actions, McCarthy's Democratic counterpart, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), has said that he’s waiting to see video of what happened before making a judgment. It would seem that video would do much to clear up the events, as footage could show Bowman struggling to figure out how to get out of the door before pulling the alarm. But while the still image of Bowman pulling the fire alarm first circulated Saturday afternoon (and was in heavy circulation Sunday on Fox), the video — which is controlled by the speaker’s office — remains under wraps.
Who benefits from this confusion? It’s McCarthy, who avoids a reckoning over his leadership, and the right-wing propagandists who make their living off outrage and grievances.