Wednesday’s incident in Montana, where Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte allegedly attacked Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs — the altercation was caught on Jacobs’s digital audio recorder — has mostly been discussed in the political media in terms of how it will influence the outcome of Thursday’s special election for Montana’s House seat. (Which will likely have been decided by the time you read this.) But the fate of a single congressional seat is a lot less important than the larger implications of Gianforte’s actions and what Republican attempts to defend him mean in the nation’s already tense political environment.
As I’ve written about before on Salon, there’s a small but growing movement of President Donald Trump’s most avid supporters who are already organizing themselves around the valorization of political violence. What’s interesting about these “alt-right” wannabe street brawlers is that they invariably frame their violent impulses in terms of self-defense, arguing that they need to crack skulls and spray mace into crowds to protect themselves against violent revolutionary left-wingers.
But what’s clear is that these folks have adopted an extremely flexible view of what counts as left-wing violence that would justify, or even compel, permits, an over-the-top violent response. White supremacist Nathan Damigo sucker-punched a petite unarmed woman at a protest in Berkeley, California, but his supporters have tried to argue it was a necessary response to the supposed threat this woman posed to the alt-right protesters and to free speech as a concept. A couple behind the shooting of a left-leaning protester in Seattle on Inauguration Day also claimed the act was in self-defense, but witnesses and prosecutors say the couple was deliberately provoking anti-Trump protesters in hopes of creating cover for their violent desires. On message boards, the alt-right types don’t really try to hide the fact that they want to hurt people, and are eager for any excuse to do it.
Alt-right street fighters are a tiny fringe right now, and the danger they pose shouldn’t be needlessly exaggerated. But there are startling parallels between their rhetoric and what Gianforte and his supporters have said in seeking to defend or minimize his alleged actions.
The Gianforte campaign leaned heavily on the notion that he was simply acting in self-defense, painting a reporter for a well-respected mainstream newspaper as a “liberal journalist” who supposedly was engaging in “aggressive behavior.”
— Whitney Bermes (@wabermes) May 25, 2017
These excuses are easy enough to dismantle, as was done by Jeff Stein at Vox. So are the various attempts, collected by Salon’s Matthew Rozsa, of conservative commentators and Republican politicians to minimize, deflect or victim-blame in response to this violence.
But the issue here isn’t how transparent these efforts are, but that they are happening at all. Alt-righters have already been pushing this idea that brutal violence can and should be justified on often laughably thin claims of “self-defense,” and Gianforte’s rhetoric is an effort to mainstream that kind of rationalization.
This is all happening after many years’ worth of conservatives digging deep bad faith to justify all manner of police violence against black and brown people. During the campaign, Trump supporters flexed their rationalization muscles to defend their man for his “grab them by the pussy” comment and to defend his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, for grabbing a journalist by the arm. Trump just nominated John Bush, a blogger who has suggested that murder is an appropriate response to campaign sign-stealing, to be a judge on the Sixth Circuit. The lines for what might potentially “justify” violent retaliation are rapidly being redrawn by the day, and it’s not clear what, exactly, could count as a too-violent overreaction by the right.
Gianforte’s outrage, from the audio clip that Jacobs was able to get, appears to be motivated by anger that a journalist would dare to ask him questions at all. This attitude has been encouraged by Trump, who has deemed the press to be “fake news” and the “enemy of the people” and who talks about press inquiries as if they were a some kind of outrage on the level of violent behavior. Former FBI Director James Comey’s notes of a meeting with Trump apparently suggest that the president asked him about the possibility of arresting and jailing journalists for publishing leaked information.
Between the alt-right eagerly shifting the definition of what constitutes grounds for “self-defense” and this growing hostility towards the press, it’s not particularly surprising that a Republican politician could get it into his head that physically assaulting a reporter is an acceptable response to being asked a question he didn’t like. Nor is it any surprise that conservatives, drunk on increasingly violent hatred for journalists, contributed more than $100,000 to Gianforte in the 24 hours after the news broke about the alleged assault.
What’s needed now is for Republican politicians to offer full-throated condemnations of Gianforte, to send a signal that this is a line that should not be crossed. Unfortunately, there seems to be no real appetite for denouncing him. House Speaker Paul Ryan has coughed up some weasel words to say that there’s “never a call for physical altercations,” which half-implies that there’s some shared blame to spread around here, or that Jacobs may have done something aggressive or provocative.
But Republicans haven’t stood up so far against Trump’s many insults to our national dignity either, much less his leaking classified intelligence to the Russians, his multitude of lies or his bragging about sexual assault. There’s no reason to think they will take strong action to stop the escalation of political violence — unless they become convinced that doing so will make it easier to pass trillions of dollars in tax cuts for the rich.