Last week, when voters in Montana elected Greg Gianforte to fill the state’s lone seat in the House of Representatives, even after he was recorded in a physical altercation with a reporter, many Americans – like me – were left to look on in astonished bewilderment.
There was an audio recording of the altercation. The reporter, Ben Jacobs of The Guardian, says Gianforte body-slammed him while he was simply doing his job, asking questions on the eve of the election. Gianforte’s camp issued a bogus statement basically blaming Jacobs for the incident, but that statement was not at all backed up by the audio.
There were witnesses. A Fox News crew was there, and as Fox’s Alicia Acuna wrote of the altercation:
“Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’”
She added: “To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.”
In a statement, the local sheriff’s department “determined there was probable cause to issue a citation to Greg Gianforte for misdemeanor assault.” Gianforte has to appear in court June 7 to answer the charge.
And yet, as The New York Times reported, “Voters here shrugged off the episode and handed Republicans a convincing victory.”
Three of the largest daily papers in Montana were aghast and withdrew their endorsements of Gianforte. But Republicans in Congress didn’t possess that courage of conviction. Their collective response essentially amounted to, “Eh.”
Other notably notorious Republicans went further. Babbling Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center wrote on Twitter:
“Jacobs is an obnoxious, dishonest first class jerk. I’m not surprised he got smacked.”
Interestingly enough, Bozell commented on Fox about Donald Trump’s hostile relationship to the media, saying: “What Donald Trump is saying is, ‘If you hit me unfairly, I’m going to knock your teeth out.’ And that’s what he’s been doing.”
This rhetoric is overheated, violent and dangerous.
The detestable radio host Laura Ingraham wrote in a couple of Twitter posts:
“Politicians always need to keep their cool. But what would most Montana men do if ‘body slammed’ for no reason by another man?”
And: “Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today and then run to tell the recess monitor?”
Outrageous. Assault is not a game. It’s not a joke. It’s criminal. Any moral person would know better than to treat it so cavalierly. A moral person wouldn’t make a joke; that person would take a stand.
But Republicans in the age of Trump have sadly moved away from morality as a viable concept.
Yes, Gianforte’s assault is a glaring display of toxic masculinity in an environment made particularly toxic by the man in the White House and his media bullying. But more telling and more ominous is the degree to which Republicans no longer seem to care, and their increasing ability to compartmentalize and justify.
This is all an outgrowth of Trump’s degradation of common decency. Trump was the gateway candidate. When Republicans allowed themselves to accept and support him in spite of his glaring flaws and his life lived in opposition to the values they once professed and insisted upon, they moved themselves into another moral realm in which literally nothing was beyond the pale.
It is a sort of by-any-means-necessary, no-sin-is-too-grave, all-facts-are-fungible space in the moral universe where the rules of basic human decency warp.
The moment that they allowed themselves to vote for a man who bragged on tape about assaulting women, appeared in at least two pornos, and once joked about dating his own daughter, they surrendered the mantle of morality.
When they allowed themselves to vote for a man who insulted Mexicans and Muslims, who mocked a disabled reporter, who called for executing the Central Park Five and who had “a long history of racial bias at his family’s properties, in New York and beyond,” according to an extensive report by The Times, Republicans surrendered the mantle of morality.
Republicans sold their souls to this devil and now are forced to defend as right what they know full well is wrong. They must defend his incessant lying, clear incompetence and dubious dealings. What was once sacrilege among Republicans is now sacrosanct.
It is in that context that Gianforte could be charged with assault and Republicans would pat him on the back instead of rapping him on the knuckles.
Republicans, blinded by fear and rage, thirsty for power, desperate for a reclamation and reassertion of racial power, have cast their lot with the great deceiver and all their previous deal-breakers are now negotiable.