Littwin: Was it Trumps’ fault the body-slammer won?
The body-slammer wins in Montana, meaning, apparently, we’re either one step closer to the apocalypse or to political reporters adopting concussion protocols. Or maybe both.
The critical post-election question, of course, is what it all means (other than Democrats losing yet another hyped special election, this one featuring Rob Quist, their banjo-playing cowboy candidate), and whether there’s any reason not to think it’s all Donald Trump’s fault.
Having watched any number of Trump’s political rallies, having watched demonization of the press rise to levels that Spiro Agnew never dared to dream, having purchased my very own “Enemy of the People” T-shirt, I’m good with blaming Trump for helping to create an atmosphere wherein body slamming a reporter is seen as political sport. But I’m a little unclear whether Trump is the source of the problem or simply the living embodiment of it.
I mean, Rush Limbaugh, who called the body-slammed reporter Ben Jacobs a “pajama boy reporter,” and Laura Ingraham, who wondered who stole Jacobs’ lunch money, were around long before Trump got to office. Trump didn’t create the anger dividing America. Like Roger Ailes, Trump just latched onto it and, in his case, rode it all the way to the White House. So the anger, the tribalism, the divide aren’t new. The Trumpian version, newly triumphant, is what’s new and what promises only to grow worse.
As South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, a Trump critic who has suddenly emerged from the wilderness as a Republican voice of reason, argues: “Respectfully, I’d submit that the president has unearthed some demons. … There is a total weirdness out there. People feel like, if the president of the United States can say anything to anybody at any time, then I guess I can, too. And that is a very dangerous phenomenon.”
In some ways, the story is less about Greg Gianforte’s body slam — in Colorado, we remember Doug Bruce kicking a photographer and Ken Salazar threatening to punch a reporter — than how the assault was received by those in his party, many of whom had nothing to say and some of whom actually rose in his defense. You had only to turn on CNN (but please, only in moderation) to see the debate over incivility devolve into, yes, a screaming match. Or head to your nearest Twitter feed. On mine, I caught reports of Rep. Duncan Hunter joking, “It was inappropriate behavior. Unless the reporter deserved it.”
Mike Pence, who campaigned for Gianforte, hid out all day Thursday to avoid having to comment. Sporting his best hangdog face, Paul Ryan spoke regretfully of Gianforte’s behavior, but said he’d gladly support him anyway. And after Gianforte won, Ryan basically welcomed the creationist billionaire with anger issues to the House, saying he was sure he’d have much to contribute, right after his assault trial, anyway.
In a great nugget from Italy, the latest stop on Trump’s world tour, we heard the president speak unprompted before a group of photographers of the “great win in Montana.” He did not elaborate. He just wandered away. But after the viral video of Trump in Brussels shoving the prime minister of Montenegro (yes, an actual NATO country) in a chin-jutting bid to move to the front of the photo-op pack, you’d expect him to appreciate the Montana political display of, as the sports announcers call it, physicality.
He must have been glad for the headlines anyway, temporarily distracting people from the Kushner news and from the chilly reception he had gotten for lecturing America’s longstanding allies on their defense spending. It was unfair, he said, to American taxpayers. Of course, the NATO spending goals were already under discussion, and Trump’s performance was pure theater, for which the reviews, we have to say, weren’t great. The dark speech looked especially bad in light of the leak of Trump’s phone call with Philippine president/murderous thug Rodrigo Duterte. That’s the one in which Trump praised him for his “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
We know what happened with the thug from Montana. Fox News reporters who witnessed the assault confirmed Jacobs’ audio version. We know Gianforte body-slammed Jacobs for the grave mistake of asking him about the new CBO score. We know he broke Jacobs’ glasses and that Jacobs had to go to a hospital for X-rays. We know, too, that Gianforte released a statement blaming “the aggressive behavior of a liberal journalist” and said that Jacobs had grabbed his wrist (he hadn’t). He must have been thinking of the Trump-Macron grip (and grip and grip) and grin.
In other words, Gianforte body-slammed a reporter and then, though his spokesperson, lied about it. And through the lie, he apparently raised $100,000 from energized supporters who supported Gianforte’s take on what some were calling Montana justice.
In his victory speech late Thursday night, Gianforte apologized to the crowd, sort of. He said owning up to your mistakes was the Montana way, sort of. Maybe if he said he’d donate the $100,000 to an anger-management clinic we might have taken the apology more seriously.
“Last night I made a mistake,” Gianforte told the crowd, “and I took an action that I can’t take back, and I’m not proud of what happened. I should not have responded in the way that I did, and for that I’m sorry. I should not have treated that reporter that way, and for that I am sorry, Mr. Ben Jacobs.”
The crowd cheered. They cheered when he mentioned the fight. They cheered when he apologized. Some shouted, “We forgive you.” No one shouted, “Lock him up.”
There were a few problems, of course with the apology. It wasn’t “an action.” It was an assault in front of witnesses against a reporter who was doing nothing more than his job. And then there was the blame-shifting lie, which went unmentioned and unapologized for.
No one can be surprised by that. Unembarrassed lying is the new truthiness. And if you want to blame the new era of brazen political lies on Trump, it’s hard to see how anyone could put up a fight.
Mike Littwin runs weekly in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.