President Trump once declared at a campaign rally that he hates some of the journalists who cover him but that he “would never kill them.”
That might be the only limit on media bashing in politics these days.
Republican Greg Gianforte won Montana’s lone congressional seat in a special election Thursday, one day after he allegedly grabbed a reporter by the throat and slammed him to the ground.
I say “allegedly” because, although Gianforte has been charged with misdemeanor assault, he has not been convicted. But his actions aren’t really in dispute. The Gianforte campaign’s initial statement on the altercation blamed the reporter, the Guardian’s Ben Jacobs, for “aggressively” holding a recorder up to the candidate’s face and asking “badgering questions,” but it did not deny what Jacobs characterized as a body slam.
The message was basically this: Yeah, I did it, but that liberal journalist deserved it.
Many voters apparently agreed. NBC News reported that donations poured in to the Gianforte campaign after the manhandling. The election vote tally is still being finalized, but FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver observed that “it looks as though Gianforte won the early vote (before the incident) by something like 5 to 10 points and the Election Day vote by about the same margin.”
Silver pointed out that early voting often favors Democrats, so the fact that Gianforte did not fare better on Election Day than he did in early voting could indicate that he did pay some small price for scuffling with a reporter.
It is clear, however, that Wednesday’s ugly episode in Bozeman was not a dealbreaker for a lot of voters. In fact, the only thing that seemed to bother some of Gianforte’s backers was his decision to issue a public apology to Jacobs during a victory party speech Thursday night. The Washington Post’s David Weigel and Elise Viebeck described the scene:
Some in the crowd laughed at the mention of the incident. “I made a mistake,” said Gianforte.
“Not in our minds!” yelled a supporter.
CNN captured the same sentiment at the victory rally:
After Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault, Screnar said she was only “more ready to support Greg.”
“We’ve watched how the press is one-sided. Excuse me, that’s how I feel. making him their whipping boy, so to speak, through this campaign,” Screnar said. “There comes a point where, stop it.”
Her husband, Terry, chimed in that he believed Gianforte was “set up.”
Let’s just remember that Gianforte’s anger was triggered by a request for comment on the Congressional Budget Office’s newly released score of the Republican health-care bill — perhaps the most basic, inbounds question a politician could face. It is truly staggering to consider that some voters believe Gianforte’s violent response to such an inquiry was justified.
Yet with voters saying their trust in the press is at an all-time low, politicians’ attacks — both verbal and physical — now seem easily forgiven or even rewarded.
Trump, of course, is the ultimate example of this phenomenon. Candidates, especially Republicans, always complain about media coverage, but Trump set a new standard for getting personal and nasty. His favorite media target during the GOP primary was Megyn Kelly, then of Fox News, and when she confronted him about his hostile behavior in an interview last May, Trump showed little remorse.
“I could have maybe used different language in a couple of instances,” Trump said. “But overall, I’d have to be very happy with the outcome. And I think if I didn’t conduct myself in the way I’ve done it, I don’t think I would have been successful.”
Trump won. So, what does he have to be sorry about? The same logic could apply to Gianforte.