Wednesday, on the eve of Montana’s special election for its congressional seat, Guardian political reporter Ben Jacobs approached Republican candidate Greg Gianforte. Jacobs wanted to know if Gianforte supported the American Health Care Act, which the Congressional Budget Office had just revealed would cause 23 million Americans to lose insurance.
Gianforte dodged the question, but when the reporter persisted, the candidate “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” according to an eyewitness account by Fox News reporters who were on the scene. Then Gianforte began punching Jacobs, who released audio of the incident.
Jacobs was taken to the hospital, Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault, and the special election is proceeding as previously scheduled, with no prominent GOP figures rescinding their support of Gianforte.
It’s appalling, but ultimately not surprising, that a politician allegedly assaulted a reporter who was merely doing his job. This is the result of the violent, anti-media rhetoric that President Trump has been spewing since early in his campaign. It’s a progression of — not an exception to — the current climate of the Republican Party under Trump’s leadership.
Throughout his campaign — and since his victory — Trump told his supporters the story of a crooked, “liberal media” conspiring to spread lies to take down him and his supporters. Trump has, in no uncertain terms, said that the media is the enemy and the “opposition party.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
Where was all the outrage from Democrats and the opposition party (the media) when our jobs were fleeing our country?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 30, 2017
I am not just running against Crooked Hillary Clinton, I am running against the very dishonest and totally biased media – but I will win!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 7, 2016
And at Trump’s campaign rallies, where violent incidents grew to be quite common, anger was often targeted at this agreed-upon enemy: the media.
In October, Paul Farhi of the Washington Post reported that the disdain for reporters at Trump rallies had turned into “outright hostility.” Members of the press contingent were met with boos, abusive slurs, and obscenities as they were merely trying to do their job.
“Reporters are now concealing or removing their press credentials when leaving the pen to avoid confrontations with Trump’s supporters,” Farhi said. “The atmosphere is particularly threatening to female reporters and to female TV reporters whose faces are well known, reporters say. (‘The camera draws the hate,’ as one put it.) Some reporters have wondered aloud about the need for more security, or at least more barriers to separate them from the crowd as they enter and exit Trump’s events.”
Trump sometimes even singled out reporters on the campaign trail, leading to targeted abuse and even death threats.
I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct. Instead I will only call her a lightweight reporter!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2016
People like @KatyTurNBC report on my campaign, but have zero access. They say what they want without any knowledge.True of so much of media!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2016
“MAYBE A FEW JOURNALISTS DO NEED TO BE WHACKED. MAYBE THEN THEYD STOP BEI[N]G BIASED HACKS. KILL EM ALL STARTING W/ KATY TUR,” one Trump supporter tweeted at NBC reporter Katy Tur after Trump repeatedly called her out during campaign rallies.
Tur wasn’t the only reporter who felt unsafe on the campaign trail.
“He was unhappy with some story I had done and he did a little impression of me on stage, and started talking about this terrible CNN reporter,” CNN’s Sara Turner said during the campaign. “Then he called me out by name. The next thing I knew, I had thousands of Trump fans turning around [and] jeering at me.”
In February, Paste Magazine published an article examining Trump’s impact on the media entitled “Should American Journalists Fear for Their Physical Safety?”
The lede summed it up: “Probably.”
It’s important to note that Trump himself has never body-slammed any reporters to the ground for asking a simple question about health care (though he did defend his then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was arrested and charged with simple battery of former Brietbart reporter Michelle Fields in March).
But the environment he cultivates around himself, and the casual rhetoric he uses —Trump once thanked his supporters for being “vicious” and “violent” in the lead-up to the election — has consequences.
As ThinkProgress has previously reported, Trump’s rhetoric fits into a pattern of what researchers refer to as “stochastic terrorism” — using suggestive language rhetoric to inspire radicals to carry out violent acts. In other words, it’s possible to spur others to violence without explicitly instructing them to do so.
And it’s not a coincidence that Gianforte was an ardent Trump supporter who went hunting with Donald Trump Jr. and campaigned beside Vice President Mike Pence. The Guardian’s Jacobs, who had covered the Montana special election extensively, reported before the alleged assault that Gianforte was “eager to embrace Donald Trump … and regularly talks about ‘making America great again’ and ‘draining the swamp.’”
It’s certainly not a surprise to see that Gianforte himself has “joked” about violence against the media in the past.
At one campaign event earlier this year, the Missoulian reported that a Gianforte supporter asked the candidate, “Our biggest enemy is the news media. How can we rein in the news media?”
After asking the question, the supporter turned to the reporter beside him and mimed strangling him. Gianforte reportedly smiled, before responding: “We have someone right here. It seems like there is more of us than there is of him.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter said of MT reporter assault, “It’s not appropriate behavior. Unless the reporter deserved it.”
— Mary Clare Jalonick (@MCJalonick) May 25, 2017
Ultimately, Gianforte might face zero political consequences for his actions.
Over half of registered voters in Montana cast their ballots before Wednesday. Gianforte’s opponent, Democrat Rob Quist, is still an underdog. Even though the race was tightening before Gianforte slammed a reporter to the ground, Gianforte could still win this election. And if he does win, it appears he’ll also be welcomed to Washington with open arms.
GOP leaders, including House Majority Leader Paul Ryan, are all still supporting Gianforte. Trump and Pence have not commented. Conservative pundits are spinning the story away.
Jacobs, who has also reported on Gianforte’s financial ties to Russia, approached a politician at a campaign event and asked a crucial policy question, one that Montana voters deserved to know the answer to.
In Trump’s America, that’s now viewed as a threat.