By Robert Reich
On the eve of his election to the House of Representatives, Montana Republican Greg Gianforte beat up Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the “Guardian” newspaper.
What prompted the violence? Jacobs had asked Gianforte for his reaction to the Congressional Budget Office’s report showing that the House Republican substitute for the Affordable Care Act would result in 23 million Americans losing their health insurance.
Then, in the words of a Fox News team who witnessed the brutal attack: “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. … 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!’ Jacobs scrambled to his knees and said something about his glasses being broken…. To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte, who left the area after giving statements to local sheriff’s deputies.”
After the attack, Jacobs was evaluated in an ambulance at the scene and taken to Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital. Several hours later he left the hospital wearing a sling around his arm.
Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault.
Donald Trump’s reaction? In Sicily for the G-7 summit, he praised Greg Gianforte’s election as a “great win in Montana.”
For years, conservatives warned that liberals were “defining deviancy downward” by tolerating bad social behavior.
Donald Trump is actively defining deviancy downward in American politics. He’s making America meaner.
Last year, Trump said of a protester at one of his campaign rallies: “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
In a different era, when decency was the norm, House members would not seat a thug like Gianforte in the chamber. In the age of Trump, it’s okay to beat up a reporter.
Charlie Sykes, a conservative former talk-show host in Wisconsin, says “every time something like Montana happens, Republicans adjust their standards and put an emphasis on team loyalty. They normalize and accept previously unacceptable behavior.”
Gianforte’s attack on Jacobs was shameful enough. Almost as shameful was Gianforte’s press release about what occurred, written immediately afterward by his campaign spokesman, Shane Scanlon:
“Ben Jacobs entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions. Jacobs was asked to leave. After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined. Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.“
It was all a blatant lie, as confirmed by the Fox News crew that watched the whole thing. But under Trump, blatant lying is the new normal.
And a “liberal journalist” is the enemy.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, says that “by casting the press as the enemy of the American people, Donald Trump has contributed to a climate of discourse consistent with assaulting a reporter for asking an inconvenient question.”
It used to be that candidates and elected officials had a duty to answer reporters’ questions. We assumed that answering questions from the press was part of the job. We thought democracy depended on it.
But we’re now in the era of Donald Trump, who calls the press the “enemy of the American people.”
It was never the case in the United States that candidates or elected officials beat up reporters who posed questions they didn’t like. That was the kind of thing that occurred in dictatorships.
But “Trump has declared open season on journalists, and politicians and members of his Cabinet have joined the hunt.” says Lucy Dalglish, the dean of Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
More generally and menacingly, Trump has licensed the dark side of the American psyche. His hatefulness and vindictiveness have normalized a new meanness.
Since Trump came on the scene, hate crimes have soared. America has become even more polarized. Average Americans say and do things to people they disagree with that in a different time would have been unthinkable.
“I’d submit that the president has unearthed some demons,” says Rep. Mark Sanford, a Republican Representative from South Carolina. “I’ve talked to a number of people about it back home. They say, ‘Well, look, if the president can say whatever, why can’t I say whatever?’ He’s given them license.”
This is not only dangerous for our democracy. It’s also dangerous for our society. “There is a total weirdness out there,” says Sanford. “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.”
A president indirectly sets the norms of our society. Trump is setting them at a new low.