Precisely one month before the presidential election, The Washington Post released audio of then-candidate Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women.
As the shocking tape spread rapidly across the internet, the media largely assumed the race was over — that admitting to sexual assault would be disqualifying, that we could never elect a man who jokes about violence. It wasn’t, and we did.
Trump chalked his comments up to “locker room talk,” and his supporters followed suit. They insisted this is just the type of banter we should expect of boys and men, this is just the normal stuff guys talk about when girls are not around. Many Republican officials did condemn the tape, but most did not abandon him.
The message sent to the American public was clear: Abuse isn’t fantastic, but it’s not that big of a deal, either.
The expectation of basic respect for other human beings diminishes when harmful values are valorized from the top down.
Fast forward seven months, and a GOP House candidate is dealing with the aftermath of reportedly body-slamming a reporter. According to an audio recording and eyewitness reports, The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs attempted to ask Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte, who is running in Montana’s special election, a question about his stance on the GOP health care bill in light of the Congressional Budget Office score.
Fox News’ Alicia Acuna, who was in the room, had this to say about what happened next: “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.”
“I’m sick and tired of you guys!” Gianforte yelled at Jacobs.
The incident is horrifying, yet given the current political climate, the negative rhetoric about the press, and the attitudes of the man who now sits in the White House, it’s not totally surprising. Americans placed a vessel of toxic masculinity into the highest office in the nation, and now we’re watching the inevitable trickle down.
Montana’s Billings Gazette rescinded their endorsement of Gianforte Thursday morning, noting how his past behavior must be looked at differently now.
“We’d point out that all the other questionable interactions Gianforte had with reporters, including one case where he joked about ganging up on a reporter, must now be seen through a much more sinister lens. What he passed off as a joke at the time now becomes much more serious,” wrote the Gazette’s editorial board.
Of course, Gianforte’s previous “joke” about wringing a reporter’s neck was no cause for alarm. Because this is what happens when the country rejects a zero tolerance policy when it comes to physical violence. This is what happens when we give abuse a pass. This is what happens when the President of the United States repeatedly calls journalists “enemies of the American people” and encourages his supporters to harass them.
Americans placed a vessel of toxic masculinity into the highest office in the nation, and now we’re watching the inevitable trickle down.
No, Donald Trump did not singlehandedly cause Gianforte to become violent, and Gianforte may have lashed out in the same way if someone else were President of the United States. But Trump has undoubtedly encouraged an atmosphere in which groups he targets become victims of violence.
“In the past three weeks, political reporters have described being arrested, pinned against a wall, slapped, and now body-slammed,” HuffPost’s Michael Calderone notes.
It remains to be seen whether Gianforte or his Democratic opponent, Rob Quist, will win the race. What we do know, is that the conversation surrounding the acceptability of physical violence has shifted since 2015.
A reporter was trying to hold a candidate accountable by asking questions ― an action that’s both routine to the function of journalism and necessary for democracy ― and somehow his assault has become a partisan issue, something to debate, something to “take a side” on. Supporters and pundits aren’t rejecting Gianforte’s behavior wholesale, and that’s because the culture our president and his leadership team enforce has given them permission not to.
BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel noted the praise he’s seeing on Twitter from Trump supporters:
Fox News’ Laura Ingraham went so far as to compare Jacobs to a tattle-tale child, and asked what other Montana men would do if body-slammed, implying that “real men” fight back:
And as the Associated Press’ Mary Clare Jalonick reports, a GOP Congressman from California had this to say:
The notion that being a man requires using brute force to get what you want, what you believe you deserve ― whether that be a woman’s pussy or the ability to dodge a tough policy question ― is all part of one toxic masculine package. These ideas existed before Trump and they will outlast him, but the expectation of basic respect for other human beings diminishes when harmful values are valorized from the top down.
As the narrative surrounding the election goes: It’s not that Trump’s supporters voted for him because he was an abuser, they voted for him despite that. But the unfortunate truth is that intent doesn’t matter. The result is still the same, and a man who brags about sexual violence and calls the press an “enemy” is now running the country. A legitimization of dangerous ideas about what it means to be a man was always going to be part of the package deal.
Greg Gianforte’s assault of a reporter is one more manifestation of Trump culture. This is the country we live in now.