Opinion writer

At a moment when his administration is trying to wriggle out of imposing any kind of accountability on a friendly yet dictatorial regime that apparently just had a dissident journalist brutally murdered, President Trump decided it would be a good time to go before a crowd of supporters and celebrate an assault on an American reporter. Here’s what happened:

President Donald Trump on Thursday openly praised Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) for assaulting a reporter in his bid for Congress last year, as the United States faced an unfolding crisis over missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who is believed to have been killed by Saudi Arabian agents.

The remarks from Trump at a campaign rally — staged at an airport hangar here with a mountainous backdrop — drew boisterous cheers from the conservative crowd, who applauded as Trump noted of Gianforte: “By the way, never wrestle him.”

“Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy,” Trump said.

Gianforte pleaded guilty to assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, an altercation that occurred in the final days of Gianforte’s special election race in May 2017 when Jacobs tried to interview him about the GOP health-care plan. The then-candidate grabbed Jacobs, threw him to the ground and punched him. Gianforte subsequently won the special election, and later pleaded guilty, receiving a six-month deferred sentence.

We should note that in addition to assaulting a reporter because he asked him a question about health care policy, Gianforte also lied to the police, claiming that Jacobs had grabbed him and they both fell to the ground. After an audio tape of Gianforte’s assault was made public, he dropped the lie and admitted his guilt.

Anyone who watched Trump’s rallies during the 2016 election is well used to the fact that not only did the president regularly advocate violence, he talked about it with longing (“I’d like to punch him in the face”), lamented when protesters weren’t beaten sufficiently (“Maybe he should have been roughed up,” “Part of the problem, and part of the reason it takes so long, is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore, right?”) and instructed his followers to commit their own acts of violence (“If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, okay. Just knock the hell — I promise you I will pay for the legal fees, I promise”). Asked about all that, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “The president in no way, form or fashion has ever promoted or encouraged violence.”

Just as important as the fact that Trump says these things is the response from his supporters. You can see it in the video: When he reminds them of the assault on Ben Jacobs, they laugh and cheer, exactly the response Trump anticipates. Which is why I want to point to another part of what Trump said:

Trump recalled that as he was traveling in Rome last May, he heard that Gianforte had body-slammed a journalist shortly before voters went to the polls in his closely contested election race — and initially thought the altercation would damage Gianforte’s prospects.

“Then I said, ‘well wait a minute, I know Montana pretty well. I think it might help him,'” Trump told the crowd in Missoula. “And it did.”

While I doubt that Trump actually knows Montana well, what he does know is the Republican Party. And he was right about Gianforte. Not only did he win, but before that election was over he got enormous support from conservative media figures, who characterized the bizarrely unprovoked attack as an act of admirable masculinity, while mocking the reporter as insufficiently testosterone-fueled:

  • Rush Limbaugh called Gianforte “manly and studly.”
  • Fox News contributor Rachel Campos-Duffy praised Gianforte for dispensing “Montana justice.”
  • Laura Ingraham tweeted mockingly, “Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today and then run to tell the recess monitor?”
  • “What kind of a wuss files charges over broken glasses?” asked another conservative columnist. “Someone who wants to influence an outcome, that’s who.”

Trump is in many ways an ignoramus and a fool, but he has one extraordinary political talent. Like a migratory bird perceiving the Earth’s magnetic field, Trump has an uncanny sense for where to find the worst in people, particularly people on the right: their fears, their resentments, their hatreds, the things that will move them to a venomous and gleeful rage. Time and again when many in his party worried that something he (or someone else) said or did would be politically disastrous, Trump would be able say to them, “Don’t worry. The base is going to love this.”

He proved it in 2016 when every other Republican presidential candidate was dancing around the immigration issue and he busted in saying Mexican immigrants are rapists, build a wall, and ban the Muslims, which turned out to be exactly what the base wanted. And he keeps proving it. He knew the Republican base far better than the party’s leaders did, because he understood how twisted their hearts really were.

When you see Trump praising a violent assault committed by a Republican congressman to laughter and cheers, and at the very same rally pretending to be horrified that “The Democrats have truly turned into an angry mob,” you might wonder whether the assembled crowd notices their own hypocrisy. But they just don’t care. Trump has instructed them that worrying about stuff like that is for wimps. Those who criticize him or even point out inconvenient facts — Democrats, journalists — are not just wrong, they’re enemies.

Against enemies no tactic is out of bounds. You can lie about them, you can stir up the most vile hatred against them, you can encourage violence against them, you can even assault them, and none of it matters so long as you win. These are the principles that every fascist and authoritarian operates by, and they have become core principles of today’s Republican Party.

I picture Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman watching Trump in action and then asking himself, “Gee, I wonder if that guy really has a problem with me ordering the murder of a journalist I didn’t like?” And then he laughs and laughs.