President Trump ripped off the Band-Aid on Thursday night during a political rally in Montana. After tiptoeing around Rep. Greg Gianforte’s (R-Mont.) 2017 assault on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs during a rally in September (“I will tell you what, this man has fought in more ways than one for your sake”), Trump explicitly praised the action this week.
“Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy,” Trump said to cheers, adding that although he thought Gianforte assaulting a reporter might hurt the candidate’s chances, he reconsidered. “I know Montana pretty well,” he said. “I think it might help him.”
Response to Trump’s comments, like the response to everything else in America at this point, was polarized. Members of the media were among those astonished that a president would explicitly praise a politician attacking a reporter. Some supporters of the president, though, were quick to engage in a bit of comparative rhetoric, highlighting the en vogue argument that it’s Democrats who are promoting political violence. (Trump himself rather ironically made this case during his speech, saying, at one point, “Democrats produce mobs. Republicans produce jobs.”)
In the interest of clarifying the national conversation, let's evaluate why Trump's comments might be considered substantially different than specific examples of violent or violent-ish rhetoric on the left.
☐ Is the person speaking celebrating an actual act of violence? First, it’s important to differentiate between rhetoric that embraces making someone uncomfortable and rhetoric that encourages someone to be physically hurt. There’s a difference, for example, between saying that someone should be confronted in a public place and saying that it’s good when someone is assaulted.
There's also a difference between violent imagery and actual violence. When former attorney general Eric Holder made headlines for modifying Michelle Obama's famous slogan to “when they go low, we kick them,” it's clear he wasn't actually encouraging Democrats to kick Republicans. There are lots of analogies to war and fighting in politics, a trade where lots of people like to come off as tough guys. There's a difference between saying “stomp on your face with golf cleats” and “a guy who body slammed a reporter is my kind of guy."
It doesn't really need to be said that actual incidents of violence are, of course, worse than loosely encouraging them. But the effect of that encouragement can be more broadly problematic, depending on who's doing the encouraging.
☐ Is the person promoting an attack on a specific group of perceived political opponents? There’s also a difference between his praise of Gianforte and Trump’s past comments encouraging his rally audiences to attack particular individuals (as when he told an audience in 2016 that if they saw someone throw a tomato at him to “knock the crap out of them”).
Trump is speaking approvingly of violence against a group that he has, in the past, disparaged as “enemies of the American people.” Someone acting out at a campaign rally is not someone whom a Trump supporter on the street might be able to readily identify and target.
Encouraging people to identify and confront Republican senators is this sort of targeting, certainly. Which is why checking all of these boxes is significant: Encouraging attacks on groups of elected officials would be much more problematic, for obvious reasons.
☐ Is the person speaking about violence at a moment of heightened sensitivity for that group? Trump has been under fire this week for slow-walking a response to the strong likelihood that a key leader in an allied nation ordered the killing and dismemberment of a journalist who lived in the U.S. It’s a moment, in other words, when Trump’s response to violence against journalists is under heightened scrutiny.
Why is that significant? Consider the criticism of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin that emerged shortly after the shooting of former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Palin’s PAC had used a common political shorthand — a targeted race, complete with target icon — which in the context of the Giffords shooting took on a more nefarious-seeming meaning. There was no link between the Palin mailer and Giffords, but the mailer — which came out before the shooting — attracted new scrutiny in a moment of heightened tension.
In this case, Trump is making comments approving of attacking journalists after the attack on Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
☐ Did the person speaking take an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States? For all of Trump’s embrace of the Second Amendment, he seems a bit less committed to the precepts of the First, including the freedom of the press. The freedom of the press means not only that members of the media can publish newspapers or opinion articles but also that the government will not take actions to try to curtail that publishing, including by disparaging the press as enemies and nodding at violence against them.
A Trump supporter like the one mentioned by CNN's Jim Acosta above approving of violence against the media is one thing. But Trump took an oath to defend the freedom of the press, making his comments about Gianforte more problematic.
☐ Is the person speaking someone whose words carry weight and influence? The preceding point is, to a large degree, a more complex version of “is the person speaking the president of the United States”? This one is even more specifically that.
Lots of people can make comments encouraging violence obliquely or directly, but very few can do so from the platform of the presidency. Any complaint about Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) saying Cabinet members should be confronted or pointing to other elected officials who are using inflammatory rhetoric must recognize that there’s a difference between those people and the president. Trump is an atypical president in many regards, but the presidency is the presidency and people in the United States and around the world understandably accept his words as representative of the U.S. government.
When the most prominent and powerful voice in the United States says, explicitly or implicitly, that attacking anyone is fine by him, the message has resonance that it doesn’t when some random person or even some other elected official does. That Trump is president *matters*.
It’s fair to note that this list establishes very specific guidelines that no other person or incident could match. But that’s the point: Trump’s comments about Gianforte’s actions, especially coming at this moment, are incomparable to other rhetoric.