Last night, at his rally in Billings, Montana, President Trump singled out the state’s Republican member of Congress for praise. “I’ll tell you what,” said Trump, “This man has fought” — at this point, he lowered his voice into the slightly comic tone one uses to deliver an elbow–to-the-ribs punch line – “in more ways than one, for your state. He has fought for your state. Greg Gianforte. He is a fighter and a winner.”
Last year, Gianforte was the brief focus of national attention as a candidate in a special election, after Gianforte was asked by Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs about his party’s health-care plan, an issue he had dodged. Gianforte physically attacked Jacobs and slammed him to the ground. Later he lied to police about the incident.
Before there was Roy Moore, but after there was Trump himself, there was Gianforte. The episode was a test of the party’s willingness to stand behind even the most facially offensive and disturbing behavior for the sake of partisan interest. Would Trump support a member of Congress who physically assaulted journalists for asking policy questions he wished to dodge? Yes, he would. Would Paul Ryan and other House Republicans accept such a man as their colleague? Yes, they would.
And now Gianforte is, as Trump accurately attests, a “winner.” His voters and his party accepted him despite his crime. Indeed, it has added to his legend, supplied him with an identity that goes beyond the usually generic Trump tributes to his reliable supporters in Congress. Greg Gianforte, the fighter. And other Republicans vying for the affection of Trump and their party’s base, and perhaps also the legions of deranged people making wild threats against the media, can only draw the obvious conclusions about what their president is urging them to do.