We've been heading towards this moment for a long time. Donald Trump, American president, has for years endorsed violence from the rally podium, encouraging his supporters to punch protesters in the face and offering to pay their legal bills. Trump has long demonized the free press as The Enemy of the People, and described journalists in dehumanizing terms like "scum." He has blithely suggested he "hates these people"—reporters—but "would never kill them," a disgusting way to put the idea on the table.
So it was inevitable that we would arrive here. This week, his White House was reportedly working with the government of Saudi Arabia to absolve Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of involvement in the disappearance and reported murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who is a U.S. resident. On Thursday night, Trump took the stage for a rally in Montana and put a bloody icing on the cake:
President Trump praising Rep. Greg Gianforte for body slamming a reporter, a crime for which Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. pic.twitter.com/DS1z3YBE0C
— Axios (@axios) October 19, 2018
The President of the United States just praised his political ally for assaulting a member of the press, the same week that president's possible role in covering up the murder of a green-card-holding journalist comes under serious examination. (It was not enough that Trump may be covering for the Saudis because of his business interests, a conflict that would put him in violation of the Constitution and his oath of office.) Trump is referencing the incident where Congressman Greg Gianforte of Montana body-slammed a Guardian reporter, Ben Jacobs, the night before he won a special election to his seat last year. Gianforte was charged with assault and pled guilty to a misdemeanor.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders will surely say it was a joke, but it wasn't. The Ralph Steadman figures in the crowd were laughing, but it wasn't because Trump reeled off a snappy one-liner. These were the laughs of people who relish cruelty, who like to feel the power coursing through their veins when they're part of a movement now explicitly pledging to meet its opposition with violence—and which now has proto-brownshirt groups beating protesters in the streets of the nation's largest city.
Please share this video. People need to understand how dangerous Gavin McInnes and his gang the Proud Boys are.
Notify his employers @CRTV and @FoxNews. Maybe we can prevent him from getting someone else killed. pic.twitter.com/zp0VBrmciR
— Vic Berger IV (@VicBergerIV) October 17, 2018
It was something closer, perhaps, to the kind of laughs Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified to hearing as a 15-year-old, which the rally crowds unleashed once more when the president mocked her from the podium. And it was a response to the world's most powerful man endorsing political violence against reporters who question members of his movement and attempt to hold them accountable. Make no mistake: the crowd understood the president's message loud and clear.
The disturbing part of Trump’s jokes about Gianforte was the effect on the crowd. I saw one young man in the crowd making body slam gestures. He looked at me and ran his thumb across his throat. I talked to him after the rally was over. He couldn’t stop laughing.
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) October 19, 2018
It's hard to question anymore whether authoritarian regimes the world over are encouraged to flout international law and human rights with Donald Trump in the White House. The president does not just look the other way, he encourages it. He helps his kindred spirits avoid accountability, as it increasingly appears he and the Son-in-Law-in-Chief, Jared Kushner, are doing for the Saudis. Would the Saudis have dared attempt a crime of this brazen grotesquery—they reportedly lured Khashoggi into the embassy, tortured him, cut off his fingers, decapitated him, dismembered him, and possibly carried the pieces out in briefcases—all within the borders of Turkey, a U.S. ally, if Barack Obama or George W. Bush were president? Khashoggi was a critic of the Saudi regime, and the crown prince in particular. They seemingly felt free to assassinate him, almost in plain sight.
After all, the president himself is drifting, however consciously or instinctively, towards an authoritarianism all his own. He defends Vladimir Putin, who's frequently accused of murdering journalists and political opponents. He supports Rodrigo Duterte's extrajudicial killings of suspected drug traffickers in the Phillippines. And he endorses violence against those he sees as obstacles to his political agenda in this country.
His media apparatchiks are working overtime to suggest the opposition are calling for violence, propaganda they will one day use to justify their side's behavior. (Meanwhile, his allies in Congress have begun smearing Khashoggi as a terrorist sympathizer.) And let's be clear, the Proud Boys who beat people in the streets of New York last week are their side: their leader, Gavin McInnes, who has explicitly embraced violence as a political solution, was invited to speak that night at the Metropolitan Republican Club, a clubhouse for the establishment New York Republican Party. Meanwhile, it was just over a year ago that a man who'd been marching alongside white supremacists chanting the president's name in Charlottesville got in his car and ran it through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
You have to wonder what will happen if the president's party maintains control of both houses of Congress through the election next month. He will feel empowered, and firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller may well be the least of it.