On Monday night, President Trump declared himself a nationalist. At a rally in Houston, he distinguished nationalists from “globalists,” people who, according to Trump, care more about the world than about their own tribe. Nationalism has a fascist pedigree, and Trump has a history of using race, religion, and ethnicity to turn the people he sees as real Americans—people who look like him—against those who have “Arab” or “Mexican heritage.” But violent nationalism, the kind that devoured Europe a century ago, couldn’t happen in America today, could it? A president wouldn’t encourage criminal violence against innocent people. If he did, his party wouldn’t stand for it.
Actually, it would. Trump has been testing the GOP’s tolerance for demagoguery that explicitly promotes brutality. And so far, Republicans seem willing to go along.
Trump has repeatedly invited his supporters to beat up protesters at his rallies. Initially, he implied that the protesters brought this on themselves by disrupting the rallies. But now he’s endorsing violence against people who simply ask questions. Last year in Montana, Greg Gianforte, a Republican candidate for Congress, assaulted a reporter, Ben Jacobs, who was asking the candidate about health care. Gianforte “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands,” “slammed him into the ground,” and “began punching” him, according to a Fox News correspondent who witnessed the attack.
The sheriff’s office announced that Gianforte would be charged with assault. Nevertheless, the next day, Montanans elected him to Congress. Two weeks later, Public Policy Polling asked a national sample of registered voters: “Do you think it is appropriate or inappropriate for Republican politicians to body slam members of the media?” Most people said no. But Republicans were closely divided.
Last Thursday, at a political rally in Montana, Trump mimicked and praised Gianforte’s assault on Jacobs. “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of—he’s my guy,” said Trump. The crowd roared its approval.
Now a phalanx is forming around the demagogue. Prominent Republicans are excusing or defending Trump’s remarks. Here’s what they’re saying:
1. No comment. To build support for political violence, you need potential adversaries within your party to clam up or look the other way. Trump is getting that from the GOP. CNBC says it asked Republican lawmakers, “including every Republican senator,” for reactions to the president’s comments. The network got no replies. Montana Public Radio asked Steve Daines, the state’s Republican senator, whether Trump’s remarks were wrong. Three times, Daines ducked the question—“You’ll have to ask President Trump that”—and his aide cut off the interview.
2. It’s not news. Americans are becoming accustomed to Trump’s erosion of norms. Their indifference, in turn, has numbed Trump’s former critics. On Sunday, Sen. Ben Sasse was asked on CNN about what Trump had said in Montana. “Most people tune most of it out,” Sasse shrugged. The president’s “amoralistic take” he explained, was already “baked in” to public expectations. When Sasse was pressed for his own views, he said Trump’s remarks were “not OK.” But he added, “There’s a danger in pretending each new rally is immediate, urgent.” What Sasse meant was that if you speak up every time Trump says or does something bad, people will get tired and ignore you. But that’s exactly how Trump has immobilized his critics: by repeatedly breaching moral boundaries, destroying the novelty of such attacks, and sapping opponents of the will to challenge him.
3. Nobody got hurt this time. If any Republican were willing to speak up against the rhetoric of violence, you’d think it would be House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was shot and gravely wounded last year by a man who was angry at Republicans. Instead, Scalise has written a series of tweets defending Trump. “Not one person harassed the numerous media reporters who were present,” Scalise said of the Montana rally. That argument glosses over the rally attendee who made a throat-slitting gesture at a CNN correspondent. It ignores the many rallies at which Trump’s followers have harassed reporters. It also ignores the assault on Jacobs. And that’s the point: to deflect attention.
4. It’s fun. Scalise says Trump was just “ribbing” Gianforte. Sasse says many people see Trump’s rhetoric as “playful.” Eric Trump, the president’s son, says his dad was just having “fun.” But the attack on Jacobs was no joke: It broke his glasses and sent him to the hospital for X-rays. It resulted in a guilty plea to misdemeanor assault. And when Trump congratulated Gianforte for the attack, he waved off the congressman’s embarrassment about it. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” said the president. So when Republicans call this incident “fun,” they’re not talking about joking at the perpetrator’s expense. They’re talking about joking at the victim’s expense.
5. It’s politically incorrect. “This is exactly why my father won: because so many people are so sick and tired of … the perfectly scripted politician,” Eric Trump argued during an interview on Fox News. What voters like about President Trump, said Eric, is that “he is un-PC,” willing to “joke about” the body slam. This is what Sen. Marco Rubio meant two years ago when he observed that Trump’s assault on political correctness was an assault on correctness. Taking assault seriously is PC. Therefore, in the upside-down ethos of defying PC, praising the assailant and making light of the assault is virtuous.
6. It’s strong. Alex Castellanos, a veteran Republican political strategist, says the president’s praise of the attack on Jacobs shows “Trump is all about strength. In an uncertain world where everything is falling apart, where people don’t know what to believe in, where everything is uncertain, you want someone to hold it together.” That’s what Americans want, Castellanos argued during a panel discussion on ABC’s This Week. “They want a president who projects strength.”
Sensing encouragement and no opposition from his party, Trump has pushed forward. A day after the Montana rally, a journalist asked him, “Do you regret bringing up … the assault on a reporter by a congressman?” Trump replied, “No. Not at all.” He repeated the phrase he had used to praise Gianforte at the rally: “He’s a tough cookie. And I’ll stay with that.”
A president can call himself a nationalist without hurting people. But if he also seeks to divide people by race, ethnicity, and religion, his nationalism becomes insidious. If he endorses violence, he puts people’s lives in danger. And if his party falls in line behind him, the ingredients for a catastrophe are in place. A day after Trump celebrated Gianforte’s assault on Jacobs, a Republican official in Montana called in to a radio show to say she would have gone further. “If that kid had done to me what he did to Greg, I would have shot him,” she said.
Don’t pretend it can’t happen here. It’s happening.