One hundred and sixty-one years ago, in retaliation for a blistering speech against slavery, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a gold-tipped cane on the Senate floor until he was unconscious. The unapologetic Brooks (“Every lick went where I intended”) audaciously resigned his seat, and then was promptly re-elected in the subsequent special election, proving his constituents had his back.
Northerners were appalled, but Southern newspapers leapt to Brooks’ defense. The Richmond Whig hailed the caning as “a most glorious deed”; the Examiner said Sumner “ought to have nine-and-thirty [lashes] every morning.” The shocking attack, and the South’s fulsome embrace of it, became a rallying point for the abolitionist movement and fueled the rise of the nascent Republican Party. Sumner, who suffered lasting physical and emotional damage from the assault, did not fully return to the Senate for four years.
Conservative radio host Glenn Beck has long warned that a polarized America would eventually suffer another violent and divisive “Charles Sumner moment.” Last June he said, “Mark my words. It will be someone like Ted Cruz or Louie Gohmert that gets the cane to the head. It will be a self-righteous progressive that will beat a liberty person almost to death.”
Close, but not quite. It was a testy conservative named Greg Gianforte who is said to have beaten a journalist, or as the president would say, a member of the “opposition party.” Like Preston Brooks, Gianforte found immediate validation from his constituents at the ballot box. And he earned the approbation of President Donald Trump, who interrupted his trip to Italy to hail the “great victory in Montana.” (It should be noted that House Speaker Paul Ryan urged Gianforte to apologize, which he did—after he won.)
Without Gianforte’s alleged misdemeanor assault, he still would have won; we now know that before the incident he had already banked a healthy lead in Montana’s sizeable absentee vote. In turn, political observers would have likely concluded that the Trump base was holding fast despite swirling scandals. Champions of Bernie Sanders-style populism would have a tougher time claiming they held the key to turning red states blue, though optimists would hold out hope that the single digit margin of victory is a sign of weakening support for Republicans. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, goaded by “50 State Strategy” progressives to put some money behind their nominee Rob Quist despite the state’s red hue, would have greater justification to save cash for more competitive districts instead of throwing money at longshots.
All such analyses still have merit, but are secondary to a more unsettling conclusion: America’s already destabilizing political polarization has only gotten worse since November.
Gianforte’s Election Day vote share appears to be a little smaller than his early vote share (FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver cautions that the composition of Election Day voters and absentee voters is not identical, making comparisons difficult), but he kept his lead. Montana Republicans willingly, in some cases gleefully, sent a man to represent them in Washington who attacked a journalist for no other reason but asking a question he didn’t want to answer.
Gianforte’s solid win makes Trump’s election seem like less of a fluke. Trump encouraged beatings of protesters and was caught on tape bragging about groping women. But one might have surmised he won in spite of that, thanks to his celebrity and showmanship, as well as Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street ties and politician persona. But maybe we should be contemplating the awful possibility that perhaps he won because of it.
The personalities in the Montana race could not be any different than the presidential race. Gianforte was not a charismatic candidate – he couldn’t win the governor’s seat on the same day Trump won the state by 20 points. Quist, a country musician well-known statewide, was an authentic, relaxed and pure prairie populist. He had few of Hillary Clinton’s virtues, but he also had few of her liabilities.
Gianforte didn’t win in spite of his violent outburst. He channeled a rage against the media that Trump routinely stokes. “You’re lucky someone doesn’t pop one of you” one Gianforte voter told a CNN reporter on Election Day. A caller to Rush Limbaugh’s show from Billings insisted, “If every Republican candidate in the country picked up a reporter and threw him to the ground, it would increase my chances exponentially of voting for them.” Another caller from near Missoula told Rush, “I’m all for what Gianforte did to that, however you called him, sleepywear Pajama Boy. It’s about time that people started sticking up for our side. If enough of this happens, those reporters are gonna learn to back off a little bit.” Keep in mind that the question the Guardian’s exceedingly polite Ben Jacobs asked was about Gianforte’s reaction to a CBO report.
The palpable antipathy has less to do with journalistic quality than tribal loyalties. The largely college-educated scribes are treated, fairly or not, as representatives of a cultural elite that sneers at working-class whites who lack bachelors degrees. Democrats were on the losing end of this culture war in 2016 thanks to the Electoral College. Those who thought some economic populism and down-home folksiness would bridge the cultural divide got a rude awakening on Thursday night.
Quist, who campaigned in a ten-gallon hat, gamely tried to claim the mantle of “Montana values,” but Republicans still yoked him to coastal liberalism. After a report that Quist had once performed at a nudist colony, one super PAC ad snarked, “He’s not interested in Montana values. He’s more interested in Hollywood values.” He was also hit hard for not always paying his taxes, which Quist futilely tried to explain was a result of financial troubles following a botched surgery. But even that was treated as evidence of his ties to national Democrats: “Can you trust Quist and Pelosi with your money?” charged another super PAC ad.
As neither an upbeat Montana country singer nor a gun-toting Kansan could yield red-state breakthroughs in this year’s special elections, Democratic hopes will now return to Georgia’s Jon Ossoff, who faces Republican Karen Handel in a June 20 runoff. Unlike Quist and James Thompson, the buttoned-down Ossoff is running in highly educated, somewhat racially diverse suburban district that Clinton almost won in 2016. Ossoff leads in a recent poll, winning big with moderate and minority voters. If he pulls out a win, that would suggest Democrats hoping to take the House will have more success focusing on what New York Times’ Nate Cohn called the “Sun Belt” track: the “relatively well-educated, metropolitan districts with above-average Hispanic populations.”
Thursday night was more evidence that the anger from Trump’s base, however irrational and misdirected, has yet to subside. Montana’s “Charles Sumner moment” won’t lead America into another civil war. Jacobs, who is urging his supporters to direct donations to the Committee to Protect Journalists rather than an online fund set up to buy him new glasses, will probably be OK. But the incident may convince Democrats that some divides cannot be bridged anytime soon.