Did you hear the one about the banjo player at the nudist camp?
It turns out this gag actually has no punch line. Instead, it’s a body slam. In fact, it’s the body slam — the one just administered by Montana’s newest member of Congress, Republican Greg Gianforte, upon the person of Guardian newspaper reporter Ben Jacobs a few hours before the polls closed in Big Sky Country on election night. Like all events of great national moment, this one has at least a couple of Santa Barbara reverberations that are fairly significant.
Montana voters went to the polls last week to elect their new congressmember because President Donald Trump had appointed the one they had — Ryan Zinke — to head the Department of Interior. Zinke’s wife, Lolita Hand, grew up in Santa Barbara, and in recent years, the Zinkes have hosted at least one big-ticket political fundraiser in their Santa Barbara digs. One of Zinke’s media gurus, Fred Davis — famous for his insanely creative political commercials on behalf of Republican candidates — also happens to live in Santa Barbara. As Secretary of Interior, however, Zinke has a major say over such things as offshore oil development, so his involvement in anything — however tangential — is of keen interest.
For those of you inclined to despair because of the Montana election, hold off. The results should not be regarded as the end of western civilization. They are, in fact, a very mixed bag and need to be taken with large doses of salt. That a candidate as bad as Greg Gianforte managed to win — and he was worse even than the body slam suggests — could only happen because his Democratic challenger, Rob Quist — a folk singer and, yes, banjo player — was a non-stop self-destruction derby of epic proportion.
When it was revealed, for example, that Quist hadn’t paid property taxes over the course of six years, he sought to explain his way out of it by claiming he’d been laid up from complications of a badly botched gallbladder surgery. For one entire year, Quist explained, he hadn’t been able to work at all. The facts turned out to be starkly otherwise. Much of that year, Quist, it turned out, had performed with some frequency at Idaho’s Sun Meadow Nudist Resort. It’s not clear from press accounts how the band was attired. Quist, it turns out, had sued his gallbladder surgeon for malpractice. But that lawsuit disappeared after his surgeon countered in court documents that the problems Quist blamed on malpractice could just as easily have stemmed from certain pre-existing conditions, like genital herpes.
As overused and much abused the term “optics” has gotten in recent televised political discourse, genital herpes certainly qualifies as a bad one. So too does chronically not paying taxes, lying about not working, and filing what appears to have been a spurious medical malpractice lawsuit. Playing banjo at a nudist colony was probably the least of Quist’s optical issues. In terms of more mundane problematics, Quist was brand spanking new to politics, and it showed almost every day. Rather than embrace the big tent approach, Quist shunned more mainstream party support and adhered almost exclusively to the pro-Bernie tail of the Democratic comet.
That someone so inexperienced, so inept, and so damaged could come within six points of Gianforte, a highly successful software mogul who’d just run for governor, suggests Montana’s special election was a slug fest between the really awful and the even worse. It definitely does not indicate a resounding affirmation of the Trump agenda — whatever that is — or of Trump himself, even though Gianforte aligned himself with Trump every chance he got. Trump returned the favor by doing a robo-call on Gianforte’s behalf. Donald Trump Jr. made multiple in-person appearances. Mike Pence and Ryan Zinke also showed up.
At a time when health care and Russian interference qualify as the two hottest issues in American politics, it would be reporter Ben Jacobs who pushed both those buttons with Gianforte. Earlier in the campaign, Jacobs discovered that Gianforte had about $250,000 invested with a fund that in turn invested in a couple of Russian investment portfolios that had been targeted by federal sanctions due to their role in the Ukraine after Russia had launched its non-acknowledged invasion in 2014. From a strictly legal perspective, Jacobs would write, Gianforte broke no laws. But with the Russian involvement in American politics such a volatile issue, it clearly posed major smell-test questions about morals, values, and judgment.
On the day of the now infamous body slam, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had released its revised scoring for the revised Republican health-care reform bill — the one House Republicans recently managed to pass as part of the campaign to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Up to that point, Gianforte’s comments about the Republican proposal were ambiguous; he absolutely opposed the Affordable Care Act and supported its repeal, but he was less than clear with what.
The CBO report makes for grim reading. The punch line is that 23 million people who now have health insurance under the Affordable Care Act will no longer be covered as of 2020 if the Republican plan were to be passed by the Senate. Medicaid spending would be cut by $834 billion, tax credits and other subsidies used to help people acquire private insurance by $276 million. Likewise, the Republicans would repeal about $665 billion in taxes that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) had imposed on the nation’s wealthiest in order to cover increased costs generated by the ACA. Premiums would go down for the young and healthy under the Republican plan, but they’d go up dramatically for those who were older or ill.
The Republican plan would obliterate provisions written into the ACA protecting those with pre-existing conditions. It would repeal the ACA’s ban on lifetime spending caps. Lastly, the Republican plan would dramatically dilute ACA language mandating what kind of services had to be included in any health insurance policy. So yes, some premiums would go down, but only because health policies would be required to provide so much less. Out-of-pocket expenses, the CBO predicted, would soar for patients seeking coverage for such things as maternity care, substance abuse, mental health treatment, and pediatric dentistry.
Jacobs showed up at Gianforte’s campaign headquarters looking for answers. Had Gianforte read the CBO report? What did he think? Gianforte was preparing for an interview with Fox News. He didn’t want to be bothered by Jacobs’s questions. The polls were hours away from closing; there was no time to interview Gianforte later nor could his answers have been meaningful in the context of the election. The rest is history. Fox News reporters — the only third-party eyewitnesses — said Gianforte grabbed Jacobs around the neck and slammed him to the ground, at which point he struck Jacobs several more times. Jacobs’s feet bounced off the ground upon impact.