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.
Zinke has been notably silent about the assault. So, too, has Trump. Other Republicans insisted Gianforte apologize. He did so, on election night, but only after his campaign had earlier blamed the liberal media for instigating the violence.
For those inclined to despair over the trickle-down impact generated by our Rage-a-holic in Chief, there are no absurdly delicious details — like a banjo player in the nudist colony — to soften the picture. Politicians have hated the media long before Donald Trump showed up — and so, too, have many citizens, for reasons earned and unearned. But by calling reporters “enemies of the people” and discussing whether he thinks reporters should be shot, Trump greenlights a brand of totalitarian violence we’ve tried to keep locked up in the basement of the national psyche. While hardly a body slam, Trump’s open shove of the prime minister from Montenegro during the recent NATO summit qualifies as a kissing cousin. And no doubt it’s coincidental, but it’s worth noting that Vladimir Putin is not kindly disposed toward the prime minister in question.
The body slam is at least the second instance in the past month in which a reporter suffered seriously adverse consequences for pushing government officials — or soon-to-be government officials — to answer questions about health care. West Virginia reporter Daniel Heyman was arrested, handcuffed, and held on $5,000 bail for “disrupting a governmental process” earlier this month while attempting to question Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price about his repeal and replace plans for health care reform.
Heyman was trailing Price as he walked down the state capitol hallway surrounded by state capitol police and Secret Service agents. Price never acknowledged Heyman or his questions: Did Price consider domestic violence to be “a pre-existing condition” under the terms of his health care plans? Heyman made the mistake of shoving his cell phone close enough to Price to be able to pick up the sound had Price deigned to answer. Heyman, a 30-year reporter, never was warned or cautioned to back off. Instead, he was stopped cuffed, booked, and jailed. Charges are still pending. His station had to pay his bail.
Heyman did eventually manage to get an answer to his question: It depends. If the ACA is repealed, states will be empowered to waive pre-existing condition protections if they so chose and define such conditions accordingly. In some scenarios, Heyman said, the physical and psychological damage incurred by domestic violence could be construed to be a “pre-existing condition,” meaning insurance coverage could be denied.
It’s worth noting that Montana’s new congressmember, Greg Gianforte — in sharp contrast to Heyman — was never arrested, cuffed, booked, or fingerprinted. No bail was levied. He was cited — only after the fact because he left the scene of the crime — for misdemeanor assault. As far as I know, Gianforte never answered whether he’d read the CBO report or what, if anything, he thought of it. In the new political order, answers are for wimps.
A small side note: when Congress initially passed the ACA eight years ago, Santa Barbara’s congressmember Lois Capps sought to make a short speech voicing her strong support. A Republican from Georgia shouted Capps down no less than 10 times, barking loudly each time, “I object.” His name? Tom Price. Talk about “disrupting a governmental process.” Near as anyone can recall, Price was never cited, arrested, booked, bailed, or fingerprinted.
The moral of the story? If you’re not playing banjo, you must not be paying attention.