Before the polls closed on May 25, a big projection screen at Greg Gianforte's election night party in Bozeman streamed Fox News. The sound was off, but supporters and reporters trickling in at 6 p.m. could see host Tucker Carlson's bullet points about Greg Gianforte's body slam of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs loud and clear.
"Violence in politics is totally unacceptable, period. Never allowed," Carlson was saying. He called on Republicans to denounce Gianforte.
Gianforte's supporters at the Hilton Garden Inn didn't hear that message. Instead they heard state GOP Chairman Jeff Essmann comparing the altercation to a bar fight, the implication being that sometimes a guy's just going to get beat down, so no use complaining.
Carlson seemed to be staking out the ground of reason. Unfortunately, he kept talking.
"America does face a threat of political violence," Carlson continued. "It does not come, by and large, from baby-boomer evangelicals in Montana, nor does it come from President Trump, whatever his flaws. The threat today comes from the progressive left and its growing enthusiasm for force as a political tool."
The next day, deranged Portland white supremacist Jeremy Christian slit the throats of three men who intervened as he yelled racial slurs at women on a train. Also this month, an anti-government extremist was charged with murdering Broadwater County Sheriff's Deputy Mason Moore during a traffic stop near Three Forks. The Montana shooter's estranged son, Al Barrus, has since released a letter detailing what he considered unheeded "warning signs" of his father's violence, including his history of domestic abuse. His father's hateful speech, in particular, had been "excused simply as 'crazy rants.'"
Carlson seems to have his threats backwards. But at the moment, agreeing to draw a red line between public officials and violence (or "joking" threats of it) is more urgent than arguing about who crosses it most often. As we penned this column, a Memorial Day shoving match had broken out in the Texas state house, including the trading of physical threats between a Democrat and his Republican counterpart.
Voters and party leaders can't tolerate this. Public officials who cross the line should be removed from office, period. Otherwise, events like Gianforte's assault will be remembered as unheeded warning signs on the road to state violence. And neither side wants to end up there.