How a Man Takes a Body Slam

In an assault in Montana, two very different ideas of masculinity

Greg Gianforte (Matt Volz / AP)

On Wednesday the Republican congressional candidate in Montana’s special election Greg Gianforte physically assaulted Ben Jacobs, a reporter from The Guardian, according to Jacobs himself and Fox News reporters who were present.

Jacobs recorded the interaction and published the audio, tweeting “Listen to me get body-slammed in Montana.”

The question Jacobs had asked Gianforte was about the Congressional Budget Office’s score of the new health-care bill. Gianforte can be heard saying, “I’m sick and tired of you guys,” and then there’s what sounds like an altercation, and then “The last time you came here you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here. Get the hell out of here.” Then Jacobs says, as if narrating for the audio recorder, “You just body-slammed me and broke my glasses.”

Jacobs reported the incident to law enforcement, and the local sheriff’s office has charged Gianforte with misdemeanor assault. In this case, the legal charge of assault is amplified by the fact that the attacker is a person seeking political power and the victim a journalist whose job is to ask questions—often uncomfortable ones that a politician will not want to talk about, at times when the politician does not want to talk about them.

Many were quick to condemn the attack, but not everyone did so without qualification. Shortly after the incident last night, Laura Ingram, a popular talk-radio personality, asked: “Politicians always need to keep their cool. But what would most Montana men do if ‘body slammed’ for no reason by another man?”

She followed that with: “Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today and then run to tell the recess monitor?”

There’s a lot in that reaction, including a break from the calls for “law and order” or “rule of law” that come when a other members of the community do the assaulting. There is also the invocation of a very particular idea of American manliness. The idea that in Montana, land of the Marlboro man, a body slam is met with a body slam. The man with the most slams gets the cattle and the cigarettes and gets to name the mountain ranges.

This morning writer Erin Gloria Ryan tweeted, “It has not been a good 24 hours for masculinity.” It’s a sort of evergreen tweet that might be true at most times over the last several thousand years. In the Ingraham sense of masculinity, at least. The toxic kind where men are taught to be emotionally isolated paragons of dominance.

Masculinity isn’t going away any time soon, but there can be an amplification of a masculinity reform movement—from toxic to less toxic, and possibly even to rational masculinity or productive masculinity or whatever it should be called. An acknowledgment that femininity and masculinity can be embraced and practiced well. I’m not suggesting that some political aspirants form a Masculinity Reform Party, but I’m also not not suggesting it.

From what I know of the Gianforte situation, masculinity feels almost like parody––a body slam, as Jacobs put it. The same thing that happens in professional wrestling, where androgen-loaded men growl at one another and rip through their shirts by flexing their chests. A body slam is a step below climbing up a table and launching onto one’s opponent elbow first.

Meanwhile, Jacobs’s reaction was to get up and call out the situation for what it was. He started asking for names of witnesses to the assault who will be assets to his case as it plays out in courts of law and public opinion.

This was the judicious, prescient reaction. The visceral instinct to physically attack a person who has just attacked you is strong; the surge of adrenal hormones makes it feel possible and necessary. That circuitry is increasingly vestigial, but overriding it and playing the longer game requires an active decision. It means being able to concede having been physically overpowered, a break with the idea of masculinity as an amalgam of dominance and violence. It means redefining strength.