Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

President Donald Trump is never more comfortable than when attacking those who cannot respond in kind. Whether rocketing to victory in the Republican presidential primary by scapegoating religious and ethnic minorities who lacked sufficient representation in the GOP to impose a political price, attacking survivors of sexual assault, smearing refugees, separating immigrant children from their parents, or denying the suffering of disenfranchised Puerto Ricans killed or displaced by Hurricane Maria, Trump has always reveled in cruelty against the weak or vulnerable.

At a rally in Montana on Thursday, Trump celebrated Representative Greg Gianforte’s 2017 assault on the Guardian journalist Ben Jacobs, even as the White House labored to arrive at a mutually agreeable fiction to cover up the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia. Having struggled to assist a longtime U.S. ally (and, for Trump, a valued source of business) in tamping down the outrage over the reported torture and dismemberment of a journalist for criticism of a repressive government, the president of the United States took some time to make clear to both his domestic opponents and would-be despots abroad that he approves of political violence against journalists.

“Any guy who can do a body slam … he’s my guy,” Trump told rally goers in Montana. Gianforte attacked Jacobs after the reporter asked Gianforte about a health-care bill that would have resulted in millions of Americans being denied insurance coverage. The self-styled defenders of free speech on the right who excused Gianforte’s attack on Jacobs as the natural, hot-tempered reaction of a Western mountain man (Gianforte is originally from California) are now engaged in a whisper campaign to smear Khashoggi as a terrorist sympathizer, the better to justify a fundamentalist state silencing him for speaking out.

At the same time, the president and his conservative allies are attempting to characterize their political opponents as a “violent mob.” Make no mistake: The only modes of communication the president accepts are obsequious praise and sniveling deference, a standard his legions of defenders have adopted as their own. Any criticism of or opposition to Trump they see as illegitimate by definition.

It is in no way surprising that those who defend free speech while encouraging state punishment of political critics, or who champion due process while demanding Trump’s rivals be imprisoned, would evince a similarly insincere commitment to political nonviolence: One of the core principles of Trumpism is that the rules only apply to others. But there is perhaps still more to the president’s endorsement of political violence than meets the eye. The president and his party are facing a potentially disastrous midterm election that, despite a monumentally successful effort to rig district maps and election rules in their favor, may still cost them their congressional majority in the House.

For the past couple of weeks, the president has been on a relentless publicity campaign, delivering an escalating list of outrageous falsehoods that have failed to persuade the television networks to return to their prior practice of airing his speeches unedited in prime time. In the past, the president has sought to deflect negative press coverage of substantive matters by offering heinous remarks or preposterous exaggerations; until now, that strategy has been effective in changing the subject. By endorsing violence against journalists, the president may be able to shift coverage away from his administration’s effort to aid the cover-up of a murder by a U.S. ally to whom the president has direct financial ties, and toward terrain where the president feels he has the advantage: Trump’s war against the fake-news liberal media.

Republicans have been hitting the panic button for weeks. Trump’s signature legislative achievement is cutting his own taxes, an accomplishment Republicans have struggled to sell to their constituents. In states like North Dakota and Georgia, Republicans have sought to disenfranchise Democratic voters in order to rig elections in their favor. Having run for years on repealing Obamacare, Republican candidates all over the country are lying to their constituents by insisting that they have supported its core protections. In district after district, Republican incumbents are running race-baiting ads invoking terrorism and immigration, in the desperate hope that appealing to prejudice can rescue their grip on the House.

Nothing any liberal could say or write about the Republican Party or its base would be as damning as what Republican politicians themselves believe appeals to them: Having devoted its time in power to aiding the wealthy, the GOP is running on the signature policy accomplishment of Trump’s Democratic predecessor while hoping bigotry against Muslims and immigrants can drag it over the finish line.

Republicans have refused to investigate the president’s inheritance of his family’s wealth through tax fraud, the Trump Organization’s dubious business practices, the president’s financial entanglements or vulnerability to foreign influence, the administration’s mishandling of Hurricane Maria, its rigging of the federal investigation into the sexual-assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and the Trump campaign’s relationship to a Russian effort to sway the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. If GOP legislators were not terrified of what they might find, they would have looked into Trump themselves; a Democratic House will have ample evidence of wrongdoing through which to sift.

Republicans may yet retain their majority in both chambers of Congress—they could hardly have arranged the terrain more favorably. But the president has ample reason to be concerned. It is in this context that Trump’s latest endorsement of political violence should be read: as an act of desperation by a president contemplating the potential consequences of defeat at the polls.

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