Montanans sightsee at a political circus

President Donald Trump’s spectacle draws a crowd, for now.

 

When Judy Barbelt staggered into the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls on Thursday, July 5, her husband, Lee, was visibly relieved. They’d both waited several hours under the harsh Montana sun to see President Donald Trump speak, and Judy, in her late 60s, was flushed, sweating and limping. Lee reached out and caressed his wife’s shoulder. They wore matching black “America” T-shirts and “Make America Great Again” hats embellished with gold oak leaves on the bills. “Long line?” I asked. Judy muttered an expletive under her breath, then smiled. “I said, ‘Frick!’ ” she joked. “We’re hardcore Trump supporters,” she said proudly. “You can’t buy him, he loves America as much as we do, and he’s not a quitter. He would fit in here in Montana.”

Judy said she was lukewarm about Matt Rosendale, Montana’s Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, on whose behalf the rally was ostensibly being held. But she didn’t have any doubts about Rosendale’s competition, incumbent Democrat Jon Tester, a farmer from a small town upstream from Great Falls on the Missouri River. “I think he’s tied up with Soros,” she said. I asked her where she got that information — Facebook? “I don’t trust Facebook,” she scoffed, before explaining that she got her news primarily from members-only Facebook groups. “But I’m not going to tell you what they are.”

Judy’s belief that Trump would fit in here — that he’s just an average Joe trapped in a billionaire’s fake tan and ill-fitting suit — is pervasive in Montana, as it is in much of rural America, and I have often struggled to understand why my neighbors find it so easy to relate to him. I think of Montanans as generally polite people who are often reluctant to express their opinions or boast. Meanwhile, Trump is loud and bombastic. He is notoriously germ-averse, and one wonders how he’d handle mucking stalls or gutting an elk. However, while I’ve met plenty of unassuming rancher types in Montana, I’ve also met my share of loudmouths. Just walk into a bar along the Rocky Mountain Front and mention how much you love wolves, and you’ll see what I mean.

And Montana’s image as the last refuge of stolid, respectful rural people belies a history and enduring culture of bigotry that makes Trump’s popularity less baffling. The same year that Wilmot Collins, a Liberian refugee, won the mayoral race in our capital, Helena, the state Legislature proposed an anti-transgender “bathroom bill” and passed an anti-Sharia bill, later vetoed by the Democratic governor. I’ve seen “White Pride” and swastika tattoos and heard racist comments thrown around even in Montana’s most liberal towns.

Rather than bringing up issues like the substance abuse epidemic in Montana, President Trump focused on the crowds at his inauguration, the media, and cracking down on MS-13.
Tony Bynum

Looking around at the crowd flowing into the arena, however, it was hard to ignore the feeling that Trump’s unrepentant rudeness is central to his appeal here. The rally was heavy on T-shirts and buttons with aggressive messages clearly designed to anger “liberal snowflakes,” even though such people are exceedingly hard to find at Trump rallies, or anywhere else in Montana. A typical example bore crossed AR-15s and read, “I am politically incorrect, I say Merry Christmas, God Bless America, I own guns, eat bacon, and salute our flag & thank our troops. If this offends you, I don’t care. In God we trust.”

When Trump finally took the stage at around 4 in the afternoon, he quickly trotted out Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines. “Every morning I wake up and thank God that Hillary Clinton is not President of the United States,” Daines said, “and that Donald Trump is.” The crowd roared. Greg Gianforte, Montana’s Republican congressman, also spoke briefly, followed by Matt Rosendale, who said the president is fighting for “those miners down in Colstrip who produce that beautiful clean coal.” There is no such thing as clean coal, and Colstrip is actually in the process of reducing its capacity because of demand for renewables from its biggest customers — Oregon and Washington — but the crowd did not seem to mind Rosendale’s magical thinking. Not surprisingly, Trump didn’t mention that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — a climate change denier who sued the EPA on behalf of energy companies as Oklahoma attorney general — had resigned that very morning following months of ethics scandals.

Of the three Montana politicians, Rosendale follows Trump’s model most closely. During a 2014 campaign for the Republican congressional nomination, he put out an ad that attracted national attention, in which he shot down a drone with a hunting rifle to express his opposition to domestic spying. Daines and Gianforte are typical of the Republican Party that preceded Trump, eager to echo populist sentiments about respecting the flag and the war on Christianity, but also buttoned-up and allergic to controversy (although Gianforte famously body-slammed a reporter on the campaign trail). Daines did not endorse Trump until late in the 2016 primary, and when he finally did, he said, “Donald Trump was not my first choice, he was not my second choice, but I’m going to do all I can to make sure that Hillary Clinton is not elected.” Both Daines and Gianforte refuse to hold town halls in Montana, fearing the kind of confrontation that ensnared former Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz in Salt Lake last year.

None of the Montana politicians who spoke that Thursday said much of anything about Montana. There was no mention of the farm bill, for example, which is up for renewal this year. A current House draft would cut millions of Americans from the rolls of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also known as food stamps. In Montana, 120,000 people could lose their benefits — roughly 10 percent of the population. (In Cascade County, where the rally took place, roughly 20 percent of children live below the poverty line.) The current Senate draft, by contrast, protects SNAP, crop insurance programs, and the Conservation Reserve Program, and has the support of both Daines and Tester. It’s a bipartisan effort that seemed at odds with the rally’s raging rhetoric.

As for Trump’s remarks, they were similarly devoid of substantive references to Montana, focusing instead on the size of the crowd at his inauguration, the enduring evil of the Clinton family, the sleaziness of the lying media, Elizabeth Warren’s heritage, and the success of Elton John, which Trump said he has managed to surpass without even owning a musical instrument. “I don’t have a guitar or an organ. No organ,” Trump said. “This is the only musical: the mouth. And hopefully the brain attached to the mouth, right?” In fact, in a later analysis, the Washington Post concluded that 76 percent of Trump’s claims were only loosely, if at all, tethered to fact.

President Trump welcomes attendees at his rally for Republican Senate candidate Matt Rosendale in Great Falls, Montana
Tony Bynum

The president spoke for an hour and a half; people started leaving in ones and twos after about 45 minutes. By the one-hour mark there was a steady stream of people flowing toward the door. I wondered what the turnout would be if Trump came to Montana again. Short on substance and heavy on spectacle, Trump plays better in tweets and cable news sound bites, which can be consumed comfortably from home. In Great Falls, I waited for Trump to say something about how the government might help Montana escape the clutches of a substance abuse epidemic that now accounts for over 65 percent of Child and Protective Services cases and has cost Montana hospitals nearly a billion dollars since 2010, but all he had to offer were vague commitments to support ICE and crack down on MS-13. In a state with one of the highest suicide rates in the country, where over 13 percent of the population lives in poverty, and where public schools face over $20 million in budget cuts next year, Trump joked that Montanans were “tired of winning,” and that constituents had sent Daines to ask him to slow down the pace of victories. “I said, ‘Steve, go back to the people … Tell them Trump can’t honor that request,’ ” Trump said.

At one point, Trump said of the crowds at his rallies, “Why do they come?” I feared the answer was a dark one: They come for the same reason mobs have assembled throughout history — to watch the guillotine fall, to watch men fling ropes over tree limbs, to watch things burn. I looked at all the children in the audience, their faces beaming up at their parents as they joined in chants of “build that wall” and “lock her up,” and I felt a profound sadness. This man was a hero to them, a role model. In this simple way, the danger of the Trump presidency goes far beyond his reckless policies: His influence will be generational.

As for what the rally portends about November’s elections, the answer is probably not much. No one I spoke to felt very strongly about Rosendale one way or the other, beyond a vague loyalty to the Republican ticket, and several said they liked Tester and might vote for him. Tickets to the event were free, and I suspected a large number of people turned up just for the show. “I’ve never met a president or been to an event like this,” said Kelly Silverstein, 42, a home nurse’s aide. She came with her elderly parents and wore a pink “Keep America Great” hat, the new slogan of the Trump 2020 campaign. Silverstein said she didn’t follow politics closely, but that she was deeply concerned about school shootings and gun violence, and that she favored stricter gun control. She hoped her son, a student at Montana State University in Bozeman, would stay away from Great Falls forever. “There aren’t good jobs and there’s too much drugs and alcohol,” she said. When I asked her what she thought about Stormy Daniels and the way Trump talks about women, she said, “I think it’s sick.”

“I thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Vicki Roath, 68, a retired church secretary from Great Falls who came with her husband, Lee, 65, a Vietnam veteran who did two tours on medevac helicopters with the Marine Corps and now works as a statistician for a local hospital. Vicki, who considers herself a conservative, said she “really struggled” with the last election and chose Trump as the “lesser of two evils.” But she has been disappointed with the constant scandals and, more recently, with the family separation policy. “As a mother, that would just kill me,” she said. Lee, who wore khakis and a sport coat, said he voted for Trump “to be against Obama,” but like his wife, he’s uncomfortable with Trump’s vulgarity. Lee said he appreciated Tester’s work on behalf of veterans, and respected the senator for his opposition to the nomination of Admiral Ronny Jackson to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. “It’s not a political thing — do the right thing for the people,” Lee said. Moments later, when Trump attacked Tester over his opposition to Jackson, Lee shot me a knowing glance.

If there was a significant takeaway from Trump’s rambling monologue, it’s that his shtick hasn’t evolved much: He’s still campaigning against Hillary. On the edge of the Montana prairie, that still draws a crowd, for now. Outside the arena, about two hundred protesters were gathered, holding signs that read “Love Trumps Hate” and “Love Builds Bridges Not Walls.” A scuffle broke out while I was inside, but things had reached a détente by the time I exited. The Trump supporters passing by shouted “commie scum” at the protesters, along with insults laden with four-letter words and rude gestures. A man wearing an American flag do-rag and riding a Harley throttled his engine and glared at the protesters while an armored vehicle surrounded by heavily armed policemen looked on.

Outside the arena, about two hundred protestors gather. Passing Trump supporters threw insults and lewd hand gestures at them, which were met by the protestors with peace signs and a singing of the national anthem.
Tony Bynum

A few steps away from the policemen, among the protesters, I found Gloria Zell, 66, from Shelby, Montana. She was talking to a Trump supporter in a skirt and a MAGA hat who was trying to convince Zell and her friends — over the roaring Harley engine — that human trafficking rings exploiting the porous U.S.-Mexico border were engaged in organ harvesting. Zell was trying hard not to lose her patience as the woman said, repeatedly, “You have to open your heart.” Zell, a U.S. citizen, came from Michoacán 40 years ago. I asked her if anyone had specifically singled her out because of her brown skin, and she told me one man walked up and said, “I only know one word in Spanish, and it’s puta.” The word means “bitch,” or more accurately, “prostitute.”

“It’s really disturbing,” Gloria’s husband, Zane, 69, told me. “I knew we were in dire straits, but all of this confirms my worst fears.” Zane, who carried a large American flag, noted that the protesters had sung the national anthem. When people gave them the finger, they responded with the peace sign.

Elliott Woods is a freelance writer in Livingston, Montana, focused on environmental conflict, conservation and public lands. Elliott is a correspondent at Outside Magazine and a contributing editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review.

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