They say all politics is local, and perhaps nowhere more than northeastern Montana. So much so that even my presence here has been controversial.
Having made the substantial trek to this remote corner of the Great Plains, with the intention of documenting my mate Michael Burns’ attempt to become the next representative of District 33 in the Montana State Legislature, it seemed my reputation had preceded me.
In what had become a heated primary race with a fellow Republican challenger, rumours had been circulating about the Burns campaign’s ties to “suspicious foreign interests in Australia”. Here I was naively thinking an Aussie accent would be campaign gold out here, but instead I found myself the subject of a bonafide scandal and relegated to a more back-seat morale-boosting role (albeit one with a great view, both of the scenery and of American democracy).
The fact that the campaign manager – the very talented, 21-year old political prodigy Gunnar Hardy – was also an out-of-towner (and, even worse, a Californian) only added fuel to the fire, with allegations of influence from a “DC policy house”. That the third member of our campaign team was a Swedish-Croatian theology student took the conspiracy more into the realm of farce. Perhaps luckily, the fourth member – a gay Canadian – pulled out at the last minute.
The truth of our involvement was far more benign, of course. Having met and befriended Burns while studying in the nation’s capital last year, we were impressed by his genuine love of his adoptive home of Montana, his good humour and character and his pledge to safeguard the private property rights of his neighbours from overreach by the federal government. So we hatched a plan to help out and volunteer our services, indulging in some Big Sky country tourism on the side.
But while it was embellished to say the least, the opposition’s scare campaign actually tapped into some very real fears in the electorate.
Not too long ago, bringing in “expert outsiders” to consult on a campaign was considered a huge plus. It showed that a candidate was serious about representing the local community and could bring a worldly perspective. But in the current ‘America First’, isolationist, anti-free-trade climate engulfing both sides of politics here, a carload of volunteering foreigners – however well-intentioned – was possibly more of a liability.
This is Trump territory, and career politicians are held in very low esteem out here. Therefore, using the tactics of career politicians – even tried and tested things like door-knocking and canvassing and making speeches – are considered “Establishment” and met with great suspicion.
And so there was a ‘Catch-22’ at play for us, and likely for local candidates across the country right now, whereby a citizen has genuine intentions of public service and of defending their community against the Washington cartel, not joining it. But as soon as they try to get their message out and garner some support, they inevitably begin to look like a politician and are met with the same cynicism as career congressmen and lobbyists.
We encountered this cynicism regularly, even if it was couched in a rural politeness and hospitality. Partly it is a symptom of the general frustration and anger that has led to the Trump and Bernie Sanders revolutions. But I suspect this part of the country is even more turned off than the rest of it.
The nation’s fourth-largest state by area, and its 48th by population, Montana is as reflective of the old wild west as you will find. At one stage I drove for three hours and didn’t see a single petrol station or store, not even a farmhouse. Just an endless prairie of dinosaur bones and Native American cultural sites and a whole lot of sky.
You get the strong sense that people here love their peace and quiet, and others may even be in hiding, hoping nobody ever knocks on their doors, let alone a Swede, Californian or Aussie turning up unannounced and handing out campaign literature.
Bar a few mildly hostile encounters, the ranch- and town-dwelling inhabitants of these plains are good and decent folks, church-going and child-raising and just hoping to be left alone by far-away politicians and their hollow promises. They value their privacy and their property, as is their constitutional right, and I don’t blame them for tuning out of the political process.
But my concern is that as regular citizens, both here and elsewhere, turn off politics completely, and view all attempts to get their vote with deep suspicion, all it does is diminish the likelihood of good people putting up their hands, ensuring that only egomaniacs and power whores are left to fill elected positions.
This is how we ended up with two of the most famous (and infamous) Americans running for president. They have close to 100 per cent name recognition and so can bypass the sorts of politicking that the electorate clearly has little stomach for right now, instead engaging in Twitter rants and enlisting high profile surrogates.
If this continues, ‘Kanye 2020’ might not be so implausible.
Unfortunately – and despite some hard elbow grease and plenty of miles traversing the dusty electorate in the ‘Burnsmobile’ – our campaign came up short, with a respectable 37 per cent of the vote. Up against a true local with a recognised surname and generations of business and community ties, we knew the odds were against us from the start.
In my humble opinion, the voters of District 33 picked the wrong guy, but again, this is their constitutional right. Burnsy wrote a very gracious and genuine congratulations to his opponent, and will no doubt continue serving his community into the future.
As for me, I gained the kind of political experience that cannot come from textbooks or television, but only from genuine grassroots – handshakes and diners and church pews and slamming front doors.
I took the pulse of the regional American electorate and the blood pressure was ‘big sky’ high.
Looking at those national candidates that need no introduction, I don’t see much of an antidote on offer.
A brief photo shoot break on the campaign trail. Havre, Montana.
Published on 20 June 2016.