In the small towns, houses still look like they did in gold rush times, with a veranda in front of the entrance and a raised facade. At any moment, Clint Eastwood or John Wayne might step out of one of the saloons.
In Montana, America is still as original as in few other places. One million people and 2.6 million cattle live in an area the size of Germany. “Last best place” is one of the state’s slogans, and in fact a lot is different here than in the rest of the USA: There is no sales tax, the gun laws are among the most lax in the country.
Back then, as now, bounty hunters hunt down defaulting defendants who have been released on bail. Thanks to open-range laws, cattle can graze wherever they want. There was no speed limit until the end of the nineties, the highway was nicknamed “Montanabahn”. Even today, the speed limit of 80 miles (130 kilometers) per hour is still as high as in only a few other states.
And anyone who takes the view here that the President’s Covid 19 infection also symbolically indicates a general failure of his corona crisis management is expressing a clear outsider position.
Grizzly bears come up to the front gardens
No, the excitement of the metropolises in the east is of little value here, in this place of extremes. The continental divide divides Montana into a flat, steppe-like east and a green, mountainous west. In winter the land sinks under a meter-high blanket of snow, in summer it dries up under the scorching sun. In some places, grizzly bears, wolves and pumas reach the front gardens.
Conversation partners often tell you in the second sentence how many generations their family has lived in Montana for. “People are incredibly proud that they not only survived in such an extreme place, but that they built something here,” said David Parker, political scientist at Montana State University.
The harsh environment welds people together: If you stop for a photo at the side of the road, it is very likely that a concerned motorist will stop and ask if you need help.
The locals frowned upon the many newcomers from Oregon, California and Texas – they only drove up property prices and did not understand anything about the “values of Montana”, it is said again and again. “Micronational pride is very strong,” says the political scientist Parker with a laugh about his adopted home.
Many spare no effort for Trump
That national pride may also explain why Montana is not just the land of cowboys, but Trump supporters too. The flags with the name of the president are part of the landscape in the Bitterroot Valley, just like churches and gun shops.
Here, in the very west of Montana, steep mountain ranges line the valley with the lush green meadows through which the Bitterroot River meanders. Tourists come for fly fishing, hiking and hunting. The local brewery advertises with the “last good beer” based on the Montana motto.
Flags with Trump’s slogans “Make America Great Again” and “Keep America Great” fly in front of countless houses. On a mountain hill just before the small town of Lolo, someone wrote his name in huge letters on a bare mountain slope. Many spare no effort for Donald Trump.
Randy Monrean is sitting in a folding chair at the edge of Highway 93, which runs through the Bitterroot Valley. The sun has heated the asphalt like a stove, cars race by, but Monrean rests like a rock next to his pick-up truck. He wears the president’s red cap on his head, and two flags are waving from his Ford – the American one and one with the slogan “Trump 2020”.
Randy Monrean takes a roadside position for President Trump in the Bitterroot Valley. He waves the book that he is reading: “1984”, the dystopian novel about how politicians twist the truth. “You should read that, it’s very topical,” he calls out to the reporter.
Every morning and afternoon, Monrean advertises Trump for a few hours. “If in the end I won one or two voters for him, then it was worth it,” he says. Much persuasive work does not seem to be necessary, drivers passing by honking him appreciatively.
Election campaign for Donald Trump
Randy Monrean sits on the side of the road in Bitterroot Valley and shows his political views. He is a staunch supporter of the incumbent US President, like so many others in this state.
(Photo: Marie-Astrid Langer)
Monrean used to work as a pipe fitter, was a union member and voted for the Democrats. But the party has changed, he says, now they only hand out social benefits. What he likes best about Trump is that he has promised to “drain the swamp of Washington, in both parties”.
The list of his successes is long: Trump is tough on China, investing in the military, ending senseless wars, and has relocated the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. “Better ask me what he has not yet achieved!” Monrean is not bothered by the constant Twitter messages either, “I even like that because it excites the media so much”.
That President Trump won Montana in 2016 was not surprising: the state has been voting reliably for the Republican presidential candidate for decades. Only Democrat Bill Clinton narrowly won here in 1992.
However, it was remarkable how clearly Trump won here: by more than 20 percentage points – much more than recently recorded by the Republican contenders Mitt Romney and John McCain. It seemed like Trump was speaking from the heart of the people of Montana.
And it still does today. Like few other presidents, Trump knows how to signal to the people of rural America that he has not forgotten them in Washington. In 2018 alone he visited Montana four times and plans to come back in October to support his candidate for the Senate. Monrean has also attended one of Trump’s notorious rallies in the capital Helena. Even today he struggles for words to describe the atmosphere there. “The feeling of community was completely surreal.”
Freedom of the individual
The euphoria for Trump is equally overwhelming in Hamilton, the largest city in the Bitterroot Valley with 5,000 inhabitants. Giovanni Cidranes stands behind the counter in the Second Amendment Gun Store, a sturdy man with a bald head, three-day beard and black-rimmed glasses. Nobody wears a mask in the shop, even though the governor has made mask compulsory.
Cidranes doesn’t like it when others tell him what to do – or what weapons to own. “We in Montana believe in individual freedom and the smallest possible government,” he says.
It is important to him that the president protect the second amendment to the constitution, i.e. the right to own weapons. Trump is doing that, says the 55-year-old, and he is also otherwise very satisfied: the economy has risen to new heights, and health care has improved for veterans like him.
Shelli Evenson is still enthusiastic about Trump. The native British sells fodder in the Lakeside Store. What she values most about Trump is his patriotism. “He doesn’t do all of this for himself, what does it get for him? He believes in our country and does what is best for us. “
Trump also enjoys strong support among Montana’s ranchers. As the backbone of the economy, they are a key group among Montana’s voters. Cattle breeding means backbreaking work in the rough nature, but Rex Radtke made a conscious decision for this life when he and his brother Brad took over their father’s farm eighteen years ago.
“We are the fourth generation to run them,” says Radtke. “I won the lottery when I was born in America and the bonus number because it was here in Montana.
Traditional cattle ranchers
Rex Radtke (in the foreground) and his brother Brad run their ranch in the fourth generation.
(Photo: Marie-Astrid Langer)
It is early morning in Hall, a small town in the neighboring valley of the Bitterroot Valley. The first rays of sunshine climb over the hills and bathe the lush green meadows in orange light. Radtke wears a white cowboy hat, jeans and sunglasses; he is sitting in his pick-up truck and throws a portion of chewing tobacco into his mouth.
The American flag is emblazoned on a coffee mug on the dashboard. Today he and his brother will weigh almost 300 calves and prepare them for transport; in the milder winters of Washington state, they should reach their slaughter weight.
Brad and his wife are already riding towards him and driving the calves on their horses in the direction of the Radtke ranch. The family has a large ranch for the conditions in Western Montana, where – unlike in the barren east – the meadows are green and the land is therefore expensive.
Rex Radtke doesn’t want to read in the newspaper how big his farm is – otherwise everyone can work out how much the ranch is worth. The Radtkes hardly own any cattle themselves, but let other cattle graze on their property. For every pound of weight they gain, they get a bonus.
This is likely to be larger than expected today: The one and a half year old cattle have put on more than 400 pounds in the past few months. Radtke happily readjusts the weights of the cattle scales on which he weighs the cattle in small groups.
A veterinarian attests that the cattle are healthy before they trot into the transporter. Another farmer checks that all calves have the correct branding.
Regulation has been increasing for years, Radtke later said over beer and burgers, “in recent years the paperwork has felt tenfold”.
He wants politicians who shut down the regulation again, “we don’t need a nanny state”. Like other ranchers, Radtke is also hoping for a trade agreement with China, where the demand for first-class American beef is huge.
The Radtkes are happy with the president. “He has achieved a lot,” says Brad Radtke. Trump is an egocentric, but also a “go-getter”, that is, determined. He used to vote for the democratic candidate in the congressional elections, says Brad Radtke, but now the party is drifting into socialism, which bothers him a lot. He also mockingly inquires what is thought of the alleged “systemic racism” and the proposal to cut the police’s resources.
0.4 percent African American
As many supporters Trump has in Montana, there are exceptions. Eddie Smith is standing on the rifle range in Hamilton watering the meadows. The older man is one of just 0.4 percent African American in Montana; hardly any state has a larger white population.
Smith moved here from Kansas City in 1975, “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” he says. But he has learned not to talk about politics with the people here – as a democrat and black he is in the minority. “The rules for whites and blacks are different in this country.” Smith believes Joe Biden will be a good president. Instead of discussing, he goes to vote.
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