Montana: The Plundered Province and Modern American Politics

MiningIn 1943, Joseph Kinsey Howard published Montana: High, Wide, and Handsome, his now famous history of the Treasure State. The book gained literary notoriety because its author argued that Montana, throughout its long and colorful history, had been plundered by successive waves of eastern capitalists.  For generations, ruthless exploiters came to Montana, extracted its riches, and then left the state; or in the phraseology of the frontier, the plunderers practiced “git and git out.”

Who were the plunderers?  Well, they were a motley crew, including Eastern-financed fur trappers and traders, buffalo hunters, wolfers, gold miners, cattlemen, sheepherders, the Great Northern Railway, farmers, and the Anaconda Copper Company.  Everything from beaver furs to wheat departed Montana for the East, often carried by shippers who charged Montana residents usurious rates for the privilege of having their commodities sent to an eastern city.  Not surprisingly, the plundering of Montana left little for the people who lived there.

Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land: An American Romance, described how those who remained in Montana after the plundering (those who didn’t git and git out) created a maladapted society of outliers, weirdos, and anti-government extremists.  Raban believed it no mere coincidence that Ted Kaczynski (aka The Unibomber) found a home in Lincoln County, Montana, not far from the state capital in Helena.  According to Raban, Kaczynski was just one more oddball in a state full oddballs.  By the way, Raban’s book isn’t very popular in eastern Montana.  My hunch is that when President Donald Trump urges his followers to burn books, Raban’s Bad Land will be the first book pitched into the bonfire by the residents of Ismay, Montana – a town featured in the book.

Montana’s exploitation didn’t end with World War II.  Since the publication of Howard’s book, the state has been exploited by a slew of plunderers.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) constructed dams across the Missouri and Bighorn to extract the state’s water resources and hydropower potential.  Privately-owned energy companies mined coal and drilled for natural gas across the eastern plains of Montana.  When the coal and natural gas wasn’t sent out of state through pipes or on railcars, it was burned in gigantic power plants, which then transmitted the generated electricity to places like Minneapolis or Denver.  For decades, tourists, many of them from the East, have been traveling to Montana to enjoy its natural environment.  The majority of them enter the state during the summer months, capture a few memories, and then depart.  Tourists aren’t much different from all the other groups who once entered Montana, exploited it, and then bugged out.

Modern Montanans know they’re a colonized people and they resent it.  In 2010, the Montana Office of Tourism launched its “Get Lost” ad campaign.  The idea behind the campaign was simple.  Montana was to be promoted as a place where America’s over-stimulated urban dwellers could go to get away from it all.  As part of the ad campaign, the Office of Tourism printed thousands of bumper stickers with the words “Get Lost” framed by the outline of the state.  Native Montanans loved the bumper sticker, but not because they wanted to promote the state to outsiders.  Rather, they saw it as a way to tell tourists to “Get Lost” and go back home.  Today, across Montana, you’ll see a lot of old pick-up trucks – driven mostly by crotchety-looking middle-aged white men – with the bumper sticker prominently displayed on the rear bumper.  The message to outsiders could not be clearer – Montanans don’t want you in their state.

I expect Donald Trump to take Montana by an overwhelming margin in the upcoming Republican Party primary.  If he wins the GOP nomination, he’ll carry Montana in November’s presidential election.  Montanans know Hillary Clinton is a representative of the Eastern Establishment.  And although Trump is a billionaire and has nothing in common with the average Montanan, he’s rattling the Eastern Establishment – the same establishment that has been plundering Montana for generations.

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