Essay: The rural rotting of democracy

April 16, 2023 10:55 am

The side of Hank Munzer’s building in Dillon, Montana (Photo by Alan Weltzein).

I’ve avoided writing this essay for at least three years but my stomach gnaws.

My town, an epitome of rural America, boasts not one but two January 6, 2021 insurrectionists. And for the noisy one—Hank Munzer, it’s always a boast. He introduces himself that way.

The other insurrectionist, years younger, comes from an ostensibly Christian family as his father was and is a preacher. I don’t think he preaches the gospel of love. This younger man sang tenor with me in the college choir one year. His sister cleaned our house for a few years and ended up running an orphanage in Kenya. In our town brewery this man, in his thirties, when asked about his career aspirations, said something like “I’d like to be a mercenary soldier.” 

He keeps his head down awaiting his court case.

Not so Hank, whose business shop lines our town’s main north-south street. He was arrested about a week after the Capital riot and charged with one felony count and four misdemeanors, two of those disorderly or disruptive conduct. Among other things he was accused of recording videos inside the Capitol. Six days later he posted those on Facebook. That fact alone evidences his online dependency. Did he know or care about legality? He thinks he did nothing wrong and only exercised free speech.

He was arraigned then released on bail—he grins in his orange prison suit—and then he got to work on his business’ building in Dillon. 

Hank was supposed to go to trial in August 2022 but now there’s been another half-year postponement. He’s wanted a change of venue but will be tried in Washington D.C. He prefers to represent himself rather than use a lawyer. That fact suggests the level of his self-righteous zealotry or his narcissistic personality disorder. Or both.

Meanwhile, he enjoys local notoreity. He even ran for city council and garnered dozens of votes. Whose sick joke is that? Exactly whom in rural America is he speaking for? One flavor of rural America consists of a range of deep resentments; above all, resentment of the federal government. Nothing new here, given the long history of agricultural subsidies and dependencies.

In some regards, my town, as a breeding ground for insurrectionists, represents just the latest expression of rural resentment signified earlier by the Sagebrush Rebellion—remember its shovel brigade, with many shovels trucked from my state?—or, more recently, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover by Cliven and Ammon Bundy, ongoing loose cannons?

What has my town become? In this milieu of noise and anger, when rudeness reigns unchecked, how many of us will change what’s happened? 

Why are most of us enslaved to social media—the origin story here—not recognizing and diffusing their role in our unravelling? Hank is an epitome and product of social media through which his crazy voice assumes outsize proportions. Now, we’re drowning as fringe voices infect and debase public discourse.

This guy has received plenty of press since his arrest. His version of what unrolled at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 sounds like a child marveling at a fairy tale in which he’s participating. He claims he travelled all the way to the Capitol to meet Trump though, of course, Trump wasn’t allowed to go, throwing a temper tantrum in his limo-SUV. 

Hank has been in our town for some years and even repaired our washing machine or connected our new dishwasher. On the latter occasion, he chatted on his bluetooth most of the time. He acts affable, garrulous.

How long ago did he start trolling alt-right chat rooms? Maybe he’d turned into a MAGA-head before that disastrous acronym became commonplace. What combination of ignorance and disposition and random events led to his fantastic convictions? Through sundry platforms he found fellow true believers and discovered deep solidarity. 

In the press, he’s all innocence: “At the time I didn’t know what was going on, but looking back it almost seemed like it was a trap — they opened the doors.”

Really? Happened to be breaking in but knowing nothing? “They” opened doors? There’s that unspecified plural pronoun again. The key note here is paranoia, a QAnon homebase. His rendition contradicts every account I’ve studied about that day of infamy. Hank continues in a passive vein that denies any agency on the part of the mob: “No one ever asked us to leave or exit the building; it’s like we were turned on, suddenly.” 

The depth of delusion takes one’s breath away. 

Hank’s most stunning disclaimer: He “acted without malice” and claims he doesn’t support violence against anyone. People like this repeat these lies to reassure themselves and, in their delusion, persuade themselves they’re proselytizing others.

This includes victimhood as a core ingredient. One of the most pernicious consequences of alt-right chatrooms, for example, concerns the proliferation of victimhood. The sometimes indeterminate “they” act in ways and with consequences that seemingly constrain or harm “me”—a seductive, even irresistible mode of auto-suggestion, no matter how far-fetched.

The symbiosis of “their fault” and “poor me” depends depends upon an unformed, unchecked egotism. In rural U.S., it’s a knee-jerk inheritance to rant against “the feds,” to pose as the little guy tilting against big government. Of course “the feds” prove a primary employer via federal land agencies, it’s no surprise to admit. 

The brand of victimhood in the ascendant is also reinforced by our town’s setting. Out here in the boondocks, some locals harbor every possible resentment against urban- and suburbanites—“they” who include most the population and more political power. Long subject to satiric treatment and neglect, rural America, whether aging white or more, is more pissed off than ever about chronic disregard or dismissal among stakeholders in the contemporary U.S. Even in our rural state, something like 80% of us now live in or near six to eight cities (those with 30,000 or more).                           

The current rural malaise includes an agrarian longing, however suspect: A hearkening back more than a century when many more Americans were rural rather than urban. In residual rural pockets, folks typically have less broadband width and less high-speed access. It could be argued that in the post-Internet world, the neglect or stigmatization of rural U.S. accelerates. After all, most all our Internet cues come from suburbs or cities. Folks on the farm or ranch or in the two-traffic light town already feel that, increasingly, they don’t fit along the spectrum of contemporary fashions and feel than ever more removed from sites of power and prestige. Angry and depressed about economic disjunction and ongoing disregard, they easily slip on the clothes of victimhood. And they seek and seize upon scapegoating targets.

In the pathology of victimhood, it’s also easy to adopt a David-vs.-Goliath stance, particularly when Goliath owns considerable tracts of land—public lands, a great legacy but beyond any local control. Or when wealthy out-of-staters arrive, moving into something big, whether temporarily or permanently, and paying cash. Lots of cash. 

Another likely source of MAGA victimhood in contemporary rural America derives from this political truth: Our votes hardly matter. At the federal level, our votes (electoral college or otherwise) don’t add up to much and we’ve so few Representatives. At the state level, delegations representing about half a dozen cities wield most political clout. Where does that leave rural U.S.?  

A generation ago, one national politician described our state as “hyper rural.” You know the feeling? My county, larger than Connecticut, boasts about 9,000 residents and few traffic lights. Most Americans can’t imagine or understand or appreciate such a mode of life. Many pass through but few would choose to stay. In pockets like mine, it’s an unimaginable distance to D.C. or New York—other countries.

Why should D.C. call the shots about public lands right here, for instance? What do “they” know at ground level? And so it goes, more Beltway rants.

In his spot-on analysis of my state, “Fifty-Six Counties,” novelist Russell Rowland defines a fierce love of “the land or their families or their country” characteristic, I believe, of rural Americans: “They love until it makes them blind, until they feel the need to barricade themselves against anything that threatens that love.”

That circling-the-wagons mentality against ostensible outside threats, a species or xenophobia and denial, results in destructive conduct: “So we drink. We kill ourselves. We throw our sinking self-image out onto those around us, sometimes in violent, ugly ways, and we decide that our problems are everyone else’s fault, and that if they would go away, or act more like we do, or learn to think more like we think, then we would feel better.” 

In such soil grows the Hankss of rural communities. After all, “they” are out to get us, right? And rural problems come from elsewhere, according to this self-delusion.

This toxic combination of ignorance, victimhood, naiveté, and auto-hypnosis, now commonplace, would remain minuscule but for alt-right media platforms. 

The paint job on Hank’s business building proves his lie as it is far more than an eyesore; as a calculated act of visual violence, it repels many of us and, according to one local realtor, dissuades occasional prospects who considered moving here. One friend told me she no longer drives on this main street; another said she chants “a–hole, a–hole, a–hole” every time she rides by. The city council does nothing because of Fred’s ostensible First Amendment protections. 

My stomach used to cramp as I passed but in more recent seasons, I’ve grown numb, pretending to ignore this bizarre paint job. Most townspeople do their best to ignore it. I’ve never seen a building, graffitied or otherwise, like this one anywhere.

For example, on its south side there’s a large image of a sheep’s head (black), its mouth gagged with a red bandanna. Above the image, in block letters, MIND  CONTROL  DEVICE and underneath that, prodded by an arrow in larger block letters, SHEEP  NO  MORE. Presumably it’s an allusion to William Lederer’s long ago “A Nation of Sheep.” 

Actually, now we’re more a nation of sheep than ever, and some know why. Who are the sheep now? Hank’s answer diametrically opposes that of the majority.

To the right we read a quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr., who would likely be surprised to be included here: NOTHING IN ALL / THE WORLD IS / MORE DANGEROUS / THAN SINCERE / IGNORANCE AND / CONSCIENTIOUS / STUPIDITY. This strikes me as one unintentionally accurate self-description of Fred and the swelling tribe of conspiracy theorists. 

Below this proclamation, again in block lettering, four mottos: THOSE THAT FEAR HAVE NOT BEEN / MADE PERFECT IN LOVE followed by GOODBYE HOSPITAL ADMIN. / CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY followed by TYRANNY NEVER ENDS WITH / COMPLIANCE OR SUBMISSION / THIS IS WAR, and closing, in deeper black paint, THOSE THAT TRADE LIBERTY FOR / SECURITY DESERVE NEITHER. It would take too long to unpack this unruly collage, a stunning jumble of juxtapositions.

The east and north facades reveal quotations from JFK and George Bush, Sr., and insinuate many linkages between Kennedy’s assassination and the previous president and his “Big Lie” regarding the 2020 election. Perhaps the most subversive note concerns the visual linkages between our foundational “We The People” doctrine and QAnon dogma.

Kevin Roose of The New York Times posted an article (Sept. 3, 2021) anatomizing QAnon’s genesis, growth, and appeal. QAnon, a cancer that’s metastasized from fringe to mainstream,  perpetuates lies about a range of topics via YouTube. The core lie, posted by some troll (“Q”) in October 2017, breezily flourishes far beyond what is meant by “crackpot”: “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.”

Say what?

Hard to know where to start among these glaring, primitive fears: Satan worship, pedophilia, or this “global cabal” that includes Democrat leaders, left-wing Hollywood trendsetters. Even the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis make the list of villains.

“The Storm,” a species of fast-forward end time, refers to the near-future event when Trump returns to power and unleashes this vague cabal, punishing its members and bringing them to “justice.”

It turns out QAnon attracts a diverse constituency, not just crazy libertarians or fearful evangelical Christians. According to Roose, a December 2020 poll suggests that 17% of Americans subscribe to QAnon. Among Republicans it’s a higher percentage. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have ostensibly removed thousands of accounts and blocked a lot of QAnon content, which of course only feeds the miasma of persecution and paranoia that defines these “True Believers.” 

How has this crazed fantasy moved onto the radar screen within two to three years? Loose analyzes QAnon as both a “social community and a source of entertainment.” These claims worry me all the more though I’m unsurprised. QAnon functions in some regards as a cult, a fringe online church community with all the predictable bonding. Cults sustain a sense of solidarity, exclusivity and privilege through ongoing proselytizing and reinforcement protocols. “Deep State true believers” believe they know more than rest of us and revel in the difference.

I’m even more struck by QAnon’s fundamental texture of online gaming, as most posts involve some decoding as though this cult’s cryptic communications attest to a privileged arcana of knowledge—let’s call it a pseudo-cabal. No doubt the element of gaming underlines this cult’s sense of exclusivity. You know, like a series of secret passwords that permit entrance into the speakeasy. Above Fred’s front window we read, “TRUST THE PLAN / WWG1WGA.”

I grew up a gullible lad but adulthood and education thickened my skin. In the world according to Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, what does adulthood look like? QAnon appears only a ripe instance of a young child’s gullibility, a cancer growth of online addiction. Gullibility, like clinical depression, has reached epidemic proportions well before COVID-19. Do social media fuel it or are there other lead causes?

Here in “the sticks” resentment against the feds remains a hoary, inherited creed, however unfounded and dubious. That tradition provides a welcoming micro-climate for conspiracy theories to flourish because for some, the wagons keep circling.                                                                                                                             

We’ve been warned repeatedly.

Social historian Sherry Turkle’s books carefully plot the online invasion and subsequent evisceration of stable identity and erosion of actual, physical communities. One of her titles captures the potent paradox occasioned by social media, “Alone Together.” It’s old news that social media diffuses one’s identity and allows Freud’s id, a red zone, to take charge: No filters so the spontaneous overflow of powerful anger and rudeness never need be recollected in tranquility. 

Being virtually “together” reinforces, in myriad insidious ways, our burden of being increasingly “alone.” Besides, being angry “together,” online or in front of Fox News, feeds our dopamine, a craving marking addiction. Her subtitle—”Why We Expect MORE from Technology and LESS from Each Other—”perfectly forecasts our common unravelling well before the 2016 Presidential election with its “reality” TV star. This book deeply depressed me as I knew most would never heed her prophetic voice. 

Turkle’s more recent book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” — measures the depths of our decline and makes one poignant read. Turkle argues what many online addicts have forgotten, that the pathway out of “alone” leads us back into physical interaction via conversation. The art of conversation, however risky or messy, reminds us of what human beings have always done besides eating, making love, and killing.

Jeff Orlowski’s documentary, “Our Social Dilemma,” also sounds the warning about the subversive dominance of the mega-platforms in our lives. We’re all at the mercy of algorithms—and this is no conspiracy theory, it’s current mega-business according to Behaviorism 101. This film should be required watching for anyone creating or using social media.

In recent decades, published research directly correlates social media addiction with clinical depression.  Some mental health professionals believe that clinical depression represents the fifth vital sign health care providers should monitor.

Why do conspiracy theory platforms proliferate? Inside that house, “safely” online no matter the gross distortion of or disconnect from actuality, some find and fasten onto various pseudo-brother- or sisterhoods. And group victimhood. In these spaces, inhibitions drop away and gullibility reigns and more dopamine is released. For some, the more incredulous the claims, the more eagerly they’re grasped. Such essential human modes as introspection or sustained reflection, like listening, disappear. What has ever happened to critical thinking, a traditional hallmark of being educated and adult?

Some poor bastard out there can even hatch a fantasy linking two taboos—Satan worship and pedophilia and sexual predation—with a vague plot centrally casting the worst President in our history. It’s all easy under a big expanding tent.

Let’s return to my hometown with this sore on one of its main streets. Hank’s convictions belong in an alternate reality. He loves the attention, shies away from no microphone or camera, and apparently knows more about most subjects than the rest of us. I’ve heard him holding forth. In front of his building he displayed a “F— Biden” sign until one city council member pressured him to remove it. 

Zealots of the “Big Lie” are dangerous whether in Congress or on a main street in rural America. And the extreme right-winger strategy focuses upon local elections – school boards, county commissioners or health officers, above all. Hank, who believes he can best represent himself in his trial, thinks he’ll beat all charges and then file and win a civil lawsuit: “They are going to pay me a huge premium for this.”

Does anyone else share his roseate lenses? No narcissism here, right? There’s that vague pesky “they” again, default mode for conspiracy theorists.                                            

For more than two years Hank parked his Trump truck by his front door on public property: A smaller version of his building’s decor, blue with prominent white lettering. On one corner in smaller lettering, an offensively crude jingle: “Joe & The Hoe Gotta Go.” Serious confusion, and not just about the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation. Who is speaking for Whom? 

Remember Hank harbors no malice and opposes violence. I’ve never seen this truck move, though presumably it rides slowly with a few other vehicles on Fridays after 5:30. Like other residents, I’ve driven past on a Friday later afternoon, watched a few pickups and overweight men, usually men—you know, Carhartts snug, burly if not bearded—rally around. The truck “train” then drives slowly and makes noise on residential streets. Does anyone pay attention? Whose First Amendments rights are being infringed here?

And you know how our nation flag’s been appropriated. This weekly event feels like a tiny fringe group and the phallic symbolism—those fluttering erect flags—feels sophomoric or worse. 

Most in my town ignore or dismiss him, despite a noisy, sympathetic fringe. From inside his bubble, he exaggerates his influence. Yet the truck remained, another act of visual violence. Is he tolerated due to apathy?

Turns out the truck is illegal because it’s one giant political sign. According to Montana law(18.6.246, POLITICAL SIGNS), section one states “Signs promoting political candidates is used shall be placed on private property only.” Section two reads, in part, “Political signs must not be placed on or allow any portion to intrude in the public right-of-way or on public property.” That includes sidewalks and streets. Further, “Political signs must be removed with 14 days following the applicable election.”

So what’s the deal here?      

Unsurprisingly perhaps, this section of code requires local enforcement and our city council and police department chose not to enforce the code, and get this glaring screed off the streets. Why not? Why have local officials willfully ignored state law and, as it turns out, municipal code as well? Do they think Hank commands more support than he does? This apathy and failure reflect fragile democracy at a local level.

Our state’s lead human rights organization has long tracked extreme rightwing fringe groups in and out of our region. It has provided webinars on “Harassment, Discrimination, Intimidation” and disseminated a Rapid Response Guide for Hate Incidents. Their research documents not only armed paramilitary groups but aggressive actions to influence local elections. Since COVID-19, county health officers have found themselves a bullseye for these outfits and those swayed by them. 

Bullying has no place in a healthy democracy yet we’ve witnessed endless displays, online and on the ground, at every level. That’s no surprise given the role modeling of the past half dozen years and more. 

January 6 insurrectionists need jail time.

I can’t swallow the lethargy of millions while fringe groups migrate inward. What differences exist between our current House of Representatives and the Reichstag in 1933? Have we forgotten the consequences of Josef Goebbels, in the late 1930s, repeatedly denouncing Die Juden as “vermin?” What are the differences between “vermin” or “woke” labelling? 

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Alan Weltzien
Alan Weltzien

Alan Weltzien is a published non-fiction writer and editor. He most recently published a memoir entitled “A Father and an Island” in addition to “The Norman Maclean Reader” and “Thomas Savage: a Forgotten Novelist.” Weltzien has received two Fulbright Fellowships and one University of Montana Faculty Exchange Award. He is professor emeritus in the English Department at the University of Montana-Western in Dillion.