Trump Rides West

Trump Rides West

Picture Credits: Johnny Silvercloud

On September 6th last year, President Donald Trump kicked off the autumn campaign season with a rally in Billings, Montana. He’d campaigned throughout the spring, and almost non-stop over the summer as well – indeed, he’d never really stopped campaigning since his own election victory – but now the primaries were over and the country was entering a final two-month period of maximal obsession with the midterm elections for Congress.

Billings was a programmatic destination for Trump. Montana is by landmass the fourth-largest state, but Billings, with a population of only 109,000, is its biggest city. The nearest real city – the glittering cosmopolis of Denver, Colorado – is an eight-hour drive, across the whole of Wyoming and beyond. Billings therefore has a decent claim to being the most provincial place in the entire continental U.S. This meant that the scene at the rally was somewhat exceptional. It was a little purer, a little richer, than usual.

*

The typical Trump rally has a lot in common with a professional sports event: packed arenas, high-cholesterol snacks, politically incorrect chanting. In the form of protestors, plus the news media, it also features an opposing team, whose members can be booed and jeered, and occasionally threatened with violence. Then there is the unprecedented abundance of team apparel.

Wearable political merchandise in the United States dates at least to the “Log Cabin campaign” of 1840, but has never before metastasized into a fascistic volunteer uniform on the scale of the red “Make America Great Again” baseball hat.[1] If team sports have always been an outlet for tribal and martial instincts, and if American sports have tended to play up the latter angle with all the helmets and pads and Velcro, then the Trump movement seems to have brought that relationship full-circle. NFL-style football jerseys with “TRUMP” and the squad-number 45 stitched on the back are also available for purchase at any rally, along with unofficial items, outside the venue, bearing slogans like “Bomb the crap out of ISIS” and “Waterboarding Instructor.” The MAGA hat also comes in camouflage.

But there are other, more personal displays taking place in the wardrobe department, which the layer of Trump apparel even has a way of obscuring.[2] Certain garments advertise the wearer’s belonging to one of the handful of walks of life that dominate the movement’s conception of itself. These might be, in fact, the most meaningful and prestigious garments worn at any rally.

The foremost category is, of course, Military: There will always be people wearing clothing, patches and hats that commemorate their own service (in the military, or as any form of military-adjacent “first-responder”), as well as camouflage and other designs that pay homage to the troops more generally. Also common are items that associate the wearer with Blue-Collar Labour, typically T-shirts promoting small, local businesses like auto-repair shops and building subcontractors. Another poignant style is Pseudo-Boardroom: power suits, hands-free earpieces, Windsor knots. Agrarian dress is also in: Mostly cowboy-style hats, boots and belt-buckles, but also rustic flannel shirts, John Deere merchandise, etc. Then there are the bikers, hunters, and other rugged types whom I group together in the Miscellaneous Outdoorsy/Intimidatory category. Last but not least comes Traditional Femininity – think short skirts, evening dresses, high heels, lipstick, and the colour pink.

Obviously, a lot of Americans dress in these modes most of the time anyway, without giving it much thought. But a political rally is not a neutral setting. People are gathering to express themselves, under the First Amendment, by their presence. They tend to dress up for the occasion, in one way or another. And the context of the rally invests even the mundane with special symbolism. The “walks of life” looks are speaking directly to the Trump movement’s identity politics in a way that cannot be entirely lost on its participants. Here, under one roof, are all the styles that were once hegemonic in the U.S., before the culture of the big cities took over.[3] Here, to put it another way, is White America, in all its wondrous variety.

The sportsfan aspect was in full effect in Billings. A young volunteer handed out free Trump-Pence beer koozies (the foam thing that keeps your beer can cold), while a terrible hydra-headed queue coiled itself around the snack bar and simply stopped moving. There was plenty of the Trump gear all over, but also a lot more people than usual dressed in a way that vividly signalled sociocultural identity. One in every ten Montana residents is a military veteran, and agriculture is by far the state’s biggest industry. (Montana is also 90% Caucasian – and I saw only a handful of non-white faces at the MetraPark Arena, which was full most of the way to its 12,000 capacity.) But perhaps – with a world-famous person of any kind such a rarity in town – the dressing up aspect was also especially exaggerated.

Who was that guy in an American flag hat, American flag shirt, and American flag shorts? Presumably he doesn’t dress like that normally. One family’s teenagers wore matching plaid shirts and lavishly heeled cowboy boots, topped with green “Make Our Farmers Great Again” caps.[4] Countless Stetsons were lifted off, along with the MAGA/MOFGA caps, for the opening prayer.

I approached a young man named Scott Grow, originally from nearby Glendive, who was wearing a camouflage boonie hat, which is the kind of hat soldiers and Marines wear when they’re trying to keep off the sun or the rain, neither of which were a problem either inside or outside the arena that evening. Grow was also wearing khaki cargo pants. He was, indeed, a former Marine. He turned out to be skeptical of Trump and highly critical of U.S. foreign policy past and present (like many in Montana, his basic instincts were libertarian). After a long period of political apathy, he’d attended the rally to try to feel things out first-hand. He confessed to suffering from some social anxiety that had been exacerbated by the size and mob-like propensity of the Trump crowd.

When we met up at a later date, Grow wasn’t wearing any military-style clothing. He told me that he never really gave much thought to what he wore, but for other people at the rally, he said, “part of it is that it’s just what they wear, for a lot of them. But I would say that there is a percentage that are wearing it to make a statement, either consciously or subconsciously. Especially for military clothing. There’s an identity connection to supporting troops and being conservative – as a side-note, I feel like a lot of that is hollow.”

Scott Grow was an island of circumspection amid that crowd. Generally, the enjoyment and feeling of group affirmation was palpable, and seeing and being seen in the idealised guises seemed part of the fun for many people. Trucker hats, engineers caps, gaily beribboned sunhats, Elmer Fudd huntsman’s hats – all were cushioned against breasts in unison, as the crowd rose for the national anthem. At the anthem’s noble climax, the hats twirled jubilantly in the air.

*

Pro-Trump aesthetics – or cosmetics, as the case may be – were of particular interest in Montana, where the race for a U.S. Senate seat was being fought largely over the question of authenticity. Senator Jon Tester, the Democratic incumbent whom Trump’s rally was arranged to attack, is a third-generation “dirt farmer,” the only active farmer in the Senate. He returns from Washington D.C. on weekends to work the land homesteaded by his grandparents over a century ago. Six feet tall and 300 lbs wide, he models a vintage flat-top haircut, and three missing fingers from a childhood meat-grinding accident. Such bona fides had helped Tester win very tight elections in 2006 and 2012. But his voting record in office had been reliably centre-left, in an increasingly hyper-partisan national climate. In 2016, Trump won Montana by 20 points, and in 2018 Tester was duly considered one of the Democrats’ four or five most vulnerable Senators.

Television screens and web browsers throughout the state were inundated with shrill, negative, misleading ads, mostly paid for by ‘dark money’ super PACs and other national partisan organizations. “On TV, Jon Tester drives a tractor – but it’s Montana that’s getting taken for a ride,” began one Super PAC ad; “Jon Tester likes to talk about his Montana roots, but the truth is he’s gotten pretty cozy in the D.C. swamp,” went another, laid on by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

The Republican challenger was Matt Rosendale, who made an audacious attempt to match Tester’s rural credentials by running explicitly as a “rancher” himself, seen loafing in front of a red barn in his own campaign ads, cows grazing in the background. Rosendale was in fact a former real estate developer from Maryland, who, public records later showed, had bought a ranch to live on when he moved to Montana at the age of forty, but had rented out his land and never owned any cattle himself. “Not a rancher, not one of us!” boomed the ads from a pro-Tester Super PAC. Rosendale was forced to adjust his Twitter bio from “conservative rancher” to “Trump conservative.” A pale and scrawny, almost corpse-like figure, he continued to appear at his campaign events, hands on hips, strapped with the belt buckle of a much larger man.

There seemed to be some confusion at work here. All the evidence suggested that looking like a farmer – or a rancher, or an example of one of the other ideal walks of life – was very valuable to Trump voters. But how valuable was actually being a farmer? I decided to test this by asking people at the rally what they thought of Senator Jon Tester. I didn’t expect to find anyone who would go so far as to vote for him, but perhaps the disagreement would be friendlier than usual. Tester shared the identity that they vigorously claimed for themselves; even as he erred politically, he remained recognisable, surely, as one of their own.

According to Jess Halvorson from the town of Big Timber, a carpenter sporting the camouflage MAGA cap, Tester was “a menace to Montana,” and “not really a farmer, he just does that for press coverage.” A man in a black Stetson and green checked shirt, who preferred to remain anonymous, echoed the point: “I could go sit in a tractor right now, it doesn’t make me a farmer.” (The key question, then, was whether wearing his cowboy hat made him a rancher – but he had also declined to reveal his profession.) A woman in a hot pink version of the MAGA hat, also anonymous, who explained that her politics were mostly informed by her evangelical Christian faith, said that Tester “speaks out of both sides of his mouth,” and only “acts like he’s a good ol’ boy.” Arla Murray, in a straw sunhat bearing the logo of the Republican National Committee, had travelled down from her family’s ranch; she was under the impression that Rosendale, rather than Tester, was the farmer in the race, and would naturally “represent Montana well” for that reason.

When I touted Tester to Bob Berry, who had travelled across the state line from Wyoming for the event, he responded, “Oh whoop! All that third-generation stuff doesn’t mean crap.” Finally – someone prepared to face head-on the reality that Tester a) looked like a farmer, b) was a farmer, and c) also happened to be a Democrat. “What are you doing for me now?” Berry asked, rhetorically, of Tester. But as he spoke, he himself was wearing a red MAGA cap stacked on top of a white Boss of the Plains-style cowboy hat. What was that doing for him now?

Across the board, the partisan impulse was stronger than rural fellow feeling. At the same time, rural identity retained a talismanic value that the movement was not happy to concede to the enemy. Faced with this dilemma – a choice of either softening their disdain for the other side (even in a single, anomalous case), or admitting that their precious rural quintessence might not hold such a strong political valence, after all – most Trump supporters would choose a third option: the stark, paranoid denial of readily verifiable facts about Jon Tester. A constituency accustomed to valuing authenticity above all else was bending to reconcile itself with its appointed leader – the man who values appearances above all, with zero interest in the actual substance of any area of life. This is the “straight out of central casting” administration, in which cabinet appointments are made on the basis of which candidate looks most like the action-movie version of whatever it is they’re supposed to be. Cliché is the only language of this presidency, and this movement.[5]

*

After Billings, the President’s roadshow – as if seeking urgent respite – made its next stop in a locale far more consistent with both his own enthusiasms and his particular attitude to reality. That place was Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Trump crowd in Vegas was more diverse, more nondescript, wearing less anyway in the hotter climate, and more reliant on the basic merchandise than the crowd in Billings. A detachment of Proud Boys, the “alt-light” group, huddled together in their trademark black and yellow Fred Perry shirts. But a good sprinkling of camouflage was still noticeable, along with the other badges of social honour. I was standing nearby when a couple of isolated cowboy hats happened to cross paths.

“I like your hat,” the first Marlboro Man said with a wink.

“Thank you, sir,” replied the second, gallantly tipping his brim.

Outside, however, hanging around in the sultry night air, was a real cowboy. He wore a very broad, bone-coloured Stetson, and a black, extremely old-looking suit. He wasn’t some modern agribusinessman – he was a genuine Western rancher, a relict from the 19th Century. It was Ryan Bundy.

The Nevada Bundy clan – seventy-two-year-old patriarch, Cliven, and some of his fourteen children, principally sons Ammon and Ryan – have emerged victorious in recent years, not only from two armed stand-offs with federal agents, but also from both the ensuing court cases. The disputes concerned the usage public lands, a central issue in the politics of the modern American West. The federal government owns and controls vast swathes of land across the West, including 85% of the State of Nevada. The Bundys were grazing their cattle on some of these lands, and didn’t particularly care to pay any fees for the privilege. The federal Bureau of Land Management tried to confiscate the Bundy herd. The Bundys, supported by a ragtag group of heavily armed “Patriot” militia-members and other right-wing conspiracy theorists, “stood their ground,” as the saying goes. High-powered rifles were trained on the BLM agents, who were also heavily armed. Later, the Bundy sons occupied a wildlife refuge in Oregon for forty-one days in protest. Cliven, Ammon and Ryan spent two years in prison before a judge threw out the case against them, citing prosecutorial misconduct and a heavy-handed and vindictive enforcement campaign on the part of the BLM.

Now Ryan Bundy was running a long-shot Independent campaign for Governor of Nevada, and was pressing the flesh outside the Trump rally, hoping to persuade the crowd to chant “We Want Bundy” inside, and thereby in turn convince Trump to endorse him on the spot.

Like Jon Tester, Bundy bears a physical disfigurement (“At the young age of seven years Ryan miraculously survived an incident in which a vehicle ran over his head,” explains his campaign website). This hard fortune seems to have made him serious and honorable. “Behind my crooked face is a straight heart, and a sound mind,” he told a sympathetic interviewer on a YouTube channel called “Battlefield America.”

At least, he gives the impression of being physically incapable of telling a lie. Outside the rally, I asked him why he hadn’t run for a lower and more realistic office than Governor. He explained that lower offices simply didn’t offer the amount of executive power that he needed. Many of his other very candid statements during the campaign – to the extent that voters ever became aware of them – were alarming. The Bundys adhere to a fringe strain of Mormonism that seems to furnish them with unwavering confidence in their own radical interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, pocket versions of which they carry with them at all times. A Bundy governorship might have led to the de facto secession of Nevada from the Union, with the state guard called into action against the BLM, and legal authority devolved to county sheriffs. Bundy received 1.5% of the vote.

He also assured me that he was “absolutely aligned with Donald Trump.” I’m sure he thought it was true at the time. But it was a mistake, or a misunderstanding. Inside the Las Vegas Convention Center, a rally security agent yanked my “We Want Bundy” flyer from my hand – it was “forbidden” material.[6] The two men have very little in common, personally or politically. The difference between a “conservative rancher” and a “Trump conservative” can be much more than just sleight of hand. The relative ease with which each can tell a lie might be just one element.

In December, Ryan’s brother Ammon publicly broke with both the “Patriot” movement and the Trump movement itself, over their shared viciousness toward immigrants. “[Trump] has basically called them all criminals and said they’re not coming in here,” Ammon Bundy said in a Facebook video: “What about individuals, those who have come for reasons of need for their families, you know, the fathers and mothers and children that come here and were willing to go through the process to apply for asylum so they can come into this country and benefit from not having to be oppressed continually?”

In the end, it wasn’t the Trump-endorsed Republican candidate who won the governorship of Nevada in November. It was the Democrat, Steve Sisolak. A Democrat also won the contested Senate seat in Nevada. Up in Montana, Jon Tester would hang on to his own seat, winning over 50% of the vote for the first time in his three elections, to Matt Rosendale’s 47%. The capture of another Senate seat in Arizona made the Western battlegrounds something of a clean sweep for the Democrats in 2018. This had more to do with the crude superficiality of the Republican candidates than with any great rural swing against Trump. But in the lower Western states, Latino Americans were also asserting their voting power.[7]

*

On January 14th, 2019, Trump addressed the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the country’s main agricultural lobbying group.

“I like the farmers. What can I do?” he asked the audience in New Orleans, with a theatrical shrug. “I like farmers!”

The hour-long speech included many references to “our great farmers, our ranchers, our growers.” Otherwise it was much the same as any of his rally speeches.

“We are fixing broken trade deals that are horrible,” he said. “When I saw what was going on in Canada, the way you were treated – horrible.”

Trump’s impulsive, theatrical tariff war with China and chaotically protracted trade negotiations with other countries have put great economic pressure on American farmers. A $12 billion farm bailout package is now on hold, due to a government shutdown that Trump himself caused, in frustration over his own immigration policy – which itself has adversely affected many farmers by reducing the pool of undocumented manual labour on which they have long relied.

“We’re going to make that actually easier for them, to help the farmers,” Trump said, to a sustained ovation. “Because you need these people. But we’re keeping the wrong ones out, okay?”

Then Trump summoned up on stage Jim Chilton – a fifth-generation rancher from an area along the Arizona-Mexico border. Did Chilton remove his huge cowboy hat before he took to the stage alongside the President of the United States? Why, of course he did not.

“Mr. President… We need a wall,” Chilton began to an enormous cheer, before explaining himself with a reference to the Vatican City.

“The American farmer,” Trump went on, “embodies the timeless values of America. You believe in hard work and self-reliance. You follow the rules, obey the laws, and respect our great American flag. You are always loyal to this magnificent nation that we so love.”

He brought his speech to its climax with a solemn promise: “To all of the farmers here today and across our country,” he said, holding up a finger, “The greatest harvest is yet to come.”

 

*

 

[1] The official version is, technically, a golf-style hat. There is a piece of decorative braided rope strung over the base of the peak, which apparently evokes golf – or, at any rate, the country club. For a slightly upscale, and even more golf-inspired option, there are also hats in the Trump Organization’s hotel gift shop range. Putatively non-political, these make use of designs such as the Trump “coat of arms,” an heraldic crest that Trump plagiarized from a British family, adjusting only its Latin motto: from Integritas, to Trump.

[2] In some cases literally: In Billings, I saw the security team policing the section of the crowd that would appear on camera, behind Trump himself. Several people wearing controversial attire, such as Infowars or QAnon T-shirts, were asked to step out and change into free official Trump merchandise before they could return for their moment of fame. (Infowars is a pro-Trump alt-media organization driven by conspiracy theory; QAnon is a particular pro-Trump conspiracy narrative serialized on online message boards.)

[3] Do urban liberals dress in an equivalent manner at their rallies? They wear campaign merchandise; they revere witty slogans, on T-shirts or homemade placards. They also developed the pink “pussy hat” for women, presumably as some kind of “answer” to the MAGA cap. (A key online community of Hillary Clinton supporters was called “Pantsuit Nation,” in homage to the candidate’s trademark look.) And perhaps they too wear clothes that place them, explicitly, within society and I, as one of them, just don’t notice as much. But in and around the big cities there is also the power of that thing called fashion, through which people are telling one another, in more complex, roundabout ways, what it is that they are. (For Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, selling apparel made by supportive celebrity designers such as Marc Jacobs worked well; by 2016, this practice, continued for Clinton, had begun to look like an excellent encapsulation of Democratic elitism and myopia.)

[4] These are official campaign gear – and $45 each.

[5] A grotesque hint of the real gulf between the President and this constituency, and the cynicism with which he beckons to them across it, came when Trump signed into law a renewal of the United States Farm Bill on December 20th. Trump promoted his own, purely perfunctory role in the legislation by sharing on Twitter a video clip of himself making a novelty appearance at the Emmys in 2005. There he was on stage, dressed in dungarees and a crude straw hat, holding a pitchfork, and singing along to the theme to the TV sitcom Green Acres. This was what he had to offer, and assumed the nation’s farmers wanted to see.

[6] As with the cases of Infowars and QAnon, Trump’s handlers are happy for endorsements to flow in from the controversial fringe, but not outward in return. Trump was endorsing the Republican candidate, Adam Laxalt.

[7] Those states, after all, were once part of Mexico – where the cowboy hat itself began life.

Louis Amis is a freelance writer of reportage, criticism and fiction. Read more at louisamis.com. Follow him @LouisAmisStuff

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