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Rural Westerners Are Saddened But Not Surprised By Insurrection At U.S. Capitol

An American flat on a barn outside of Hamilton, Mont.
An American flat on a barn outside of Hamilton, Mont.

Last summer, I met up with Ben Barto outside the small town of Dubois, Wyo. He's a huge Trump supporter and we were having a conversation about where he thought America was headed. 

"Revolution," he said. "I think it's headed there."

Flash forward to the violent scenes in the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Broken windows. Scuffles with police. A woman shot and killed. Another trampled. After spending the day watching this news unfold, I gave Barto a call to get his take. He told me we are inching even closer to revolution. 

"It just hasn't started yet," he said. "All of those people that you saw at the Capitol – they are fed up." 

Barto lives in the rural West, a region that voted overwhelmingly for the president during the last election. He had friends who attended Trump's rally before the mob stormed the Capitol. They told him the whole incident was actually "peaceful as hell." As for the violence, he believes the loose anti-fascist movement antifa was there as well, causing trouble. 

Ben Barto at his home in Dubois, Wyo. in September 2020.
Credit Nate Hegyi / Mountain West News Bureau
Ben Barto at his home in Dubois, Wyo. in September 2020.

"It was orchestrated," he said. "They will do anything to cause chaos and disrupt. They had to figure out a way to turn the whole world against Trump supporters." Let's be clear – there is no credible evidence to back that accusation up. But like a lot of his information, Barto heard it on Fox News. 

"They were likely not all Trump supporters," anchor Laura Ingraham said on her primetime show Wednesday night. "There are some reports that antifa members were sprinkled throughout the crowd."

This is where we are. The United States is awash in disinformation. People get to choose their own reality. And in the reality of pro-Trump loyalists like Barto, more violence could be coming after the Democrats take control.

"There are so many radical left projects they want to implement that it's not going to be peaceful," he said. "If it gets to that point where they come to try and take our weapons, if they want to stifle us any further than they already are with free speech, it's going to happen. There's just going to be one thing that's going to set it off and it's going to snowball from there."

Hundreds of miles north, in Montana's conservative Bitterroot Valley, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Tayln Lang says he's also worried about more violence. He tells me he was out shooting his rifle at a gun range recently. The man sitting next to him told him that target practice was important because "we have the revolution that's coming in."

"'Everybody has to be prepared to fight the government, the liberals, socialism and all this kind of stuff,'" Lang recalled the man saying.

Lang is one of those liberals. When he saw what happened at the U.S. Capitol he wept for his country. 

"We had this whole segment of people who truly believe they're patriots," he said. "They're storming the halls of the Capitol because they believe falsehoods."

Those falsehoods have crept into small towns and rural communities across the West, helping fuel distrust in everything from public health measures to Black Lives Matter protests to this past election. But Mati Bishop, who lives in Libby, Mont., said there's something else at play here, too. 

He voted libertarian in the last election but said a lot of his friends are Trump supporters. 

"They're angry," he said. "Even yesterday, as the images from the Capitol were being broadcast, they were justifying what was happening. That we've reached a breaking point. The system is broken. They feel betrayed and, to be honest, I think rural America has been betrayed. But that's happened over the past 20 years."

He said his neighbors are angry and desperate because, in their minds, their traditional way of life has been taken away. Bedrock industries such as logging and mining have long been in decline. Small businesses struggle to compete against big companies such as Walmart and Amazon. The wealth gap in the United States has doubled over the past three decades.

Trump tapped into some of that anger. 

Still, Bishop doesn't understand why some of his friends followed Trump down the rabbit hole and don't believe in some facts anymore. 

"What you call a fact, another person disputes and says, 'Well, that's not true because I saw a YouTube video that my cousin posted and I trust him more than I trust this media guy,'" he said. "It's detrimental to everything that we have no consensus of truth, no consensus of fact, in this country right now."

A democracy without agreed-upon facts is like a pickup truck without oil. The engine seizes. It can't run. 

This is what worries Julie Weitz, a retired school librarian in Sheridan, Wyo. She was shocked and saddened by what happened at the capitol. However, she wasn't surprised. 

"Isn't that a sad thing to say," she said. 

Weitz is progressive but many of her neighbors voted for the president last election. Some are still flying blue, Trump 2020 flags on their porches. She wants to know why they won't take them down after what happened at the capitol but she's learned not to ask. 

"I've noticed that when we have those conversations about Donald Trump it turns into – I call it the 'what-about-ism,'" she explained. "It's kind of like a never ending spiral."

She finds herself getting lost in the web of conspiracy theories. Trying to work around something that clearly didn't happen but the other person believes is true. She often hits roadblocks. 

"I just feel like throwing my hands up in the air because they can't be reached," she said. This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.