by Shahid Haque-Hausrath
Yesterday, the Missoulian Newspaper posted the audio of a remarkable exchange between reporter Jayme Fraser and Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for Governor. By mid-morning, that link no longer worked, but those of us who listened to the interview could hardly forget hearing Greg Gianforte become unhinged and accuse the Missoulian editorial board of “wanting terrorists in this state.”
Last month, Greg Gianforte was rightly criticized by the Missoulian Editorial Board for the fear-mongering, race-baiting mailers he sent, which appeared timed to coincide with the arrival of the first refugees taking part in Missoula’s new resettlement program (a Congolese family). The mailer claimed that Gianforte’s opponent, Steve Bullock, “supports bringing Syrian refugees into Montana,” and portrayed an ominous Arab man with a covered face and a weapon. Greg Gianforte’s scare tactics marred the atmosphere at a time when Missoula wanted to send the message that it was welcoming refugees with open arms. Gianforte has followed it up with TV advertisements, airing across Montana, stoking the same fears and claiming to be the only one who can save us.
However, Gianforte has never been clear on exactly what his policy is towards refugees or other immigrants. Therefore, it should have been an anticipated point of discussion in an editorial interview. However, Greg Gianforte appeared unable to explain his positions and quickly grew frustrated.
Greg Gianforte was asked why, if he doesn’t think the screening process that refugees go through is enough, the process for less stringent visas (available to family members, students, visitors, or temporary workers, among others) should continue. He could not answer that point, but appeared to call for a total freeze on all immigration from Syria and “terrorist nations.” City editor Gwen Florio [corrected name] asked, “When you say terrorist nations, which specific countries are you talking about?” Greg Gianforte struggled and could provide no list.
There was a world of subtext in this one question. Greg Gianforte did not limit his concerns to Syrians, but would not define who else he is viewing with scrutiny. If he defined exactly which countries he was trying to ban from Montana and tried to justify his position, it would sound a lot like the real issue is that he is afraid of Muslims. And when you go down the path of stoking fear against people of an entire faith, where do you draw the line?
So, of course there is no list. Policies like this are meant to be vague and broad. That way they can substitute as a pure pretext for racial and religious discrimination.
When pressed again for his list, and asked whether or not Iran was on that list, Gianforte grew irritated and said “I’m not playing this game with you.” Apparently he even was even “pounding the table.”
Unable to answer even the most basic questions about how he would implement his vague policy, Gianforte lost his temper with the Missoulian editorial board and said “I don’t understand why you want terrorists in this state . . . You’re totally out of touch with Montanans.”
Gianforte’s policies would affect real people. But when asked to explain in any meaningful way who he would block from Montana, Gianforte viewed the question as “playing games” and “wanting terrorists in the state.” This level of intolerance is staggering.
In reality, it is Greg Gianforte who is out of touch with Montanans. These are legitimate questions about Gianforte’s intent to upend the U.S. Constitution and federal immigration laws based on fear-mongering, racism, and xenophobia.
I have a different view of Montanans than Greg Gianforte. It is understandable to be afraid of the unknown, and I’d gather most Montanans have never met a Muslim. Many community leaders across the state have been doing their part to educate their friends about Islam, the crisis in Syria, and explain that we have much more in common than not. But, it’s hard to know something until you know it, and let’s just say a lot of Montanans don’t know things. I’ve encountered racism in Montana – every person of color who lives here has. But, the vast majority of Montanans I have met have been open to learning and understanding more. Leaders like Greg Gianfiorte are poisoning this opportunity.
Although ignorance can be as damaging as informed bigotry, it is less deceitful than what Greg Gianforte is doing — deliberately exploiting the fear he sees resonating with Montanans, and intentionally amplifying it.
The harm Greg Gianforte and others are doing is palpable. When Gianforte continually stokes Montanans fears about non-existent threats, he is creating an atmosphere that is bound to create prejudice, and could even boil over into violence. By claiming that threats exist, but leaving the threat vague, Gianforte makes Montanans afraid of a threat they cannot identify or define the parameters of. This leads to the reactionary fear of all Muslims. In the atmosphere Gianforte is fostering, it would barely even matter if you are a Muslim or not — it will only matter whether you look like one. And as the father of two young children, that is the most terrifying thing I see happening.
Greg Gianforte’s race-baiting demonstrates a deplorable failure of leadership for Montanans who need a leader who can be honest with them – not make our communities worse by misleading them.
Shahid Haque-Hausrath is Helena attorney.