On May 9, 1754, Benjamin Franklin drew the “Join or Die” cartoon pictured above in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. At the time, the colonists debated plans to open a new front that would push conflict further west. Franklin drew the cartoon to emphasize unity of the colonies against encroaching enemies and also to let the British government understand the colonies’ solidarity. The cartoon also showed up in both the Revolutionary War as propaganda against the British and the Civil War to call for Northern and even Southern unity.
On April 18, 2019, the US Department of Justice released a heavily redacted version of the long-anticipated “Mueller Report.” The two volume, 448-page report provides a decent overview of the 2016 Donald Trump campaign’s outreach to Russian interests then its subsequent attempts to cover-up those links as the DOJ began its investigation. Trump apologists and GOP operatives are quick to note Mueller did not find any evidence to bring charges of conspiracy or obstruction of justice. But, as Mueller notes, the report does not “exonerate” the President and Mueller and his team were wary to make conclusive charges because the power of the presidency has become so expanded that Congress has better latitude to make these legal decisions.
So we now exist, yet again, at an impasse in American history like Franklin tried to push us past. Some–like me–are calling for immediate impeachment proceedings against the president, others want to have continued public Congressional hearings (okay, fine), and others say let’s move beyond Trump and concentrate on the 2020 election cycle (this assumes we have a functioning democracy in November 2020). In trying to square all of that, my struggle the past few days has been with how I, we, as Montanans can add to this national conversation.
It does not have to be repeated the media calls Montana a “Trump State.” In 2016, he won with 56% of the vote and there is no sign he needed direct Russian assistance to swing that number like he did in the Midwest. We have a lone Congressman who looks adoringly at his preferred president and a junior senator who went to Russia to benefit from Trump’s nefarious Russian ties. Yet, we also have a popular governor who may run for president and will have a national stage. As well, we have a senior senator with a powerful voice in D.C. and who is no stranger to standing up for his fellow Montanans. Both men have zero patience for corruption and also have immense respect for the Constitution. But I will leave my appeals to them there.
We are one star of 50 on our nation’s flag. Yet while we are one of many, what happens in DC has a long reach into Montana and we are not immune or protected or isolated against Trump’s machinations against American democracy. As a state that endured and survived the corrupt and autocratic reign of the Copper Kings, we can use that history to inform the fight against an imperial presidency laid out in the Mueller Report’s second volume. As a state that was on the top of the list of Soviet nuclear targets and faced existential annihilation from the Soviet Union every single day until Perestroika, Montanans can explain the dangers of insidious Russian intentions laid bare in the report’s first volume.
If you think Trump cares about Montana’s future with a dying coal industry, ask the workers at the closed industrial plants he promised to keep open. If you think Trump and his kids want to keep Montana’s environment pristine for their infrequent visits, ask the environmental regulations he continues to destroy. Yes, everything that Trump touches dies and he has touched down in Montana many times.
We can debate and argue about what the best political path or strategy is. After she read the complete Mueller Report, Senator Elizabeth Warren said people need to put aside their divisions and “do their constitutional duty.” When I finished both volumes on Friday, reading it through the lens of having watched Russia topple Western democracies, I took a long breath and had the same reaction as Senator Warren. We do not have much time before the cement of Trump’s and Putin’s foundation sets in and we move further and further from Constitutional norms. Let me put it in “Gray’s Anatomy” terms: we know why patient is sick and dying so we do not need to run more tests–we need to operate.
Trump’s default political agenda is to divide. To divide citizens against citizens, politicians against politicians, and the government from the people. Franklin’s political cartoon is as deeply meaningful when he intended it to unify the early colonists against a growing foreign threat. The threat against the United State of America, against the State of Montana, is no less frightening and catastrophic to us all. And this threat occupies the Oval Office.
What will Montanans–political leaders, organizers, and other citizens–do about this existential threat to our way of life?