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The New West: Dems still don’t realize why Trump won in 2016

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CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Donald Trump gave Hillary Clinton a thorough shellacking in the 2016 presidential election. He beat her by 20 percentage points in Montana; in Wyoming, Trump netted three times as many votes as Clinton did; in Idaho, he garnered twice the percentage of Clinton’s tally.

Could the president achieve the same results today in Montana were he facing a different opponent?

Not likely.

For that matter, could a guy like Trump, with his documented record of deception, philandering and loudmouthery honestly get elected to serve on a local school board or city commission? Would organizations like Rotary or chambers of commerce put him in a position of leadership?

Would corporate board members tolerate such behavior were he CEO of a publicly traded company, answering to shareholders? Would churches hold him up as a role model for other parishioners?

In almost every category of modern life, except for tribal politics, Trump would be treated as a pariah.

Still, as we know, the results of 2016 were less about a love fest for Trump and more about epic disgust for Clinton.

America’s rejection of the Clintons (plural) cannot be blamed on the Russians. The whiplash has been brewing since the 1990s, and it’s something Democrats in the interior West have an easier time understanding than anywhere else.

If you want a visceral reminder of why Trump won—as part of a vendetta to get even—re-watch the 1998 movie “Primary Colors,” based on Joe Klein’s anonymously written, allegedly fictional profile of the Clintons as self-absorbed figures. It’s brutal.

Clinton may have won the national popular vote but unless Democrats figure out how to connect with real people and run candidates on more than just moral indignation toward Trump, further disappointment awaits.

A second reality the Democratic National Committee seems inexplicably clueless about is just how repulsive its bi-coastal party figureheads on Capitol Hill—US. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and U.S Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York—are to people in our region.

To even acknowledge this is regarded as an act of betrayal to those claiming that a blue tidal wave will begin to crash in 2018.

But will it? The truth is, and polls confirm as much, most Americans in rural counties Trump carried could care less about the fractured identity-politics spiel Democrats continuously peddle. Unless it can demonstrate an ability to be a party of big unifying ideas, the left will remain little more than a ragtag confluence unable to register with the masses in a way that feels cohesive.

In the mid 1980s, while writing a story about natural grass drilling in the Upper Green River basin, I met with the late Teno Roncalio in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Roncalio was the last Democrat in Wyoming to have a seat in Congress. That was 40 years ago.

His Italian immigrant father had been a coal miner. Roncalio fought in World War II and participated in the Normandy invasion. He easily could have been a copper miner’s son in Butte, Montana.

A bit of Roncalio lore: he lost in a fairly narrow race to Jackson Hole’s own Cliff Hansen, then governor, for a U.S. Senate seat. Roncalio ended up winning back his old spot in Congress and, in 1978, when he retired, was succeeded by Dick Cheney, who came back to run in Wyoming after serving in the Ford administration.

Roncalio noted that it was no secret where the Democrats’ base of power resided. “Labor,” he said more than 30 years ago in his plainspoken way. “The strength of the Democrats is they have the back of the working people.”

By that, he meant unions pushing for livable wages, finite working hours and safety. The party recognized daily economic necessity—i.e. survival—was the number one priority for Americans going to the polls.

Contrary to the vision of the West as being big, open, empty and populated by rugged individual pastoralists, the pattern of settlement—for most people—was urban, as in towns founded as natural resource extraction outposts based upon whatever merchantable products could be pulled out of the ground—namely minerals and trees.

Contrary to the way things are today, the party of the environment was not Democrats but moderate, conservative Republicans who, like those Dems of Roncalio’s era, have vanished.

While environmental laws have prevented the kind of disasters that occurred with frequency in the past, more resource extraction jobs are consistently being lost not to “regulation” but to robots, automation and efficiency. There is no union representing robots.

The idea that towns like Jackson and Bozeman would rise in the 21st century as “leisure communities,” where economies are perpetuated by digital entrepreneurs pouring in and wanting to play, would be mind-blowing, according to Roncalio’s orientation to the world.

But do Jackson and Bozeman represent where their states are going or, to those who voted for Trump, are they bitter reminders of how so many people feel left behind?

Todd Wilkinson is founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal ( and a correspondent for National Geographic. He also is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at

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