Darrell Erhlick

(Daily Montanan) U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke knows why the cowboy is disappearing from places like Montana.

It’s because of the “deep state.”

In a speech that was both far-ranging yet brief and his first floor speech since returning to the United States House of Representatives, Zinke, Montana’s Congressman representing the state’s new western district, blames the deep state, liberal dark money, and the media for a host of personal and political attacks.

The speech garnered attention on the national stage, but has received less analysis back home in Montana.

The Transcript of Zinke’s speech

Given on Jan. 10, 2023
“Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of the select committee to investigate the weaponization of the federal government, something I have a lot of experience firsthand.

I proudly served as a 52nd Secretary of Interior and despite the deep state’s repeatedly attempts to stop me, I stand before you as a duly elected member of the United States Congress, and tell you that a deep state exists and it is perhaps the strongest covert weapon the left has against the American people. There is no doubt the federal government deep state coordinates and uses politicians and willing media to carry their water. The deep state runs secret messaging campaigns with one goal in mind: To increase its power to censor and persuade the American people.

Dark money groups funded by liberal billionaires and foreign investors funnel money to shell organizations and repeatedly attempt to destroy the American West. In many cases they want to wipe out the American cowboy completely, remove public access to our lands and turn our lands in Montana into a national park.

They want to control our land and our lifestyle. Mr. Speaker, I’d like to submit a five-part series of investigative articles by the Capital Research Center entitled “Arabella’s long war: Keeping the Ground,” into the congressional record —

Say what?

The media attention the speech received from late-night television shows and political pundits ranged from mockery to confusion, but Montana political scientists said the speech had little to do with a specific policy. Rather, they said it was meant to provide Zinke’s political bonafides as a conservative.

Jessi Bennion, a political science professor from Carroll College and Montana State University, said the speech illustrates the divide that is already beginning to show between Zinke and his eastern Montana counterpart, Rep. Matt Rosendale, also a Republican.

Rosendale went from Montana’s only Congressmember with few legislative wins during his first term to a national figure after he and several other hold-outs challenged current U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California. Rosendale and several others, including Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, forced 15 votes before extracting concessions from House leadership. During that time, Rosendale gained national attention for a longer speech for which he was called out for taunting a fellow member of the U.S. House, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California.

Bennion and Carroll College Political Science professor Jeremy Johnson said Zinke’s purpose appeared to be shoring up any lingering doubts about his conservative beliefs.

In the fight for the Speaker of the House, Zinke steadfastly supported McCarthy, as compared with Rosendale.

Both Zinke and Rosendale are both presumed to be front-running candidates to challenge the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Jon Tester in 2024.

Because of the attention Rosendale received in the five-day process to elect a Speaker, both political scientists said Zinke’s speech was about positioning himself as an equally conservative member of the Republican Party.

“In Montana, elected Republicans are always looking over their right shoulder, not their left. And more and more, the job seems to be focusing on shoring up that very conservative, right-wing flank of the party. To those outside of Montana Republican Party politics, the direction of this messaging is certainly head-scratching, but if you think about it through the lens of getting re-elected, it is not surprising,” Bennion said.

‘Deep State’

Both political scientists also said the speech was dotted with items that resonate with voters. By beginning with the topic of the “deep state,” Johnson said Zinke was “speaking in code” by repeating a phrase that is familiar in many conservative circles and media. The theory is that the government is being secretly controlled by internal operatives and by political action groups that fund liberal endeavors.

“This speech likely resonates with his voters and supporters. It has similar messaging — in particular, the reference to ‘The Deep State’ — that is becoming the norm in conservative media and discourse. He is tapping into that sentiment,” Bennion said. “I would offer that he is most likely trying to shore up his base. Zinke’s House primary was very close, so whether it’s another House primary or even a Senate primary battle between him and Rosendale, he is signaling to those voters his conservative credentials.”

Johnson said part of the tactic could have been to steal some of the bright spotlight that was shone on Rosendale.

“It’s a defense of himself as well as recounting of who is to blame, including the media, dark money and Arabella,” Johnson said.

Arabella is one of the liberal organizations often targeted for its financial backing of groups perceived to be liberal. The five-part series Zinke submits to the Congressional Record was produced by a conservative nonprofit dedicated to reporting on the influence of liberal groups and the media.

“There is a lot of victimization here, and that was something championed by (President) Trump in his speeches,” Johnson said. “We see the use of ‘deep state’ ‘liberal’ and ‘dark money’ but what they specifically refer to is not always clear.”

That the deep state is responsible for the demise of the American cowboy is not necessarily clear, although the message is similar to ones used in the state by politicians, especially those who are opposed to the American Prairie expansion in northern and central Montana.

“He’s reading this for symbols. He’s not providing any evidence,” Johnson said. “There’s no serious analysis of what is happening.”

National attention

The speech was covered by a number of national outlets, including ForbesYahoo! News, MSNBC and others.

The popular culture, music and political magazine Rolling Stone covered Zinke’s speech, characterizing it as “a harangue” and a “rant.”

And popular Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank focused on Zinke’s support of the select committee being led by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, as the “Tin Foil Hat Committee.”

“After the chaos of the first week of the 118th Congress, many Americans wondered: If it took them 15 ballots just to choose a speaker, how could Republicans possibly govern? Now we know. They are going to govern by fantasy and legislate on the basis of fiction,” he said.

Finally, late night television host Seth Meyers focused his popular nightly segment, “A Closer Look” on the speech and bristled at the notion the American Cowboy is under attack.

Primary speech

Johnson said another way to view Zinke’s somewhat cryptic speech was as the first in an opening salvo for a GOP primary for the U.S. Senate. Johnson said state primaries, especially in the Republican Party, are different than a general election. He said that Montana primaries generally tend to bring out the passionate conservatives, so candidates must have a track record to avoid names like RINO – “Republican in Name Only.”

“This was not just any speech, but one that caught the attention of the media. He did it in a very succinct way,” Johnson said.

He said that was likely to keep pace with the media attention on Rosendale, a political calculation that meant Zinke would have to be a part of the conversation.

“In a GOP primary, it will be important for him to say, ‘I’m a true conservative and it is my opponent who is the RINO,’” Johnson said. “In a GOP primary, a speech like this probably can’t hurt him. How much attention we give to any one speech in isolation is debatable. It may not matter. He had a reason to deliver it, and get in front of the voter.

“It’s hard to know how much it matters. I’d guess an endorsement from Trump would carry more weight.”