Karen Wickersham is 64 years old and has followed politics her entire adult life. But this November, she says, will be the most important election of her life.
“My coming of age with politics was really Watergate,” Wickersham said Thursday afternoon. “This does not hold a candle to Watergate, the Vietnam era, to civil rights. All of that – that happened in my lifetime – but this is far more serious.”
Wickersham was among about 600 Missoula residents who gathered in Playfair Park for a “Love Trumps Hate” rally organized as a counter to President Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again rally at Missoula International Airport.
Air Force One came across the Western horizon as the rally-goers marched from the park to Missoula County Fairgrounds, home to the county elections office.
But rather than jeer the president, the rally was intended to provoke more voters to participate in November’s midterm elections.
A member of the Boomer Brigade, a group of baby boomers who aim to register voters and volunteer at polling places, Wickersham said Trump is unlike any president in her lifetime – and that his policies and pronouncements represent a threat to American democracy.
She’s fighting back by getting voters to the polls.
Voter-to-voter contact is the driving force that makes democracy work, Wickersham said, herself wearing multiple hats as a voter but also as a recruiter who finds volunteers to make calls and knock on doors.
After the president was inaugurated, Montana organizations and nonprofits created a coalition across the state to help organize events like Thursday’s rally. One goal was to counter the “liberal angry mob” stereotype.
“I’ve organized marches in Montana since the election and been at marches and not one of them has been an angry mob. Not one of them has been violent,” she said.
Thousands of Montana Democrats didn’t turn out to vote in last year’s special election for the state’s sole seat in the U.S. House, according to data Wickersham found on the Secretary of State’s website.
“Twenty-three thousand Missoula County Democrats did not come out to vote in the special election after Trump was elected,” she said. “That was double the number who normally don’t come out in a midterm, so it’s extremely important for Missoula to get the vote out.”
At Thursday’s rally, participants held signs advocating for the environment, pleading for empathy and support for vulnerable populations, and proudly showing their heritage and sexual orientation.
At one point, a truck with canvases endorsing Trump drove by with supporters yelling at the crowd with megaphones while guest speakers were at the microphone.
“With the president’s arrival in Missoula, we felt that it was important to bring our community together and show the state and the nation what we’re really about, which is tolerance, acceptance and love,” said Erin Erickson, director and founder of Missoula Rises. “In addition to that, we felt that it was critically important to channel all of the emotions we’ve had over the last two years, into something constructive.”
That’s why the “Love Trumps Hate” rally not only encouraged its participants to vote, but provided buses to transport them to the county elections office to cast an early ballot.
“I think it’s so important to express our concerns and what we’re needing out of our administration,” said co-organizer Sierra McMurry. “It’s just so important when something has gone wrong and also so important to vote and take charge of our politics.”
Scott Lenaburg, his wife Joey and son Ryder attended the rally, holding signs touting empathy and tolerance. Lenaburg lamented the deep divide between political parties.
“It just seems like, under Trump, nobody really cares about anybody but themselves and he’s dividing the country,” he said. “It used to be that Republicans and Democrats could still have dinner together or go to movies together and be friends. It used to be that way, and I think he’s created this violent discord between the two parties. He’s just halved America.”
His sign read, “Make Empathy Great Again!” Cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are just one issue he’s worried about.
“Empathy means, old people, young people, poor people. Just because someone is down and out doesn’t mean they didn’t have a career before or they won’t have a career later. We just need to take care of our own,” he said.
Nereyda Calero, a Missoula Dreamer and recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, participated in the event with Montanans for Immigrant Justice, sharing a Mexican dish called pozole.
Calero is nervous that the president’s decision to end DACA will go before the Supreme Court with newly appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Dreamers are counting on citizens with the right to vote to help support DACA recipients in the future.
“There isn’t very many of us, and the ones who are [in Missoula] are scared to come out. And I think if more of us came out, people would know more about us and they could help us when they can vote,” Calero said. “There are people who can help us because we don’t have a vote, so it’s very hard for us.”
Missoula Mayor John Engen made a visit to the rally, saying that he’s proud of Missoula and the kind of town it has become since he began serving as mayor over a decade ago.
“In a couple of months, I will have been the mayor of Missoula, Montana for 14 years. And I continue to think that 14 years on that Missoula represents the best of the American Dream,” Engen said.
He described Missoula as unique, a mixture of cultures, ideas and opinions. Missoula honors its veterans, embraces its creativity, and brainstorms solutions, he said. Most importantly, Missoula is peaceful and strong, and the mayor encouraged voters to show up at the polls.
“Signs on hillsides don’t matter. Tweets don’t matter. Noise does not matter. What has mattered, over and over and over again, is voting,” Engen said. “What moves the needle is enough spots of ink in the right ovals on November 6.”
A lot of good things came from Trump’s visit, other than the rally at the park, Erickson said.
About 400 people signed up to volunteer and knock on doors for Sen. Jon Tester’s campaign and Kathleen Williams’ campaign. His visit allowed the community to come together, she said.
“As this has progressed, his visit to Missoula has actually been a gift to the progressive movement because it has totally energized us and allowed us to get together and really work on getting out the vote and getting the door knockers, the canvassers, the volunteers that progressive candidates need to win,” she said. “So in a weird twist of fate, thank you.”
Montana is not just a red or Republican state, Erickson said. It’s a mixture of both parties.
“I think the overall thing I keep coming back to is that we live is a really special community and we live in a really unique state. I am grateful to have the opportunity to be able to showcase to the rest of the state and the nation what Missoula is really about,” she said. “It was really nice to show the rest of the nation that we are not a deep red state but we actually are an independent, purple state made up of people who care about each other.”