Ken Toole

Purge- verb, remove (a group of people considered undesirable) from an organization or place in an abrupt or violent way.

Authoritarian regimes across the globe and throughout history have conducted purges to solidify their power.  From Stalin’s Great Terror in 1937 to the Chinese Communist Party’s Great Revolution of the 1960s and 1970’s, the end results have always been the same.

People and groups have been surveilled, harassed and oppressed. Free expression has been stifled, edicts have been issued, and dissenters have been targeted. Purges start small and build until they assure compliance and consolidate the leader’s power.

The far-right wing of the Montana Republican party has been conducting its own purge.  After being rebuked by the State Republican Party, former Republican Governor Marc Racicot published an open letter to Republican leadership warning of the purge mentality.

In his letter he said, “Republicans have recently experienced the resignation of a twice-elected, young Republican legislator because of the party’s coercive efforts to control the exercise of her discretion in voting for what she thought was right. You have also censured two Republican members of the Legislature for not voting the way you deemed appropriate and have witnessed the defection of growing numbers of Republicans in your caucus, and across Montana, who feel bound to their conscience and their constitution more than their party”.

The purges within the Republican Party are only part of the takeover by far-right extremists in Montana. They also seek to purge virtually everyone they disagree with from being able to fully participate in society. Sexual minorities, native people, immigrants, and low-income people are all being targeted as lazy, perverted and a threat to “the rest of us”. Creating an environment of us vs them as a mechanism to mobilize hate is as old as humanity itself. Nothing good has ever come from it.

The arrogance of certainty demonstrated by Republican leaders in Montana is in a time-tested playbook used by authoritarian leaders everywhere. You may not care that Greg Gianforte believes that men and dinosaurs lived on earth at the same time, but he cares and is moving public money to private schools teaching his Fred Flintstone version of history and science.

Education Superintendent Elsie Arntzen is promoting history lessons stripped of facts to promote the far right’s own version of reality.  Attorney General Austin Knudsen, the legislature and the Governor have engaged in attacks on the independence of the judiciary to eliminate check and balances and consolidate power.

Congressman Matt Rosendale joined the Freedom Caucus alongside the most extreme right-wing members of congress and is busily organizing his own Freedom Caucus here in Montana. You can almost hear the goose-stepping jackboots coming down the street.

This would not have been possible without the erosion of political and social norms brought on by the rise of Trump and Fox News. The January 6th armed insurrection has become peaceful protest, white people have become “the victims”, desperate people seeking asylum from violence in their own country have become rapists and murders, and caring about your neighbor is now derisively called being “woke”. In the Republican right, citizens are urged to engage in politics using fear, anger, and hate.

There is an old wives’ tale about a frog sitting still in a heating pan of water despite the increasing temperature until it is so hot the frog dies. It did not notice the slow change in temperature. It is a great metaphor for the political environment here in Montana. Don’t be that frog.

Ken Toole is a former State Senator and former Vice Chairman of the Montana Public Service Commission.