Small towns are the same everywhere — all screwed up

Hank Munzer is one of those far-right nuts, a braggart and bully, and one of those people who was in Washington DC on January 6th, and who is proud of it, despite being arrested and facing a prison sentence. He’s also unfortunate because one of his fellow residents of Dillon, Montana has written an essay about how screwed up small-town conservatives have become, and uses Munzer as a specific, named example. That’s a brave act — I guarantee you that this essay is a hot topic at the Dillon cafe and in telephone gossip. I know, because his description of his county sounds a lot like mine.

A generation ago, one national politician described our state as “hyper rural.” You know the feeling? My county, larger than Connecticut, boasts about 9,000 residents and few traffic lights. Most Americans can’t imagine or understand or appreciate such a mode of life. Many pass through but few would choose to stay. In pockets like mine, it’s an unimaginable distance to D.C. or New York—other countries.

Stevens County, Minnesota is a bit smaller geographically, and we have 10,000 residents (optimistically), and two, count’em, two traffic lights. Similarly, both Morris and Dillon were named after late 19th century railroad executives. But we also have a university in town. I guess that makes us immensely more cosmopolitan than Beaverhead County, Montana, but we’re still in the same ballpark of rural, conservative counties, and the descriptions sound familiar.

Hank Munzer’s building also has analogs here.

The paint job on Hank’s business building proves his lie as it is far more than an eyesore; as a calculated act of visual violence, it repels many of us and, according to one local realtor, dissuades occasional prospects who considered moving here. One friend told me she no longer drives on this main street; another said she chants “a–hole, a–hole, a–hole” every time she rides by. The city council does nothing because of Fred’s ostensible First Amendment protections.

My stomach used to cramp as I passed but in more recent seasons, I’ve grown numb, pretending to ignore this bizarre paint job. Most townspeople do their best to ignore it. I’ve never seen a building, graffitied or otherwise, like this one anywhere.

The essayist needs to get out more. I’ve seen similar in lots of places. Here in Morris, there’s a house on 7th Avenue with huge crudely painted signs saying “ALL LIVES MATTER,” with a thin blue line police flag and various other unsightly splatters on it — coincidentally, I also mutter “a–hole, a–hole, a–hole” when I drive by. In Glenwood, several miles away, there was a construction detour that forced us to swing through a residential zone with a house covered with gigantic Trump posters and signs — it was a major eyesore that had me saying even ruder things every time we had to drive by it.

I wish I could say it’s just one fringe lunatic in a small town in Montana, but they’re everywhere. And they’ve become bold and outspoken and swagger when they trumpet their idiotic conspiracy theories, and pretend they’re not on a downward spiral.

In his spot-on analysis of my state, “Fifty-Six Counties,” novelist Russell Rowland defines a fierce love of “the land or their families or their country” characteristic, I believe, of rural Americans: “They love until it makes them blind, until they feel the need to barricade themselves against anything that threatens that love.”

That circling-the-wagons mentality against ostensible outside threats, a species or xenophobia and denial, results in destructive conduct: “So we drink. We kill ourselves. We throw our sinking self-image out onto those around us, sometimes in violent, ugly ways, and we decide that our problems are everyone else’s fault, and that if they would go away, or act more like we do, or learn to think more like we think, then we would feel better.”

In such soil grows the Hankss of rural communities. After all, “they” are out to get us, right? And rural problems come from elsewhere, according to this self-delusion.

This toxic combination of ignorance, victimhood, naiveté, and auto-hypnosis, now commonplace, would remain minuscule but for alt-right media platforms.

That’s the thing: they’ve found self-reinforcing online communities where every stupid thing they say and believe gets echoed and praised by other people who also believe the same stupid thing, and they lose all sense of perspective and swell up with righteousness and think petty obsessions make them great and meaningful. So here’s where Hank Munzer stands now.

He was arrested about a week after the Capital riot and charged with one felony count and four misdemeanors, two of those disorderly or disruptive conduct. Among other things he was accused of recording videos inside the Capitol. Six days later he posted those on Facebook. That fact alone evidences his online dependency. Did he know or care about legality? He thinks he did nothing wrong and only exercised free speech.

He was arraigned then released on bail—he grins in his orange prison suit—and then he got to work on his business’ building in Dillon.

Hank was supposed to go to trial in August 2022 but now there’s been another half-year postponement. He’s wanted a change of venue but will be tried in Washington D.C. He prefers to represent himself rather than use a lawyer. That fact suggests the level of his self-righteous zealotry or his narcissistic personality disorder. Or both.

Meanwhile, he enjoys local notoreity. He even ran for city council and garnered dozens of votes. Whose sick joke is that? Exactly whom in rural America is he speaking for? One flavor of rural America consists of a range of deep resentments; above all, resentment of the federal government. Nothing new here, given the long history of agricultural subsidies and dependencies.

Same here, except that I’d add that many of those resentments are fostered by the corporate farms that have eaten up the small landowners. It’s just good policy to give the peons a far-away enemy to hate, lest they notice that greed is destroying their local community.

I agree, though, that small town problems have been getting enflamed by the pernicious poison of talk radio, Fox “News,” and Facebook.


  1. says

    We have a couple of those out in Clearfield. One has a big sign that reads “if you voted for biden shame on you” and “bring back the hanging tree” on the other side. It’s not worth trying to talk to such people. They don’t really think – they get all their thoughts from right wing tv.

    Also: antivaxxers have learned that the conspiracist (“we put the racist in conspiracy!) fringe are self-selected marks so the casualty rate among the gomers is pretty high.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    Speak for yourselves, you Merrican philistines!
    The small municipalities here just South of Lapland are lovely and all have at least one library.
    Downside. Hours of driving to reach the university town where I live where a lot of the jazz clubs and theaters are.
    -There was a coalition between social democrats and the agrarian party since the 1930s to the late 1950s that made sure the smaller towns were not left behind. Benefit of ‘not-a-two-party-system’.

    Another downside: small towns are saturated by gossip but that is human nature. These days everyone has fast internet access so the neighbors are not as interesting anymore.

  3. says

    There is one point of his that I do not agree with:

    Another likely source of MAGA victimhood in contemporary rural America derives from this political truth: Our votes hardly matter. At the federal level, our votes (electoral college or otherwise) don’t add up to much and we’ve so few Representatives. At the state level, delegations representing about half a dozen cities wield most political clout. Where does that leave rural U.S.?

    As someone who grew up near Amidon, ND (population of ~25) in Slope County (population of ~900 when I was growing up — yes, not even a thousand — and even less now), the people there seem to generally be aware they have an outsized political influence. You get a taste of this when they tell you, “We’re a republic, not a democracy!” and, similarly (I forget how this one goes, exactly), “The Constitution is designed to protect the minority from the majority!”
    But I absolutely agree with his analysis that people in rural communities love to blame others for their problems rather than bothering to self-reflect to see if they might actually be the problem. And, of course, they generally are their own problem. As you say, PZ, “It’s just good policy to give the peons a far-away enemy to hate, lest they notice that greed is destroying their local community.” Exactly this. I told my grandparents that socialism should be good for rural communities, actually, as people might be more willing to stay in those communities if they had more security as they should not have to worry so much about how they are going to afford to live or how they’ll receive healthcare. They’re MAGA Republicans and so now they don’t talk to me anymore. Oh, well.

  4. Bruce Fuentes says

    Same here in NW WI. Also, most of the rural counties I drive through. In the last couple of years the number of assholes seems to have declined a little, but they have upped the radicalness and threats of violence.

  5. birgerjohansson says

    Paint characters from Sourh Park on your house. Display things ridiculing conspiracy theories, like the Crab People ruling the society from the shadows.
    Cartman:”Respect my Authority!”
    Cartman shooting Token.
    Cartman dissing poor people.

  6. cgilder says

    I live in Missoula, and just to correct a small point. Dillon has a university: University of Montana – Western (Student population 1400 ish). In the summer, several other major universities run their geoscience field camps out of Dillon.

    Other than that, yup. Rural Montana is pretty dang crazy.

  7. raven says

    One flavor of rural America consists of a range of deep resentments; above all, resentment of the federal government.

    Yeah, I’ve seen that myself many times.

    Some of my relatives were from the rural upper Midwest, not too far from PZ Myers in rural terms where a hundred miles is close. The key word is “were”. Over the years they’ve all moved away to places like Seattle and the California Bay area.

    Their county is large, has 3,000 people, and the population has been dropping for decades. The main town has a program where they buy up abandoned houses for back taxes and then tear them down. This is to keep the town from looking like a rural ghost town. You can buy an older house for not much, $10,000 will get you one of the better ones.

    They really don’t like the Federal government.
    Which isn’t very smart.

    I’d estimate that at least half the income in the county, they aren’t rich but aren’t poor either, is state and mostly Federal transfer payments.
    The farmers get subsidies for a variety of programs. A huge amount of land is in the Conservation Reserve Program, where the landowners get paid to keep the land out of production. The population is old and sick and there is a lot of Social Security/Medicare money keeping them alive. The main industry in town is a hospital and a nursing home.
    Plus a huge number of other programs such as high speed fiber internet, paid by the government.

    AFAICT, the governments are basically paying people to live there so the whole area doesn’t go back to prairie.

  8. jenorafeuer says

    I’ve been saying for years, “The Internet is great at community building. It just isn’t picky enough about the types of communities that get built.”

  9. Akira MacKenzie says

    One flavor of rural America consists of a range of deep resentments; above all, resentment of the federal government. Nothing new here, given the long history of agricultural subsidies and dependencies.


    These people weren’t duped. They weren’t brainwashed. They weren’t tricked into being racists, sexists, transphobes/homophobes, Christian theocrats, and/or gun nuts by or the Kochs or ADM. They were like that for generations, long before the big, bad, upper class bought their pissant dirt farms, moved the the buggy whip factory to China, or the local coal mine ran dry. They could be flush with cash or showered with national health care or free college tuition and they’d STILL be monstrous bigots!


    Another likely source of MAGA victimhood in contemporary rural America derives from this political truth: Our votes hardly matter.

    Considering the fascist, racist, theocratic America these rubes want, do you really WANT their votes to count?

    I don’t.

  10. dbinmn says

    The effect on real estate sale and the potential for gun violence on the part of Munzer aside, I don’t think anyone should feel they need to avoid driving by. Follow Sinclair Lewis’ advice.

    “Not individuals but institutions are the enemies, and they most afflict the disciples who the most generously serve them. They insinuate their tyranny under a hundred guises and pompous names, such as Polite Society, the Family, the Church, Sound Business, the Party, the Country, the Superior White Race; and the only defense against them, Carol beheld, was unembittered laughter.”

  11. raven says

    “Not individuals but institutions are the enemies, and they most afflict the disciples who the most generously serve them.

    You have a point but it isn’t that simple.

    .1. Institutions are made up, run by, and serve…individuals.
    They aren’t abstract entities that exist on their own.

    .2. Munzer is a servant of the institutions that run our society.
    In his case, he is part of the christofascist GOP which pretends it is on his side while actually serving the ultra rich oligarchies that dominate the USA.

    He is a useful idiot.

  12. Akira MacKenzie says

    @ 11

    When last I looked, “institutions” are made up of individuals. They can’t exist without them.

  13. Sphinx of Black Quartz says

    “They love until it makes them blind, until they feel the need to barricade themselves against anything that threatens that love.”

    Dead wrong. This is not love. Vandalizing the Capitol Building and smearing feces in the halls is not an act of love. This is resentment fanned into anger, and then into hate. The Hank Munzers of the world hate a very long list of people for stealing “their” country away, for depriving Hank Munzers of the cushy life that they believe is their birthright, and for being slightly different from the way Hanks think people ought to be.

    They do not love their country. They say they do, but let a Hank Munzer of the world speak uninterrupted and he’ll reveal he despises the United States: He’s furious that the US is not doing enough to hurt the people Hank hates. Hank wants to see the US government murdered and its buildings destroyed for not inflicting enough pain and suffering on Hank’s enemies. To Hank’s thinking, that makes the US one of his enemies too.

    “Conservatives just love their country SO MUCH that it makes them a little crazy” is a lie used to justify, excuse, and overlook reactionary extremism, and we should stop being so damned credulous about it. Please and thank you.

  14. birgerjohansson says

    OT but I am told the lawsuit against Fox News appears to be going ahead. Good times.

  15. says

    @9 jenorafeuer said: “The Internet is great at community building. It just isn’t picky enough about the types of communities that get built.”
    I agree. Because, living in most communities (online and physical) is a love-hate relationship. My organization strives to continue to try to make positive contributions within society and resists the desire to become completely reclusive. But, the positive interactions we have in society are Almost overwhelmed by the actions of the rtwingnut xtian terrorists we encounter. I’ve lived in large cities and small towns and neither has been free from Aholes. I suspect that the the rtwingnut xtian terrorists are just louder, more militant and difficult to avoid in a small town, causing the appearance of predominance. Yet, I must admit that in some (many?) cases their aggressive militancy causes actual destruction to society. And, it is virtually impossible to keep the Aholes from infiltrating and ruining any semblance of civilized community. Welcome to the apocalypse.

  16. robro says

    Love the Martin Luther King quote in the top right corner of the building. Interesting how racists have blithely co-opted Dr. King’s messages.

    brigerjohansson @ #15 — Yes, so the news says. Yesterday there was talk of an out-of-court settlement, which would probably mean suppressing a lot of info about the case like who in the upper realms knew what, who kept the story going, etc.

  17. wzrd1 says

    Among other things he was accused of recording videos inside the Capitol. Six days later he posted those on Facebook.

    The prosecution rests, your honor.
    The defense calls prosecution exhibit #1.
    Jury time: 10 seconds to guilty verdict.
    Cue incoherent screams of fixed juries, elections and god-king-from-Florida will save him as he’s dragged off to the pokey.

    As for the offending building, a trash pump, point spray nozzle and plenty of water and abrasive removes the bottom courses of bricks in the front, the rest collapses in rubble.
    Then, off to the EPA landfill for decontamination.
    It’s not like he’ll be able to use that eyesore from the federal pen. And it’ll be up for tax sale fairly quickly while he’s away on his federal vacation.

  18. jenorafeuer says

    robro@#17, birgerjohansson@#15:
    Not surprised. If there were going to be a settlement, it probably would have happened already . You just know that Fox would be willing to throw around lots of money to get this to quietly go away if possible. Presumably Dominion was refusing to settle for only money; they may have requested a formal retraction, on all the shows on Fox News that spread the lies in the first place. That sort of thing isn’t unheard of with news outlets, requesting that corrections be displayed in the same places as the original report.

    Since that would likely make Fox lose the more extremist members of their audience because they were ‘caving’, obviously they don’t want to lose even more viewers to OAN, so they would have refused. So I’m not surprised that any talks of settlements fell through.

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    From the headline, and a little Tolstoy, we may conclude that small towns are all happy families.

  20. hillaryrettig1 says

    Lenin talked about “the idiocy of rural life” for a reason.

    Also, I hope everyone reads this piece on “American Gentry,” the rural / suburban elites who have done pretty well for themselves, but are basically okay screwing everyone else. (Originally in the Atlantic, but paywalled; hopefully most people can access this.)

    This is really Trump’s base, and their sins are far less forgiveable than those of poor, struggling rural people. Remember how strongly they reacted when Obama even hinted that small biz owners owed part of their success to govt infrastructure? (The “we built that,” nonsense.)

    All that said, in my view, the real problem is that the Democrats don’t fight back except symbolically. Every week like clockwork in my town, the local GOP holds several events reaching out to all kinds of people – moms, small business owners, veterans, etc. They did this even the week after they lost elections catastrophically here in MI. From the Dems, nothing, except appeals for money and desperate biennial vote-shaming. Or worse: Biden actually came to our district a few years back to campaign for the GOP candidate. It was a close race, and he probably cost us (and the nation). btw, he took a $200K check for a brief speech, refused to even meet with the Dem candidate on the tarmac, and we were all out volunteering GOTV like suckers.

    George Carlin was absolutely right when he said it was a big club and we’re not in it.

  21. Pierce R. Butler says

    hillaryrettig1 @ # 21: Lenin talked about “the idiocy of rural life” for a reason.

    If he did, he was quoting Marx.

  22. hillaryrettig1 says

    Pierce – dammit, I originally thought that and was corrected in social media by a prominent Marxist person whom I won’t name. It does sound more Leninish, tho.

  23. robro says

    WaPo is reporting that a lawyer says Dominion and Fox have resolved their case. Dominion is settling for $787 million. The email notice actually says “judge” but the article headline says “lawyer’.

  24. numerobis says

    The original 1.6 billion was such a huge claim it was ridiculous.

    And Fox just settled for … half as much? Astounding.

  25. wzrd1 says

    Not astounding at all, the risk to the plaintiff was minimal, the risk to Fox was at least for the amount sought in the action and potentially, more. A jury could’ve awarded more in punitive damages.
    Pity though, a jury was just sat, it’d have gotten… Illuminating, which is worth twice what any award would’ve been worth to Fox to keep quiet.
    Dominion won, the public lost.

  26. nomdeplume says

    “the pernicious poison of talk radio, Fox “News,” and Facebook” – and the bizarre, uniquely American insanities, of the First and Second Amendments.

  27. marner says


    Cartman shooting Token.

    I recommend watching South Park season 25, episode 2, “The Big Fix,” where its explained that his name is actually Tolkien and only Stan thought it was Token. They even went back and changed the closed captioning on previous episodes to Tolkien. Stan’s dismay was hilarious.

  28. says

    Back to the topic of small towns, I like living in a place that has a ‘human scale’ feeling (big cities are many times very prone to decay and more opportunities for danger than mid- to small- size towns). But, I will admit small towns often are run by a predatory syndicate (a wealthy family or political syndicate or abusive law enforcement). Lately, other problems have grown in mid- to small- sized towns. Predatory corporations in all sectors have destroyed small businesses and deserted the ‘low-volume’ market areas, leaving towns as food deserts and without hardware stores, and other essential stores. In many of those places people have to drive hours to go grocery shopping. As these towns wither and people abandon them, city/county government revenue drops like a rock so necessary basic services deteriorate. Sadly, I can’t help but conclude that this is another symptom of the failure of human society, especially in rtwingnut ‘murika.

  29. says

    @25: Don’t point just north of Lynden. Point at the town itself, which hosted the only 2016 Drumpf rally in the state because it’s the only place that would allow a sufficient quantity of stosstrüppen for his comfort and ego. (The town finally paid off the security-cost overruns that the campaign refused to pay in 2021.)

    There are pockets of rural idiocy all around fruit-and-nut country. Unfortunately, we tend to get our country sherriffs there — even in the major metropolitan areas.

  30. chrislawson says

    wrt the Fox-Dominion suit:

    [1] the damages were not outrageous given the impact (just from a tort point of view, Fox put Dominion’s entire business model at risk, plus exposed its workers to danger of physical attack from inflamed viewers)

    [2] the lawsuit was probably already lost given the evidence, especially once the judge openly rebuked the defending legal team for misrepresenting Rupert Murdoch’s role in Fox operations and their response was — I kid you not — that the truth is common knowledge and so misrepresenting it to the court should not count as misrepresentation

    …even then, they might have taken their chances (worked for Elon Musk twice), but almost certainly the deciding factor was…

    [3] empanelling the jury meant the plaintiffs were about to call senior Fox people to the stand, and however badly Fox wanted to avoid this payout, it’s clear that they thought the potential damage done by testimony under oath would be much worse than nearly $800 million!

    …and an observation…

    [4] currently in Australia, the Murdochs are suing a small independent news site called Crikey! for defamation (I know, the hypocrisy is stunning) because an editorial called the Murdochs ‘unindicted co-conspirators’ to the Capitol Riots, based on Fox coverage of the elections including their vote fraud fraud. One of Crikey’s defences is truth, which looks a lot more robust now that the Murdochs have given such a massive settlement to Dominion. It will be interesting to see whether the Murdochs continue to pursue this action now.

  31. StevoR says

    @ ^ chrislawson : Apparently there’s another case against Fox here too :

    Smartmatic case yet to be resolved.

    @25. WMDKitty — Survivor : WA means Western Australai for me! Guess its not that state after all based on #31 Jaws.

    @27. wzrd1 :

    Not astounding at all, the risk to the plaintiff was minimal, the risk to Fox was at least for the amount sought in the action and potentially, more. A jury could’ve awarded more in punitive damages.
    Pity though, a jury was just sat, it’d have gotten… Illuminating, which is worth twice what any award would’ve been worth to Fox to keep quiet.
    Dominion won, the public lost.

    Yes. The country and wider world lost too arguably. Faux news – whichi s “news”in the same way a urinal cake is a “cake” onlyless useful to yoik from an fb meme – should be tajken off air fro what they did and those cresposnisble criminally charged. Sadly won’t happen. but deliberately running a hateful violent misinformation campaign should be considered a crime in my view and treated accordingly.

  32. birgerjohansson says

    Shermanj @ 30
    Here in Sweden there is a network of small shops run as a co-op exactly to get around the dysfunction of big business.
    It is harder for small gas stations to avoid bankrupcy as the population drops.

    Municipal town units have from around 10,000 people and up, harder for a corrupt clique to dominate that.
    Law enforcement is run at the national level.
    Electing local cops?? What in the… that would be as idiotic as electing judges.

  33. birgerjohansson says

    Suitable punishment: Murdoch, Hannity and Carlson should have to stand near busy roads each holding a big sign saying I LIED DELIBERATELY.

  34. says

    The Fox/Dominion suit was never going to go to trial. There’s no way that Fox would risk jail time for Murdoch, Hannity, Carlson, etc. after they perjure themselves on the stand.

    Oh, darn. The consequences would be limited to civil contempt fines: It can’t be “perjury” unless the testimony is knowingly false (merely “reckless” or “misleading” isn’t enough for perjury, only for contempt).† And since none of these maroons know what “truth” or “false” actually means — let alone can apply that to past events related to their advocacy-masquerading-as-new — they can’t have the mens rea (required state of mind) to be convicted of perjury.

    † This is not mere sarcasm. Those with moderately long memories, very strong stomachs, and more time on their hands than they really need should look very carefully at the count-by-count results of each of the main players in Iran-Contra (before the presidential pardons). And, for that matter, Watergate. The courts (rightly) take that “personal awareness of falsity” element seriously, precisely because the courts themselves have a noncriminal sanction they can impose. Consider, for example, the judicial opinion that specifically questions, by name, the credibility of major-corporation officers who testified “There weren’t no conspiracy, yer honor” at an antitrust price-fixing conspiracy trial. OK, it’s only in a footnote, but anybody who ever again believes those executives when there’s money on the line — precisely the problem in Fox/Dominion — is less sophisticated than Elmer Fudd.

  35. says

    The “Small towns are the real America!” talk by the right is ironic given that some of them are starting to freak out about the 15 minute city concept. The idea is to plan communities so that access to work, shopping, and services are within a 15 minute walk or bike trip for as many people as possible. But of course the paranoid folks are convinced that people will be forced to live in such a scenario, and that if you try to travel beyond your 15 minute community Big Brother will get you.

  36. says

    @37 I’m sort of for that kind of restriction if it means that Sam Harris never shows up at another convention/conference.

    But I’m very much against it if the 15-minute radius is not defined to include a public library run by and for trained librarians with little or no pressure-group interference… or if the definition includes “places of worship,” because then you’d need one for each cultversion thereof in each zone.

    Of course, a real math/map geek could have a lot of fun policing city maps for compliance with the 15-minute radii from each potential residential address, including (for areas with high-rises) average time to get to and from upper-floor residences caused by crowded/nonworking elevators!

  37. says

    Jaws @31 — Please re-read, I very much pointed AT Lynden, which I so happen to be a bit south of. Needless to say, I stay the hell out of there, it’s not a place for people like me.

  38. says

    @39 I plead fatigue, new browser and font settings, and a dim room turning “at” into “of”. And until a couple years ago, I was in B’ham… and (counts fingers and runs out) decades ago grew up in the region… so I was prepared to dump on Lynden at any opportunity, especially after observing Lynden residents’ conduct shopping on the north side of B’ham.

  39. wzrd1 says

    @37, indeed, the 15 minute walk community plan was actually part and parcel of the original old city design for Philadelphia. Each neighborhood was designed to be a community with a park, adequate shopping, physician, etc all within the neighborhood that was around a 15 minute walk maximum. Churches did abound in the original design, all Protestant (OK, mostly Protestant), libraries, a bit more centralized, but typically within a 30 minute walk maximum in later designs. Initially, libraries weren’t a consideration, as most books were imported and expensive.

  40. says

    @Jaws — Hasn’t changed much here, really. We still hate Lyndenites, they still hate everyone else, and the weekly Friday night protest is still a thing. Oh, and we have some good dispensaries and great places to walk and enjoy nature while you, erm, “enjoy nature”.