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Brian Kahn


In 1969, taking a year off college, I worked as a ranch hand in the upper Madison. From farm country, I was took to Montanans — their honesty, willingness to hear another viewpoint, belief in the rule of law, and skepticism of the new. Working cattle in high country, lifelong friendships were made. Expecting our first child, Sandra and I decided to raise him in Montana, arriving to stay in 1989.

For 23 years my work has focused on organizing “collaborative tables” where Montanans long opposed to each other discuss their differences, discover deeply held shared values — and move forward together: Ranchers, farmers, timber-dependent folks, conservationists, public agency staff.

It’s inspiring work — proving that Montanans, though disagreeing on important issues, can communicate with respect to find good things to do on the ground. Today, 20-plus forest collaboratives exist. Additionally, the Big Hole Watershed Committee and similar groups bring people together to conserve our watersheds.

These efforts reflect Montana values: Mutual respect, the ability to disagree, and simultaneously, willingness to join in seeking something which benefits all.


Danger zone

But every set of human values is vulnerable to distortion and manipulation. When our way of life seems threatened, we humans look to blame someone, and some leap at the chance to build personal power at the expense of community good will. Here, they praise “Montana Values” while turning their meaning upside down.

President Trump, a lifelong New Yorker, came here four times during the election to tell Montanans to vote against U.S. Sen. Jon Tester because he opposed three of the president’s important nominees. Fair enough. But then he accused Tester of “being a disaster” and “voting against Montana values.” With due respect, we who live and work in Montana are better able to judge Tester’s values and service.

Then Mr. Trump praised Congressman Greg Gianforte — “he’s my guy” — for body-slamming a reporter asking his position on health care. The president believes that criminal attack actually gained Gianforte votes. He did not mention that Gianforte told police the reporter attacked him, but eventually pleaded guilty to criminal assault.

Back in Washington, the president portrayed Montana as “a totally different league, a different world,” painting us as violent vigilantes, and seemed to like the picture.

Montanans value the courage to speak truth to power. How fine it would have been if a bipartisan group of state officials had informed the president the he was misinformed, that the vast majority of Montanans support the rule of law, not lying to police or criminal assault.

Members of Congress take a solemn oath to “support and defend the Constitution.” Wouldn’t it have been fine, when the president asserted “I have absolute authority to pardon myself,” if all of them — Republicans, Democrats and independents — had replied, “No, sir, you do not.”

Recently Mr. Trump claimed that by executive order he can change the Constitution. Wouldn’t it be fine, if all members of Congress and all of the American people who remain loyal to the Constitution — including supporters of the president — would join House Speaker Paul Ryan in saying: “No, you cannot!”

We Americans are extraordinarily fortunate to have a national government composed of three independent branches, and constitutional rights, among others, of freedom of speech, press and religion, to keep and bear arms, to due process and equal protection of the law.

When Benjamin Franklin left the constitutional Convention in 1787, he was reportedly asked what kind of government they had created. His reply: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Can we?

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Brian Kahn is an attorney in Helena.

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