KALISPELL, Mont. — By the time the third teenager had died by suicide since the start of the school year, the Flathead Valley was desperate for unity. The community had been jittery for months.
The coronavirus pandemic had cleaved neighbors into camps for and against masks. A popular Facebook group featuring wildlife photos and local events had degenerated into a forum for politics, bullying and suspicion of the new people moving here.
The October death by suicide of the ninth local teenager in 16 months prompted offers of counseling, training for teachers and visits from national suicide prevention experts. But it also whiplashed into partisan recriminations, as residents lashed out in public forums against the superintendent of schools for failing to impose dress codes and discipline, against parents for not securing their plentiful firearms — used in several suicides — and against the supporters of masks and other pandemic restrictions for stifling teenagers. An issue the valley might have rallied around, in another time, risked dividing it yet again.
“Our community is going through a divorce right now,” Mark Johnson, the mayor of Kalispell, told local officials gathered at city hall to find a path forward from the tragedies, recounting a high school student telling him the hostility around him was a reminder of his parents. “The adults are arguing about what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said in an interview. “The kids are watching it happen. They don’t feel they’re on firm footing.”
It has been more than a year of discontent in the Flathead Valley, as national passions that erupted during the Trump presidency and its aftermath struck home in this expanse of crystalline lakes and Douglas firs at the base of the Rocky Mountains less than an hour drive from Glacier National Park in northwest Montana.
Hostility over the November election, the coronavirus and social movements have left a trail of bad blood among old-school Republicans, backers of the former president, increasingly vocal Democrats and out-of-state transplants, convulsing everything from the school district and the public library to daily interactions.
This is no longer the place people here felt they knew, with its pride in a civil style of independence, not just from Washington but from animosity. Local businesses, politicians and ordinary people now find themselves navigating angry confrontations, and a nuanced political tradition of splitting tickets on Election Day has given way to partisanship that propelled a Republican sweep of races for governor, president and Congress in November for the first time in two decades.
Even the Independence Day parade shifted this summer from a once-revered slice of Americana to another battle in a culture war. As thousands packed Main Street in Kalispell, the 26,000-population county seat, the Flathead Democrats’ float with a rainbow gay pride flag was heckled the length of the parade. A horse-drawn wagon bearing a “Trump 2024 No More Bulls---” flag rushed toward it, leading the Democrats to fear injury. Someone smashed the plate glass window of a bookstore along the route, then crumpled the gay pride flag displayed inside.
The parade grew out of the wildly popular run of Kruise Kalispell, a Friday night car flotilla down Main Street that Monte Klindt, a local business owner, honchoed with a friend last spring to relieve locals’ boredom during the coronavirus lockdown. It, too, turned some nights into a rolling display of political animus, leaving Klindt to police hateful comments on the Kruise’s Facebook page. “During my lifetime, I don’t remember it ever being this bad,” he said. “There’s no middle anymore.”
Politics has animated Tammi Fisher for most of her adult life, and ever since Bill Clinton’s affair turned her away from the Democratic Party, she’s been a conservative Republican.
No one would mistake the outspoken former Kalispell mayor for a big-government liberal. But Fisher, 45, is aghast at what her party has become as Montana’s tradition of political independence gives way, as she sees it, to being just another Trump red state.
“The extremists have stolen everything,” she said. Fisher is a Montanan whose grandfather worked for the Great Northern Railway. Widowed with a young son at 31, Fisher was practicing law downtown in 2009 when she ran for mayor, and served one term as a fiscal conservative. She governed with a suspicion of Washington common in Montana, opposing, for example, federal money to upgrade the municipal airport.
Fisher had “an open mind” to Trump, whose pledge to roll back federal regulations in Washington resonated, she said. But she soon felt a sense of dread that the local Republican committee, where she was an active member, was using Trump’s popularity to enable a fringe to flourish.
One major provocation, she said, came when the committee chairman told members at a 2018 meeting they could not publicly endorse any primary candidates the local party was not supporting. “They were lurching toward authoritarianism,” she recalled.
Ultraconservatives newly in power backed two candidates for state office in 2020 with misdemeanor criminal records. One was Greg Gianforte, who pleaded guilty to a charge of assaulting a reporter during his campaign for the House back in 2017. (He would later be elected governor after an endorsement from Trump, who praised Gianforte’s violence.)
Fisher felt her local party was abandoning a pillar of the Republican platform: to support the rule of law. She launched a weekly podcast in a tiny office-turned-recording-studio, draping rugs and pillows over a table to mute noise. The 53rd episode of “Montana Values” aired last week.
She pulls no punches, bashing Republicans who swept statewide offices as “criminals and unlikeables” and the ultraconservatives who now dominate the state legislature as “wackadoo righty-rights” and bemoaning Montana’s party-line voting as the extinction of a tradition of “middles who care who the candidate is as a human being.”
When the 90-day state legislative session convened in January, the Flathead committee chairman, now representing the valley in Helena, introduced a bill to prohibit transgender women and girls from competing on publicly funded women's athletic teams. It was the first shot in a blitz of conservative policy changes under one-party rule.
“Will this be in our schools when ‘Govt Checkpoint’ John Fuller starts his pre-athletic female-only sex organ checks?” Fisher chastised on Twitter, retweeting a grainy photo of a medical exam table.
Fuller punched back in a letter to the editor, claiming his legislation would ensure equality for women in sports. “I’m a conservative,” Fisher says, “But there’s times I feel like a political orphan.”
Politics “is taking up a bigger part of our brains now because it’s become street politics,” she said. Fisher is not persuaded her community can come together on any front. “If there’s somebody I hate in a room, I’ve never felt compelled to tell them how much I hate them.” Now she does.
Annie Bukacek became the face of the coronavirus resistance here from an unlikely post at the county health board, to which she had been named weeks before the first covid-19 cases appeared in 2020.
A physician with a local family practice, Bukacek defied accepted science to rail against quarantines and masks at protests and health board meetings. She told her congregation, Liberty Fellowship, led by a Florida pastor who had brought an anti-government vision of Christianity to Kalispell, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was pressuring physicians to inflate the number of deaths during the pandemic, issuing wildly flawed tests and terrorizing people into giving up their freedom with the mask mandates. The message spread quickly on social media.
“There’s no evidence there’s even a novel, separate virus,” Bukacek, 63, falsely told an interviewer last fall, wearing a white lab coat in the waiting room of her clinic, Hosanna Health Care. “And the CDC admits it.”
On Facebook last month, she called the suicides “all predictable and predicted” because of pandemic prevention efforts pushed by Democratic politicians. “How about the isolation, masking and other mechanisms of fearmongering promoted in the last year and a half?” she wrote. (Most local schools stayed open through the pandemic.)
Bukacek’s visibility infuriated many, and petition drives arose early on to remove her from the county health board and, in reaction, to keep her there. The board never put the issue on its agenda for discussion.
Kalispell’s former health director, Joe Russell, came out of retirement to temporarily run the department after two successors fled, worn out by toxic politics that included Bukacek’s increasing sway. At his urging, the county attorney’s office and the health board ordered her not to represent herself as a health official when she speaks publicly on the pandemic.
On a Saturday in late July, she drove two hours to a park in St. Regis, a tiny town famous for its cherries, for a tent revival. Activists piled in from conservative strongholds around Montana, eastern Idaho and eastern Washington. She hugged friends and settled into a lawn chair as a lineup of speakers exhorted a crowd of hundreds, some armed, to fight Biden’s “socialist state,” and take back their freedoms. The headliners were mostly state lawmakers, past and present.
The organizers dubbed their event the “Red Pill” after a phrase in the film “The Matrix” that confers enlightenment to the truth. A woman walked by in a shirt that read, “It’s Okay to be White.” There was cutout of Trump and a booth selling $2 photos with the “Legally Elected President in Exile.”
Bukacek found the messages heartening, she said. “The majority of people in the valley think like I do. If it was this terrible pandemic, we’d be seeing people drop dead.” She still maintains that the number of deaths from the virus has been wildly inflated to justify lockdowns.
Despite her denial, the Flathead Valley has been a coronavirus hot spot since the summer, with 1,130 active cases as of Friday and a vaccination rate of 45 percent. The rising illness gave Kari Elliott pause in September as she started her 27th year teaching fourth-graders in Kalispell. Last year, she had watched the pandemic tear her school apart.
In February, with the virus seeming to ease, Republican Gov. Gianforte lifted statewide mask requirements imposed by his predecessor, Democrat Steve Bullock. But the district kept its mandate, a decision that led to the first contested races for the nonpartisan school board that anyone could remember, with five incumbents facing challengers for positions that had often gone begging for volunteers.
Elliott, 49, panicked that she would be unprotected in her classroom. She was newly engaged, nine years after her first husband died in a car crash. She updated her will and life insurance policy just in case. Then she wrote a letter to the school board and posted it on Facebook, begging them not to give in to pressure to rescind the mandate.
“None of the students I know love masks, but it’s not a big deal, at least we are IN SCHOOL!” Elliott wrote. “Please don’t ask this of me. For 26 years, I have given everything I could to the students I teach, to the districts I work for, even the state of Montana. This is not something I can do for anyone.”
She knocked on doors asking voters to defeat the slate of challengers. They were running on one major issue — masks — but others surfaced. One candidate wrote in a local paper that the district needed “trustees that are alert and on a constant lookout for the far-left activist, cancel culture and communist agenda that is creeping it’s [sic] way into our schools.”
Four of the five challengers were defeated. “Most of the parents still trusted in the public schools,” Elliott said. A lifelong Democrat from the old union town of Anaconda, she had always voted for Republicans when she liked them, including Marc Racicot and Judy Martz for governor. Now she has become a party-line voter, just like almost everyone else. “I used to look at the human being,” Elliott said. “But I can’t do it anymore. I just cannot.”
Other public servants had also found themselves in the crosshairs. The county library director gave up, resigning in July to take a job in more liberal Tacoma, Wash., after clashing with parents over mask and social distancing mandates and with the library board over a children’s book about two gay men who fall in love. The book survived in the collection after a formal appeal from a parent, but it stirred resentments.
Elliott, newly married, returned to her classroom Sept. 1, vaccinated and wearing a mask. But the district had made face coverings and quarantines optional to avoid a repeat of last year’s hostilities, and few of her students have protected themselves. By the second week of school, coronavirus cases were mounting among students and staff.
Within a few days, Elliott had a headache, plugged ears and a stuffy nose. A coronavirus test confirmed a breakthrough case. She went back to the classroom in early October, recovered but exhausted and frustrated: “I’m mad that people won’t get vaccinated and that this stupid virus continues.”
When David Moore Williams took the reins of his horse and lined up behind the Democrats at Kalispell’s July 4 parade, he wanted to get along, he said. The biggest parade in the Flathead was back after a pandemic hiatus, with a new sponsor promising a celebration and a charitable cause everyone could rally around, the local veterans food pantry.
“This is really neat, two opposing people, side by side,” the retired tile contractor said he thought to himself as they started down Main Street. He charged toward the Democratic float at one point, he insisted, to show off the majesty of his horse, not to scare anyone.
Afterward, in a Facebook post, he called it a “perfect day” and said it was “awesome” to hear the Democrats booed the entire parade. He accused Democrats of a “terrorist campaign” to discredit him, but his action had scattered more discord.
The owners of Sacred Waters Brewery, whose banner Williams had displayed on the side of his wagon, were flooded with calls from furious residents threatening to boycott their business. They apologized on Facebook two days later for “mixing beer and politics” and said they didn’t know the wagon had flown a Trump flag.
The “most important patriotic holiday” had been tarnished by partisanship, local liberal blogger James Connor wrote. “Let’s do better next year.”
Williams, 62, moved here 16 years ago from Los Angeles with his wife Christina and their six children, after a split-second decision during a family vacation in Glacier National Park. “Lost Angeles,” he called it even then. Montana was a refuge from the shootings and the crowding in the “communist state of California,” he said.
Williams said he saw Trump as an underdog, bullied in office by liberals who resented his unorthodox style. He believes the November election was stolen from the former president. Yet he says he was not much interested in national politics even last year.
This year, though, he noticed changes in the valley. Housing prices were exploding. Downtown Kalispell had become a crush of traffic, starting at sunrise, with drivers more impatient than ever.
Williams blames the newcomers — the valley has grown by 15 percent in the last decade — for bringing big-city problems here. He assumes, though he acknowledges that he has no way of knowing, that they’re Democrats.
His Facebook post delighting in the dust-up at the parade has disappeared. In its place he shares anti-vaccine comments, including an entry with a false claim that Biden is denying Social Security, unemployment and other benefits to unvaccinated people. “It’s becoming a Nazi state,” he wrote.
He calls the posts “an expression of my personal beliefs” as opposed to political statements. But he credits the parade pushback for one political development: He’s now attending monthly meetings of the Flathead Republicans. “Seeing how organized the other side is, I’m not going to sit around,” he said. “I’m so fresh to this. I’m becoming political.”
As the community wrestles with the spike in suicides, everyone says it’s time to put divisions aside. In a podcast this month, a local evangelical pastor gave a primer on “The Lost Art of Civil Discourse” and how to talk to people you disagree with instead of yelling or walking away.
“Our community has lost community,” Kevin Geer, who leads a local congregation of 4,000 at Canvas Church in Kalispell, said in an interview. He’s angry, too, at extremists he says are polluting religion with ugly politics: “They’ve hijacked the conversation.”
Even as the community disagrees over the causes, local police, school and health officials have revived a task force devoted to suicide prevention and say they are committed to getting more mental health experts.
No one knows exactly what led the teenagers to end their lives. But people here are thinking: What if the adults in the Flathead, with all their anger, have provided a terrible example for the children?
“We’re such a highly wounded community right now,” said Kyle Waterman, a gay city councilman who received training this year in making a citizen’s arrest in case he feels physically threatened. “It’s been hard to show people we’re here for our kids.”