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The Opposite of Progress: A Dispatch From Governor John Dutton’s Montana

A father and a widower, a rancher and a politician. The newly elected leader of Big Sky Country is surrounded by rumors of murder, mock hangings, and familial dustups the size of his Yellowstone ranch. But there’s no doubt that he has a plan for Montana, and that he’ll do anything to enact it.

Paramount Network/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Contender

At Ruby’s Cafe, a quaint, sparsely populated diner in Missoula, John Dutton, the newly elected 26th governor of Montana, is quietly judging me for ordering my burger medium-well. Dutton has already finished his meal, a very, very rare steak. “Pull it out of the cooler and whisper fire to it,” he tells the waitress in his craggy rasp, though he smiles easily with her and the other employees at Ruby’s. With me there are no smiles. The best mood I provoke in John Dutton is a sort of mild indifference, but I’ll take indifference any day of the week with this man. He has worse moods.

“You gonna finish that?” Dutton asks, pointing to my half-eaten burger with a gnarled finger.

Probably not, I tell him. I had a late breakfast.

His eyes linger on me and then he glances at the burger, betraying a tiny sense of sorrow. “Late breakfast,” he says with a wry, disappointed chuckle. “I believe that’s called lunch where I come from.”

John Dutton is the biggest political story you didn’t endlessly hear about on cable news during the midterm elections. He’s not yet a household name outside of his home state, a state which Dutton speaks of with an affection that borders on fetishization. The famously contrarian citizens of Montana have seen fit to send the ultimate contrarian to Helena to serve them in the statehouse. John Dutton, a man with a private helicopter and a ranch only slightly smaller than Rhode Island, has—as so many politicians have before him—painted himself as the ultimate outsider. The early returns appear to have validated this strategy, but his style is less fire-and-brimstone populism and more a niche militant reverence for a way of life that probably ended a long time ago. Indeed, it’s the opposite of populism in many ways. Populism is about the people. This is all about John Dutton and his Montana.

I first laid eyes on John Dutton on election night. This was in the bathroom at his campaign headquarters, about an hour before his opponent, Scott McMullen, conceded the race. I found myself standing next to him as we emptied our bladders at adjacent urinals. He’s a man cut from the land, all weathered peaks and sharp edges, tall and still handsome in his mid-60s. A father and a widower, a rancher and a politician. He possesses the natural impatience of a leader, a man moving at a different speed than the rest of us, a man who is laser-focused on the big picture and doesn’t have the time or the inclination to explain it to you. To John Dutton, this big picture boils down to a fatalistic politics of negation that is remarkably—if not refreshingly—honest in its aspirations.

He washed his hands deliberately. Efficiently. No wasted movement. He nodded stoically in my direction, not yet knowing who I was.

“He’s a man of principle,” the former governor and current senator Lynelle Perry tells me over the phone. “People don’t understand that. They think it’s an act because that’s what they’ve seen before. But he’s the real deal.”

“You all keep trying to make him out as some scary conservative boogeyman,” Emmett Walsh, the chairman of the Stock Growers Association, insisted in a rather heated exchange. “Would a conservative boogeyman care so much about protecting our land? Our natural resources? Our way of life?”

“I ain’t saying a goddamn thing to you,” Rip Wheeler, the foreman at Dutton’s Yellowstone Ranch, barks at me as I approach him at a bar. “You come any closer and I’ll knock your teeth into next week, you scrawny sack of hog shit.”

Others are more even-keeled in their assessments. Thomas Rainwater, casino mogul and high chief of the Confederate Tribes of the Broken Rock Reservation, says, “I’ve worked with and against Governor Dutton many times. And he does care about the land. His land. Or, the land he thinks is his.”

Election Night

“How did it feel, the moment you heard the race was called?” I ask Dutton, months after the election, at the little diner.

“I’ve been shot several times,” Dutton answers, still looking at my burger. “Felt kind of like that, I suppose.”

Election night. It’s typical bedlam. Dozens of volunteers and campaign staff are packed in the sweat-stained room, a churning sea of stiff denim and awry bolo ties, most of them belting out Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” in tipsy unison. “Four years starts now!” the crowd chants. After a brief introduction from his eldest son, Jamie, the governor-elect makes his way to the stage to deafening, Big Sky Country applause. John Dutton, in his trademark cowboy hat and jeans, makes his way to the podium.

“We have a lot of work to do, and a lot of work to undo,” Dutton says before railing against the carpetbaggers and out-of-towners who are, in his eyes, an existential threat to Montana’s very existence. “We are seen today as the rich man’s plaything. We are New York’s novelty and California’s toy. No more.”

John Dutton’s on record describing outsiders drawn to Montana’s natural wonders as “invaders,” and their presence as an “invasion.” The Other-izing of “elites” is an old, tired trick, but it’s a trick that works, especially for a man like John Dutton, who is, if nothing else, utterly sincere. But his victory address is tame compared to his bombastic campaign announcement. “I am the opposite of progress,” he said when he announced his surprise campaign, one many insiders assumed would be run by his son Jamie. “I am the wall that it bashes against and I will not be the one that breaks.” This is quite the position to stake out. Even when divorced from progressive politics, the word progress itself is—for the most part and by most people—not seen as some encroaching menace, but as, well … progress. The nascent movement that the rancher-baron turned amateur politico has helped to foster is redolent of a Trumpian “drain the swamp” impulse. The Outsider who alone can fix the “problem” that politicians (including his ally, Senator Lynelle Perry) have failed to address.

That’s not to say John Dutton is a fan of the disgraced former president (“Met him once at a wedding and pardon my French, but I can’t say I was all that impressed”) or shares his ideals, whatever those may be. But his policies, including the proposed collective punishment on nonresidents, well, they seem, for lack of a better descriptor, deliberately misguided. Double property taxes for nonresidents? A 6 percent sales tax on goods purchased by nonresidents? Exorbitant vehicle registration fees for nonresidents? How many generations back does one have to have roots in Montana to qualify as a real Montanan in John Dutton’s eyes? Speaking of roots, Dutton’s stretch back to 1883, which is about the only topic that doesn’t bore him. This normally reticent man, so spare with his sentences, can talk all day about the year 1883, when the original Duttons emigrated to Montana. You can’t get an answer out of him in regards to his energy policy or his opinion on a woman’s right to choose, but he will talk your ear off about Shea Brennan, a Pinkerton agent who helped guide his great-grandfather from Texas to Montana on the Oregon trail. And don’t get him started on Spotted Eagle.

Not everyone in the state has such an illustrious history in the state. Dutton doesn’t seem to grasp that this is perfectly fine. It’s this type of snobbery and gatekeeping that foments division. How long until most of the population of Bozeman—Montana’s fastest-growing city—are forced to wear a scarlet letter around their necks proclaiming their newness to Montana?

Yes, this line of inquiry is tongue-in-cheek, but Dutton’s conservative, almost nativist (in the Know Nothing Party sense of the word) solutions to keeping Montana unsullied by the 21st century are not without controversy, even among his putative allies. Certainly such gatekeeping is an interesting wrinkle, to say the least, for a white man to unironically champion in regards to land violently stolen from Montana’s Native American population by the very ancestors he venerates.

The Enigma

It goes without saying that John Dutton is not the average Montanan, though he likes to pretend he is. The Montana he’s fighting so hard to conserve in amber is not the Montana of most of the state’s residents. It’s not the Montana of a bartender in Billings, a trucker in Miles City, a college student in Bozeman. It’s the Montana of a multimillionaire scion of generational wealth. Cowboy boots and knowing how to saddle a horse does not a man of the people make.

Whatever the composition of his soul or his ideology ultimately is, he and his storming of conventional wisdom is fascinating. I hunkered down in Montana for months, seeking answers, compiling testimonies from friends and enemies alike. And when I was finally granted an interview with the man himself, I believe I immediately lost his respect with a beef patty that was cooked to the wrong temperature and left partially uneaten.

Dutton is a man of few brusque words, and the interview was not granted without great behind-the-scenes effort. His campaign manager and new chief of staff—who happens to be his daughter—is just outside the diner, pacing in an empty parking lot, screaming into her cellphone and saying something to the effect that she is the “tsunami, and you’re just the beach in Thailand in 2004, full of disgusting tourists about to get fucking ripped apart.” When I arrived at Ruby’s, Beth Dutton pulled me aside and demanded to review my questions before the interview began. When I refused, she began to savagely make fun of me for being born in the Bay Area, for living in Manhattan, for “probably having six favorite bodegas,” and finally implying that my partner was cheating on me at that exact moment. This happened to be true, but this was more a case of a broken clock being right twice a day than anything else.

Beth Dutton is not merely a world-class ball-buster. She’s a corporate shark, cutting her teeth as head of mergers and acquisitions at Schwartz & Meyer, leaving a trail of financial destruction behind her. Nor is she the only of the Dutton progeny to have been sucked into the orbit of their father’s meteoric rise. Jamie, a rising star in Montana politics, currently serves as acting attorney general. His other son Kayce, a former Navy SEAL, is the Montana livestock commissioner. (Editor’s note: As of the date of publishing, Kayce Dutton has resigned his position as livestock commissioner, for personal reasons.) Each of them is a different asset and weapon in their father’s arsenal. And of course, none of his children will go on record to defend or even explain his actions against the monumental loss of state revenue his policies will inflict, nor the thousands of airport and casino jobs that will evaporate thanks to his hard-line stewardship.

“I’m not a politician,” Dutton says, for the third time. “This was never my plan.”

The more and more I learn about him, the more obvious this is. His past is riddled with mystery. Anonymous sources and half-attributed rumors have led me down strange paths. Studying microfiche in a library basement in Helena, I get the impression that a new calamity occurs roughly every week of Dutton’s life. It truly does not pay to challenge Governor Dutton. Take, for instance, the strange case of Dan Jenkins, a developer from the Paradise Valley development, who ran afoul of the Duttons and was gunned down, along with his bodyguard, in his home by unknown assassins. And this was after the rumored mock hanging inflicted on Jenkins by Dutton’s infamously branded ranch hands.

Or look into the Beck Brothers, billionaire businessmen who, multiple sources assure me, made no secret of their desire to buy the Yellowstone Ranch from Dutton whether he was willing to sell or not. The Beck Brothers too met a violent end, which, considering their dirty money and universally appalling reputations, may be a net positive for humanity but for our purposes it is an odd bit of synchronicity that the last man they tangled with is now sitting across from me sipping black coffee.

Stranger still, two weeks ago I was contacted by multiple members of a California biker gang, speaking off the record, who were eager to share another grim anecdote. They claim they were accosted by Dutton wranglers, who then destroyed their motorcycles and forced the bikers at gunpoint to dig their own graves. All the while John Dutton and his ranch hands said so many cruel things about California and Californians. This, of course, strains credulity, and makes very little sense. Why would any of this happen? And yet, it is revealing in its own way. With John Dutton, you could almost believe it. How many other United States governors can that be said of? Ron DeSantis, maybe. This is without even mentioning the right-wing militia that has taken credit for an attempted assassination on Dutton and two of his three surviving children.

I ask John Dutton about Dan Jenkins. About the Beck Brothers. About the mysterious disappearance of Roarke Carter, the point man for Market Equities. About the bikers and the militia.

“Don’t know about any of that,” Dutton says again and again. I am struck by the great contradiction of this man. His utter sincerity. His forthrightness. Not a sneaky bone in his body, because sneakiness is cowardly and this man is clearly no coward. And yet, he’s lying to me. Over and over, with a straight face, and with no remorse. His lying to me is not in and of itself some great crime. He’s a politician, I’m a reporter. The unease that sweeps over me is realizing that he’s lying to himself, and that he knows it. He knows that this reality that he worked his whole life for, in this rich white man’s version of the Ghost Dance, is doomed to fail.

Only then does he start to make sense. Only then can you start to pity him.

Beth pulls her father from the booth. He tells me he probably won’t read my piece. Beth gives me the middle finger and tells me, “Nietzsche says what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Nietzsche never met me. I will break you in half and still be early for happy hour.” Security escorts him into a black SUV and just like that, the governor is gone—back to 1883, or whatever passed-by world he wants to rebuild on top of this faulty modern model he so despises.

A man slides into the booth across from me. A remarkably unremarkable looking man in his 40s or 50s.

“I was there, you know,” he says to me. He waits for me to react. I don’t.

Beg your pardon?

“When those good-for-nothings killed Sheriff Haskell and the governor and his man burst in and rescued us, guns-a-blazing.”

I have no idea what you’re talking about.

“We were hostages. Here. Right here.”


“And the Sheriff, he’s trying to talk them animals down, but things went bad. They would have killed us for sure if Governor Dutton hadn’t shown up. Guns-a-blazing, as I said. Killed one of them, maybe more.”

Governor John Dutton personally stopped a robbery and killed someone? At this diner? When?

“Oh, I don’t know. Few months back.”

A few months back?

“You don’t get it. Fake news. All of you. You don’t get what I’m trying to say.”

What are you trying to say?

“I’m telling you that John Dutton saved our lives. Whatever else you wanna write about him, I’m telling you right now that he’s a hero. Now put that in your fancy East Coast pipe and smoke it.”