Last Thursday, it was reasonable to think the rally with President Donald J. Trump was going to be a show.
With the release of a new critical book, "Fear" and an anonymous opinion in the New York Times allegedly written by a senior official who said he or she was working actively to thwart Trump's plans and agenda, we believed the president, known for his bold, tell-it-like-he-sees-it approach would be ready to vent his spleen.
Before touching down in Montana, he took to Twitter:
"Does the so-called “Senior Administration Official” really exist, or is it just the Failing New York Times with another phony source? If the GUTLESS anonymous person does indeed exist, the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!"
We had no reason to think the speech at Rimrock Auto Arena wouldn't just be an extension of the day's tweeting.
But the Trump campaign's own ham-handed antics backfired and gave us, #plaidshirtguy -- Billings West High student Tyler Linfesty, who became literally an overnight sensation.
Linfesty had been one of the people who was asked to be in the crowd behind Trump -- crowds being chosen so that they appear to be broad-based and diverse. Linfesty and two of his friends, Erik Hovland and Christian Dunlap got prime seats right behind Trump -- you know, even the kids love Trump. Linfesty and his friends had come to see what the rally would be like and didn't have plans to sit so prominently. But the seats were great and Linfesty's plan was straightforward:
"I was going to clap for things I agreed with and not clap for things I didn't agree with," Linfesty said.
Somehow, that sounds kind of subversive in these days of hyper-partisan politics where clapping and enthusiasm aren't just a sign of shared values, they're mandatory to prove you're a bonafide believer.
As Trump spoke, Linfesty was positioned right over his right shoulder. He was nearly impossible to miss. As Trump spoke, Linfesty's facial reactions were noticeable. We'd bet there were many people who would have had the same reaction to Trump comparing himself with Abraham Lincoln or the Founding Fathers.
Linfesty's facial expressions were honest. And they were noticed.
He was not being disruptive, nor was he being disrespectful. He's the kind of guy you may want to play poker with, though.
A little more than halfway through the speech, Linfesty was removed by who he described as a worker for the Trump campaign. For the record: The campaign has never returned our call about the incident.
After some polite questioning by the Secret Service, Linfesty was told to leave and not come back. But by then, the Internet -- Twitter especially -- had already fallen in love. #plaidshirtguy was a thing.
True to form, Linfesty hadn't meant to become a sensation. He had not gone there to subvert the rally. He wasn't trying to be disrespectful. And yet his simple straightforward reactions to some of the things that Trump was saying became the perfect counterpoint. It wasn't screaming, crude or disruptive. Linfesty has just reacted honestly.
And it was maybe the reaction of the people watching -- both online and at the Metra -- which made the most powerful statement.
First, Linfesty became the vicarious stand-in for so many of us who hear the crazy rhetoric and wonder, "Wait, what was that?" In the scripted productions even campaign rallies have become, Linfesty was refreshingly honest. He was not acting as a sycophant, but as a citizen.
In Montana, we're proud of our individualism. We're proud that even if we ascribe to one political party or the other that rarely means walking lockstep.
For those watching from the inside -- inside the Trump organization -- the quiet removal seemed to confirm the worst parts of politics. We doubt the Trump campaign is the first political rally to remove someone who didn't quite clap strongly enough or glance adoringly enough. Yet, when we learned that Linfesty and his friends had been removed because they were not enthusiastic enough or because they made a surprised look on their face, it seems to suggest that the entire event is staged. In a country which cherishes independent and free thought, this seemed forced and cultish.
Who were the Trump people trying to impress?
We're they trying to remove him so that the President may not see a tape and become enraged? Did they feel that removing Linfesty from a public facility to watch the President of the United States was the proper way to handle someone who disagrees? If so, that's not a very American thing to do -- kick someone out if they don't agree...
Or maybe that's exactly what it's come down to.
Billings should be proud to claim Linfesty -- a sharp high-school student who exercised profound freedom of thought, especially when others were watching. He proved that sometimes honesty was better patriotism than any red,white, and blue sequined hat, or the flag that others had literally brought to drape themselves in.