On Sunday, April 5, Dr. Annie Bukacek, wearing a white doctor’s coat and a pink stethoscope draped around her neck, stood behind a makeshift pulpit against the plain backdrop of a Hilton Garden Inn conference room in Kalispell, Montana. She was there to deliver a sermon of sorts to members of the Liberty Fellowship, an anti-government, anti-globalism church led by a pastor named Chuck Baldwin that serves as a beacon for the extreme political right — a mix of constitutionalists, militia members, and separatists — in Montana’s Flathead Valley. Based on responses from a Facebook post and her own experience as a doctor, Bukacek made her case to the congregation: that the “alleged death rate” due to COVID-19 has been significantly inflated in order to justify otherwise unjust stay-at-home orders.
Doctors, Bukacek argued, rely on “assumptions and educated guesses that go unquestioned,” which has resulted in an overreporting of deaths. “Based on inaccurate, incomplete data,” she said, “people are being terrorized by fearmongers into relinquishing cherished freedoms.” (The most recent CDC data suggests that coronavirus deaths have actually been dramatically underreported.) Like many others who’ve propagated falsehoods about COVID, Bukacek argues that because many who’ve succumbed to the disease also had other health concerns, they thus died with COVID-19, not of COVID-19. (People with “comorbidities” like hypertension, diabetes, or immune deficiencies are indeed more likely to die from COVID-19, but the infection itself is the trigger for the respiratory or organ failures that actually cause death.)
The video has since been picked up by talk radio, Infowars, QAnon accounts, and other media beacons of the far right. But it’s also made its way to less conspiracy-minded audiences, with over a million views on Facebook and various YouTube channels. For months, figures on the far right have been questioning the severity of government reaction to COVID-19. But Bukacek, who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, is an unusual messenger for these unfounded claims.
As Baldwin was careful to note when he introduced her on camera, Bukacek received her medical degree from the University of Illinois and completed her residency at the Oregon Health and Science University. She is a member of the American College of Physicians, Montana Chapter. She was voted the Best Family Physician in the area in both 2012 and 2019. And, most importantly, she is currently serving as a member of the Flathead County Board of Health.
The story of how a doctor now peddling potentially dangerous COVID-19 misinformation found her way onto a board entrusted with preserving communitywide health is, as one might expect, filled with local political grudges and maneuvering. Bukacek’s appointment was controversial when it happened and remains so; there are currently competing petitions to keep her on and remove her from the board. But the story also serves as a microcosm of the national conflict and confusion around the pandemic, as conspiracy theories and anti-government outrage have filled the vacuum created by the general lack of information about a new virus and constantly evolving — and confusing, and sometimes contradictory — public health messaging.
When Bukacek took the stage in early April, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock had already issued a stay-at-home order, closing all nonessential businesses and preventing gatherings over ten people unless appropriate social distancing could be maintained. Most churches across the state had moved to online services. But Liberty Fellowship — which already tapes and broadcasts their services every week — decided to meet in person anyway. They asked at-risk individuals to stay home, directed attendees to spread out in the room, and had ample supplies of hand sanitizer. At least that’s what they reportedly did: No one outside of the congregation was inside the conference room, and the livestream was focused on the pulpit.
When most pastors preach, they use Scripture and anecdotes to illustrate their points. For that week’s sermon, titled “Christianity 101: The Cure Against a Medical Coup,” Baldwin did that — but he also used Bukacek, a longtime member of the congregation and a fierce opponent of abortion and vaccinations. (Bukacek, who is colloquially known as “Dr. Annie,” prefers to describe herself as “pro-informed choice” when it comes to vaccines, and echoes inaccurate arguments concerning safety and herd immunity that are often used by others opposed to vaccines.).
Bukacek and Baldwin’s message arrived weeks before dozens of anti-lockdown protests began attracting national attention, but they telegraphed the character, and foundational arguments, of the movement to come. No matter how or when a pandemic hit the United States, there was bound to be some resistance to government actions designed to stem its spread. Resistance to government mandates is, just generally speaking, a deeply American characteristic. But as frustration with these measures grows, the ideology and talking points of anti-government “medical freedom” activists have moved from the fringes of the political spectrum to the mainstream, radicalizing people across the country.
“Here's a person that has credentials, who is speaking to them about what the CDC itself says about death certificates. And they’re saying, ‘I was right all along. I knew it.’”
For this growing number of skeptics, the experts, institutions, and authorities of mainstream science and medicine can no longer be trusted. And that underlying distrust makes someone like Bukacek — a doctor who positions herself as a rebel unafraid to speak (alleged) truth to the medical establishment — a potent symbol to people who are already nursing their own suspicions. As Bukacek put it herself in an interview, describing the viral success of her video, “Here's a person that has credentials, who is speaking to them about what the CDC itself says about death certificates. And they’re saying, ‘I was right all along. I knew it. I knew something wasn’t right.’”
Figures like Bukacek do more than fan the flames of the conspiracy minded. As evidenced by the warring factions that have formed on either side of her, they turn communities against one another at the very time when collaboration, whether on the federal or community level, is needed most. “This seems to be a clear opportunity to create antagonism between neighbors,” said Cherilyn DeVries, who heads up the Flathead chapter of Love Lives Here, an affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network. “As soon as this disease hit, we started posting and letting people know: These tense, uncertain environments are when extremists have historically come into our community. They prey on divisions, and they try to radicalize people, wedging in their talking points in the midst of controversy.”
This sort of division is by no means limited to the local level. Instead of coming together as a country to take on a once-in-a-century pandemic, national opinions about COVID-19 itself have begun to split along political affiliation, with President Trump himself referring to doctor-recommended social distancing as “politically correct” distancing and suggesting — to his own medical adviser’s apparent dismay — that we might investigate the benefits of injecting disinfectant into our bodies. (The president now claims he was being “sarcastic.”)
Bukacek’s not just speaking to a congregation in a conference room in the corner of Montana. Like the president, she’s speaking to a frustrated, confused, and receptive audience of millions.
Bukacek, age 62, has been a well-known figure in Montana for more than a decade. She lives in the city of Kalispell but is known across the state for carrying plastic fetuses with her as props in her capacity as the president of the Montana Pro-Life Coalition. She was investigated (but not prosecuted) for Medicaid fraud in 2009, following allegations she had billed for time spent praying with patients. (At the time, Bukacek said she had been unfairly targeted because of her anti-abortion activism). Bukacek, who remains firmly opposed to what she calls “Obamacare,” no longer has admitting privileges at the area hospital, Kalispell Regional Healthcare. But as the head of a private “concierge” practice called Hosanna Health, she performs house calls, and she still prays with patients — both of which, to a certain swath of the Flathead population, are cherished services. As one health professional in the area told me, “the little old ladies just love her.”
That’s part of the reason Bukacek has found support from the community. The other is that, unlike other political extremists who’ve arrived in the valley, she’s been here for a long time. “I usually tell people that we have a revolving door on extremists who like to come in here from the outside,” DeVries, the head of Love Lives Here, told me. “And we’ve gotten really good at kicking them out. But Annie is a local person, supported by local people.” She’s not going anywhere.
In 1990, Flathead County — which covers an area roughly the size of Connecticut, to the direct west of Glacier National Park — was home to just under 60,000 residents. Like the rest of Montana, it was a political mishmash; more conservative, maybe, than other places in the state, but it still prided itself on voting for person over party. That began to change in the 1990s and 2000s, as conservatives started fleeing what they saw as overly progressive states in favor of the vast, seemingly unregulated expanse of North Idaho and Northwest Montana. That included members of Pioneer Little Europe, who viewed the Valley as the place to establish a “white-only” homeland, but it also included retired cops sick of California and its shift to the left.
As the population grew to the roughly 103,000 of today, the area became not just more conservative, but a different kind of conservative: far more ideological, polemical, and committed to purity tests of “true conservativism” when it came to stances on abortion, religious freedoms, and gun rights. As is the case in the GOP on the national level, the so-called Chamber of Commerce Republicans — often lambasted as RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only — have been gradually marginalized in the party and primaried out of office. (One current challenger for a legislature seat once asked to be paid for his service in gold, and drafted a bill to let convicts opt for corporal punishment over jail sentences.) Some of that work is supported and funded by larger organizations; some is genuinely grassroots. And some is centered around Liberty Fellowship.
An undergirding philosophy of the patriot movement is that the government has impinged upon Americans’ God-given freedoms in pretty much all corners of our lives. That includes medicine, and particularly vaccines. Bukacek, like other “liberty-minded” constitutionalists, advocates for “medical freedom,” and believes that vaccinations should be a matter of personal, informed decision — not mandated by public policy. The influence of likeminded lawmakers has already made Idaho a haven for parents who don’t wish to vaccinate their children, and several legislators have attempted (and, so far, failed) to implement similar measures in Montana.
In Flathead County, the Board of Health — made up of nine members, appointed by the county commissioners, with experience or expertise in public health — was already concerned about declining vaccination rates among public school students. Over the course of the 2018–2019 school year, the county’s vaccination rate fell from 93.7% to 92.6%, which may not seem like much, but is significant when a 95% rate is ideal to maintain herd immunity. The board embarked on a concerted campaign to up vaccination rates across the county. People like Bukacek were an obstacle to that goal, but not a barrier.
“We have a revolving door on extremists who like to come in here from the outside. ... But Annie is a local person, supported by local people.”
But then, in December 2019, the county commissioners, all conservative Republicans, took drastic action. Without public discussion, they removed two members of the Board of Health: Dr. David Myerowitz, its chair, and Dr. Wayne Miller, both of whom had served for over a decade. In their place, they appointed Ardis Larsen, the wife of a local GOP rainmaker who has no medical qualifications and does not work in health care, and Dr. Bukacek.
The appointments, according to a dozen Flathead residents on both sides of the political spectrum, were a purely political move. The uproar was pointed but localized. Myerowitz — who, before his appointment to the board, launched the heart transplant programs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Ohio State University — issued an extensive indictment of the machinations that predicated his removal. (You can read it here.) Joan Driscoll, a nurse practitioner at the Kalispell hospital and former member of the Board of Health, found the entire situation “horrifying.”
“I couldn’t believe they took two-forward thinking physicians off the board and replaced them with someone like Bukacek,” she told me, “who doesn’t have admitting privileges at our hospital, and has always been on the right-wing fringe of our community.”
The primary concern was over Bukacek’s position on vaccination, and that her anti-abortion stance meant she would work to block or delay funding for women’s health programs. But the county commissioners defended her appointment as a means of adding “diversity” to the board. “Bukacek is only one person on the board,” County Commissioner Pam Holmquist told the Flathead Beacon in December. Myerowitz and Miller, she suggested, “are just upset that they got kicked off the board … This is not a big deal. It’s all being blown out of proportion.”
This might seem like small-town politics, and it is. But small-town politics can have outsize implications, especially when something as society-throttling as a pandemic arrives. On April 4, Bukacek posed a question on Facebook: “Know anyone personally with baseline good health who has been hospitalized for COVID 19 alone or allegedly died from COVID 19?” The post has attracted more than 450 comments — a mix of people saying that they didn’t know anyone firsthand, or that an acquaintance had it and had been hospitalized, or that they themselves had tested positive. The next day, Bukacek used those responses as opening evidence in her speech at Liberty Fellowship.
“Last I counted, there were three or four who answered yes, and said their case fit the criteria and gave me some details,” Bukacek said. “But even those three or four, giving them the benefit of the doubt that they were answering honestly to the best of their knowledge, does that mean that the person described was actually stricken with COVID-19?”
At that point, in early April, many people outside early hot spots in the US didn’t know anyone with COVID-19. It hadn’t spread extensively yet outside urban areas, and testing, in most places, remained very limited. And in that gap — while most rural areas were under lockdown primarily as a preventive measure — Bukacek began to cultivate existing doubt and confusion about the virus. In an April 12 interview with former Presbyterian minister John Shuck, who has become a full-bore COVID-denier, she’s even more explicit.
“I think many, if not most people, they have this feeling in their gut,” she said. “I call it the Holy Spirit, but other people would say it’s like a gut feeling, that the stylish popular narrative about how scary this virus is, and it’s going to kill us all, they just have a feeling inside of them that this is not true. It’s not ringing true to them. They’re looking at their neighbors….they’re not seeing people, you know, drop dead from it. And so people just aren’t buying it.”
The phenomenon Bukacek described is why some people are still skeptical of the importance of vaccines, too — they’re not seeing their friends and family drop dead from polio. The most successful preventive health programs are always their own worst enemy: With time and buy-in, they erase the evidence of their own necessity. And if you take away that sort of powerful anecdotal evidence, it makes it all the easier to fan anxieties about injecting a child with a live culture of a disease. The maintenance of public health (through vaccination) seems worse to people than the alternative (going about life as usual).
That logic has been a talking point among conservatives since the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic: the idea that the “cure” (aka social distancing and business shutdowns) might be worse than the disease itself (which, from some individuals’ perspective, has no effect on them personally). What makes social distancing hard for people to accept as a preventative tool is that it has to start early, before a disease is widespread, in order to be fully effective. The evidence of its effectiveness is what’s missing: no loved ones dead, no ventilator shortages, no mass burials. The cure, if properly applied, may always seem worse than what it’s preventing — which makes it all the easier to question or protest.
“It’s a smart tactic,” said Heidi Lawrence, an assistant professor of English and rhetoric at George Mason University and author of Vaccine Rhetorics, after watching the video of Bukacek’s speech at Liberty Fellowship. “We know that testing is limited, that resources are scarce, and that actual scientific knowledge around the virus is incomplete,” she said. “She’s leveraging that existing lack of knowledge to justify taking down the CDC, and the government rationale for the closures, too.”
That’s a common strategy among vaccine skeptics, according to Lawrence. “You question the science behind a claim, rather than the claim itself,” she said. “Instead of saying, ‘I think there’s a problem with government overreach,’ you say that overreach is based on a bad piece of scientific information.” The laundry list of Bukacek’s qualifications that preceded her speech to the Liberty Fellowship is also standard among vaccine skeptics. “When they write something, they always include the details of their degree, whether it’s an MA, a JD, an MD,” Lawrence explained. “They’re trying to signal that they are, in fact, very smart, and educated — that’s what you see with the performativity of the white coat and the stethoscope in the video. It’s a direct response to people calling them idiots.”
“We know that testing is limited, that resources are scarce, and that actual scientific knowledge around the virus is incomplete. She’s leveraging that existing lack of knowledge.”
“I think the reason this is popular is that it’s coming from a physician,” Bukacek said, when questioned about the virality of her video. “Some people had a hunch in their gut about these death certificates, like how did they know these people were really dying from that? They had that feeling inside of them. But because they don’t have an MD or PhD ... or they don’t have the confidence or the ability to stand up against the popular narrative, they just kept it to themselves.”
“Degrees are double-edged swords,” Kolina Koltai, who just completed her dissertation on the way that vaccine discourse circulates online, told me. “You work really hard to get a degree, and it gives you some level of authority. But the danger is that people with these degrees often dissent from the mainstream in areas outside of their expertise. It’s like these economists and physicists trying to be epidemiologists on Twitter.” Bukacek, whose specialty is internal medicine, appears to have no expertise in infectious diseases or public health.
Liberty Fellowship’s YouTube channel invites viewers to watch as Bukacek “blows the whistle” — another common framework for vaccine skeptics, painting them as the only people willing to question corrupt, untrustworthy institutions. In this case, Bukacek says the CDC has a history of making “a big deal of out nothing” during previous pandemics, and has created a “huge financial incentive” for hospitals to report COVID-19 deaths. (Hospitals are receiving a 20% payment increase for Medicaid patients treated for COVID-19, but the pandemic has also put them under enormous financial strain; one data analysis concluded that most lose thousands of dollars on each case treated.) She also questions scientists’ predictions, based on existing data, about how the virus will continue to spread in the next year, which, she says, is just “the next narrative.”
“Where did they get this?” she asked Shuck during their interview. “I think they’re pulling it out of their hat. They’re just coming up with it.” She’s also, unsurprisingly, against expanding testing. “PROMOTING COVID 19 TESTING TO FEEL SAFE...THIS PROLONGS CONTAGION OF FEAR,” she posted on Facebook earlier this week. “KEEP FIRMLY IN MIND: LOCKDOWN BASED on FEAR NOT FACTS.”
Bukacek has exploited that fear and confusion about the virus herself to fuel an even larger mistrust of the government and skepticism toward scientific findings and medical guidance. And she’s been able to do so not just because she has a medical degree, or because YouTube and Facebook are such efficient vectors for the spread of conspiracy theories — but because faith in the overall project of “public health” has been deteriorating for years.
In the United States, public health boards were first established in the 1860s and ’70s, charged with implementing policies in line with the idea that a society, working as a whole, can help protect individuals from disease and generally increase quality of life. Creating sanitation campaigns, tracing E. coli cases, or managing norovirus outbreaks at a nursing home — all of those things are handled by practitioners of public health. But another, far less discussed component of public health is engendering trust in public health — because sooner or later, people may need to trust medical advice that isn’t intuitively or automatically convincing in order to protect themselves and others.
“Any advocate of vaccinations or any science that you can’t see, hear, or touch has an uphill road to walk,” said Mark Navin, an associate professor of philosophy at Oakland University who specializes in the bioethics of public health. “What they’re up against is a lot of ‘common sense’ and intuitionist ways of knowledge. With COVID, for example, people might not see others dying, but exponential growth is also a really hard concept: how two deaths becomes four deaths, becomes 16 deaths, and the chart explodes really quickly.”
“Every generation has to come and decide if they’re going to trust the government, and if they’re going to trust medicine,” Navin said. “And we’ve taken it for granted in the post–World War II era that people have this, but every generation has to come in and cultivate it.”
And that’s the problem with the current era. There are some people, like Myerowitz, the doctor whom Bukacek replaced on the Flathead County Board of Health, who have firsthand experience with pandemics: When he was a young boy, Myerowitz nearly died from polio. He was bedridden for an entire summer. But others struggle with the intangibility or invisibility of public health success, either with vaccines or with social distancing.
“Every generation has to come and decide if they’re going to trust the government, and if they’re going to trust medicine.”
Granted, the vast majority of Americans do believe in vaccines, and have adhered to social distancing guidelines. But when it comes to public health, distrust is contagious — and exacerbated by the relatively recent politicization and polarization of science.
“Responses to pandemics, support for vaccinations, those parts of public health governance were, until very recently, bipartisan and sacrosanct,” Navin explained. This time around, though, initial skepticism around COVID-19 in the US was fueled, with extremely serious consequences, by the dismissive reaction of both President Trump and Fox News. (Both the Trump campaign and Fox News host Sean Hannity have disputed the claim that their responses were dismissive.) A small faction of people on the far right and far left have resisted vaccinations for some time, but “medical freedom” has recently been taken up as a defining issue of the far right.
Ongoing protests against lockdowns across the nation are being organized and funded by many of the same groups that were instrumental in the rise of the tea party. Some organizers protesting preventive public health measures to combat the spread of coronavirus are attempting to keep up the appearance that their movement is nonpartisan and nonideological, and simply focused on getting people back to work. But no number of Facebook posts advising protesters to keep their Confederate flags at home will keep the most fervent members of the movement from the front lines.
And once these issues become polarized, Navin points out, they also become integral to people’s identities. Believers on both sides become more entrenched. To concede to any request from the “other side” is to join them. Which helps explain — at least in part — what’s going on in the Flathead Valley.
On April 6, the day after Bukacek spoke at Liberty Fellowship, she helped organize one of the earliest protests against stay-at-home policies in the nation. As the Kalispell City Council met online, voting to officially declare a “state of emergency,” Bukacek and around 30 others gathered outside the empty city hall. In an email to local press, Bukacek claimed that the city was embracing “martial law” by complying with the stay-at-home orders. At the protest, she held a sign reading “HEIL RUSSELL,” referring to Kalispell City Manager Doug Russell. Bukacek is not the only person to publicly compare shutdown orders with Nazi rule. Liberty Fellowships’s Chuck Baldwin refers to Dr. Fauci, the White House health adviser, as a “Big Pharma Fascist,” and in North Idaho, far-right state Rep. Heather Scott claimed her state’s stay-at-home order was “no different than Nazi Germany, where you had government telling people, ‘You are an essential worker or a nonessential worker,’ and the nonessential workers got put on a train.”
Since the protest, Bukacek has met with a handful of other protesters called the “People’s Meeting,” led by Nick Ramlow, who owns a local construction company. The meetings are held in an outbuilding at a home in Kalispell and broadcast on Facebook. As with the broadcast of the Liberty Fellowship church service, the only person visible is the speaker, but members of the audience, including Bukacek, are audible. Ramlow, who moved to the Flathead area six years ago, is not a member of Liberty Fellowship. But his anti-government politics align with theirs and he has mentioned Ammon Bundy — one of the leaders of the standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Northeast Oregon — as someone with whom he has “cross-pollinated ideas.”
“We’re the last stand,” Ramlow told me when I reached him by phone, referring to Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. “This is the place where freedoms are still allowed.” The shutdown, he said, made it clear that it was time to “build a body of people who are willing to stand on principles,” to draw up grievances against government officials engaging in overreach.
Ramlow expressed great admiration for “Dr. Annie,” as he calls her. “There’s a great deal of energy that pulses through that woman,” he said. “And she’s really pointing out how they’re abusing the finance structure in the hospitals, so that every case becomes COVID. It’s exactly the same as the Salem Witch Trials, where you give bounties to people hunting witches — eventually they’re going to be paying people who are finding people who aren’t witches, you know?”
Ramlow is currently running, as a libertarian, for the state legislature. And the mayor of Kalispell, he said — along with other government officials — “armed me with everything I needed to campaign. As soon as they declared an emergency, that was all I needed to get my brand of freedom out there.” He sees the ongoing purpose of the People’s Meetings as twofold: to file criminal complaints against public officials ordering lockdowns, and to organize local business owners in a pact to help one another keep their businesses open, regardless of the stay-at-home order.
Ramlow’s group, at least for now, will not need to take action. On Sunday, April 26, the state of Montana began to gradually reopen: first churches and retail stores, then, the week after, restaurants and bars. No Flathead Valley business owners were called upon to protect others’ freedom. Ramlow attempted to serve cease-and-desist orders concerning the “unlawful enforcement” of remaining restrictions to various governmental offices, and solicited the home address of the Kalispell mayor on Facebook Classifieds for $100 so as to perform a citizen’s arrest. But his actions have been largely ignored.
The coronavirus pandemic is the Medical Conspiracy Super Bowl, the moment they’ve been waiting for.
Still, these protests are not the end of something — they’re the beginning. “We’ve got to organize in a way so that this doesn’t happen again,” Ramlow told me. “You can think of this as being out in the desert, and you come across a den of snakes. Well, after that, you never want to come across a den of snakes again. We want our bite to be that toxic, that no one comes near it again.” That’s some big, vaguely coded talk. But so, too, was the talk around the tea party, and the renewed patriot movement, led by the Bundys, and the apocalyptic prepper movements that have congregated in and around Northwest Montana.
Before the pandemic, the fire behind those groups had largely died out. The further right arm of the local GOP was still powerful, but the tea party, at least as a coherent entity, had largely disappeared. Ammon Bundy was in the suburbs of Boise, flailing about for a new cause to throw his weight behind. With a president who is openly sympathetic to their causes, these factions have so much less to fight against. But COVID-19 and the scientific uncertainty, government-mandated lockdowns, and federally funded relief programs it’s given rise to have resparked the embers and united them around a common cause.
These groups know, better than others, never to waste a crisis. For years, anti-vax and anti-government truthers have been anticipating a government mandate that everyone submit to a vaccine — no exceptions. For them, the coronavirus pandemic is the Medical Conspiracy Super Bowl, the moment they’ve been waiting for. And in this corner of Montana — and far beyond, thanks to the internet — Bukacek is just one of many players who’ve been waiting what feels like their entire lives to get off the bench.
The members of the Board of Health, according to the board’s bylines, serve at the pleasure of the county commissioners. That means that nobody else — not the mayor, the city council, or the governor — can force Bukacek’s removal. Two of the three commissioners voting to remove her is the only way. And, at least as of now, it’s not going to happen.
Ten days after Bukacek’s Liberty Fellowship video was posted, the Board of Health held its first virtual meeting. Several members of the community voiced their concerns about Bukacek’s appointment, given her remarks in the video and her coordination of the Kalispell protest, and asked for her dismissal from the board. Bukacek held her ground, and criticized guidelines prohibiting visitors to long-term care and assisted living homes, which she considered “cruel.” (In Toole County — just on the other side of Glacier Park — a COVID-19 outbreak in an assisted care facility has been responsible for six deaths, more than a third of Montana’s official count.)
Thus far, the only one of the county’s three commissioners to publicly criticize Bukacek has been Phil Mitchell. According to locals, it’s not because he’s particularly brave, but because he’s already declared that he won’t be running for reelection — in part because of a 2017 scandal involving Mitchell’s removal of $16,000 worth of trees on county land abutting his home. “I am disappointed in her and in fact I am pissed off,” Mitchell told the Flathead Beacon on April 20. “I am sorry that I put her on the board and I am sorry for how she has acted. I’m frustrated but there’s not a lot I can do. I’m only one commissioner.”
The other two, Pam Holmquist and Randy Brodehl, have stood by their initial reasoning for appointing Bukacek to the board. Holmquist pointed out that Bukacek is one member of nine; as for Brodehl, he told me, “It’s very important that we have a diverse board, with people who have and are willing to voice an opinion that represents their heart. And there is a group of people in the valley who feel the same way.” It’s also likely, given the political history of the area, that they’re concerned about their prospects in the next election. “Holmquist knows that if she votes to unseat Bukacek, she’s screwed,” said one local politician, who requested anonymity in order to avoid retaliation. “And Brodehl knows the same thing.”
Brodehl wanted to be clear that Bukacek has promised that she would not speak on behalf of the board, and didn’t see an issue with her exercising her right to freedom of speech. “It’s the government’s job to do what’s right,” he said. “And what’s right to me is following the constitution and the First Amendment. And that’s allowing every side to this to voice their opinion.”
“Annie doesn’t believe in the basic principles of public health.”
“Saying that Annie provides a diversity of opinion is nonsense,” Myerowitz, the former chair of the board, told me. “Would they appoint an alt-right military person to the Board of Health? That represents a part of this community too. You have to invite people who share the vision of what a board of health does, which is protect the health of the county. Annie doesn’t believe in the basic principles of public health.”
Bukacek’s appointment represents the far-right libertarian mindset taken to its logical conclusion: a public health appointee who seemingly doesn’t believe in public health. The doubt she’s sowing now foments what she and supporters call “civil disobedience” against stay-at-home advisories. But that doubt and resistance may expand to include other attempts on the part of public health officials to track and mitigate the spread of the disease, whether in the form of tracked antibody testing or, in the years to come, vaccination.
In Idaho, Texas, and California, some of the most vocal and visible groups protesting the lockdowns have been groups advocating for medical freedom. If they’re resisting medically informed guidance about prevention now, that resistance will likely only intensify when prevention turns into vaccination.
“I already see this assumption that anti-vaxxers are going to line up for a COVID-19 vaccination,” Lawrence, the anti-vax rhetoric scholar, told me. “That of course they’ll want it, and they’ll be shown how wrong they are. But I do not think that’s how it’s going to play out. Many people will line up, and will clamor for it. And others will be persuaded that vaccines are not to be trusted. And right now, we’re getting ready to see what those arguments will look like.”
At this point, Bukacek wins if she stays on the Board of Health, and she wins if she’s taken off. If she is removed now, she might not sit on the board, but she will still wear the lab coat. Her video may have been marked as “Partly False Information” by Facebook’s fact-checkers, but for many, that designation only underlines the boldness of the truths she’s telling. Every successful movement needs martyrs, and Bukacek — along with others fired, assailed, arrested, ridiculed, or threatened for their resistance — could easily become a unifying hero of the cause, a visionary exiled for her commitment to freedom.
Bukacek and others like her frame their opposition to COVID-19 restrictions, now and in the future, as part of a larger spiritual, political, and ideological battle. Their resistance is local, and, even here in Montana, still very much in the minority. Which perhaps explains the feeling of discombobulation, watching and hearing about the protests in the news or in your feeds: They’re such a small percentage of an otherwise largely compliant whole. But in a state of emergency, it only takes a handful, speaking to people’s deepest and darkest fears, to destabilize an entire society. ●