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History: The Angry West

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The Angry West
Illustration by Delphine Lee

The extreme rhetoric that sparked the Jan. 6 Capitol attack has deep roots in Nevada

Parler, the controversial “free speech” social media network based in Henderson, shut down in early January after Amazon pulled the plug; its CEO was reportedly fired in early February. You didn’t miss much. Parler was a bleak pocket universe of racist vitriol and giddy Trumpian nihilism. Whether Parler comes back, and in what form, is anyone’s guess. But one certainty is that in its brief, manic life, Parler managed to make history: It was implicated in helping to incite the siege on the Capitol Jan. 6, accused of stoking the violent and inflammatory rhetoric that culminated in a mob attack on Congress that led to the deaths of five.

Perhaps you did a double take when you first learned Parler was based, of all places, in Henderson. It certainly seems random. In the bigger picture, however, it makes sense. Parler represents the digital apex of a deplorable Nevada tradition: Virulent, menacing, paranoid, extremist right-wing rhetoric.

To consider our state’s history as a font of hard-right, anti-government zeal requires acknowledging that freedom is in Nevada’s DNA. That sounds simplistic, but it’s true in different and complicated ways. For one, it’s in our state’s origin story. Refresher: At the outset of the Civil War, Nevada was created as a federal territory to help bankroll the Union cause with mining taxes, and then admitted as a state to support President Lincoln’s re-election, his Reconstruction policies, and the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. In short, Nevada was a purpose-built political lever for emancipation and reunification.

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ALT-RIOT Inflammatory rhetoric and conspiracy theories fueled the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol.

ALT-RIOT: Inflammatory rhetoric and conspiracy theories fueled the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol. AP photo by John Minchillo

That DNA is also woven into our identity as a gaming destination. Gambling as a frontier custom of Nevada prospectors persisted stubbornly in the state despite multiple bans on the pastime, until the state Legislature finally legalized gambling in 1931. That ancestral streak of Wild West defiance is realized, too, in rural suspicion and distrust of the federal government (which controls the vast majority of Nevada’s land), taking shape in movements such as the Sagebrush Rebellion. That’s a book in itself, but the Sagebrush Rebellion emerged in the 1970s when ranchers, mining concerns, and other groups began agitating for local control of federal land as the government eyed Western wilderness for ambitious preservation programs. (Ronald Reagan considered himself a Sagebrusher. “I happen to be one who cheers and supports the Sagebrush Rebellion,” he said in a 1980 campaign speech. “Count me in as a rebel.”) Today, Nevada’s libertarian ethos ripples across the state in numerous forms and flavors, even here. In Southern Nevada, it’s glamorized in the spirit of Las Vegas itself, a hedonic bubble where people can give the finger to propriety and eat, drink, gamble, and carouse to their Visa limit’s content.

But that DNA mutated. Many of its more cancerous expressions in the Silver State are laced with the same belligerent, reactionary denial of basic facts and shared reality that resulted in the deadly storming of the Capitol. Gradually, and then not so gradually, the mode of stern Reagan conservatism that rejected the idea of government as manager of the social contract tried on a more wild look, and Nevada has since produced a cast of characters who plied a hotter brand of retail anti-government paranoia. There’s James Gordon “Bo” Gritz (rhymes with “whites”), the former Army Special Forces officer and populist mystagogue who had a moment here. Fusing survivalist bravado and New World Order fear-mongering, he ran in the Republican primary in 1988 for a Nevada congressional seat, and in 1992 ran for president on the Populist ticket with the slogan “God, Guns, and Gritz.” His espousal of Christian Identity ideology has earned him cameos on the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center websites.

Let’s not forget figures of more recent vintage. There’s Tea Party Republican Sharron Angle, who ran for U.S. Senate against Sen. Harry Reid in 2010. Energized by resurgent conservative fervor, she zuzhed up her candidacy with cryptic menace. In a 2010 interview with a conservative talk-show host, she suggested that if Reid were re-elected, people might start shooting up the place, so to speak. “I’m hoping that we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies,” she said. “I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems.” More than a few observers saw a connection between her rhetoric and the January 2011 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords in Tucson.

Former Nevada assemblywoman and current Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore is part of the club. Well-known for her baffling gun fetishism, Fiore’s dalliance with anti-government extremists such as rancher Cliven Bundy is worth notice. In a 2016 local TV news interview, parroting the kind of high-heat language that would do the Bundys proud, Fiore called the Bureau of Land Management “a bureaucratic agency of terrorism.”

In that sense, the Sagebrush Rebellion never ended, and the Bundys are its darkest avatar to date. Their April 2014 armed standoff with the BLM in Bunkerville over unpaid grazing fees represents an apotheosis of the extreme right’s primal embrace of unreality married to a self-sanctified mandate to take up arms in a war of almost biblical import. “We’re about ready to take the country over with force!” Bundy told supporters at the infamous standoff, which ended when the BLM backed down and released Bundy’s livestock. Clearly encouraged, in January 2016, Cliven’s son Ammon Bundy led an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for more than a month.

Don’t work too hard connecting the dots to the Capitol attack. In a Jan. 6 post (since deleted) on the Bundy Ranch Facebook page, the Bundys drew a straight line themselves as they cheered on the insurrection: “You can’t clean the swamp by standing off at a distance and smelling it,” the post read. “At Bundy Ranch we had a job to do, go get it done, and We the People went forward and finished the job. … (On Jan. 6) We the People did clear the chambers of Congress and 100,000 should have spent the night in the halls and 100,000 should have protected them.” It makes it easy to see how the effects of this radical rhetoric stack up. Each bellicose utterance legitimizes, normalizes, encourages, and emboldens the next, more extreme one.

Closer to home at the Review-Journal (secretly purchased by the late pro-Trump GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson in 2015), the newspaper’s political intelligentsia that champions fiscal conservatism and a kind of grumpy libertarianism has often auto-tuned its voice to a key of paranoid outrage. Consider former R-J opinion columnist Vin Suprynowicz, who frequently used his column to rail against public education as “mandatory government youth camps” (headline: “Why We Must Destroy the Government Schools”), deny climate change, espouse anti-vax insanity, and lambaste gun control (to him, the National Rifle Association is a “nest of compromisers”) — all because, you know, Government. The ex-columnist is still around, apparently blogging out of Pahrump. In Suprynowicz’s mind, his dystopian fears of a jackbooted New World Order is becoming terrifyingly real; as he sees it, the Jan. 6 Capitol siege was a “false-flag” operation orchestrated by — wait for it — Antifa in order for the “Uniparty” to begin “The Purge.”

He’s got neighborhood competition, though, for the Most Baroque Conspiracy Award. On the Nye County Republican Party website, Chairman Chris Zimmerman posted a letter Jan. 8 spinning out a byzantine conspiracy theory about the “stolen” presidential election — complete with QAnon site links — that staggers comprehension.

But the post-truth moment we’re in is way beyond comprehension — beyond fact, beyond reason, perhaps beyond any basis for hope of mutual understanding. For extreme right-wing rhetoric, Jan. 6 was merely its violent debut on the national stage. Out west, Nevada has been furiously rehearsing for decades.

Bert Johnson contributed research and reporting.

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