The year 2016 was barely three days old when Ammon Bundy gave it a face. That face was entering middle age and slightly rounded at the cheeks. It was white, of course, with blue eyes beginning to wrinkle at the corners.
It was bearded, too, and topped off with a dark brown cowboy hat, in a studied evocation of the long-gone western frontier. These were not the accoutrements of Bundy’s business, which happened to be preparing trucks in Phoenix, Arizona. Rather, they symbolised the political claims he and other members of their self-styled ‘patriot movement’ had come to Harney County, Oregon, to make.
On the first morning of his group’s armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Bundy held a press conference for the few journalists who had managed to get there, all of us stamping our feet and fiddling with gloves to stay warm in the sub-zero temperatures of the Harney Basin. He told us that his enemy was the federal government, which had dedicated the refuge under president Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, and its agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management.
To Bundy, public land was most certainly not a shared patrimony or an artefact of altruism: ‘This refuge, from its very inception, has been a tool of tyranny,’ he said.
Steven and Dwight Hammond, two local ranchers who had been re-imprisoned to serve mandatory minimum sentences for arson on the refuge, ‘would not have been abused the way they have if we had adhered to the constitution. When government steps outside the bounds the people have given it, it is the duty of the people to put it back in its place.’
Bundy claimed the federal government had no constitutional right to own land, outside of what was needed for military installations and other essential functions. A neat world view followed from this.
‘The federal government’s job is to protect the states from the outside world,’ he said. ‘The states’ job is to protect the counties from the federal government. The counties’ job is to protect the people from the states.’
And, he finished, ‘the people’s job is to be free.’
This was government conceived not as the result of a democratic bond, nor even the formalisation of a social contract, but as a series of concentric fortifications around the individual. Within those walls, freedom has a particular form.
It is the freedom of white Christian landowners to please themselves on public property. It is the freedom – the duty – of counties to ignore or modify state and federal statute and the many judicial affirmations of the constitutionality of public ownership. It is the freedom to go on as if the nineteenth century – when the federal government did all it could to aid the spread of settler colonialism at the expense of Native Americans – had never ended.
Most of all, it is the freedom to take drastic action, outside the slow grind of legislation and law, or the push and pull of everyday politics, and to judge human institutions according to personal revelations of the divine law.
This idea of liberty has little to do with the loose, contradictory and essentially godless document hammered together by the country’s founders through a series of blind alleys and compromises. It draws much more on the fears of a top-down takeover animating every right-wing insurgency from the Posse Comitatus onward. Implicitly, it reiterated the white supremacy that justified America’s seizing of the western colonies.
On the face of it, federal land ownership could even be said to have violated the spirit of the constitution by eliding the distinction between profane politics and God, suggesting that any limitation of white masculine freedom was an act of impiety. Repeatedly, before and during the occupation, Bundy claimed to have been led by God and scripture to that place, to defend a document that he saw as similarly divinely inspired.
On 1 January, the day before Bundy’s crew drove thirty miles through snow to lock down the refuge, he made a YouTube plea to other patriots to join the action to protect the Hammonds. In the recording, he said that the constitution was ‘hanging by a thread’, invoking the so-called ‘white horse prophecy’ (which many Mormons still believe was made by Joseph Smith, the founder of their creed, despite official Mormon disavowals of its authenticity). The prophecy predicts that Mormons will save the United States from tyranny by restoring the original constitution’s authority (which, like Bundy, many Mormons believe to be divinely inspired).
Grandiose as it sounds, all this hinted to Bundy considering himself to be the fulfilment of prophecy, the first of the year’s great white redeemers.
To the extent that anyone in Harney County listened to him – and a few did – it was because some attention was drawn to what the preceding three decades had done to the place.
Working-class jobs in the area, especially those previously filled by unskilled men, have largely disappeared. In the late 1970s, 786 people worked in well-paid union jobs in the timber industry; now that number has declined to six. The population is ageing. Incomes have declined. White-collar jobs have drawn people to Oregon’s cities, whose demographics mean they dominate the politics of the blue state. Harney County has a limited economic and demographic future – but if federal lands were handed over to local control, Bundy argued, perhaps the area could be great again.
Three days after the occupation began, Jerry DeLemus, co-chair of the Trump for President Veteran’s Coalition, came to the refuge to lend his support. Reuters reported that DeLemus arrived and pronounced the occupation ‘peaceful’ and ‘constitutionally just’. He planned to fill Trump in, and expected that ‘[The occupation] will really arouse [Trump], and once he understands, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him heading out west’.
The occupation was forcibly ended before Trump, who had responded to the situation with vague mutterings about the rule of law, could visit. Others in the GOP chose to play footsies with the militia. Local Congressman Greg Walden, for one, weakly denounced it in a speech that spelt out all the reasons why it was an understandable course of action.
Later in the month, when the leaders were lured away from the wildlife refuge and one of their number, LaVoy Finicum, was shot dead, many of their fellow travellers put the blame squarely on Oregon Governor Kate Brown.
Brown, a democrat, and the first openly LGBT governor of any American state, had articulated the views of Oregon’s urban population by urging federal agents to bring the standoff to a quick close. She was a tailor-made villain for those mourning the death of the man some of them called ‘the last American cowboy’.
Six months later, with Bundy and many members of his group awaiting trial in Portland, the GOP quietly adopted the position that federal lands should be transferred to state ownership into its national platform; the same platform that Donald Trump carried into his election victory.
‘Your professors are cunts, on the whole,’ Milo Yiannopoulos told University of Oregon students in May. ‘Limp-wristed, pacifistic, sandal-wearing weirdos.’
The tech editor for alt-right news site Breitbart was seated on the low dais of a drab lecture hall, talking with the local leader of Young Americans for Freedom, the hosts for the event.
In this context, it would have been easy for some to buy his pitch: reactionary glamour. His frosted tips, smooth face, pink T-shirt and rivulets of bling were a long way from the craggy denizens of the American conservative firmament. And he was, it must be said, a happy warrior – he had none of Mark Levin’s grumpiness, Sean Hannity’s repetitiveness or Alex Jones’ florid paranoia.
At that point, Yiannopoulos was riding high and could lay claim to the kind of intellectual influence most academics never attain. He had built his involvement in the Gamergate scandal into a kind of punk-right celebrity.
Mid 2016 was his zenith – he was the scourge of Twitter, rubbed shoulders with Ann Coulter and other hard-right luminaries, and drew crowds to his live events. People queued for more than an hour on a beautiful spring night in Eugene just to hear him speak.
It was part of his ‘Dangerous Faggot’ campus tour, in which he travelled coast to coast to rail against feminism and ‘political correctness’ and to promote Trump (whom he refers to as ‘Daddy’) and the message of the alt right. There were, and are, conflicting claims about the ownership and meaning of the alt-right movement. There was even debate over whether Yiannopoulos, with his open homosexuality, Jewish ancestry and libertinism could really be a part of a movement whose origins lie in traditionalism and anti-Semitism.
But Yiannopoulos and the alt right certainly shared a couple of traits. First, there was a willingness to dispense with the American right’s trusty dog whistle and offer frank views on race (all the while disparaging those conservatives who were more attuned to euphemism and conciliation as ‘cucks’). Second, they shared a desire to restore white masculinity to its position as the central, reigning political identity.
In Eugene, Yiannopoulos endorsed Trump’s call to end Muslim immigration on the grounds that fundamentalists ‘want to kill people like me’ – a preview of the full-throated Islamophobic appeal that he and others made to the LGBT community after the Pulse nightclub shooting the next month.
But the meat of his address was a repetition of a claim he has made repeatedly in his writings and on social media: that white men, especially the working class, are being oppressed with an elitist doctrine of political correctness.
Referring to lesbians as ‘horrendous, quivering masses of horror’ and feminism as ‘cancer’, Yiannopoulos generally castigated the ‘awful, awful, terrible, diseased and damaged people lecturing and hectoring the working class’ – those he sees as the enforcers of ‘the oppressive hegemony of social justice’. The only solution, he said, is a Trump administration.
The audience was predominantly young men, and they lapped it up. If you had to characterise the hardcore Yiannopoulos fans who lined up for selfies and autographs in a phrase, you might opt for ‘reactionary nerds’. His skill is in taking the resentment that comes with shyness or adolescent social failure and turning it into an ideology built on the idea that feminists have turned women against men.
But for all his rhetoric about the victimhood of this audience, Yiannopoulos gave every appearance of having a fair degree of contempt for them himself. While his introductory speaker was talking, he played idly with his phone, pointedly not listening. Afterwards, Yiannopoulos seemed vaguely uncomfortable touching, or even speaking with, his fans.
As Corey Robin reminded us in The Reactionary Mind, if anything links the various strands of right-wing thought, it is a belief in, and a desire to restore or impose, hierarchy.
‘Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes,’ he notes. ‘It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity.’
Yiannopoulos’ main goal may be the reinstitution of a hierarchy of gender, but he can’t quite bring himself to view all men as equal; his gestures and speech indicate his audiences are beneath him.
Even as he and others shook establishment conservatism, they embodied its dilemma: the need to harvest support from the very people they – the ‘born-to-rule’ elite – hold in disdain.
By August, Yiannopoulos had been banned from Twitter for his role in the mob abuse of African-American Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. His Breitbart boss Steven Bannon, on the other hand, had been appointed CEO of the Trump campaign.
Bannon’s beliefs were pretty well indistinguishable from those of his gadfly writer. The difference was that he was not sniping on social media or a website, but running a presidential campaign.
Bit by bit, the kind of right-wingers that Movement Conservatism had denied respectability to for fifty years had moved to the centre of national politics.
Students for Trump have been active at Portland State University all year. The group started online, progressing quickly to street action. They had clashed, online and off, with leftist students; there were physical confrontations at an initial rally by the group, and claims and counterclaims about online harassment.
On 10 June, the group, led by twenty-year-old student and Ukrainian immigrant Volodymyr Kolychev, convened a second event. Its focus was the creation of a plywood replica of Trump’s hypothetical wall in the South Park Blocks, a public reserve that runs behind the university campus.
Unsurprisingly, this artless provocation was carried out by a group made up exclusively of young men. One told journalists that the wall, and Trump himself, were ‘ending thirty years of cuckoldry the country has been subjected to’. Following a newly established pattern, politics was recast as masculine sexual humiliation.
The group wore all the paraphernalia of the alt-right movement: red ‘Make America Great Again’ caps, merch from Alex Jones’ infowars site and even Vladimir Putin T-shirts.
When they moved their protest to a more central public space at Pioneer Courthouse Square, a teenager challenged them.
‘Trump sucks!’ he mocked.
‘He’s saving your country,’ came the reply from a burly Trumpist. ‘You want to live in Mexico?’
As I write, Donald Trump is president-elect. Despite being confronted almost weekly with a succession of scandals that conventional wisdom saw as candidacy-killers, the Republican base rallied to his standard. Since Clinton’s campaign failed to turn out millions who voted for Obama, that was all he needed.
Trumpism – a joke not a year back – is now America’s ruling ideology. There’s no sign, so far, that Democrats are interested in crafting a new, more progressive agenda to address the resentment that Trump has traded off. Rural America, the rustbelt, and the great swathes of America away from the glittering coastal cities needs radical economic and social solutions just to survive – and they are only getting those from the right.
Clinton and the Democrats seemed content to try to electoral majorities in spite of white-male anger. They failed. But even if they had not, it doesn’t take a majority to cause trouble, to target scapegoats, to forestall progress.
In 2016, right-wing white men showed how far they are prepared to venture outside the lines of ‘civility’, the liberal-democratic table manners that populism sets itself against. It’s hard to see how, in the short term, this will be wound back.
Countless young conservative men have been socialised in this political moment. After this, how can they possibly be turned into dutiful, buttoned-down young Republicans?
The right’s strategy, since Nixon, to encode its racial appeals, to screen its economic agenda with appeals to faith and family, seems to be in ruins. Trumpism has made all subtexts explicit. In the process, an injured white-male identity has become politicised, and returned to the centre of the political world. Without some alternative, like class consciousness, these wounds will continue to fester. Traditional masculinity seems at odds with the requirements of a new economy, and immigration will inevitably render them an electoral minority. Trump’s prescriptions for fixing this are piss and wind, but he won because he talked about it at the right volume and pitch.
Explanations of this crisis of masculinity from the alt-right fringe (scientific racism, organised misogyny, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory) will continue to have an affective charge and the frisson of forbidden knowledge; the kind of trouble that elections can’t dispel.
Unless political and economic orthodoxy is successfully challenged, unless a political project is found that unites white men with others whom the economy has cast aside and ground down, anything that allows them their insouciance, their swagger, and what they imagine to be their freedom, will continue to exert an attraction.
Don’t take my word for it. You can see it in their faces.
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