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for people who care about the West

The movements produced by rural white scorn

From the Bundys to the State of Jefferson, resentment from disempowered white communities is growing.


Earlier this month, a judge in Las Vegas dismissed a case against Cliven Bundy, two of his sons and a militiaman, all of whom were on trial for their part in the 2014 armed standoff against federal agents in Nevada. For Bundy, who earns a living as a melon farmer and cattle rancher, the mistrial proved what he and his cohorts had said all along, that the federal government doesn’t have authority on the public lands of the West.

In truth, that ideology holds no more water today than it did three years ago, or three decades ago. Rather, the trial was botched, according to the judge, by the “flagrant misconduct” of federal authorities. Bundy and his supporters walked, and they won’t be retried. He still owes the federal government more than $1 million in grazing fees, and his cattle are still grazing on public lands in Clark County, Nevada. He left the courtroom grinning under his cowboy hat, as one of his entourage hollered, “Let’s go breathe some fresh air, brother!”

It was a strange moment, and our associate editor, Tay Wiles, was there. You can read her reporting from Las Vegas in this issue of High Country News. The mistrial came as we were finishing the issue, including the cover story, which Wiles also reported. In that story, Wiles looked into the renewed vigor of a separatist movement in Northern California. In this red corner of a blue state, Wiles found a restive group of Westerners whose chief complaint is that of political under-representation, a sense that has only grown stronger amid California’s liberal “resistance” to the Trump administration.

Both of these stories, which took place more than 700 miles apart, reflect a dangerous undercurrent: the simmering scorn of rural white America, which is feeling increasingly disempowered in this cultural moment. The Bundys, the Jefferson separatists, and a wide swath of working-class whites feel left out of the conversation, as national policies, cultural changes and global markets leave them behind. Their resentment helped bring Donald Trump to power, gave the Bundys a form of legitimacy and coincides with the more dangerous movements of white supremacy and white nationalism.

Editor-in-chief, Brian Calvert
Brooke Warren/High Country News

However, rather than dismiss the Bundyites and Jeffersonians out of hand, we might be better served, one year into the Trump presidency, by asking whether or not we are all in the same boat after all. If you are not one of the elite 1 percent that holds 40 percent of U.S. wealth, and if you are not represented by the corporate interests that dominate our politics, is it possible you have more in common with these folks than you think?