California won’t rebuild every rural town incinerated by a fire. As resources shrink and priorities change, the risk of far-right violence will grow.
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It’s hard to explain just how much some people in rural California dislike and distrust the rest of us, especially Gov. Gavin Newsom.
It’s not something hidden under the surface, and it’s not just the radical fringe. Drive up past Sacramento, and there’s a real sense among many that urban California has betrayed them, ravaged their resources and simply doesn’t respect or value their way of life.
It can even be found in the politically mixed town of Greenville, which burned to the ground during last year’s Dixie fire.
The Stars and Stripes flew at its recent Gold Diggers Day celebration, held in a decimated downtown ringed by the skeletons of fire-blackened trees. But just below it was a State of Jefferson flag, the symbol of the anti-government separatist movement with racist undertones that would like to see everything north of Sacramento become its own territory, free of “King Newsom,” as some around here call him. Not far away, a Confederate flag caught the evening breeze.
Ken Donnell, a musician and inventor originally from Los Angeles, lost a business and a home to the Dixie fire and is in the process of rebuilding. He’s a hippie with the heart of a dreamer. But he’s not blind to the problems that plagued his beloved little town before the flames — faults that are growing back, perhaps even faster than the homes and trees.
“There were a lot of divisions within our community pre-fire,” Donnell told us, standing by a portable bar at the festival, wearing a flamboyant red cowboy hat that set off his blue eyes and black fanny pack. “It’s the drama and beauty of life in a small community. We all know each other way too well, and so we learn to live with those things.”
There’s no denying that the extremist turn of MAGA Republicanism is flourishing throughout the state’s pastoral parts. As climate change worsens, water gets more scarce and the land becomes hotter, drier and harder to live upon, this discontent could very well metastasize into violence. That’s especially true if California uses financial leverage to discourage rebuilding fire-destroyed towns and encourages rural denizens to move to more defensible places.
Experts who track domestic unrest are raising these concerns. It’s not just the two of us. Ignoring that growing fury is just as dangerous and foolish as ignoring the rising temperatures themselves. In both cases, there’s a tipping point where it becomes impossible to turn the heat back down.
Brian Hughes, a founder of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University, warns that “an awful lot of radicalization and extremist propaganda works because it finds a reasonable hook.”
It’s natural to be livid when you lose something dear, he points out. Extremists are already targeting these vulnerable communities with paranoid answers about how to save a sacrosanct way of life, Hughes said.
Donnell has heard conspiracy theories about Jewish-controlled space lasers and tales of government officials who want to burn people off their land as part of a socialist plot.
Alexander Reid Ross, an extremism expert at Portland State University, points out that, in the American West, antisemitism has long married itself to an anti-governmental cowboy ethos — a combination that has become supercharged and mainstreamed as MAGA Republicanism has mined the discontent for converts.
“They all believe that the U.S. government has been captured by Jews,” said Ross, referring to the West’s extremists, who say they have an obligation “to restore America by destroying the federal government.”
Even those without extremist goals are fed up enough to defy authorities and regulators.
Many blame their woes on liberal policies — such as bans on extensive logging or maintaining stream flows for endangered fish.
This summer, some ranchers and farmers in nearby Siskiyou County went rogue, ignoring state orders to stop taking water from rivers to irrigate their fields. They claimed they had legal rights to the flow and were mad at what they perceived as a “rules for thee, not for me” attitude from authorities, especially Newsom.
This rebellion was cheered on by Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), a Trump Republican who represents a large chunk of Northern California. He issued a statement lambasting the “dictatorial whims of the State Water Board” and a “systemic attempt to destroy farming and ranching in order to run the people off their own land.”
He encouraged “anyone to stop ‘voluntarily complying’ with government looters.” His spokesman later clarified that the congressman was not advocating rejecting laws, just an end to negotiating and turning off the taps without a court ruling.
Wildfires have also brought out that mutinous streak, with the far right posing as alternative protectors and a substitute authority.
During a recent fire in the Pacific Northwest, militia members set up armed roadblocks, claiming they were working to prevent so-called anti-fascists from “looting” businesses and homes. Another militia turned up at a fire near Yosemite National Park, ostensibly to offer aid.
At the Bear fire near Oroville, a Times reporter ran into members of the Three Percenters — an extreme-right group whose leaders allegedly collaborated in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — passing out hot dogs, water and their business cards.
Reid Ross expects that more and more communities in the rural West will embrace a go-it-alone attitude and gravitate toward those selling the message that “it’s us against them.”
If those feelings of impotence and isolation continue, history provides brutal lessons about how extremism has exploited the ideal of living off the land, and how it could take deeper root among those who believe they enjoy an inherent right to natural resources.
Adolf Hitler made “blood and soil” the slogan of German Nazism, romanticizing an agrarian life fueled by white Christianity under attack from outsiders.
Not so long ago, in 2017, marchers wielding Tiki torches shouted the ugly phrase in Charlottesville, Va. The mass shooter in El Paso who targeted Latinos in 2019 spouted eco-fascist propaganda, as did the Buffalo, N.Y., shooter who targeted Black people in a supermarket this year.
Eco-fascism is on the rise in the United States — seizing upon the misery of rural communities and harnessing their pain to further a dark narrative.
At the same time, climate change is triggering waves of global migration, adding to religious and racial intolerance. Our new eco-fascists hate dark-skinned immigrants, especially the imaginary hordes seeking to overrun the country with illegal Democratic Party votes.
A White House report on climate migration said that extreme weather displaced more than 21 million people between 2008 and 2016. Just this summer, floods displaced 33 million Pakistanis, even as China sees unimaginable drought and Iraqis flee their parched farmlands.
The United States and California are not immune to that upheaval, though we seldom think of climate refugees within our borders. But floods, fires and hurricanes cause tens of thousands of temporary evacuations every year, displacing people from homes, jobs and schools and making them more susceptible to — or victims of — extremist propaganda.
Despite resentment toward Newsom, Democrats and government in general, all those fire victims rightfully feel entitled to our help, and they deserve it. They’re Californians in trouble. But we need to rethink what that “help” looks like.
Any hint that the state may change the ground rules — refusing to pay to rebuild burned towns or encouraging people to move out of dangerous areas — will surely be met with outrage, though. Keep your money and keep your rules is a popular sentiment in rural California, even as local politicians seek emergency declarations from Newsom and President Biden to ensure that government funding will flow to their communities.
It’s that mix of hypocrisy and rage that leaves politicians including Newsom hesitant to push too hard on the unpopular truths of climate change. This is, after all, a place where some believe human-caused global warming is another lie created to steal what is rightfully theirs.
But the difficult truth is some grievances aren’t conspiracies, or extremism. Though many will deny it, California politicians have too often given short shrift to poor places that are largely agrarian — favoring the needs of more diverse, urban places where votes and money reside.
That makes even Donnell feel that the future of Greenville may be a “bitter pill to swallow.”
Towns like his will largely need to fend for themselves as environmental disasters reach “biblical scales,” he says. He envisions self-contained communities that he calls “arks,” bobbing in a sea of dystopian catastrophe, abandoned by government.
But the answer to a brutally warming planet can’t be merciless anarchy — a “Mad Max” world of takers and losers.
As climate change forces hard choices, we must decide how to treat neighbors who don’t particularly like us — and whose views we may not particularly like — but who until now have been easy to ignore because they are largely powerless to stop our majority rule.
The big question, says Donnell, is “are we going to work together and cooperate, or are we going to fight over these dwindling resources?”
Extremists have an answer.
What will ours be?
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.