Where Stewart Rhodes Got The Idea To Overthrow the US Government
and some news about WATERGATE: A New History
Welcome back to Doomsday Scenario — first a funny story: Monday afternoon around 3:30 p.m. I was sitting working in my hotel room and got a text from Evan Smith, the longtime editor of the Texas Tribune, “Congratulations!” My immediate thought was, “For what?!” As it turned out, and as other texts from journalist friends began to arrive, I learned that my book “WATERGATE: A New History,” had been stunningly named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History. Never for a single iota of a fleeting thought in the last year had I considered WATERGATE Pulitzer fodder, and so I was absolutely floored.
The Pulitzer judges called WATERGATE, “A comprehensive analysis of the country’s best-known political crime, a finely-crafted synthesis of multiple sources into a comprehensive account that is engaging, humanizing and funny.”
If you’re not a close student of publishing, “Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize” is one of the very few awards that actually make it to the cover of a book — along with honors like the National Book Award, the Booker Prize, or the NYT’s Ten Best Books of the Year — and so here is the new cover of my book, as of this morning:
My favorite reactions to the news, though, came last night from a reader on Twitter:
Now onto the real reason for today’s newsletter: I want to share the latest episode, out today, of my podcast LONG SHADOW: RISE OF THE AMERICAN FAR-RIGHT. In the first four episodes, if you’ve been listening, the series tells the “historical” story of the modern far-right: the evolution and groups through the 1980s, the landmark events of the 1990s — Ruby Ridge, Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing — and, in last week’s episode, the rise and transformation of conservative media and its slide into conspiracy theories. The final three episodes, beginning today, focus on what you call “modern times,” tracing the evolution of the moment that changes everything: America elects a Black president in 2008.
Barack Obama’s campaign and his ultimate election turbo-charges the militia movement across the country — triggering both the racist wings, who saw again America as a white country slipping away, and the paranoid, who feared a Democratic president would come for their guns. Obama faced so many serious death threats even as a candidate that he was given Secret Service protection earlier than any other candidate in history.
Much of that hatred and anger was fueled by the right-wing media ecosystem of Fox News, talk radio, which had spent the 2000s super-charging the backdrop of American Hate and engaging in vile displays of Islamophobia — including repeatedly referring to the candidate and president by his middle name, Barack Hussein Obama, and fueling conspiracy theories that he was born in Kenya — a claim particularly endorsed and flamed by a New York real estate tycoon (recently found civilly liable for a sexual assault) who used these “birtherism” controversies to attract attention.
Today’s episode of LONG SHADOW tells the story of when Obama’s administration collided with the question of western land rights in a series of escalating showdowns in Nevada and Oregon—events that led in very direct ways to the January 6th showdown at the US Capitol and events that turned the right-wing militia movement into what it’s become today, a free-range, self-directed patriotic security force.
Here are the episodes on Apple and Spotify, or find and subscribe wherever you get podcasts:
The Land Nobody Wants
In the urban east, it’s easy to live most of your life without bumping up against the authority of the federal government. Sure, air traffic controllers are keeping watch over your flights; USDA inspectors are watching over the meat you eat, and EPA inspectors are checking your drinking water is safe, but it’s hardly a daily presence in most urban Americans’ lives. Out west, it’s different — the federal government land holdings are vast and an agency that most Americans have never heard of, the Bureau of Land Management, often has a vast say over your daily work.
East of the Mississippi, the federal government owns less than five percent of land—and it’s usually land that we feel good about as a country, mostly national parks and forests that are widely appreciated and recognized. Out west, though, nearly half of all land from Colorado and New Mexico west to the Pacific is owned by the federal government. In Nevada, it’s actually over 80 percent — roughly 56 million of the state’s 70 million acres — and Utah and Idaho also both have more than half of their land owned by the US government. Much of that is preserved for public use, overseen by the BLM, which is one of the least known and most controversial agencies in the US government.
The BLM is part of the Department of the Interior, and altogether oversees a quarter-billion acres of public lands — that’s one-eighth of the entire country. It’s work is almost too enormous to comprehend. It’s the modern-day successor of what was originally called the US Grazing Service and the General Land Office, and today manages 221 wilderness areas, 27 national monuments, countless scenic rivers, and historic sites; it handles about 18,000 grazing permits and 63,000 oil and gas wells on public lands, and oversees wild horses and burros across ten western states. And it does all of that with an annual budget of just $1.3 billion, about what the US government spends on the Pentagon every 14 hours.
There’s almost no way BLM can balance everything it’s supposed to think about. The challenge of our democracy is that our government is supposed to balance us all — and out west, that means balancing widely varying needs of environmentalists, outdoors enthusiasts, hunters, ranchers, mining companies, native tribes, and future generations. It’s a task that falls to the BLM and one that the bureau has carried out with widely varying levels of success.
Though the bureau has more than 10,000 employees, it has just a tiny police force of its own — about 250 law enforcement officers, a mix of uniformed wildland rangers and special agents charged with investigating crimes.
Over the years, many people joke that BLM gets the land no one else wants — and indeed a huge chunk of the land that the BLM oversees is the Great Basin — which stretches from the eastern side of Oregon and Idaho down through Nevada and Utah into the northwest of Arizona. The name comes from the fact that there’s no outlet for the water that falls there, no rivers that empty down to the ocean — it’s a corner of the country settled by white people in the late 1800s long before state boundaries drew artificial lines on the map, one with a shared culture of ranching and individualism, heavily Mormon, heavily conservative. It’s a hard place to make a living from the land.
And it’s this corner of the country — and this government agency — that serves as the backdrop of our LONG SHADOW episode this week. The battle over public lands out west and the federal government’s support — or lack there of — for farmers and ranchers has long been one of the biggest flashpoints in the far-right extremism.
In today’s episode, we tell the story of a moment in 2014 and 2016 where ranchers and the militia movement — including a group called the Oath Keepers and a guy named Stewart Rhodes — team up to lead what ultimately are not one, but two armed uprisings against the US government, uprisings that — consequentially — are not only unsuccessful but go largely unpunished.
Last Friday, the Justice Department asked for a 25-year prison sentence for Rhodes, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy — a charge just under treason — for his role in the January 6th insurrection. I hope you’ll listen to this week’s podcast episode to hear where Stewart Rhodes first got the idea that you could stand up to the US government — and win.
PS: Apropos of literally nothing, I wanted to share this New York Times Magazine article from 2021 about what it’s like to spend time with the last two white rhinos on Earth. My paper “to be read” archive of Sunday NYT Magazine archive, like the ever-accumulating New Yorker, stretches back years of well-intentioned future reading — and I finally read it this particular issue while traveling this week, along with a couple 2022 issues of the New Yorker, and found it incredibly thoughtful and moving.