If you’re an American, possessing any desire of living a normal life, this first week in January, 2021, had to shake you up. People being shot in the Capitol, law enforcement officers attempting to prevent the execution of members of Congress as well as the Vice President– all of it is more than enough to make your head reel.
Or at least mine — because I have dealt directly and indirectly with at least some of the membership of the Patriot Movement as a timber/environmental activist back in the ’90s. And when you’re worried about people killing you, then, well, you pay attention.
A few stories — I was involved with, and organized Forest Service roadless protection efforts across the ’90s, and into the ’00s. A good hunk of this work is profiled in my book, ‘Wild to the Last: Environmental Conflict in the Clearwater Country’ printed by WSU Press. The book was published in 1998, and still holds up today, in my opinion — though the events described in the book had a far more positive resolution than appeared possible when it was published. I did work across generic timber over-harvest issues, but my primary focus was preserving unlogged and pristine areas for eventual designated federal ‘Wilderness’ — what we call ‘Big W’ wilderness, that is protected by Congress from mechanized entry and management.
I have lots of stories, as this did not go down easily in many of the logging communities in northern Idaho, where the Clearwater National Forest is located. Decades of over-harvest had driven mill closures across the state, and when towns dependent on timber lost their money, they mostly had no easy economic transition. This was coupled with positively feudal politics (e.g. the one guy running most of the wood chip trucks was also County Commissioner of one of the counties we worked in, and there wasn’t a time when the scales were opened on the road) as well as some of the same conspiratorial stories that we are seeing now.
Coupled with brain drain from these areas, as well as reactionary politicians like Helen Chenoweth, an iconic “Wise Use” movement Congressman (she herself asked for that designation as a push-back against perceived political correctness) things got hot on more than one occasion. I can remember being at one hearing about roadless areas that the US Forest Service had been hosting in Coeur D’alene, Idaho. We had set up outside the door, on the sidewalk — myself and a handful of activists, mostly women that day– with our pamphlets and such. It had been a quiet morning, when suddenly a group of timber workers — loggers as well as mill employees — came rushing us in a mob, screaming that they were going to kick our asses.
I was, and still am a physically large man. It’s funny how there’s a natural organization that occurs in that kind of event. I turned around to the women, in the face of oncoming chaos, and yelled “Run!” which they did. And me, standing there dressed in my Carhartt overalls and jacket, stood there ready to fight — or really, get my ass kicked, because that was what was about to happen.
Except it didn’t. The Idaho Attorney General, Al Lance, who was tightly aligned with the screaming mob, started blasting them in a commanding tone, and that message was amplified through their leadership. What then happened was an amazing example of how conflicting people can at least come together. The leadership forced the much larger mob into a circle, and then allowed any member who wanted to stand in the center give their story. The theme was remarkable — most of the stories told by the workers resonated around the theme of “these environmentalists — they want us to be poor like them.” Quite a different change from the “environmental elites” wanting to deprive workers of their jobs. The chants grew louder for us to also stand in the middle of the circle, and of course, I did. But the most moving testimony was given by a young mother, on our side of the issue, who stood in the middle, with her baby on her hip. She spoke with the usual hippy pitch of loving Mother Earth. But then she turned and looked at them and said “But all of you are old. And we are young — and it will be our world soon.”
The Clinton Roadless Initiative, which protected essentially all remaining roadless areas, and driven by my friend, Steve Kallick, from the Pew Charitable Trusts, passed in the late part of Clinton’s presidency. So, at some level, we won. That victory, though, was to be one of the last real environmental victories the community has experienced — and that was in 2001.
During the whole season of my more intense involvement with the environmental movement — from a start in 1990 to 2002 or so, I watched the various militia, hardcore Christian Nationalist and Wise Use movements — the constituencies of what we would call the Patriot Movement, grow. Helen Chenoweth, whom I dealt with multiple times, was a full-on nut and a member of what is called the Christian Identity faith, that postulates that the Lost Tribe of Israel is actually a bunch of white folks that ended up migrating to Northern Idaho. All of it may sound wacky, and a lot of it was — Chenoweth herself was famed for her promiscuity, and her church had services where there was sections designated to “charismatic laughing” — where constituencies would laugh for an hour straight. None of it makes sense to those on the outside of these folks. But the roots are deep. Listen to Great Britain’s unofficial anthem if you don’t believe me.
Chenoweth (she’s now passed away — died in a car wreck) was prophetic in more than instance about the expansion of the surveillance state, especially post- 9/11. And there were also real failures of governance at the time as well. David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, Randy Weaver and Ruby Ridge — all these crises help lead to Timothy McVeigh and the bombing of the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building. Many of the stories we hear now have persistence, though with new actors given larger roles. Some are more archaic — The Turner Diaries and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion comes to mind. And others transformed — for example, George Soros hadn’t achieved the prominence he has now, but the internationalist cartels still played heavily in the rotation of hits.
Yet strangely enough, even though I had my own life threatened multiple times, most of it seemed rational. Or at least less crazy. Timber workers actually didn’t know much about the woods (loggers more because they at least drove around in the forest for their jobs) and couldn’t appreciate that most of the places we were fighting to save had little timber left to harvest anyway. A huge part of the crisis was brain drain. As the more enterprising and evolved folks moved out of the towns to seek other opportunities, that left a leadership void. And while I might not like the various conspiracy theories, at least most of it made sense. I was an anti-logging activist, after all. Death threats were, to some level, part of the game.
But they never developed into much. There’s kind of an unspoken rule in the woods, that made most of that so much hot air. We were both (at least the loggers and me) back in the woods together. You didn’t broach that line of hurting someone in the woods — because then it could happen to you.
The other point which is becoming far more clear to me in the current crisis is that even only 25 years ago, we were organized around geography. I lived in Pullman/Moscow, and worked on timber issues in North Idaho. The first chapter in my book is titled ‘A Sense of Place’. Our coalition of groups all had names, mostly dedicated to the place they were working to preserve, such as The Wild Swan Coalition, on the Swan River in the Flathead Valley.
What that also means is that information concentration, and establishment of myths was modestly constrained. If you wanted to believe the really crazy stuff, you had to find people of like mind to share your stories with. And for North Idaho, that meant either living on a Neo-Nazi compound outside of Hayden Lake, or attempting to connect with other pagan neo-hippies and apocalyptists in the woods outside of St. Maries. None of it was easy, and people would likely argue about the truth. You don’t find massive network builders living in small communities in the Intermountain West. You move there to get the hell away from everyone — not necessarily find friends.
And that affects the concentration effects of populations. There’s a great analogy in Kenneth Stern’s prescient book, “A Force Upon the Plain” that talks about the concept of a recruitment funnel for extreme activities. There’s a stack of radicalism on the Right, starting with the large, fundamentalist churches, such as the Pentecostals and Nazarenes. Beneath that might be Full Bible/Christian Literalist churches. Below that were the Christian Identity folks, that then fed the militia members, or sat co-jointly with the Neo-Nazis, or other radical right Pagan movements. If the funnel was wide enough at the top, it would squeeze down enough people, and rage, so that a Timothy McVeigh would pop out the bottom. It was (and actually remains) really a probabilistic numbers game.
There were all sorts of dampers, even in that funnel of crazy. I remember one apocalyptic cult that decided it wanted to wait for the Second Coming up around Dixie, Idaho, where the Cove-Mallard civil disobedience campaign had been held. Dixie sits at around 5000′ in elevation in the Northern Rockies, which means that it’s 10 months of winter and 2 months of mighty late fall. And those two months probably had lots of black flies. Inevitably, these types of cults had men and women, and sometimes families. But they would never last, at least up in places like Dixie, for more than two years. The women basically wouldn’t put up with it. If you’re going to wait for Jesus, it was far better to do it in a place like Moscow, that at least had a couple of grocery stores and a decent shopping mall. Proof of that is self-evident in the success of Christ Church, a Full Bible Church founded by Doug Wilson, a local pastor who writes revisionist history on the Confederacy. He even has his own college now — New St. Andrews.
All of this has made me realize this important truth. What is going on with Trump and the riots at the Capitol is really nothing like what I experienced. And the dynamics must be re-thought.
I’ve talked pretty extensively on my blog about trauma, and how it changes perspectives. It’s mostly positive if you recover from it. The one thing it does is gives you far greater range of experience, and potentially empathy, if it doesn’t kill you. But there are drawbacks as well. I have to admit I did not see the Trump/Capitol riots coming at all. I thought we’d get out of the Trump years with a whimper, not a bang, and even wrote a conciliatory op-ed piece here about Donald Trump and voting choice, that ran just days before the Capitol takeover.
How I managed to miss this has caused me reason to reflect on my own thought process. The short take is that when dealing with these ersatz ‘Patriots’ in the past, one of the rules of thumb I follow is that if someone’s saying they’re going to do something illegal, like kill you, they’re extremely likely to NOT do it. Anyone threatening me at a meeting with the standard “I’m gonna kill you” was really just attempting to intimidate me. Actually killing you would involve anonymous phone-calls and hang-ups (I got a number of those) and a bullet from nowhere. I was also younger, and just didn’t worry about it. Often the news focus in the various Wise Use organizations would target the wrong organization as being responsible for a given advancement in environmental policy. If they couldn’t even figure out who was behind a given lawsuit, or timber appeal, who really needed to worry about those folks?
And there’s the final part of my own development I’ve also had to ponder. I’ve had an incredible life, with highs and lows. But part of having trauma in the background (and there are studies that have been done that validate this) is that one can develop kind of an Ultimate Survivor’s Syndrome. Bad stuff may happen. But it takes more to get on one’s radar screen. And until that happens, your brain just figures it will handle it. After all, you’ve made it this far.
What I’ve noticed is that my developed perspective from those times is far less relevant now. People are saying crazy things. And, unlike the past, people are DOING crazy things. I believe that the majority of people that stormed the Capitol last Wednesday did it as part of some bizarre demonstration, or “theatre of overthrow” with no real hope of having a coup where Trump would be reappointed President. But there’s enough evidence now that I’ve seen that a more coherent minority had murder on their mind. And denying that is in no one’s interest — especially the persistence of our nation.
What changed, as I’ve written about earlier, is how our organizational methodologies have changed. As I said above, if you wanted to be part of a hard-core anti-government group in the ’80s and ’90s, you had to go to the compound. The organization was geographical, and inevitably involved hardships. One of my mentors, the original back-to-the-woods liberal hippie, Leroy Lee, lived in a tee-pee for years, carrying water half a mile up the hill from the well on his small property, outside the community of Santa, Idaho. Politics were distributed in predicting the apocalypse as well. There were still far-right and hardcore libertarians, but there were also more than a fair share of Lefties, like Leroy. None of the Instagram poseurs that took place in the Capitol riots would last more than a day up there on the mountain.
But now geography simply doesn’t matter. You can find your tribe online, from the comfort of your sofa. And that matters a lot. I’ve discussed before John Robb’s term of ‘networked tribes’ and he’s right. But the other reason that REALLY matters is now organization occurs through resonant views, on multiple levels, of individual’s value sets/v-Memes. That’s now the primary driver. You go to 4Chan, or 8Chan, or wherever, and you find your memetic tribe. The coherence generated is far greater than anything hashed out in a log cabin in a mountain – because if you don’t agree, you just refresh your browser and move on. In a real-life living situation, you have to deal with differences, even if they’re minute, in your immediate geographic community. Someone’s wife might not be so hot on driving all the way across the country and storming the Capitol. That disapproval serves as a necessary damping in the system, and limits the number of recruits. And physical cults, like the fundamentalist Mormon groups in places like Colorado City, AZ, are fundamentally far less attractive. Life is boring in those small communities, like they always have been. Everyone has to wear the same clothes, and so on. Reality intrudes, or as I would call it, validity grounding. You can’t create nearly as perfect a bubble as you can online.
My friend, Betsy Gaines Quammen has written a book, “American Zion” that talks in depth about the potential for violence in the current movement, through looking at the lens of the most recent of geographic seditionists — Cliven Bundy and his sons. She does an excellent job of profiling, in their case, their historic Mormon roots, and how they branched off from the more mainstream versions of that faith. They are both geographically isolated AND intensely wired into the memetic fabric of the current milieu. With big cowboy hats, and demonstrations/seizures like the stand-off at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside of Burns, Oregon, they are stage-playing the myths that spread into the online bubbles of sedition out there on the Internet, and until very recently, amplified through services like Facebook, Twitter, and Parler. (As I write this, Parler just got taken offline by Amazon, and there are implications there that are basically gone as well.) Betsy’s book is highly recommended for understanding the people generating the real-life myth structures that the modern movement most capable of violence is embracing.
But the problem is bigger than just Cliven Bundy and sons. Now that geography is really just a background set for Sedition Theatre, the real coherence building between individuals can occur exactly at the resonant v-Meme the individual has. What that means, especially in regards to Trump, is that not only can Trump send out signals to those individuals at an empathetic development state — all those people for whom Trump is living in their head rent-free — that enshrines the Magical Authoritarian v-Meme (“Make America Great Again” and by the way, I’m the only one who can do it.) Trump, as a relationally disruptive, empathy-disordered narcissist, can also connect with a subset of those folks who meta-think just like him. And that’s far more powerful. As I wrote in this piece, Value Sets/v-Memes serve as containers for thoughts — plug a couple of parameters into the outgoing information stream, and people assemble a far more complicated narrative, quickly and with extremely high coherence, of the intent. That’s how it works. Here’s a picture from Trump’s son, Don. Jr., Parler feed.
And when the empathy-disordered connect, therein lies a real problem. One of the questions researched in the standard psychological literature on psychopathy is the observation of the lack of a habituation response. For normal people, subject to basically any positive stimulus, regardless of how pleasurable it is, you get tired of it. That first scoop of ice cream you have, that first beer you open, tastes amazing. But as you continue to drink, each taste satisfies a little less. And in the end, you finish the bowl of ice cream, or put down the beer. Beer engineers realize this explicitly, and devote quite a bit of attention to how to make that last warm dregs taste passable.
But that’s not what happens with psychopaths. The habituation response is far less, if it exists at all. Murderous psychopaths hang the victim up and carve them up, seemingly inured to the screams of their victims. And all that input only fuels more behavior. When you put two empathy-disordered people together, they climb Jacob’s Ladder together — at least in the short term. The actions proposed are more surreal, the conspiracies more extreme. And that means that crazy, idle threats can actually turn into actionable items. Looking at the handcuff zip ties on some of the rioters’ kits should give everyone the willies.
Long-term IS different. Over time, psychopaths winnow themselves out of social networks, primarily as a function of fragmentation of the information stream, and people moving away from the disruptor. Most people need homeostasis in their brains. And that doesn’t come from having FBI agents knocking on your door and hauling you off to jail. Empathy in stable human systems on average at least stays the same, or increases. Civilizations and their edifices are primary exhibits. Collapse does happen, of course — but we wouldn’t have our advanced technological society without the concomitant average increase in complexity — and the empathy that created it.
There is real peril in dealing with this crisis right now. The fact that the Republican-controlled Senate isn’t begging for passed Articles of Impeachment for Trump right now is deeply problematic. Enough of them are hoping that the rage over the Capitol burning will habituate and fade. But a certain number of the empathy-disordered Senate are stepping forward to defend Trump. Even after the Capitol riots, Senators like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz continued with their pointless protest of the Electoral College vote. As Twitter friend Adam Townsend has said, “the spectacles will only get bigger in the Coliseum.” If there was ever evidence that this insight is true, it was with this continued nonsense.
The Left itself, though, is far from out of the woods in this whole debacle. Short-term, the institutions of this nation must stabilize the nation itself. And that absolutely means removal of means for organizing for outright sedition. But there are far too many opportunities for overreach in this situation, that appears simple, but is really complex. The Left has won the Culture War — and Big Tech has lined up behind the Left at this moment in time, essentially killing off the more extreme memetic tribes of the Right in one fell swoop. But that does not mean that all members of the Left are morally or scientifically correct about everything. Nor that these privatized social utilities, like Facebook and Twitter, will do the right thing in the long term. The moment may not demand complexity and nuance. But the long term governance most certainly will.
What will happen in the short term? It’s Sunday, January 10, today, and frankly, I’ll admit I have no idea. But I’ll tell you what we’re going to test — the robustness of the connections of the Right Wing’s social network, as well as the actual strength of compulsion to translate the more extreme and violent messages into action. Do they exist beyond the ephemeral nature of a Twitter post? Like it or not, we’re in a Memetic War of Ideas, that are translating increasingly into actions. And we’re running the experiment.