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The Reality Beyond the Fringe
What Vanity Fair's peek into the dissident right misses
There’s a moment in Vanity Fair’s rollicking dive into the Western convergence of the far left and dissident right that I wish was lent more attention. At one point, the writer Walter Kirn, a Montana resident, is asked to react to a popular Substack piece entitled “There’s Gonna be a War in Montana.” The author of the piece, Isaac Simpson, argues that on “one side you have global interests imputing their values, importing cheaper labor, hollowing out Montana’s attractions and selling them to an international bourgeoisie for maximum profits.” On the other side, Simpson says, “you have the new underclass. Not friendly Christian country folk of times past. And not Cowboy Hat Republican Rancher Dad either. No, these are a new king of country person. Angry, exasperated, poor, Trump-loving service-workers—the Oxy takers, the meth cookers, the eaters of Chick-Fil-A. This group is acutely aware of just who controls Bozeman and Big Sky, and believe that the same people are coming for their territory. And they’re right.”
“If you listen, you can hear the two groups screaming at each other in silence, waiting for their very own Gavrilo Princip to spark this thing off.”
Kirn, the accomplished novelist and essayist—Up in the Air far outstrips its movie counterpart—who has become popular in online dissident circles, deemed the essay “immaculate bullshit.” According to James Pogue, the Vanity Fair reporter, Kirn suggested that it had been written to inflame liberal fears of a rural revolt. “But it had captured a moment,” Pogue states definitively, hurrying on from Kirn’s critique.
I wish he did not. Pogue’s reportage naturally drew much attention because it offers a window into the grandiose world of the far-right that conventional liberals, from a distance, will always regard with equal repulsion and allure, a kind of running scandal you can’t tear your eyes away from. Some of the usual characters shuffle through. There’s Curtis Yarvin, the avowed monarchist who first gained niche fame in the mid-2010s for his writings about Donald Trump, the would-be autocrat who could smash apart the hated “Cathedral,” the union of left-liberal media, academia, and federal bureaucracy holding down the Volk. Yarvin has been in New York of late, but he belongs, apparently, to this Western fringe too, along with Steve Bannon and Catharine O’Neill, a Rockefeller descendant who dwells in Wyoming. The “so-called dissident right,” Pogue explains, is a “world of thought where categories get scrambled.” Wealthy tech executives, racist bodybuilders, gun enthusiasts, and manic Twitter personalities mingle on Signal all day, sharing vague ideas about wokeness run amok and the terminal decline of American civilization. They all seemed to descend on the screening of Alex Lee Moyer’s film about Alex Jones, Alex’s War, and they drank and drugged together at the Urbit conference in Miami Beach. Some of them are de facto doomsday preppers, readying for a civil war that they believe is inevitable. They share left-wing critiques of corporate power, globalization, and predatory capitalism—country club Republicans come in for drubbing—but most of them, beyond Yarvin, haven’t given a serious amount of thought to the functioning political system they’d prefer instead. Many of them seem to be percolating out West, where a land-rush has made the rural frontier deeply unaffordable to everyone but the millionaire exiles from California. “The whole system is rapidly unraveling,” a town council member in Wyoming tells Pogue.
There is, indeed, a compelling socioeconomic story to be told here that is lost, inevitably, in the flashbang glare of the new politics. Pogue, in a single paragraph, mentions a Wyoming town with an “underclass of service workers, largely Latino, with little but cramped and irregular housing, a pattern now common in wealthy towns in the West and across the country.” The town council of Ketchum, the small Idaho city where Ernest Hemingway killed himself, considered legalizing camping in city parks to address their own housing shortage, Pogue reports. He doesn’t go any further. The piece jumps to a scene at the Jackson Hole Land Trust Picnic, “the most glamorous picnic on Earth.” And away we go.
What if Pogue had talked to these Latino workers? If there was a language barrier, Vanity Fair could have enlisted a translator. Here is where reality begins: with the laborers who keep this frontier society running yet can’t afford to be there. This is some of the rampant inequality the so-called dissident right is reacting to, with none of the apocalyptic glamour. The left and the right are both attracted, in their own way, to the idea of civil war; Marjorie Taylor Greene calls for a break-up of red and blue states and the Atlantic is happy to ruminate on it. An academic in Time thinks Trump can still lead America into a new civil war. If the talk is of disunion, it’s more remarkable, still, what can unite the relentlessly online far-right activists and affluent left-liberals: catastrophe chic. Are the Latino laborers in Wyoming and Idaho dreaming of civil war too? Or are they simply desperate for higher wages to afford a well-furnished apartment or, one day, a modest house with a backyard?
As a native New Yorker, I can’t claim to know the Great Plains, but I’ve spent a great deal of time in the rural Midwest because I have family there. I’ve driven I-80, shopped at Meijer, and swam in broiling summer lakes. I’ve hung out for months in counties that handed Trump healthy majorities in two national elections. What much of the media often misses, even now, is that most people simply do not care about politics. Voter turnout increased in the Trump years, thanks to the intense polarization of the electorate, and it may stay high for a while yet, but this does not mean the bulk of Americans are wandering around contemplating localism or Viktor Orbán or the Cathedral or imminent civil war. They’re getting up for work, raising kids, and maybe thinking about the start of baseball season, since it’s March. They’re not schooled in the lingua franca of woke or anti-woke. They’re not on Twitter and probably haven’t heard of Signal. They’re certain America will exist in 10, 20, or 30 years, and they’re probably right.
The best journalism attempts to grapple, most plainly, with reality. What are people thinking? What are they doing? It’s not that the dissident right shouldn’t be chronicled—it should—but there’s the greater context that must be underscored in accounts like these, written for prestige audiences: Montana and Wyoming and Idaho are a lot more than this. They are not on the brink of an unraveling. They are victims of a land speculation frenzy that has spilled out from a California housing crisis and the inflation of tech stocks in the first two years of the pandemic. The poor and working-class will be forced out of certain counties in these states, and that is a tragedy. It is not, however, a nation ripped apart at the seams or a nation spilling into the sea. It is not armed rebellion. It is not the stuff of which viral Substacks or glossy magazine features are born.