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Keep It Rural: Conspiracies and Extremism

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By Claire Carlson – Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Are Rural Communities Prone to Conspiracy?

This is a question I’ve asked myself time and again over the past year because of a dark hole of “research” (i.e., obsession) I have fallen into over cults, conspiracies, and extremism.

The obsession began with a story I reported last year on the election denial movement and has evolved into my current fascination with conspiracy groups in the American West, of which there are a surprising number.

During this time I’ve encountered a misconception that rural communities are home to conspiracists or cults more than cities or suburbs, which is just plain wrong when you look at the locations of conspiracy efforts and the homes of conspiracists.

Election deniers are a good example of this. One place where this movement has taken hold is in Arizona’s Maricopa County, population 4.5 million, where fraud accusations and threats to election workers have run rampant. County officials expect similar issues in this year’s presidential election.

Some rural counties have faced these issues, but as one rural county clerk told me, it’s people from the outside coming into their communities with questions about the efficacy of voting machines or mail-in ballots who are driving the movement in rural areas.

These people and organizations “don’t have anything to do with our local communities,” according to the Colorado-based clerk, but they’ve ignited a conspiratorial fire in some rural counties that have never before dealt with such accusations.

While the far-right conspiracy of election denial is not rural-borne, I’ve found that it’s become associated with rural places because of a conflation of rurality and far-right extremism.

Donald Trump’s alleged grip on rural America – as reported by publications like the New York Times and in books like White Rural Rage – has driven this misconception, even though far-right extremist efforts like the January 6, 2021 insurrection (which was encouraged by Trump) showed no greater participation from rural folks than urban or suburban.

Other actions, like the 2017 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, boasted people from all locales. These examples show there is nothing particularly rural about Trump’s America, but still, people wrongly assume there’s a connection.

A more complicated example of this conflation is embodied by the Bundy family, the current driving force behind a very particular flavor of extremism in the West.

This ranching family’s patriarch, Cliven Bundy, has evaded federal grazing fees for decades as his cows have roamed far beyond his grazing allotments into Nevada’s public lands, tromping across fragile ecosystems and sullying the smattering of springs and creeks that freckle this dry state.

Two moments in the Bundys’ checkered history have gained notoriety: the 2014 southern Nevada standoff between the Bundys and the FBI that lasted 20-some days, and the 2016 takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon led by Cliven’s son, Ammon Bundy, that lasted over a month.

In both instances, protestors from all over the country showed up in support of the Bundys. But at the same time, many locals eschewed any association with the violent occupations (and violent isn’t an exaggeration: in Nevada and Oregon, the Bundys and their followers showed up armed and ready to fight the federal government. One man – Lavoy Finicum – was killed by FBI agents during the Oregon occupation because he threatened the agents with a gun).

While the Bundys are pretty much as rural a family as you could get, they’ve appealed and appalled city and rural folks alike. What I’ve found interesting about them is that they exhibit a unique type of extremism that doesn’t perfectly fall under the Trump umbrella. The Bundys believe in a kind of libertarianism mixed with anarchism, topped with just a sprinkling of Republicanism. In 2014, Cliven Bundy changed his political affiliation from Republican to the Independent American Party.

Cliven and the rest of his family’s beliefs intersect with the ideology of the “sovereign citizen” movement whose members espouse exemption from U.S. law unless they consent to said law.

Cliven’s argument for his grazing violations is that he does not recognize the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) claim to Nevada, asserting that the land should belong to the state. When he first started evading the BLM’s grazing fees in the 1990s, he tried to send a check to Clark County, but they returned it with instructions to send it to the federal government. He spat at this suggestion and never paid the fees, which have since racked up to over $1 million.

Cliven is more anti-big government than anti-government, and in some ways I agree with parts of his arguments. But what I vehemently disagree with is how he’s managed to persuade, intentionally or not, his near cult-like following of mainly old white guys into thinking they can demand whatever they want by any means necessary. This isn’t healthy for anyone.

I tell you all this not just because I think it’s interesting, but because the Bundys risk representing a rural American who’s prone to conspiracy and distrust in the government.

While these characteristics can be true of rural communities, once you dig deeper into the followings of the Bundy clan or the election deniers or Unite the Right and other far-right groups, you find that there is nothing particularly rural about any of their conspiracies.

As good as this is for rural representation, it also illuminates an alarming truth about extremism: conspiracy can fester in any and every part of the country, in any and every person. That’s what I find scariest of all.


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