In Rural Nevada, A Microcosm Of The GOP’s Increasingly Radical Local Politics
Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.
Oftentimes the extent to which the American population has become divided politically is expressed in the media by the results of public opinion surveys and the results of election contests. The wider the gap in political attitudes or the greater the difference in election results from one congressional district to another, the more substantial the polarization. In this context, there may be some benefit to our understanding of what separates Americans from one another in reporting a few recent cases of political developments in small-town and rural America.
I live in northern Nevada and these cases could not help but capture my attention. How representative these episodes are of other parts of rural and small-town America remains to be seen. They do seem emblematic at least of a wider swath of the population.
Lyon County is located to the east of Reno and Carson City. It has two larger towns, Fernley and Yerington, the county seat. In the most recent presidential election its voters went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump (69 to 28 percent for Biden). Mining, ranching, farming, and gaming are the major economic activities.
In July, Vida Keller, chairwoman of the county board of commissioners sought and later received the board’s approval for a proclamation to rename Lyon’s justice complex after the former president. Her statement to the board read in part, “Trump worked diligently to secure our borders to protect citizens of the United States and fully enforced the immigration laws of the United States, and … Trump ended asylum fraud, shut down human smuggling traffickers, and solved the humanitarian crisis across the Western Hemisphere.”
It is hard to understand what Chairwoman Keller had in mind by “solved the humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere” but the other part of her proclamation seems clear enough: Trump should be honored for keeping Mexican and Central American immigrants out of the US. Along with the sheriff’s office and jail, the Lyon County’s now Donald J. Trump Justice Complex includes district, municipal, and justice courts.
Lyon County commissioners are hardly alone in seeking to honor President Trump. For instance, a rural Virginia county commissioner and a Florida state representative suggested renaming a street and highway after Trump. The Oklahoma governor signed legislation to rename a state highway after the ex-president. What makes Lyon County unusual is that its county commissioners have decided to rename its justice center after a man who was twice impeached and who has been accused at least of attempting to undermine the American Constitution and the country’s democratic institutions.
Commissions in two rural counties, Elko and Lander, in the eastern part of Nevada also made decisions in the same political vein as their counterpart in Lyon. In June, and before cheering crowds, the bodies voted to join the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officer Association — each appropriating $2500 for lifetime memberships. Founded by Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff and presently a member of the Oath Keepers, the Association claims that county sheriffs have the ability to override decisions made by federal government agencies in their jurisdictions.
As a reporter for the Associated Press wrote, “The group believes county sheriffs have a duty to interpret and uphold the constitution that supersedes other elected officials up to the president. It is against federal gun laws and COVID restrictions and sees sheriffs as a final defense against government overreach.”
Elko county commissioners voted unanimously in support of the following resolution: “We maintain that no agency established by the U.S. Congress can develop its own policies or regulations which supersede the Bill of Rights or the Constitution [evidently forgetting the former is part of the latter], nor does the executive branch have the power to make law or set aside law.”
All this rhetoric is not simply hot air (although the resolution clearly contradicts Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution), but has had some practical consequences. Following the actions taken by the county commissions, a group of sheriffs from Elko, Lander, and Eureka counties vowed they would refuse to enforce any federal gun control legislation should such federal laws be forthcoming.
The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officer Association is not unprecedented. It harks back to the Posse Comitatus movement of the last decades of the 20th century. The radical right movement’s members threatened and, on occasion, employed violence in resisting federal law enforcement authorities when suspected of violating the law. Should we now expect more of the same?
Then there is the case of Douglas County. Located about 20 miles south of Carson City, Douglas is situated in a valley adjacent to the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Its voters are consistently among the most Republican-leaning in the state. Minden and Gardnerville are the county’s two major towns.
During the summer of 2020, when there were nationwide “Black Lives Matter” protests, the county’s library director wrote a public statement welcoming people of all racial and religious backgrounds to the facility and agreeing that black lives did matter. The Douglas County sheriff responded by saying neither he nor his deputies would react to 9/11 calls coming from the library. His refusal or stated refusal to enforce the at the library produced considerable local publicity.
Pro “Black Lives Matter” protesters from Reno, Carson City, and other close-by communities announced their intention to stage a rally in front of the Douglas library. When they appeared, they were met by a group of heavily armed men waving American flags and threatening mayhem if the would-be protesters didn’t leave Douglas County. Which they did after a few punches were thrown.
More recently, the librarian who issued the pro “Black Lives Matter” memorandum accepted a similar job in another state – after receiving threatening messages on various social media sites.
The town of Minden and its siren are also of interest. Beginning in 1917 and continuing well into the 1950s, every day near sundown sirens were sounded indicating it was time for native Americans to leave town. If they didn’t they were subject to arrest.
This practice has long since been abandoned. Nonetheless, Minden’s sole remaining siren continues to sound, located in the back of the firehouse, in the early evening every day.
Leaders of the local Washoe Indian community, the original targets of the siren blowing, objected to the continuing practice. Minden’s mayor offered a compromise. The siren would sound at a different hour than the original get-out-of-town time. The Washoe community did not accept this attempt at compromise. The siren continues to blare.
Observers might certainly argue that these recent episodes in rural and small-town Nevada are unrepresentative of the country as a whole. But I suspect they are far more representative than it is comfortable to admit.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.