Edward Weinman: How did you come to specialize in the study of rural radicalism and domestic terrorism?
Catherine McNicol Stock: I’ve always been interested in the relationship of rural people to the federal government. My maternal grandparents are from Grand Forks, North Dakota, so I have clear memories of them talking about Franklin Roosevelt, the “communist who ruined America.”
EW: Is that why you wrote about the New Deal in Main Street Crisis: The Great Depression and the Old Middle Class on the Northern Plains?
CMS: My first book was about the ways in which people in the Great Plains responded to the New Deal. That framed what I’m interested in: people who have bought hook, line and sinker the idea of the pioneer west, that people are independent, self-reliant and the moral backbone of society.
EW: How did the rural populations respond to the New Deal?
CMS: A good example is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Little House on the Prairie series. People now realize the whole [series] is an anti-New Deal political idea. Very carefully, every time the [characters] talk about the government, they say something terrible, reinforcing this notion that people in small towns, pioneers, didn’t need the government, as they were self-reliant. That family was well known as hating Franklin Roosevelt. The books were written about the 19th century, but they were written during the 1930s, so it was the politics of the 1930s that influenced and formed how those books represented the past.
EW: What common denominators exist between the New Deal haters and the people in your book Rural Radicals: Righteous Indignation in the American Grain?
CMS: I wrote the book around the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, because it seemed to me that people didn’t understand that the angry-white-man-hatingfederal- government thing had a long history. [Today’s rural radicals] are white; they are men; and they live in the countryside. Those things are important identifiers. And, for the most part, they aren’t wealthy. They are the type of people who feel like the global economy does not recognize their value and that it’s now more and more difficult for them to survive.
EW: An armed militia took over a federal building on the Harney County federal wildlife refuge in Burns, Oregon, last summer. Do these radicals have legitimate political concerns?
CMS: In Oregon [they] were saying that the ways in which the federal government owns so much land is impoverishing rural people. They used as an example that there are a lot of people who can no longer afford to run their ranches, or even work on ranches because the wages aren’t high enough. They have county, state or government jobs, which have become the biggest employer in rural places, like high-security and maximum-security prisons. Government work is the last thing that they think of as real work; that’s not what they want to do.
EW: Is this type of militia violence—or the threat of violence—on the rise in rural America?
CMS: First of all, yes. The hate groups have ticked way up since 2008. Most of them, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, have reactions toward nationalism. But 2008 marks two things: the election of President Barack Obama and the collapse of the economy.
EW: Do you think this reaction towards nationalism and nativism has resulted in the rise of Donald Trump?
CMS: There are so many primary voters who either want Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, which doesn’t make any sense at all unless you listen to both of them talk about trade, or the economy.
EW: Trump supporters and Sanders supporters are completely different groups. For example, you don’t hear Sanders supporters asking for Muslims to be banned while polling suggests that those voting for Trump do want Muslims banned.
CMS: Both politicians give you people to [blame]. The support for the candidates depends on who you want to blame. If you think that the Clintons and their trade agreements, the Mexicans and the Chinese are the ones who destroyed your job, life, standard of living and your children’s prospects, you like Trump. If you think it’s the big banks, the bailouts and Wall Street fat cats, you like Sanders. Really, it’s globalization. It’s two expressions of the same problem.
EW: In The Oregonian, when talking about the standoff at the wildlife refuge, you said you saw similarities between the militia movement and Black Lives Matter. Can you explain?
CMS: In a sense, we’re talking about the fact that both groups want criminal justice reform and they want the federal government off their backs. Though they would certainly never see it that way themselves.
EW: The following argument is articulated by the Black Lives Matter movement: Armed militia takes over a federal building. They are white. The cops wait them out. However, police stop an African American in Ferguson or Baltimore and the African American ends up killed. Is this accurate?
CMS: I don’t believe the FBI is showing up and waiting because the militia is white. The FBI is saying, here are these groups, and we know what these groups have done in the past, [like the Oklahoma City bombing or the violence in Waco]. And what are the right tactics to use with these groups. Now, these groups are full of white people and so there are two ways of comparing it: how is the FBI handling these groups now as opposed to the 1990s, or how is the FBI or other armed wings of the state handling these groups versus African-American protestors? And that’s a really important question.
EW: It seems to me you’re saying the FBI is handling armed protests by rural radicals, and they have a different level of expertise than the local police who are responding to African-American protestors?
CMS: Right, for the most part that’s true.
EW: Why do militia groups trend towards violence whereas the Black Lives Matter movement is nonviolent?
CMS: It’s about their own cultural memories of what works and what is meaningful. Nonviolence is so important to the memory of the civil rights movement. If you want to remind white people about what parts of the civil rights agenda have not been completed, what better way to do it than using the same or some of the same tactics that the iconic members of that movement used?
EW: And the rural radicals?
CMS: Who makes up these militias? Black Lives Matter is multi-gendered, whereas the militia movements are very much about masculinity, about guns. It’s more about the individual man, his land, John Wayne and all of that kind of stuff.
EW: The Christian Science Monitor quoted you as saying, “If you don’t take people and concerns seriously, you’re missing a big opportunity to understand the whole culture and society that we live in, which includes places where 99 percent of Americans will never go.” Why should we care about the back roads of the American West?
CMS: You can hate all white nationalists, all of the people who want to get rid of Muslims and all of the people who want to build a wall [between the U.S. and Mexico], but there are a lot of those people. And you may not have ever met any of them, but that’s what democracy is all about. Everybody counts and everybody has one vote.