Red State Rebels: Smoke Without a Fire?

If Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?  was fodder for a progressive movement desperate to explain their lack of electoral success in the American Heartland, Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, edited by Joshua Frank and Jeffrey St. Clair, was its hopeful response. If you identify as an Antifa freegan living in rural Kentucky, this book will appeal to you. If you are, however, looking for a more well-rounded perspective, you will be sorely disappointed. Red State Rebels is far from a holistic account of “grassroots resistance in the heartland.”

When I opened this book, I expected a digest of radical activity from all sides of the political spectrum. It quickly became clear that, by “Red State Rebels,” Frank and St. Clair meant the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. This is a book about only one shade of rebels—pacifists, environmentalists, and anti war activists—fighting against their classic enemies.

Aside from a brief nod to Randy Weaver and various secession movements, nary a word is spent on the colorful variety of Middle American rebels. Constitutionalists, anti-abortion protestors, Alex Jones devotees, 9/11 truthers, militiamen, sovereign citizens, and others are conspicuously absent. Their absence is made even more conspicuous because in Frank and St. Clair’s introduction, they take great pains to portray their work as a non-partisan approach to the subject.

“Neither of us fit in the geo-ideological matrix contrived by the mainstream political establishment,” they write. “Neither do thousands of others, left, right and anarcho-libertarians, who reside in the forgotten midsection of the nation.” But including one essay on Randy Weaver does not help balance things out.

I have a feeling the idea would horrify this book’s contributors that men and women who dumped Hillary Clinton in favor of Bernie Sanders in the Midwest, who elected Jesse Ventura governor of Minnesota, who attended Tea Party and Occupy rallies, and shocked the world by electing Donald Trump president in 2016, are all part of the same Middle American rebellion against the status quo.

Despite the book’s claim that “out here activism isn’t for the faint of heart”, the various rebellious activities chronicled in Red State Rebels is hardly noteworthy. The book portrays a pacifist priest who was arrested for putting a flower on a nuclear missile silo as a martyr to the cause. Only a handful of essays address serious actions that threaten the status quo. The great prairie fire portrayed on the cover is revealed, on the inside, to be nothing more than a puff of smoke.

By portraying only traditional left wing causes as being worthy of attention in Middle America, Red State Rebels would fit neatly with the culture wars raging today. It is an interesting artifact of the waning Bush years, correctly prophesizing a rise in Middle American populism, but due to ideological blinders, couldn’t foresee in which direction that populism was headed.

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