I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last week, wearing Carhartt jeans and a bright-red gimme cap in the mezzanine of the Renaissance Hotel. But when he moved into the light, I saw the initials on the cap: RNC (Republican National Committee). Far from being the ghost of a martyred union organizer, Charles Curley turned out to be a Wyoming operative for the American Lands Council, a group that seeks to transfer the vast acreage of public land in the West from the federal government to the states.
Curley was first drawn into Republican politics by Barry Goldwater’s crusade in 1964, and his subsequent cause was to legalize the private ownership of gold. Describing himself as “a right-libertarian,” Curley carefully distanced his group from Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, last year’s poster boy for defying federal authority, whose history of racist comments eventually rendered him unready for prime time. “Bundy has a very different legal theory than we have,” Curley said.
A disciple of anarchist Murray Bookchin, Curley explained his current campaign in strategic terms: “I just see a huge, overbearing federal government, and this is something where we can maybe bring ’em down a peg. The advantage of getting in on a new issue is, you get to frame the issue.”
Which may be why, in the three days I spent hanging out with GOP activists here, I heard so little about poverty, or economic insecurity, or climate change, or police brutality, or racism, or anything at all about foreign affairs apart from Israel (good!), Iran (bad!), and Greece (the last stop on the road to socialism!). South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley even managed a lunchtime speech in which she recounted the events leading to the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol—and was warmly applauded for her declaration that “this flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of South Carolina”—without ever mentioning race, an issue as old as the country.
Instead, I saw a party at war with the culture, but seemingly at peace with itself. This is a party that lost presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, failed to reverse Roe v. Wade despite decades in power, failed to repeal Obamacare, and has just seen same-sex marriage declared the law of the land by the Supreme Court. Rather than mourn, the Republicans have organized. “The reason we can do so well in the House and in the Senate,” Sean Spicer, the GOP’s chief strategist, told the delegates at the RNC Summer Meeting, “is because we have created a party that is taking care of people almost from the student-government level.”
This was no idle boast. For every delegate like Greg Schaefer, a Wyoming GOP official who is also a vice president of Arch Coal, the second-largest coal company in the country, or Sharon Day, a Fort Lauderdale retiree who started out as a precinct captain in 1994 and is now cochair of the RNC, I saw swarms of well-fed, well-dressed, shiny-faced young Republicans cruising the hotel corridors—and one another—like freshmen during orientation week.