I’ve written a lot about Nye County in recent weeks, and it occurs to me that some readers might wonder why.
It’s not that I’m obsessed with life in Pahrump, which isn’t so different from other small towns in Nevada. It’s because there’s a lot going on in Nye County that offers a Petri dish for those interested in understanding the Nevada Republican Party in 2021.
It wasn’t always that way. Nye County politics were once considered extreme, to the right of the right wing. Occasionally ethnically insensitive and at times outright bigoted remarks by some of the elected officials were roundly rebuked, but also written off by mainstream Republicans after considering the source.
Not so long ago, conspiracy theories didn’t pass for serious political dialogue outside of the Area 51 zone. That’s not true anymore.
The issue of mask wearing is one example. It’s not surprising to find the “No Mask Nevada PAC” headed by Melissa Blundo, wife of Nye County Commissioner Leo Blundo, or to find the elected official leading a misinformation campaign about the efficacy of mask wearing to slow the spread of infection.
What is startling is the degree to which that simple act of public service to the community – a standard health practice in use even during the great influenza of 1918 – has been contorted into a political hill to die for throughout the Republican Party. And the Blundos of Nye County are helping to lead the way.
The same holds true for Commissioner Donna Cox, who recently made news for her bigoted smearing of Nevada First Lady Kathy Sisolak. Setting aside the remark itself, which some members of her own party have repudiated, the larger issue is the commissioner’s publicly stated belief in a public meeting that the “New World Order” and UN’s thoroughly maligned intentions of its “Agenda 21” environmental sustainability resolution were coming to pass right before her eyes.
Outside the Republican mainstream, you say? Not anymore.
Americans’ undeniably changing demographics are making some Republicans members of a Paranoia Party, one willing to believe that the Democrats somehow stole the 2020 presidential election despite dozens of debunked and dismissed lawsuits, an endless audit in Arizona, and bold predictions about shenanigans in state after state, including Nevada.
Call Commissioner Cox an extremist if you’d like, but her conspiracy riddled beliefs would fit right in at this weekend’s sold-out 6th annual Basque fry in Gardnerville hosted by former Attorney General and Trumpian true believer Adam Paul Laxalt. Among the special speakers scheduled to appear: Anti-maskers Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, former Acting Director of National Intelligence Ric Grenell, and American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp, who helped Laxalt float Trump’s Big Lie about election fraud in Nevada.
Under DeSantis’s brand of leadership, Florida now tops the charts for COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. And, if anything, he appears proud of it. Late word of his cancellation for the Basque Fry must have left planners crestfallen.
It’s Cotton who lauded the dangerous decision of the Arkansas Legislature to pass a law that prohibits schools from requiring anyone to wear masks, calling it “exactly as it should be.” Even Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has admitted that he regrets signing the bad bill.
Meanwhile, leaders of major cities in Republican states are defying their governors and demanding mask mandates to help slow the surge that’s filling hospital ICUs beyond capacity. Here in Nevada, the GOP’s anti-mask menagerie continues. If anything, it appears to be becoming more entrenched.
For evidence that this is being played for all it’s worth, look no further than the recent increase of supposedly concerned citizens loudly protesting mask wearing in businesses and public schools as Nevada fights its own surge due largely to the spread of the Delta variant.
It was probably a naïve hope, but just a few weeks ago I thought it possible that the state GOP was about to put its adulation of Donald Trump in the rearview mirror. When a respected senior Republican influencer such as Sig Rogich speaks up and calls for the removal of state party Chairman Michael McDonald, that seems like a sign of coming attractions and changes at the top.
A few years ago, it would have been just that. Not anymore.
On Friday, the state Republican Party crowed about Chairman McDonald’s appointment to the membership of the 2024 Presidential Nominating Committee.
But there was also some bad news for McDonald, one that carries with it a slender ray of hope for those in the Republican Party who desire change from unadulterated Trumpism. Late Friday, District Judge Jessica Peterson granted a temporary restraining order in the Clark County GOP’s attempt to throw out last month’s specious election, when McDonald crony Jesse Law was “elected” county chairman. McDonald’s bullying may yet backfire.
Today the signs of the GOP’s dysfunction are increasingly clear, the party is quite comfortable with its conspiracies, and all roads lead to Pahrump.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal— “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. He is also the author of a new book, "Saints, Sinners, and Sovereign Citizens: The Endless War Over the West’s Public Lands." On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.