One of the ugly features of the new Trumpian Republican Party is the tendency to frequently and blatantly lie. Trump, according to fact checkers, averages 6.5 lies a day. To cover up, he twists reality in a way known in psychological circles as gaslighting. It is a practice used by narcissists, wife abusers and dictators alike. Trump says and does things and then denies it. But it is more devious than mere denial. As Frida Ghitis frames it at CNN, he lies then blames others for misunderstanding, disparages their concerns as oversensitivity, claims outrageous statements were jokes or misunderstandings, and otherwise twilights the truth. Now Utah’s Republican junior U.S. Senator Mike Lee is giving gaslighting a shot by attempting to make Utah’s much beloved public lands out to be a conspiracy for and of some mystery “elitists.”
In a June 2018 speech to the reactionary right’s Sutherland Institute he called “Honoring the Founders Promise on Federal Lands” (you can see the full speech here) Lee stands on his head and claims that our sacred public lands are for a private elite and in order to liberate the lands for the people they must be privatized.
I kid you not.
Lee starts his speech by making a tortured analogy of feudal England where the royalty “created private game preserves intended to protect wildlife and scenery for the exclusive entertainment of the nobility.” The public was forbidden on these lands. Somehow, Lee argues, today’s public lands are just like that. In Lee’s gaseous enunciation there is a nefarious, unnamed “upper-crust elite” that is behind the existence of federal lands where all the benefits “seem primarily to flow their way.” He is saying that protecting federal lands for the public is for the benefit of the few and that if we now transfer and sell off our public lands to a private few then, I dunno, somehow the founders would be honored. Notice how the gas begins to be emitted by suggesting that protecting wildlife and scenery is a bad thing. Then the full twist is made to say public is private. It is meant to make reasonable people feel crazy and disoriented long enough for sneaks like Lee to grab for the crown jewels.
What is Lee up to? I suggest there are a couple of things going on. Lee is a libertarian. The Koch brothers are also libertarians. The Koch’s are also world class oil and gas extractors and it would be immensely to their benefit and profit if they could get unfettered access to our remaining pristine public lands. So they employ libertarian rhetoric to turn Lee’s head. Not to mention copious amounts of Citizen’s United campaign funding to grease Lee’s palm.
Then there is religion. Lee, who is Mormon, has expressed sympathy for the Bundy clan’s brand of Mormon fundamentalism and zealotry. (The Mormon Church has disavowed the Bundy’s take on public lands.) Lee, in his speech, talks about Manifest Destiny somehow passing Utah and the West by. I keep saying “somehow” but that is what happens when trying to explain the twisted logic of gaslighting. Manifest Destiny was all about the forming of the West, it didn’t pass it by. Ask Native Americans if they feel passed over by Manifest Destiny. Run over is more like it. Lee talks about Manifest Destiny as though it is a desirable thing. Then he spits out words like “rustic cabins, craft breweries, and artisanal coffee shops” and “uninhabited vistas” like expletives.
Why the vindictiveness? In part, fundamentalist Mormons like the Bundy’s, and apparently like Lee, use the word “Zion” when they refer to the Intermountain West. The term Zion refers in this case to a promised new Jerusalem in America. They believe God meant for Mormons to have this land. Not the people of the United States. Combine religion with heated libertarian rhetoric and ample campaign funding, and you get Lee and his speech. Frankenstein comes to mind.
Lee goes on to say that the State of Utah’s enabling legislation promises the public lands of Utah would be sold off by the federal government. Gaslighting again. In fact the legislation says, no surprise now, just the opposite.
“Section 3, Paragraph 4. That the people inhabiting said proposed State do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof; and to all lands lying within said limits owned or held by any Indian or Indian tribes; and that until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States, the same shall be and remain subject to the disposition of the United States, and said Indian lands shall remain under the absolute jurisdiction and control of the Congress of the United States; that the lands belonging to citizens of the United States residing without the said State shall never be taxed at a higher rate than the lands belonging to residents thereof; that no taxes shall be imposed by the State on lands or property therein belonging to or which may hereafter be purchased by the United States or reserved for its use; but nothing herein, or in the ordinance herein provided for, shall preclude the said State from taxing, as other lands are taxed, any lands owned or held by any Indian who has severed his tribal relations and has obtained from the United States or from any person a title thereto by patent or other grant, save and except such lands as have been or may be granted to any Indian or Indians under any act of Congress containing a provision exempting the lands thus granted from taxation; but said ordinance shall provide that all such lands shall be exempt from taxation by said State so long and to such extent as such act of Congress may prescribe.”
Sale of the land by the United States is mentioned in the enabling legislation, but it is in the context of what will happen if any land “shall be sold” not promising that it will be.
“SEC. 9. That five per centum of the proceeds of the sales of public lands lying within said State, which shall be sold by the United States subsequent to the admission of said State into the Union, after deducting all the expenses incident to the same, shall be paid to the said State, to be used as a permanent fund, the interest of which only shall be expended for the support of the common schools within said State.”
Lee dishonestly takes the “shall be sold” out of context and infers a meaning that is not there. This the doings of a guy who would like to be on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lee uses his gaslight to say that because there are public lands rural economies are in the tank. The implication is that the only way rural economies can exist is by natural resource extraction which public land protection prevents. (It doesn’t.) He means land extraction activities like mining, logging, and public lands livestock grazing. But again, he uses hand waving as distraction as he seeks to pick the public’s pocket while simultaneously running rural folks under the Koch bros bus.
According the the 2018 Utah Economic Report to the Governor, all of agriculture plus all of natural resource uses plus all of energy and mining made up only 1.9 percent of Utah’s GDP in 2016. And that sliver of the economy is shrinking fast, down from 3.8 percent since just 2014. It is a lie to imply extraction is the only way for rural economies to thrive. It may have been in the 19th century but it is a highly backwards economic philosophy today. Lee, like most rural county commissioners, thinks tourism is a four letter word. And they discount all the thriving new rural business formed by the outdoor economy. The outdoor economy in Utah is much larger than all the extraction industries combined and is growing. Headwaters Economics out of Bozeman produces ample data showing that rural communities near national parks, forests and monuments are growing faster than those that are not.
The lies continue. The gaslight is used in Lee’s speech to additionally suggest that high housing prices are the fault of public lands. Utah is an urban state with 85 percent of its population in its metropolitan areas. That is because that is where the jobs are. Lee suggests a new sort of homesteading that would allow his fictitious 19th century pioneer, the one who was deprived of what Manifest Destiny should have made righteously his, to get some free land and thereby prosper. Forget that failed the first time. There is ample cheap land in rural Utah already. Adding more won’t lower housing prices in the metropolitan areas but would certainly send them skidding further south in ruraldom.
Homesteading was always a ruse used by the big political cronies, like today’s Koch brothers, to get cheap access to public resources. With this villainous, archaic suggestion Lee is obscenely marching to the orders of his paymasters.
Lee’s speech is so perverse it seems almost as if he were given the assignment by the Koch brother and their American Legislative Exchange Council to come up with a rationale for them getting their hands on our now protected lands. All he could do was get out the gaslight. He promises to keep at it for the long haul. Bears Ears decimation today, Zion National Park tomorrow.
Wallace Stegner spoke of hope for a culture in the West to match the scenery. Lee is working on the opposite. If he gets his way our splendid natural lands and vistas will be mined, logged, grazed and chained to an such an ugly state they could begin to match our current Trumpian culture.