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I set off on my cross-country drive
The United States felt different from the last three times I drove across country in 2013, 2014 and 2017. I know that sounds vague. Where I live in California, I regularly interact with all sorts of people: black people, Muslims, Jews, Latinos, white suburbanites, university students, and same-sex couples walking hand-in-hand. Having live practically my whole life on one of the coasts, I am less familiar with GOP country, the fly-over states. I don’t think of them as more monocultural than where I live, but most of the Midwest and South strikes me as more siloed (read: segregated) than what I’m used to. The most exposure I’ve had to the fly-over states has occurred on or near interstate highways.
By the time I reached Hudson, NY after 12 days on the road, my perspective of the U.S. had not only changed since the last time I crossed it but, this time, I had the feeling I was crossing the frontiers of countries I hadn’t noticed in the past and now realized I didn’t know. In fact, when I finally got out of the car on Warren Street, Hudson’s charming and very expensive commercial center, I could tell right away that beyond this town’s limits lay yet another country, one that had more in common with the stretch of rural Missouri I glimpsed along I44 than it did with the visitors from Brooklyn looking in the shops along Warren Street.
I felt, rather than saw, the change in the rest stops, gas stations, and motels I stayed in, although they were most visible on a greater number of car bumpers and billboards than I remember seeing in July, 2017, six month into a new and scary administration. I sensed that my California license plates and probably my clothing gave me away as a — what? The vibe I picked up felt, I don’t know, different. Few people smiled or nodded hello. While waiting for Billie to relieve herself on grassy patches at rest stops, I noticed a man looking at my license plate as he walked by. Maybe I was imagining it all.
I set off from Davis on a weekday with my navigator aimed at my first overnight stop, Bakersfield. I took CA Highway 99 South down through the Central Valley, the parched, sun-damaged core of California. Feed lots, tawny Sierra foothills, industrial plants, villages with houses in poor repair, and the desert lined my route. No one looking at a time-lapse video of the scenery thus far would associate it with coastal California. The state I was driving through now was its own country. And a more crowded one in comparison to the sparse traffic I drove on my last trip. I was astonished that the traffic was moderately heavy the whole way from Sacramento to Bakersfield, a distance of 278 miles.
After a forgettable night in a motel, I took Interstate 40 to Barstow, close to the Arizona border. The sunlight in the Mojave Desert was so blinding that it made my tinted sunglasses seem clear. Beyond Tehachapi, I saw in the distance what looked like a private airport with many 747-sized airplanes painted taupe, no commercial or military markings on their fuselages. According to my navigator map, it wasn’t Edwards Air Force Base, still some miles ahead. Later, I figured out that it was the Mojave Air & Space Port, home to air carrier storage, the National Test Pilot School, and the Stratolaunch T-Hanger, whatever that is.
Further up the road, Barstow appeared, looking more like a train yard than a small city. Freight trains moved in all directions. One seemingly endless line of train cars carried hundreds of armored personnel carriers. Where were they headed? I wondered.
I didn’t stick around long in Barstow. The “Let’s Go, Brandon!” and vicious anti-Hillary bumperstickers, and the pro-MAGA signs were not encouragements to stay. On my last trip through, I wouldn’t have thought much or expected differently in a city dominated by a nearby military base. This time, the insurrection of January 6th was in the Zeitgeist.
The memory of watching on TV the storming of the Capitol came back to me. In particular, I remembered noticing some insurrectionists in US military gear making their way up the Capitol steps in a coordinated fashion that seemed planned. It occurred to me then to wonder how many servicemen and women had been radicalized since 2016. The same question came to mind now, as large trucks with outsized wheels powered past me in the fast lane. When I reached the motel, I opened my laptop and searched.
In 2021, the number of extremists currently serving in the military was thought to be low, although the definition of “extremist” deployed by the investigators was a little fuzzy. One study devised a method that counted the number of convicted criminals with military backgrounds who attributed their motives to political, religious, or social beliefs, or for whom there was evidence of their support for extremist groups.
Approximately 15% (120 subjects) of the individuals who have been charged for participating in the Capitol breach on January 6, 2021, have U.S. military backgrounds.
The same study made the point that the average number of servicemen or ex-servicemen charged with extremist crimes has risen from 6.9 in 1990 to 28.7 since 2010, but the biggest jump in the numbers occurred between 2020 and 2021. It’s clear GOP extremist rhetoric activated some men and women who were either serving or had served in the military. How many more supporters of the insurrection are there in the services? It was a small consolation that maybe I wasn’t completely paranoid.
I had hoped the first two days of my trip would extract me from the stresses and annoyances of my familiar routine. It certainly did that. But instead of easing me into America’s heartland, I understood that I was driving into the maelstrom of the post-January 6th world.
Michael A. Jensen et al. “Radicalization in the Ranks: An Assessment of the Scope and Nature of Criminal Extremism in the U.S. Military.” January 17, 2022. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, University of Maryland. Found at https://www.start.umd.edu/publication/radicalization-ranks.