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Fire tornadoes formed in the Loyalton Fire near the Nevada border on August 15, 2020. (Courtesy of KateLynn Hewlett)

Peavine Peak, 10 miles from home and towering nearly 4,000 feet over the valley floor, has been fading in and out of visibility for weeks. Two miles to my east, the Sparks High “S” is only dimly visible through the constant blanket of smoke and haze covering my home. I remember a few years ago when the hill it’s painted on caught fire; the scars are still there.

Those of us on the east side of the Sierras are breathing easier than those on the other side. Our skies aren’t red — not this year, anyway. There are no evacuation orders here. We’re downwind a lot of suffering, but we ourselves suffer comparatively lightly. Compared to the half a million Oregonians who evacuated their homes on Friday, we are strangely fortunate. 

Even so, the haze, the smoke, the constant checking of the local Air Quality Index, the recurring smell of a distant campfire — they all add to the sense that reality is a little off, even more so than usual. 

This, at least in this part of Nevada, is not unusual — not anymore. 

There was the Rush Fire in 2012. The Rim Fire in 2013. The Thomas Fire in 2017. Everything in 2018. Each of these wildfires, along with several others barely large enough to merit names, have done their part to make Reno and Sparks feel like they’re nestled comfortably between Centralia and Mordor for at least a few days almost every year over the past decade. 2020, then, is no exception. It’s just like all previous years, only more so. 

Knowing all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again does nothing to lessen the seeming unreality of the situation, however. Knowing does not make the views to familiar landmarks any clearer. Knowing does not make the air taste any less like ash. Knowing does not moor one closer to objective reality, to facts on the ground, to the situation at hand. 

In Oregon, where the air is thicker and the fires are nearer, a scene straight out of The Paranoid Style in American Politics — a downright prescient essay from 1964 — is playing out. Surrounded by very real forest fires and increasingly toxic smoke, some residents are responding by sharing unhinged conspiracy theories about “antifa arsonists” and “looters out of Portland.” To counter these imaginary threats, some residents are preparing to defend their homes — homes that are far more likely to burn to the ground than anything else — from looters and vandals. Others, meanwhile, are setting up armed roadblocks (hindering evacuations as a result) to screen evacuees for the “terrorists” they’re certain lurk in their midst. 

Inside minds marinated in the paranoid style, it’s simply impossible for so much suffering and so much destruction to be the product of random chance. Malevolent forces must be targeting their families and their communities out for ruination. The alternative — that nature, individual actions, and random chance are frequently more destructive than any central plan — is simply too frightening to contemplate. 

Malevolent forces, after all, can be overcome. How do you defeat random chance? 

Stoking this style is our Conspiracist-in-Chief, a nuclear-armed crybully with a toddler’s comprehension of what the word “no” means and why it’s uttered. 

Running for re-election and perhaps needing Nevada’s electoral votes to succeed, he needs to motivate his base in Nevada to show up to the polls (since, per his instructions, they won’t vote by mail). Trouble is, he doesn’t draw a crowd like he used to, in no small part because his own office is recommending people avoid gathering in large groups for some reason.

The solution his team came up with was straight out of The Producers. They announced rallies which were guaranteed to get cancelled because they were designed to run afoul of the very same social distancing guidelines his office has promoted for months, then blamed Democrats when the inevitable happened. Just like that, his team was off the hook — if nobody shows up to his campaign rallies, that’s not because of the coronavirus, choking smoke from nearby forest fires, his increasing unpopularity or because his campaign team is a thinly disguised grift designed solely to enrich his campaign staff at the expense of credulous sundowning donors. It’s because those malevolent Democrats, led by Governor Sisolak, won’t let the President of the United States talk to his supporters in person. 

Of course, if Governor Sisolak actually had that power, the Minden-Tahoe Airport wouldn’t be hosting the “Reno” campaign rally, either. Last time I checked, Douglas County, for better or worse, still remains in Nevada. There’s no need for facts and logic, however, to get in the way of a perfectly good conspiracy theory which claims the most powerful man on Earth can be brushed aside by a former county commissioner. 

Trump, however, is not the only one blowing smoke to mask the unreality of his situation. 

During Labor Day weekend, the Strip got egg on its face when videos of several street fights between drunk casino patrons went viral. The problem? If you ask casino executives, who certainly aren’t trying to weave a convenient story to keep credulous investors investing, the problem is room rates were too low. Since room rates at the Wynn started with a one instead of, say, a two or a three or a five, the wrong crowd — “poor” people who can only afford $197 per night instead of the $319 per night the Wynn would rather charge — lost control of themselves (as poor people always do, of course — that’s why they’re poor, right?) and proceeded to wreck the place. 

There’s just one problem with that narrative — it’s categorically false. 

For starters, even though I never pay more than $100 per night for a hotel room, much less nearly $200 (special thanks to the El Cortez for making that easy when I visit down south), I am somehow able to contain my poverty-inducing animal spirits well enough to avoid getting in drunken brawls. In my experience, I am not particularly unique. Contrary to what the executives at the Wynn and the Venetian might wish to communicate to their investors, those of us unwilling or unable to pay a third of a month’s rent on a single night’s stay in a hotel room are not unwashed animals incapable of controlling our basest instincts after a single drop of Demon Rum crosses our bloodstream. 

The real problem the Strip faces, beyond some insultingly antediluvian and Dickensian attitudes regarding poverty and personal responsibility within its boardrooms, is not one of wealth or room rates. The problem the Strip faces is twofold. First, the sort of person who’s willing to visit the Strip in the middle of a pandemic is going to have a greater appetite for risk and lower impulse control — a reliable recipe for street fights, trashed hotel rooms, and mediocre rock music — than the sort of person who sensibly stays away from people while a pandemic is in the air. Second, there are categorically fewer people interested in visiting the Strip in the middle of a pandemic. Put the two together and you end up with predictably smaller, more belligerent crowds. 

The solution — for the Strip, for those organizing campaign rallies, and for those evacuating their homes — is to stop weaving attractive conspiracy theories and face reality. Neither poor people, Democrats, nor “antifa looters” are hurting our economy, closing our businesses, nor destroying our homes. A poorly controlled infectious disease, out of control fires on poorly managed public lands, and our far too flawed, far too human responses to those disasters are doing all of that on their own. The only way out is to face those problems honestly and directly and shove out of the way as forcefully as necessary anyone and everyone who gets in the way.

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].

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