Homesteaders, Libertarians, Back-to-the-Landers — They Adore Him. Can He Change the G.O.P.?
The self-styled “greenest member” of Congress is a Republican from rural Kentucky. He lives in an off-the-grid home he built himself, using timbers cut and rock quarried from his family cattle farm. He pipes in water from a nearby pond, and powers the home with solar panels and a battery from a wrecked Tesla that he salvaged and retrofitted.
But while he lives on, and even makes part of his living from, the land, very few people would call him an environmentalist. The car he drives back and forth from Washington has a license plate advertising his support for coal. He likes to lean on his experience as a robotics engineer to argue against precipitously switching over to renewable energy, claiming that rapid changes could crash America’s power grids. And he once mocked John Kerry, who has a degree in political science, in a congressional hearing on climate threats: “I think it’s somewhat appropriate that someone with a pseudoscience degree,” he said, “is here pushing pseudoscience.”
Mr. Kerry stumbled, visibly surprised and angry. “Are you serious? I mean, this is really seriously happening here?”
It was hard to say. From the outside, Thomas Massie can look like yet another congressional gadfly courting controversy by, for instance, introducing a one-sentence bill that would abolish the Department of Education, or posing for a Christmas photo with his wife and children, each of them holding a weapon, from an M60 to an Uzi, or speaking at the 60th anniversary celebration of the far-right John Birch Society.
But Mr. Massie is not just another loony G.O.P. backbencher. Outside the public eye, he has been quietly advancing what for a Republican politician are an unusual set of stances: evincing deep opposition to the national security state, resistance to the influence wielded by corporations and interest groups over our policymaking, and a sense that Americans need a better, more sustainable relationship to the land. It is a politics almost always built around the idea of scaling back, making systems smaller, simpler and more local. That’s an odd kind of politics for a Republican, or any major elected official, but it suddenly seems to have appeal even beyond the G.O.P.’s narrow base, and it has already made Mr. Massie the closest thing the party has to a cult hero lawmaker.
“I absolutely love Massie,” Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio told me recently. The conservative talk show host Candace Owens recently called him her “favorite congressman,” a description that I’ve heard a half dozen or so times in the past year or so. “After 30 years of interviewing members of Congress,” Tucker Carlson told me, “I expect them to be conventional bordering on stupid, because most of them are. Massie’s the opposite. He’s thoughtful and interesting as hell. I don’t know why he’s not more famous.”
One of the reasons Mr. Carlson seems to appreciate Mr. Massie so much is that he shares his skepticism of mainstream climate policy. Mr. Massie has emerged as one of the G.O.P.’s most dedicated critics of liberal climate plans. He wants solutions to happen at the local level, and often hints that powerful international forces — technocrats, multinational corporations and organizations like the World Economic Forum — are coming together to constrain the American way of life, to uproot our national culture in favor of a bland, globalized liberalism, and turn us into compliant and pliable consumers, easy to govern and control. It is a view that will do much in the coming years to shape not just fights over climate policy, but the future of American conservatism.
“Their plans are based on political science,” Mr. Massie recently told Mr. Carlson, of world leaders pushing mainstream climate policy.
Mr. Carlson agreed. “It seems like an intentional effort to drive down — dramatically drive down the standard of living for average people,” he said. “Why would they want to do that?”
“They want a lower quality of life,” Mr. Massie replied. “You’re gonna have nothing, and you’re gonna be happy about it, you know?” he said. “That’s their motto.”
A changing climate, a changing world
Climate change around the world: In “Postcards From a World on Fire,” 193 stories from individual countries show how climate change is reshaping reality everywhere, from dying coral reefs in Fiji to disappearing oases in Morocco and far, far beyond.
The role of our leaders: Writing at the end of 2020, Al Gore, the 45th vice president of the United States, found reasons for optimism in the Biden presidency, a feeling perhaps borne out by the passing of major climate legislation. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been criticisms. For example, Charles Harvey and Kurt House argue that subsidies for climate capture technology will ultimately be a waste.
The worst climate risks, mapped: In this feature, select a country, and we’ll break down the climate hazards it faces. In the case of America, our maps, developed with experts, show where extreme heat is causing the most deaths.
What people can do: Justin Gillis and Hal Harvey describe the types of local activism that might be needed, while Saul Griffith points to how Australia shows the way on rooftop solar. Meanwhile, small changes at the office might be one good way to cut significant emissions, writes Carlos Gamarra.
The Republican Party is in a moment of flux, which, in mainstream political media, is often simplified as a conflict between the party’s neoconservative “establishment” and Trump-aligned populists. But this factional division obscures a much deeper conversation over the future direction of the party. A debate has emerged over what it means to be a conservative party today. Many on the right have concluded that the Republican Party that embraced corporate-led globalization and wars abroad, without any apparent effort to stop environmental degradation, did not actually conserve anything about the American way of life Republicans claimed to hold dear. This has helped push politicians at the highest level of Republican politics, from Donald Trump to Ron DeSantis, to rail against “globalist” forces and institutions, the same ones Mr. Massie was winking at on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” The true conflict in the G.O.P. today is about whether the party can — or should — reshape itself in response to the antiglobalist ferment.
Thomas Massie, who passed along a polite note declining to speak for this article, will almost certainly never be president, and it seems unlikely that he even wants to rise to the Senate. In many of the unguarded interviews he gives to obscure homesteader or libertarian podcasts, he seems to dislike being a politician. He calls his farm “the Shire” and Washington “Mordor.” He doesn’t seem to think of himself as representative of a movement — unlike Mr. Vance, who lives just across the Ohio River from Mr. Massie’s district in Cincinnati, and who has proudly aligned himself with nationalists and populist critics of globalism both around the country and around the world.
But Mr. Massie’s lifestyle and brand of politics, the same brand that once marked him as a quirky outlier, have aligned with the current political moment — when many on the right and left are looking to pull back from the hyper-complex systems that govern the modern world, and move toward a more rooted way of life. Today, many on the right are even growing more boldly critical of the disastrous environmental effects of corporate malfeasance all around them, best seen in the outrage that developed on right-wing media over the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Mr. Massie’s politics are very much at odds with the interests of the Republican Party’s traditional donor class and leadership. But the party, torn between corporatist neoconservatism and inchoate MAGA, has faltered in two national elections in a row, which may explain why Mr. Massie seems to be drawing attention as an idiosyncratic voice for an alternate future of Republican politics. “There’s an energy around Thomas now,” said Jeremy Carl, a former official in Mr. Trump’s Department of the Interior, who has known Mr. Massie for years, “just like there was an energy around Trump.”
Mr. Massie is already anticipating a chance to wield more influence than he’s ever had. He supported the election of Kevin McCarthy as House speaker, despite their ideological differences, and people who know him well pointed out to me that, recently, he has been making nice even with more mainstream members of Congress, pulling back from being a “bomb-thrower,” as Mr. Carl put it. He now sits on the House’s powerful Rules Committee.
But even if he never rises further than that committee, he could still help shape the future trajectory of his party, grafting his unusual mixture of political stances into its DNA. His politics don’t really have a name. But there’s something a little Jeffersonian about them — as if Mr. Massie is channeling the third president, whom he often invokes and whose desire to build an America of small farmers and producers he shares. If he and his younger fans gain the money, influence and institutional backing to help shift the party in his direction, they may well reveal a conservatism capable of appealing to many now disillusioned by the party. Mr. Massie has already gained many supporters outside traditional Republican circles: neo-homesteaders, hippie back-to-the-landers, cranky libertarians and self-described “marginalized environmentalists.” They are part of a sphere that has grown quickly since 2020 — of people worried that our economy, environment and government are spinning out of control, and gripped by the fear that our society is becoming an unfree dystopia, ruled by bureaucrats and technocrats.
In this world, it’s as much Mr. Massie’s lifestyle as his politics that have won him fans. He grew up in the tiny town of Vanceburg, Ky., and went on to M.I.T., where his high-school sweetheart soon joined him. Together, they founded a virtual reality company while they were still undergrads. Mr. Massie now holds about two dozen patents.
They sold the company and moved back to Kentucky, beginning work on their off-the-grid home in 2003. “We wanted to raise our kids the way we had been raised,” he told an interviewer who filmed him for a 2018 documentary titled “Off the Grid,”whichhelped to make him a niche celebrity in an age when lots of people are suddenly getting into homesteading, prepping and do-it-yourself farming. They began work on their surprisingly stately house while living in a 900-square-foot mobile home, constructing it as much as possible with materials coming directly from land that had been in Mr. Massie’s wife’s family for generations. “I think there’s this notion that if something’s available locally it’s not as good, that it’s got to be exotic,” he said, while chiseling a piece of limestone. “I want a house that’s coming out of the ground and belongs here.”
He ran for a county office in 2010 as a disciple of the libertarian-minded Senate candidate Rand Paul, campaigning in part by playing banjo at local bluegrass jams. “I guess part of what endeared me to them is that I wasn’t that good,” he said. Both men won their races and Mr. Paul endorsed Mr. Massie in his first U.S. House race two years later.
Once in Washington, he alternately annoyed and endeared himself to members of both parties. He is loudly anti-abortion, despite his libertarianism. But he’s quick to denounce the military-industrial complex, and more than any other Republican in Congress, proved willing to join antiwar Democrats in trying to end American involvement in overseas conflicts. He voted against disaster-relief bills, but also introduced legislation to reduce some federal prison sentences and reform civil asset forfeiture. He fought to repeal the Patriot Act and introduced bills to allow for legalized hemp production and the sale of raw milk across state lines. He remained surprisingly independent of Donald Trump, who once called him a “third-rate grandstander,” and joined the group of seven conservatives in the House who — while voicing concerns about supposed issues with the vote — voted to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election.
As perhaps the G.O.P.’s most vocal opponent of Covid restrictions and vaccine mandates, he came off as a kook, to a national audience that largely knew little else about him. But his dogged vaccine skepticism and anti-lockdown activism endeared him to many young conservatives — like Catharine O’Neill, a 20-something veteran of the Trump State Department, who moved to Wyoming in 2021 to operate a cattle business. Mr. Massie is “the one who really fought the vaccines and the Covid tyranny, for lack of a better term,” she told me. “In some cases against Trump.”
Ms. O’Neill describes him as her ideal president, and views his seemingly disparate political stances as a kind of sui generis forerunner to a politics bubbling up among many conservatives of her generation.
The proposal that best shows his political vision is the PRIME Act, which would allow small farmers to process meat at local facilities, rather than at large slaughterhouses that have the funds to pay for a full-time, on-site, U.S.D.A. inspector. This offers a way to sidestep a meat production system dominated by an oligopoly of four gigantic corporations whose environmentally destructive, deeply cruel processes barely resemble the act of farming as we once understood it. It’s a small but real example of how at least some deregulation could help regular people exist closer to the land, a half-step or so freer of the corporate systems that order so much of our lives today. “I think that done right, regenerative agriculture can make a big difference,” Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez of New Mexico, a Democrat who signed on to co-sponsor the bill, told me. “We need to be smaller and for those small farms to be profitable.”
Ms. O’Neill was just one of any number of young, often eco-minded conservatives who were surprisingly willing to talk about Mr. Massie with me. “I find Massie compelling in part because he’s so legible to me,” said Micah Meadowcroft, an editor at the American Conservative who grew up in Washington State and half-jokingly calls his own political vision “Bison Nationalism.” “Growing up in the Pacific Northwest,” he told me, “skepticism of the federal government and corporate power went together with a desire to live at as human a scale as possible. That characterized all the conservatives I knew.”
Mr. Massie has “been very savvy about figuring out how to take his ideological and intellectual commitments and making them relevant for an audience that might not necessarily share all of them,” Mr. Carl said.
That audience, perhaps surprisingly, includes both conservation-minded conservatives and localist-minded environmentalists. “The sphere is basically people who are concerned about the state of society and looking for ways to thrive that don’t require widespread social, economic, or political control,” said Ashley Colby, an environmental sociologist and former long-haul trucker who now runs a sustainable agriculture school in Uruguay. Even some environmentalists, who until recently would have considered themselves liberals, have come to distrust large-scale systems of almost every kind — including, for many, the systems we would use to enact global-scale climate policy. Ms. Colby described them as “a coalition of moms who are frustrated with the school system, moms who don’t trust mainstream food, and it includes some of the Right Wing Bodybuilder types.” (The Right Wing Bodybuilders are a largely online community that sees local agriculture and natural lifestyles as a path to resist a supposedly oppressive globalist order.)
Some of these Right Wing Bodybuilder types — a growing and influential part of young conservative culture these days — are self-described racists, which points to a thorny problem in localist conversations these days: For a slice of the online right, building up local agriculture and a lifestyle in tune with nature goes hand in hand with a project of keeping the American landmass from being overrun by dark-skinned immigrants. Mr. Massie himself has never made much of the immigration issue, aside from the usual Republican pronouncements on hoping we “secure the border,” and I know of no reason to think that he is caught up in the nativist tendencies swirling around the online right today. But people often look at him and see what they want to see. “Massie is such a chad,” an anonymous small-scale rancher and well-known Right Wing Body Builder messaged me recently, using an online shorthand for a powerful, handsome male. “Please quote me.”
Ms. Colby, who does not consider herself right wing, has often been attacked online by people in the Right Wing Bodybuilder subculture. She discovered Mr. Massie by watching the “Off the Grid”documentary. “With Massie there’s this kind of Wendell Berry-style pride of place,” she said, referencing the Kentuckian novelist, environmental activist and farmer whose writings have become canonical American expressions of rootedness and connection to place. “This thing of, ‘I’m from this area, I built this home with stone that came from this land,’ ” she said. “That deeply resonates with people beyond a political level.”
“There is this lack of kinship and tie to place that people feel now,” she went on. Mr. Massie, she said, is one of the few politicians in America who can tap into that feeling.
The trouble for Mr. Massie, or anyone who believes in building an ecological ethos by getting Americans back to the land, is climate. Mainstream policymakers who believe that a calamity is imminent argue that federal regulations, corporate subsidies and huge global initiatives are the best way to reduce our reliance of fossil fuels. Mr. Massie disagrees with both the diagnosis and the cure.
In congressional hearings, he tends to express a strain of “climate realism,” that, on the right, has largely taken the place of outright denial that the planet is warming. In his view, we will need to keep exploiting America’s fossil fuels for decades to come, and the real reason to shift to renewables should be to make us “independent,” both on a personal and national scale.
Mr. Massie occasionally hints at criticisms that even environmentalists on the left raise. “Is my car greener because they mined some cobalt somewhere? I’m not sure,” Mr. Massie recently said. “I haven’t done the math.” It was a sly way of raising the possibility that a shift to “green energy” would do nothing to prevent habitat destruction, or to reduce the spiraling consumptive cycle that produced the climate crisis in the first place.
Mr. Massie has even opposed the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, a bill that would be a massive step toward conserving the hunting-and-fishing way of life that so many conservatives hold dear, presumably on the grounds that it involved too much government spending. And he has objected to plans like the Green New Deal for much the same reason. The implicit argument he is making seems to suit the corporatist wing of the Republican Party perfectly well: that mitigating — and preparing for — a warming planet is a burden Americans must shoulder as individuals. People who do not have the means to build an off-the-grid regenerative homestead will have to trust, as Mr. Massie does, that the predictions of “climate alarmists” are wildly overblown.
The truth is that a genuinely “green” future would require bigger shifts in our policy and way of life than either Mr. Massie or many global policymakers seem willing to accept. “The thing that gets talked about the least and that should get talked about the most is energy demand reduction,” the prominent climate scientist Peter Kalmus told me recently. He suggested that it will be impossible for “eight billion people on a finite planet” to build an ecological future while still maintaining our system of unrestrained material consumption.
This is something global leaders don’t particularly like to talk about, which has left debates to rage at the margins. Food politics is rapidly becoming a new dividing line. People in the localist sphere are now at bitter odds with prominent climate activists like the Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who advocates a “#farmfree” future where most of humanity’s food will be grown in labs.
This vision is exactly what many on the antiglobalist right fear to be the endgame of climate policy — a world where people “live in the pods and eat the bugs,” as the oft-repeated shorthand has it, and technocrats and bureaucrats force people to cram into dense cities, ban them from driving cars, and force them to eat food they have no power to produce themselves. “When people who would abort a baby the day it’s born, threw kids under the bus during the pandemic, take kids to drag shows, and saddle our children with crippling debt,” Mr. Massie tweeted in October, “tell you how to live because they’re concerned about sea levels in 100 years, hide your children.”
It’s a debate that cuts to the heart of American politics. Mr. Massie’s version of being the “greenest member of Congress” is an explicit throwback to a Jeffersonian vision — of America as a country of people who live and work close to the land, with minimal government interference and a maximum of personal responsibility for the future of the nation. It is also a vision of rugged self-reliance that has long informed back-to-the-landers on the left, but that many on that side of politics now regard as the most insidious of American political poisons, one that has made collective action on issues like climate change impossible to achieve in this country.
“If Thomas Jefferson could have had solar panels at Monticello, he’d have had solar panels,” Mr. Massie told the libertarian economist and podcaster Matt Kibbe in 2019. “The less you have to go to the store and buy, the less dependent you are on Walmart — it’s not just that you’re greener, but you’re more independent.”
“Independent, green, sustainable, frugal — those overlap,” he said. It’s a vision that combines libertarianism, environmentalism and antiglobalism into one lifestyle package. It’s also one with great appeal to conservatives who think that the systems that order modern life present as grave a threat to our future as a warming planet does. And on that warming planet, Americans may need to learn how to fend for themselves.
“Do they have solar panels on their house?” he asked Mr. Kibbe rhetorically, about liberal members of Congress. “I think maybe they’ve got some guilt. They know they’re not strong enough to do it on their own,” he said. “So they assume you’re not strong enough to do it on your own.”
James Pogue (@jhensonpogue) is a reporter who covers politics and land issues. He is working on a book about the State of Jefferson, a rural region spanning Northern California and Southern Oregon.
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