Perhaps no sight could be stranger during a pandemic than 250,000 maskless motorcycle riders roaring into Sturgis, South Dakota, last month, ready to crowd into stores, concerts, strip clubs and bars.
Stranger still, however, is the fact that, although some local residents pleaded for the rally to be canceled, city officials couldn't do it. Riders had pledged to come to Sturgis whether they canceled the rally or not. "You can't cancel what you don't own," promoter Randy Peterson explained, implying that the rally belonged to its participants more than to any authority. On Fox News, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem encouraged attendance in the name of "citizens' freedom" and reminded viewers that the rally brings in revenue — lots of it.
In truth, the rally should have seemed anything but strange, given its association with right-wing populist politics. As a veteran political reporter told me in 2017, "I am not sure everyone (at the 2016 rally) supported Trump, but they sure as hell didn't support Clinton." In fact, the conservative politics of the rally and its attendees goes much farther back than Donald Trump's election and demonstrates that rather than inventing them, Trump merely benefitted from his unapologetic reproduction of the cultural ideals long on display in Sturgis and throughout the United States.
South Dakota's right-wing populist political history began in the 1970s with a local version of Trump: attorney general, two-term governor and future member of the South Dakota Motorcycle Hall of Fame, William Janklow. Along with promoting the rally, Janklow's legacy includes saying that the way to stop the leaders of the American Indian Movement was "to put a gun to their heads and pull the trigger." In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain campaigned on the rally's main stage. In 2018, former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin rode a Harley in the rally's charity event.
But modern Republican politics, even Trump-era politics, can't fully explain the rally's larger cultural significance — why the riders believed, for example, that it belonged to them, not the city or state. These deeper meanings lie within the history of the American West as a whole. The Sturgis rally occupies land stolen from indigenous people in 1877 when the discovery of gold and the racist ideal of "manifest destiny" accelerated the assault on Native lives and culture.
One of the rally's most iconic locations, Bear Butte, is also among the most sacred to the Lakota. This is not a coincidence. As Boston College's Heather Cox Richardson argued in "How the South Won the Civil War," during Reconstruction, the West became a new location for structures and representations of white nationalism. The West then as now was never really the "far" west, never the mythic democracy of white imaginings. It was quite nearby: the northernmost region of the South.
The South's constitutive impact on the West explains the panoply of Confederate-themed items at the rally: flags, posters, bikinis, tattoos and Southern rock bands. It suggests too that the nearly all-white demographic is not an oversight but part of the recipe for the rally's success. So is the performance of violent anti-feminism reflected in the ability for riders to "conceal carry," the prevalence of sex trafficking and flood of near-pornographic and degrading images on social media.
Some riders argue that Sturgis is not "real life" but a week-long bacchanal. As social historians have long noted, however, the liberating atmosphere of events like this can reveal something profoundly real: what revelers wish they could say and do wherever they are.
In anticipation of a Joe Biden victory this fall, pundits have been full of ideas for a post-Trump GOP. In The New York Times, columnist David Brooks proposed that, if the GOP can reject racism and get over its "anti-government zombie Reaganism," it can thrive. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin replied: "The technical term for that" is "the Democratic Party."
The view from Sturgis suggests, however, that whatever the future for Trump, hoping for fundamental change on the right is a waste of time.
The GOP can't cancel what it doesn't own. For decades and perhaps years to come, Sturgis is the center of the GOP.
Catherine McNicol Stock is the Barbara Zaccheo Kohn '72 professor of history and American studies at Connecticut College. This was distributed by Tribune Content Agency LLC.
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