A few months ago, I talked about the pernicious ideas underlying a secessionist effort here in Oregon — the Greater Idaho movement — that aims to cleave the eastern part of the state to Idaho, and argued that a rancid white nationalism was an unacknowledged key to understanding its existence. More recently, Leah Sottile has written what should be considered the definitive critique of the effort, correctly identifying its racist and far-right roots and intentions, and providing bounteous evidence and context for its project.

As she notes:

“[L]ess attention has been paid to its underlying motives and how they fit into the Northwest’s long history of racially motivated secessionism. Over time, Greater Idaho has slowly revealed itself to be something of a poisoned apple: framed as a gift to discontented rural people, but actually a front for far-right culture war talking points, including racist ones.”

Among other critical points, Sottile reports on how current-day white supremacists are thrilled by the movement — a basic fact that until now has either not been reported, or has been severely underplayed, by more mainstream news coverage from the likes of CNN and the New York Times. But this is a crucial detail, and Sottile also provides a great history of previous white supremacist efforts in the Northwest to form what one modern-day observer describes as the pursuit of a “white ethno-state dream.”

Her reporting also makes clear that, contrary to the Greater Idaho movement’s own efforts to brand itself as vaguely seeking “freedom,” it backs a right-wing agenda and is fundamentally anti-democratic. Far-right expert David Neiwert captures the latter dynamic perfectly, telling Sottile that movement backers “don’t really want to put up with democracy. They don’t want to deal with the fact that if you want to have your position win in the political arena, you have to convince a bunch of people. They just want to take their ball and create a new playground.”

Worse, its alignment with far-right causes makes its bland self-presentation into a recruitment tool for extremism, a point made to Sottile by Gary Raney, a former sheriff in Idaho. This, alongside the under-reported white supremacism of the movement, shows the price that ordinary citizens pay when media institutions like CNN and the New York Times refrain from confronting the darker truths of such political efforts — they provide unwarranted cover for actors whose motives and goals are antithetical to an egalitarian society and to democracy itself.

Indeed, previous flawed reporting on the Greater Idaho movement demonstrates a larger inability among mainstream media to fully pick a side and overtly critique and expose what should be seen as glaring strains of white supremacism in American society. As I noted in my own piece about the Greater Idaho movement, the overwhelmingly white demographics of the Oregon counties attempting to join Idaho should have set off alarm bells for savvy reporters looking at the movement, even putting aside the long history of white supremacism-inflected secessionism. It is almost as if a taboo operates around the subject, the benefit of the doubt extended to those who either directly or indirectly advance white nationalist causes.

One glaring clue that this is a wildly insufficient and immoral approach is the fact that so much reporting on the Greater Idaho movement has been overly credulous towards the vague freedom talk of the movement’s supporters, while simultaneously glossing over the possible repercussions for non-white Americans unfortunate enough to be stuck in a de facto white nationalist state should the effort succeed. Likewise, most coverage has shied away from noting the loss of actual freedoms that would result, such as Oregonians losing the right to an abortion.

The reluctance to condemn white supremacist motivations for the abomination they are appears to be bound up with an inability to take a sufficiently critical view of those who claim to be lovers of freedom when they are actually nothing of the kind; a reluctance to look with clear eyes at the one seems linked to an inability to look with clear eyes at the other.

Oregon residents, as well as Americans more generally, need to take seriously the Greater Idaho movement — not because its chances of success are high (they are not), but because it is serving, as noted by those interviewed in Sottile’s piece, as a vehicle of division and as a Trojan horse for recruitment to the white supremacist and Christian nationalist causes. Based in claims of irreconcilable differences between those who live in eastern and western Oregon, it denies the actual diversity — political, ethnic, and religious — of the two regions while seeking to impose right-wing rule on a broad slice of the state.

There is also a lesson here regarding the operation of white supremacism — it requires some combination of complicity, indifference, and naivety from observers and the broader citizenry in order to thrive. In this case, this enabling has appeared through a willingness to accept the Greater Idaho’s movement’s talking points and to ignore the larger history that would give it proper context. Likewise, any legitimacy granted to the argument that eastern Oregon residents are simply different and have their own values they’d prefer to live by must contend with the way that many of those values contradict bedrock beliefs and rights possessed by all Americans, regardless of where they live.