Chris Johncox wakes up under a Confederate Flag in his bedroom at his parents’ house in Prather, California, an unincorporated town of 1,600 people about 45 minutes northeast of Fresno. The first thing the 21-year-old does is pick up his Samsung Galaxy S7 Active from his bedside table to check Facebook. He scrolls through posts from people like Christopher Cantwell, a self-described anarcho-capitalist who has called for the killing of federal employees; Adam Kokesh, an Iraq War veteran and libertarian who plans to run for President in 2020 under the promise of an “orderly dissolution of the federal government”; and Lauren Southern, a 21-year-old cis woman who recorded a clip of herself changing her gender to male in a Canadian government office in protest of the country’s inclusive LGBTQ laws.
“I hesitate to associate with the alt-right because of the national socialist parts of it,” he says. “‘Alt-lite’ would be a better term.” Ideologically, he’s a libertarian. Politically, he’s a Republican. And sociologically, he’s a proud redneck.
Johncox aggregates some of what he reads on sites like Breitbart for Liberty Hangout and The Revolutionary Conservative, the two unrelated far-right news and opinion websites he works for. The latter he started in January with a Florida man legally named Augustus Sol Invictus who in 2016 ran for Senate against incumbent Senator Marco Rubio. Invictus lost in the primary, however, after his history as a pagan and lawyer for neo-Nazi groups was uncovered by the press. “[Voters] read some story that says he’s a Satan-worshipping, goat-blood-drinking white nationalist,” Johncox says, admitting that the stories are true. “In that script, he’s the bad guy.”
Although the traffic to his two sites pales in comparison to Breitbart or the Drudge Report, Liberty Hangout’s half-dozen staff writers have attracted around 500,000 total visits since January 1, or an average of 100,000 clicks per month. Without the internet, he doesn’t know how he’d do his jobs, which are still halfway between paid profession and volunteer vocation. “If I wanted to get into politics pre-internet times, I’d have to move to Fresno,” he says, chuckling. But now it doesn’t matter where he lives; his voice can be heard as long as he can log on. Never mind that his high school classmates ignore him, or that his siblings have moved away. Online, Johncox has found his calling and self-worth.
Some of his posts fit into the mainstream of the Republican Party — e.g., his criticism of California Gov. Jerry Brown for proposing a raise in gasoline taxes and his handling of the Oroville Dam failure — but Johncox also has proposed more radical theories (e.g., “Leftists are trying to normalize pedophilia”).
“The alt-right did not teach you that you should be ashamed of your heritage. Its messengers did not go on national TV and say ‘shame on you’ for your gender or skin color,” Johncox wrote on Liberty Hangout back in mid-February. “It saw the crucial demographic to win over was the white working families that the Democrats abandoned.”
Johncox sees the Trump administration as a chance to build a coalition that unites Libertarians and Republicans. “Libertarians in America would be wise to align with the right wing instead of shoving aside their would-be allies for hordes of Marxist vermin who lack even a trace of a libertarian bone in their body,“ he wrote in December.
As proof of his solid Libertarian bone structure, he’s currently taking business classes at Fresno City College, a 45-minute drive away, in hopes of becoming a tax lawyer to battle the IRS. “It goes along with my activism,” he explains. “I could have a great niche as the guy who saves people from the IRS.”
“Chris is no longer a diamond in the rough,” says John Kato, a middle-aged Libertarian activist who’s been something of a mentor to Johncox, working with him on the political campaign of Devon Mathis, a Republican assemblymember. (They also hang out — either at Kato’s house or to play the slots at the Table Mountain Indian Casino.) “He’s the face of the modern Libertarian movement.”
As his self-confidence grows, Johncox is gaining other influential fans, too. Kyle Chapman, a Daly City commercial diver now known as “Based Stickman” who gained notoriety after he wore a homemade paramilitary costume to fight left-wing protests in Berkeley, did a video interview with Johncox and the other writers of Liberty Hangout, after which the two met in person. The 41-year-old told Johncox he was the future of a movement that would fuse Libertarian and Republican politics with street violence. “The idea,” Chapman told Johncox, “is that we get you young men out on the street.”
An agricultural city in California’s Central Valley, Fresno is a three-hour drive to San Francisco and about an hour by car to the Yosemite National Park. Here, the fields swell with almonds, grapes and tomatoes, but unemployment is twice the state average. If this part of California were its own state, it would be West Virginia: beautiful, proud, left behind. Median household annual income is $41,000 in both, though the poverty rate in Fresno is almost double that of West Virginia.
The week that I drive into town, Breitbart draws its sights on a Fresno State history professor who tweeted that President Donald Trump ought to be hanged. The week after I leave, a mentally ill man shoots and kills three people at random.
“When Fresno comes in the national news, it’s for something embarrassing,” says Johncox, sitting in Velasco’s Mexican restaurant in Prather, where he cheats on his paleo diet with tortilla chips, red salsa and coffee.
Johncox wears a black and neon green ball cap with the letter V on it — it stands for the “voluntaryist principle,” a key tenet of libertarian philosophy. His beard is a little scraggly, and his eyes tired. He’s soft-spoken, solicitous and more than happy to explain his view of the world — and the people who inhabit it.
“A redneck knows they’re a redneck,” Johncox explains. “What you probably should avoid saying is hick, hillbilly or Bush Okie; I’m allowed to say those, but you’re not.”
As Johncox straddles the line between mainstream and the far right, so does the metro area where he lives. Fresno’s previous mayor, Ashley Swearengin, was a moderate rising star in the state GOP until a 2014 loss to a Democrat in the race for state controller. The region’s representatives in Washington include Devin Nunes, the Republican head of the intelligence committee who recused himself from its investigation of ties between Russia and the Trump Campaign after he was alleged to have improperly revealed classified information, and Tom McClintock, who while in the state legislature in 1992 wrote the bill that changed the state’s method of execution from cyanide gas to lethal injection.
Johncox’s family straddles the divide, too. He and his apolitical siblings were raised by Reaganite parents. Both siblings have since decamped, one to the University of Southern California and the other to, of all places, Berkeley, leaving Johncox behind in Prather. In part, it’s a generational story: boomer parents whose radicalism has faded over the years raising children who push their politics even further.
But, in Johncox’s telling, it’s also an indictment of George W. Bush. As a teen, Johncox lurked on the subreddit pol and watched Gamergate videos as well as reading books like Animal Farm by George Orwell and Freedom by Adam Kokesh. But he was more or less a standard Republican until the war in Iraq caused him to start questioning the foundations of mainstream conservatism.
Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, heavy on themes of non-intervention, fired up his imagination, and he’s gone on to work on campaigns himself ever since. Though he is registered as a Republican and works for the party, Johncox simply sees it as a mainstream vehicle for his Libertarianism. If he’d had his druthers, Johncox would’ve voted for Austin Petersen for president, the runner-up in the Libertarian primaries. He shifted to Trump only after the businessman made a campaign stop in Fresno last May to give a speech in which Johncox found that Trump’s talking points on jobs, immigration and water matched his own. In Trump, he’s found a president who gives a voice to his fears, frustrations and hopes for the future — even if he doesn’t always agree with him. That’s more than he can say for his home state: “The only things I think the state of California does for this region are bad.”
Johncox parks his hand-me-down red Mitsubishi pickup in front of an abandoned school as the rain picks up. He attended grade school here, but the district closed it a few years ago to save money. Out front, a wooden statue of a bear has started to disintegrate. “I didn’t like going to public school,” he says, as we walk through a gap in the fence. “I wasn’t a big fan of the idea that I had to conform to someone else’s schedule.” The plants are overgrown, but the classrooms still have desks, as if students will return tomorrow. He points past a line of trees, to a homeless camp and a rusting school bus.
Prather isn’t much more than a few roads in the hills, but on the way to the school, we pass many churches — Church of Christ, the Latter-day Saints, the Auberry Nazarene Fellowship, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans and Baptists. Johncox wasn’t raised religious, but he tells me that if it came down to a war between the Communists and the Christians, he’d be on the side of the latter. Beyond churches, there’s the Fresno Sheriff’s office, a mini-storage, dentist, karate studio, yoga studio, trailer park, tavern and grocery store. “We don’t have much,” Johncox says proudly, “but we have one of everything.”
At Sierra High School, the mascot is an Indian chief. (Every year, a Native American student dons a headdress to dance as the mascot at football games.) It’s spring break, so we wander the empty campus as Johncox tells stories. Once, he took second place in the Fresno Fair for raising a pig. Another time, he made $100 for DJ-ing the school dance. “I played a lot of hip hop — a lot of ghetto music. I played a lot of electronic, though, because I was into dubstep.” Dating, he mentions offhandedly, isn’t easy up here. He prefers to keep his relationship details private, but these days, much of his social life is carried out online, not in person.
The rain turns heavy and we hustle back to the truck, where Johncox comes to the heart of things. “I’m a strong believer in Western Civilization,” he says. This has been bothering me all day, so I finally ask him: What connection does he think there is between Aristotle and Aquinas and Prather? Just what is Western Civilization and what does it have to do with him?
For Johncox, it’s about tribalism. He thinks that the central error that liberals make is to assume that everyone is the same and that everyone belongs together. “I don’t buy into this idea that Europe is for everyone,” he explains. “Humans have their native communities.”
It’s hard, I say, for me to separate that idea from a defense of white supremacy. He bristles. “As soon as someone starts saying whitey is evil or minorities are lazy, I don’t like that,” he says. “I come from a multi-ethnic background — my grandmother is a Mexican immigrant. I’m not a big fan of the white nationalist thing, but white identity is a different thing.”
I tell him that it’s next-to-impossible for me to see how. “I think Africa has a right to its identity. I think China has a right to its identity. And Europe has a right to its culture,” he says with a note of frustration.
“You should have the power to be the master of your own destiny,” he continues.
I try a different approach, getting more personal. Johncox thinks that citizens in Europe or America are no longer their own masters — but what does he think about himself? I ask him if he feels like he is.
He starts talking about business regulations and state taxes. I stop him and ask again. “Those are important questions, but I’m not talking about the government. I’m asking about you. Do you feel like the master of your own destiny?”
No, he says, as the pickup truck rumbles along in the rain.
But he’s trying.