Last week, the New York Times reported that Erik Prince is considering running to represent Wyoming in the United States Senate. If he enters the race, he would be challenging Republican incumbent John Barrasso in the 2018 primaries, with the encouragement of Steve Bannon. Despite his having almost no ties to the state, it would be hubris to say Erik Prince couldn’t win a statewide election in Wyoming. All the reasons he seems like a bad candidate are precisely why he could win.
In case you’re fortunate enough not to know, Prince is a former Navy SEAL, founder and one-time CEO of the notorious military contractor Blackwater (now Academi), a current private equity investor, and the brother of Education Secretary and fellow billionaire Betsy DeVos. Prince is the most successful mercenary of his generation, and a member of one of America’s most powerful families. He’s widely known for his Christian crusader ideals and his shady dealings all over the world. And that’s without even touching on Blackwater’s infamous record in America’s wars.
To say that Prince—recently seen advertising the services of his mercenaries in the same paper that broke this latest news—is something like a “Bond villain” would be to lazily understate his influence. Bond villains operate on the margins of (and often in opposition to) the machinery of empire. Prince sits right at the heart of the American imperium.
I’m from Wyoming. I’d love to tell you Prince would lose; that he would need to be from the state, or to at least make some credible pretense of caring about its people, to win a statewide election. I’d love to tell you that Barrasso would certainly win, because of incumbency and the retail-politics, relationship-based nature of campaigning in a small, rural state. But I can’t tell you any of that. Erik Prince has a real shot for reasons that run far deeper than his access to limitless wealth and the assorted dark arts of Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer.
Wyoming’s economy has long relied on the boom and bust cycles of extractive industries. In the last few decades, perhaps no state has been so broadly dependent on fossil fuels. Despite the romantic focus of our political discourse on the coal miners of Appalachia, Wyoming has long produced more coal than any other state. In the early 2000s, advances in fracking technologies helped spur an oil and natural gas boom that lasted until very recently. Because of this, Wyoming didn’t experience the Great Recession with anything like the intensity seen in most of the country. Unemployment was low, the state suffered no budget or housing crises, and it became easy to believe Wyoming was exempt from any number of widespread national woes.
Except it wasn’t. Oil and natural gas prices bottomed out about two years ago. The state entered an ongoing period of economic and fiscal contraction, including big job losses. To an extent, everyone saw this coming. The state legislature socked away a “rainy day fund.” The lone university, the public school system, and other institutions had poured a lot of concrete when they had the chance. Wyoming had been through this before, most recently in the 1990s, and several times before that. It would stand to reason that Wyoming’s governing elite would face up to this bust and make sober plans.
But since this is America in 2017, and since Wyoming is the most blushingly crimson of red states, that’s not what has happened. In so many ways, Wyoming continues to look to fossil fuels for salvation. The evidence of this is widespread and arrives daily, often in the form of politicians reaffirming their support for extractive industries, but a few examples are particularly pointed. An “Integrated Test Center,” funded in part by a $15 million appropriation from the state legislature, will soon open near the hugely distressed coal town of Gillette, which last year lost almost 500 well-paid mining jobs in a single day. The hopeful new facility will search for innovative uses for coal in a global market that increasingly doesn’t want it.
That could seem like a promising idea, at least in economic terms, if it weren’t for the state’s track record of throwing good money after bad whenever anyone tells them they can find a new use for coal or natural gas. In 2016, energy company DKRW shelved a lavishly state-backed project that would have attempted coal “gasification”—the messy and inefficient process of turning coal into gasoline, a project most famously attempted by a fuel-starved Nazi Germany late in the Second World War. Undaunted by such setbacks, Governor Matt Mead has for years been trying (and failing) to woo state governments and native tribes in Washington and Oregon into greenlighting riverine transportation and the creation of new coastal terminals for Wyoming coal. The goal is to export to China, despite that government’s ongoing work to dramatically reduce the nation’s coal consumption. Even the Trump administration’s much-hyped end to the “war on coal” won’t make any of these ideas better. It’s not clear that even a dramatic change in leadership could wean Wyoming from its carbon fixation. The website for the legal firm of Mary Throne, the leading Democratic nominee for the 2018 governor’s race, proudly states that “oil, gas, and mining companies large and small rely on us.”
The saddest part of Wyoming’s refusal to confront a post-carbon future is that it has caused the state to do the literally quixotic: Tilt at windmills. Wyoming has perhaps the most extensive wind energy resources in the country. The state already boasts a fair number of wind turbines, and the world’s largest wind farm is currently being built in Carbon County. But while Wyoming continues to invest in fossil fuels, it has done something like the opposite with wind. Legislators imposed a severance tax on wind power, a move that actively spites increasing West Coast demand for Wyoming wind, and a measure no other state has taken. Across the board, wind has not received the elaborate and sprawling support—both substantive and rhetorical—that fossil fuels have always enjoyed in the state. That’s a shame, because if Wyoming has a future as an energy powerhouse, wind will have to lead the way. It would, of course, be even better if the state could meaningfully diversify its economy, but renewables are a better near-term play than digging carbon out of the ground.
Into this statewide identity crisis will step Erik Prince, should he decide to run. It should no longer surprise Americans when far-right politicians win victories by taking advantage of fear and a sense of slow-simmering crisis. If Prince, with the help of Steve Bannon, manages to win an election in Wyoming, he will certainly be compared to Roy Moore and other raving Trumpians. However, a full analysis of what could result in a man like Prince representing a beleaguered Wyoming would account not just for generic red-state reaction, but also the precise role an imperial mercenary liege lord fills in our society.
The best analogs for a figure like Erik Prince come not from Fox News b-reels, but from the history of colonialism. As a private war profiteer who closely influences policy at the highest levels, Prince resembles a modern Robert Clive or Cecil Rhodes, men who laid the template for a capitalist iteration of empire. In publicly asking the United States government to hand over the war in Afghanistan to mercenaries, Prince has announced that he believes his interests do best when they work in open symbiosis with state imperialism.
Like any other state, Wyoming is part of the core of the American empire, but it has many economic aspects of a peripheral resource colony. It is dominated by one industry, which steers its politics and institutions, inhibits other development, and mostly provides only wage labor to locals while siphoning off profits to faraway places. Taking the comparison too far would be a disservice to victims of full-bore imperialism—including Wyoming’s own native population, the state’s only truly colonized inhabitants—but the important point is that Wyoming’s domination by resource extraction goes beyond economic fact: Many people in the state, including seemingly most of the ruling elite, are basically OK with this dynamic. They prove it every day, with their votes and investments and rhetoric. As a polity, Wyoming has assented to being a resource colony. So why shouldn’t Wyoming get a profiteering viceroy as a senator?
Actually, Erik Prince might make a better governor. Ruling directly over an outpost seems more like his style. In the governor’s mansion, Prince could introduce all the ruthless efficiency of Blackwater to running an entire state. Imagine a land of DeVos-backed charter schools and Halliburton-constructed roads, with its own dedicated force of Tiger Swan-style mercenaries to put down any insurrection against the fossil fuel industry. Any local politicians with objections might change their minds if a seat in the state legislature came with stock options in The Wyoming Company.
I hope this sounds like a terrible idea, especially to anyone from Wyoming. But in a country (and world) increasingly dominated by unapologetic oligarchs with deep ties to powerful governments, it’s not enough just to denounce a cartoonishly easy target like Erik Prince. That Prince would make a credible Senate candidate anywhere is a problem, but his designs on Wyoming lay bare the heart of everything that’s wrong with the state. Yelling “carpetbagger” won’t be enough. It didn’t stop Liz Cheney, lately of Northern Virginia, from becoming Wyoming’s lone representative in the House. Wyomingites tend to be obsessed with frontier authenticity and our own mythology, but we don’t like to admit the real truth: We’ve been cowed, and our state captured, by interests that don’t care about us.
No one really deserves Erik Prince. He shouldn’t have power of any kind, and that he does is something we have to answer for on a societal level. If he becomes a senator from Wyoming, it won’t be because people there are worse than people from anywhere else. It will be because leaders around the country have failed to articulate a future that goes beyond desperately trying to recreate a misremembered past. A better politics has to be rooted in something more substantive than a nostalgia that’s slightly less reactionary and brutal than that of Bannon, Mercer, and whatever ghouls they recruit. The first step toward stopping people like Erik Prince is to be honest with ourselves about what makes them powerful in the first place. In Wyoming’s case, that starts with admitting that coal is as hollow a savior as any mercenary.