Letters from the West

Breitbart’s Chobani coverage is a reminder of Idaho’s experience with the alt-right

Gov. Butch Otter, left, and Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani, celebrated the grand opening of the 1 million-square-foot plant in Twin Falls in March 2013.
Gov. Butch Otter, left, and Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani, celebrated the grand opening of the 1 million-square-foot plant in Twin Falls in March 2013. kjones@idahostatesman.com

If you want to see what the so-called alt-right means for the future of Idaho, the best place to look is Twin Falls.

Breitbart News, the extreme conservative digital media giant, was run until recently by Steve Bannon, who is now President-elect Donald Trump’s new White House counselor. Breitbart News came to Twin Falls earlier this year and sought to turn what had been called the “Magic Valley miracle” into a nightmare.

Latching onto a story anti-Muslim media had erroneously spread across the Internet about Syrian refugees involved in the sexual assault of a child, Breitbart tried to link the story to Chobani, the yogurt maker that built a successful factory in Twin Falls.

Breitbart picked Chobani because its founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant of Kurdish descent, spoke to world leaders in Davos, Switzerland, in January urging businesses to follow his lead and hire refugees.

“The obvious thing was political connections and globalism,” said Lee Stranahan, one of the Breitbart reporters who wrote the Twin Falls stories. Stranahan wrote that the sexual assault was “a situation connected to the drive for cheap labor by the local food processing industry that Chobani is a major part of.”

Chobani actually paid far higher than then average wage in the Magic Valley, helping to increase overall wages in the area as unemployment dropped from 7 percent to 3 percent.

In addition to beating the drum on the sexual-assault story, Breitbart tied Chobani to an increase in tuberculosis and crime and implied that Idaho was bringing in refugees in part to work for Chobani.

“We’ve had refugee resettlement going on for 40 years,” Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar. “Chobani has been here for five years.”

Tuberculosis, by the way, had risen from one case in 2011 to six in 2012, and dropped to one again in 2015. The sexual assault had nothing to do with Chobani; it remains under investigation.

A wave of similar internet stories followed by all kinds of right-wing and anti-Muslim blogs, seeking to link Ulukaya, refugees and Twin Falls to extreme Islam and terrorism triggering hate and fear. Barigar, the Twin Falls mayor, received death threats.

“Our community was hijacked by the coverage — I don’t want to call it news,” Barigar said.

Just two years ago, Idaho Republican Gov. Butch Otter and others touted the agricultural manufacturing boom that followed the opening of Chobani’s new 1 million-square-foot, $450 million plant as the “Magic Valley miracle.” Having Clif Bar and four other companies also come to the area has been called the “Chobani effect.”

In March, Chobani announced a $100 million expansion. For every employee Chobani hires, its says 10 more jobs are created in the community. It has launched a profit-sharing program for its employees. Its Chobani Foundation gives a portion of its profits to charity focusing on children, nutrition and its local communities.

Of its 2,000 employees in Idaho and New York, 300 are resettled refugees, people who left hate, violence and death to rebuild their lives in the U.S.

What Stranahan and others don’t like is that Ulukaya used federal and state programs like loans from the Small Business Administration to get his business started in New York and to expand in Idaho. They and other alt-right voices including Bannon see this as crony capitalism that helps the 1 percent at the expense of rest of us.

Bannon, in a Q&A at a conference at the Vatican in 2014, said both the government-driven capitalism of China and Russia and the libertarian capitalism of the West is a contrast to “the enlightened capitalism of the Judeo-Christian West,” that was practiced 50 years ago.

It’s paradoxical that Breitbart targeted Ulukaya, Chobani and Twin Falls to demonize globalism. Ulukaya is practicing “the enlightened capitalism” Bannon says he supports. Helping refugees made Chobani a target.

In that same speech, Bannon acknowledged the alt-right movement includes white nationalists, or what Stranahan called “race realists.”

The fact such elements are in the tent is what scares many today. One of the most prominent alt-right leaders is Richard Bertrand Spencer, the 38-year-old director of the National Policy Institute headquartered in Whitefish, Mont.

The man who coined the phrase alt-right calls himself a white nationalist and with his master degree from the University of Chicago has an intellectual style that sets him apart from white supremacists like the former Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke. But Spencer still believes whites are supreme and he seeks a white homeland just as Rev. Richard Butler and his followers wanted in the 1990s for North Idaho.

In a 2013 speech, Spencer talked about creating an ethnically white state: “In the public imagination, ‘ethnic-cleansing’ has been associated with civil war and mass murder (understandably so). But this need not be the case,” he said. Such talk sends chills up the spines of Bosnian refugees who came to Boise in the 1990s after suffering unspeakable treatment during the ethnic cleansing there. They remember the times leading up to the killing of thousands in Srebrenica in 1995.

These faces of the alt-right seek to divide Idaho and the nation.

But Twin Falls Mayor Barigar said the alt-right assault last summer has brought his community together, in support of its refugee center, its major employer and its way of life. On Sunday, the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree came through Twin Falls on its way to Washington, D.C., attracting a crowd of more than 1,500 in a happy celebration of the upcoming holidays.

“This is the stuff I love to do,” Barigar said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker