Out in Oregon, the Bundy clan has begun another heavily-armed standoff with the government, seizing control of a building at a wildlife refuge and talking about laying down their life for liberty, presumably in some kind of gruesome battle in which plenty of law enforcement officials are killed along with the martyrs to the anti-government cause. Most of the Republican presidential candidates have so far avoided saying anything about this event, but liberals are raising the question of how much responsibility the Republican Party and its leaders bear for this kind of radical right extremism.
It’s a complicated question, but the answer is: not as much as their most fervent opponents might claim, but not so little as they’d like.
This latest standoff is led by Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy and leader of what seems to be a band of freelance insurrectionists. If you’re having a conflict with the federal government, they’ll load up their weapons, come to your location, and set up a confrontation with law enforcement, whether you want them to or not.
You can read elsewhere about what led up to this standoff, but it has to be understood in context of the last one, when rancher Cliven Bundy got into a conflict with the United States government over grazing fees. The problem was that Bundy wanted to use public land to graze his cattle, but didn’t want to pay the fees that every other rancher does, since as he said at the time, “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.” Anti-government activists flocked to the standoff, pointing guns at government officials and talking of insurrection. Two of those present at the event would soon after go on a shooting rampage in Las Vegas, murdering two police officers and a bystander.
At the time, some Republican politicians, including Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, said that whatever Bundy’s gripe with the government, he ought to follow the law. But others were far more indulgent. Ben Carson supported the protest. Ted Cruz blamed it on President Obama, calling the standoff “the unfortunate and tragic culmination of the path that President Obama has set the federal government on.” And Rand Paul not only supported their cause but later had a friendly sit-down with Cliven Bundy. Donald Trump took a middle position, saying that laws should be followed, but that when it came to Bundy, “I like him, I like his spirit, his spunk and the people that are so loyal…I respect him.” (For more details on these reactions, go here).
But most critically, during the standoff Cliven Bundy and his supporters became heroes of conservative media. Sean Hannity practically made Bundy his Fox News co-host for a couple of weeks. Their bizarre claims about the government and the means they were using to lodge their complaints — an armed standoff — were validated and promoted again and again by the media outlets conservatives rely on for their news. It was only when Cliven Bundy turned out to be an unreconstructed racist, of the kind who begins sentences with “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” that Fox and the Republicans who supported him finally distanced themselves from him.
Even if they hadn’t been so aggressively supported and promoted by elite conservative figures and institutions, the Bundys’ actions can be viewed as an outgrowth of conservative rhetoric over the years of Barack Obama’s presidency. From the moment he was elected, conservatives said that Obama was not legitimately the president (many of them charged that he wasn’t born in the United States). Virtually everything he did was given a given a dark and sinister spin, with the constant refrain that Obama was a tyrant who had not only usurped power but would shortly turn the United States into a terrifying nightmare of statist oppression. The line between mainstream rhetoric and that of the radical fringe disappeared, with popular television hosts and backbench Republican House members spouting conspiracy theories about FEMA concentration camps and the Department of Homeland Security stockpiling ammunition in preparation for some horrific campaign of repression. Nearly every policy with which conservatives disagreed was decried as the death of freedom itself.
Anyone who took all that literally and believed that the people saying it were actually sincere could well have concluded that armed insurrection was indeed an appropriate response to what was plainly a coup from the enemies of freedom within the government, led by a despot who was literally trying to destroy America. Now combine that with the way so many Republicans talk about guns — not just as a tool of self-protection, but as something whose essential purpose is to intimidate government officials. Second Amendment purists, some of whom are running for president, regularly justify their enthusiasm for loosening gun laws as a way to keep tyranny in check, by showing that gun owners are willing to fight against their government, should it become necessary. As Ted Cruz has said, “The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution isn’t for just protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice. It is a Constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny — for the protection of liberty.”
So on one hand, Republicans regularly say that we need so many guns in civilian hands in case it becomes necessary to wage war on the government, while on the other hand they say that Barack Obama’s government has become tyrannical and oppressive, and freedom is all but destroyed. So why is anybody surprised when people like the Bundys put those two ideas together?
It doesn’t stop there. Republicans were similarly divided on Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who decided that because she doesn’t support same-sex marriage, she could defy the Supreme Court and refuse to grant marriage licenses to anyone in her county. Davis got full support from five of the Republican presidential candidates, while six opposed her move and the rest came down somewhere in the middle. But the point is that a meaningful contingent of elite Republicans said that when you don’t like the law, you can pretend the law doesn’t apply to you, even if you’re sworn to carry it out.
These days, every lunatic corner of the right can find respect and validation from at least some of the most prominent and respected figures in Republican politics and conservative media, at the same time as people are encouraged to strap on their AK-47 when they go down to the supermarket.
Today, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio both condemned the actions taken by the insurrectionists in Oregon. There are surely plenty of other Republicans who are disgusted by the Bundy clan and actions like this standoff, so it wouldn’t be fair to blame the whole party for the rise of this kind of armed right-wing radicalism. But you also can’t say anti-government rhetoric had nothing to do with it.