Imagine a vendor on the National Mall, selling burgers and dogs, who hasn’t paid his rent in 20 years. He refuses to recognize his landlord, the National Park Service, as a legitimate authority. Every court has ruled against him, and fines have piled up. What’s more, the effluents from his food cart are having a detrimental effect on the spring grass in the capital.
Would an armed posse come to his defense, aiming their guns at the park police? Would the lawbreaker get prime airtime on Fox News, breathless updates in the Drudge Report, a sympathetic ear from Tea Party Republicans? No, of course not.
So what’s the difference between the fictional loser and Cliven Bundy, the rancher in Nevada who owes the government about $1 million and has been grazing his cattle on public land for more than 20 years? Near as I can tell, one wears a cowboy hat. Easterners, especially clueless ones in politics and the press, have always had a soft spot for a defiant white dude in a Stetson.
This phony event has brought out the worst of the gun-waving far right, and the national politicians who are barely one degree of separation from them. Hundreds of heavily armed, camouflaged supporters of the scofflaw turned out Saturday in Nevada, training their rifles on public employees who were trying to do their job. The outsiders looked like snipers ready to shoot the police. If you changed that picture to Black Panthers surrounding a lawful eviction in the inner city, do you think right-wing media would be there cheering the outlaws?
With their assault rifles and threats, the thugs in the desert forced federal officials with the Bureau of Land Management to back down from a court-ordered confiscation of Bundy’s cattle. One of the rancher’s supporters, Richard Mack, a Tea Party leader who is in the National Rifle Association’s Hall of Fame, said he planned to use women as human shields in a violent showdown with law enforcement.
“We were actually strategizing to put all the women up front,” Mack said in a radio interview. “If they were going to start shooting, it’s going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot.”
That’s who Fox and friends are playing with these days — militia extremists who would sacrifice their wives to make some larger point about a runaway federal government. And what’s more, the Fox host Sean Hannity has all but encouraged a violent confrontation.
At the center of the dispute is the 68-year-old rancher Bundy, who said in a radio interview, “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”
A real patriot, this guy. You would think that kind of anarchist would draw a raised eyebrow from the Tea Party establishment that provides Bundy his media oxygen. After all, wasn’t the Tea Party born in a rant by Rick Santelli of CNBC about deadbeat homeowners? He complained about taxpayers subsidizing “losers’ mortgages” and he said we should “reward people that can carry the water instead of drinking the water.” Believe me, Bundy’s cattle are drinking an awful lot of our water, and not paying for it.
But instead, people like Ron Paul have only fanned the flames, warning of a Waco-style assault. Paul and his son, Sen.Rand Paul, further showed themselves to be stunningly ignorant of the public lands legacy created by forward-thinking Republicans a century ago.
“They had virtual ownership of that land because they had been using it,” Ron Paul said on Fox, referring to the Bundy clan. “You need the government out of it, and I think that’s the important point.”
No, the renegade rancher has no more right to 96,000 acres of Nevada public range than a hot dog vendor has to perpetual space on the Mall. Both places belong to the American people. Bundy runs his cattle on our land — that is, turf owned by every citizen. The agency that oversees the range, the Bureau of Land Management, allows 18,000 grazing permits on 157 million acres. Many of those permit holders get a sweet deal, subsidized in a way they could never find on private land.
What’s more, the land is supposed to be managed for stewardship and other users. Wild-horse advocates would like a piece of the same range. The poor desert tortoise, which has been in Nevada a lot longer than Bundy’s Mormon pioneer stock, is disappearing because of abusive grazing on that same 96,000 acres.
Ranching is hard work. Drought and market swings make it a tough go in many years. That’s all the more reason to praise the 18,000 or so ranchers who pay their grazing fees on time and don’t go whining to Fox or summoning a herd of armed thugs when they renege on their contract. You can understand why the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association wants no part of Bundy.
These kinds of showdowns are rare because most ranchers play by the rules, and quietly go about their business. They are heroes, in one sense, preserving a way of life that has an honorable place in American history. The good ones would never wave a gun in the face of a public servant, and likely never draw a camera from Fox.
Timothy Egan, a Seattle native, writes for The New York Times on American politics and life from a West Coast perspective.