Ammon Bundy, the refugee caravan, and Patriot movement race politics

Three Way Fight


When Patriot leader Ammon Bundy defended the recent Central American refugee caravan and criticized Donald Trump, a lot of liberals and leftists were confused, and a lot of Patriot activists were mad. But Bundy’s comments point to longstanding tensions around race within the Patriot movement – and within the U.S. far right as a whole.

Ammon Bundy has been one of the most prominent figures in the Patriot movement over the past several years. He led the January 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon, and participated in the 2014 armed standoff between Patriot movement activists and federal officers at the Nevada ranch of his father, Cliven Bundy.

But in late November, Bundy posted a Facebook video that put him squarely at odds with the majority of Patriot activists. He defended the recent efforts by Central American refugees to enter the U.S., and criticized President Trump for calling them criminals. “What about individuals, those who have come for reasons of need for their families, you know, the fathers and mothers and children that come here and were willing to go through the process to apply for asylum so they can come into this country and benefit from not having to be oppressed continually?” He pointed out that the refugees were fleeing terrible violence in Central America, and rejected conspiracist claims that George Soros had orchestrated their trek northward.

Many Patriot activists denounced Bundy for the video. Rightists called him a kook or an opportunist or claimed he had been bought off by “globalists.” As a result, Bundy took down the video, shut down his social media accounts, and distanced himself from Patriot groups, although he later denied he was quitting a movement. He said that other Patriot leaders were expressing private support but feared a backlash if they spoke out publicly.

In an interview with Buzzfeed, Bundy said he supported Trump on many issues but not his approach to governing. “He’s a nationalist, and a nationalist in my view makes the decision that best benefits the nation, not the individual… That is not freedom, and that is not what America was built upon.” He compared the adulation of Trump to 1930s Germany. “I don’t want to say there is that extreme similarity, but it very well could go that way, and people just give up their thinking, their rights, and they give up their government because they were so willing to follow him.”

Photograph of Cliven and Ammon Bundy seated on a stage
Cliven and Ammon Bundy

Political complexities in the far right
Bundy’s comments are unusual, but they don’t mean he has moved to the left. Rather, they point to political complexities within the U.S. far right that critics often ignore. For example, Bundy isn’t the first far rightist to warn against Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. Joel McDurmon wrote after Trump’s 2016 election victory that he feared “a tremendous ramp-up in the police state,” and a few months later described Trump as “at least very close to a fascist, if not one.” McDurmon is a leading proponent of Christian Reconstructionism, one of the Christian right’s harshest and most theocratic branches.

Bundy’s defense of Central American refugees evokes the racial inclusiveness of another hardline theocratic current, the New Apostolic Reformation movement, which includes many Central Americans, as well as African and Asian people. More obliquely, it evokes the fact that Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer include significant sprinklings of people of color among their members, despite Proud Boys’ self-proclaimed “western chauvinism” and both groups’ extensive ties with white nationalists.

It’s helpful to look at Ammon Bundy’s comments in relation to those of his father, Cliven Bundy, who has recently criticized Trump’s border policy in terms similar to his son’s. Going back to 2014, after the standoff with federal officers at his ranch, Cliven Bundy was widely quoted as making racist comments about “the Negro,” such as claiming that African Americans are all on government subsidy and have less freedom now than they did under slavery. Much less attention was given to comments he made in the same interview about “Spanish people” (i.e., Mexicans):

Now I understand that they come over here against our Constitution and cross our borders. But they’re here, and they’re people. And I’ve worked beside a lot of them. Don’t tell me they don’t work, and don’t tell me they don’t pay taxes. And don’t tell me they don’t have better family structures than most of us white people. When you see those Mexican families, they’re together, they picnic together, they’re spending their time together. And I’ll tell you, in my way of thinking, they’re awful nice people. And we need to have those people going to be with us.

Refugees assembly discussing actions

Cliven Bundy’s comments about both blacks and Mexicans reflect an ideology of producerism, which endorses those groups that are seen as productive contributors to society (such as farmers, workers, and industrialists) while denouncing those seen as unproductive (such as welfare recipients below and bankers above). Producerism has been a prominent theme in many forms of right-wing populism in the U.S. since the nineteenth century. Cliven Bundy gave producerist ideology a Mormon inflection. The LDS Church barred blacks from the priesthood until 1978, but until recently most Mormons were taught that Mexicans and other Latin Americans were descendants of one the lost tribes of Israel and thus a special target for religious conversion and recruitment.

Related to producerism, some of Ammon Bundy’s comments raise the issue of the Patriot movement’s class politics:

“This country is in a labor crisis. Our labor workforce is so minimal that every employer will tell you that they cannot find the employees needed to fill the positions in their businesses.… And yet now we have thousands of people willing to come in here, and it appears…that they’re willing to work.… My family would love to sponsor a couple of their families.”

As a number of critics have noted, although Patriot groups project a working-class ethos they tend to represent the interests of ranchers and others who own property in the rural West, rather than landless workers. Both the 2014 Bundy ranch standoff and the 2016 Malheur refuge occupation were largely about turning over publicly controlled lands and other resources to be freely used by ranchers, mining companies, and logging companies. These interests sometimes clash with the neoliberal push for unrestricted movement of capital and workers across international boundaries – but sometimes they don’t.

Cross-fertilizing white nationalism and color-blind ideology
Ever since the Patriot movement first exploded in the mid 1990s with the widespread formation of “citizen militias,” many critics have treated it as essentially a toned-down version of white nationalism. It’s always been more accurate to say that the Patriot movement is a political hybrid, where white nationalism has interacted and cross-fertilized with a number of other right-wing ideological forces. It has always encompassed a range of positions on race. That’s part of why it’s attracted a much bigger following and may ultimately be more dangerous than the white nationalist movement itself.

Many accounts of the Patriot movement’s origins emphasize its roots in Posse Comitatus, a white supremacist, antisemitic network that was strong in the 1970s and 80s. Posse was hostile to government entities about the county level and advocated formation of local militias to oppose federal government tyranny – positions that resonate with Patriot groups today. But the Patriot movement was also strongly influenced by a number of other rightist forces, including Christian Reconstructionists, John Birch Society-type conspiracists, gun rights organizations, anti-abortion activists, the Wise Use anti-environmental movement, and others.

As a result of these varied influences, the Patriot movement from the beginning has featured an internal tension between explicitly white supremacist politics and what Robert Churchill has called “color-blind racism.” Color-blind racists claim to “not see color” and to treat everyone as individuals. This means that they support formal equality and inclusiveness while denying (and thus protecting) the continue reality of systemic racial oppression. Compared with explicit white supremacism, color-blind ideology is much more widespread, and much more widely accepted, in U.S. society. The Patriot movement even included a few people of color, such as J.J. Johnson, a black man who cofounded the Ohio Unorganized Militia and described militias as “The Civil Rights Movement of the ’90s.”

The Bundys are heirs to a Mormon current that has been influential in the Patriot movement from the beginning. Patriot movement conspiracy theories were influenced by the ideas of W. Cleon Skousen, a right-wing Mormon who worked closely with the John Birch Society in the 1960s and 70s. One of the first Patriot networks was the Idaho-based United States Militia Association, founded by Samuel Sherwood, who (Churchill writes) publicized it through a Mormon homeschooling network. Sherwood was a leading proponent of color-blind ideology within the Patriot movement.

The Patriot movement collapsed in the late 1990s and was largely dormant during George W. Bush’s presidency, then had a resurgence after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. During this “second wave,” Patriot groups have distanced themselves more energetically from white supremacist ideology, but have also embraced anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes more actively than their predecessors did in the 90s. As the authors of Up in Arms: A Guide to Oregon’s Patriot Movement argue, open racism is now rare among the Patriot movement’s leadership but still common at the grassroots. But it would be misleading to portray this as simply a movement trying to hide its true, white supremacist character.

Oath Keepers and the politics of race
The Patriot movement’s conflicted racial politics have been vividly embodied in the group Oath Keepers, which has been a leading force in the movement’s second wave. I discussed this in a 2015 blog post about Oath Keepers’ responses to the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Here’s a condensed version from my book Insurgent Supremacists (pages 50-51):

Oath Keepers declares that its opposition to government tyranny is “not about race” but is meant to protect all Americans regardless of color. The group’s website features videos in which people of color are prominently featured as Oath Keepers members. Yet Oath Keepers has also called for a crackdown against “illegal aliens,” who it warns are being brought in as part of a large-scale “invasion” of the United States, and some individual Oath Keepers have made racist statements, such as one who referred to President Obama as a “mulatto” and suggested he was a Muslim born in Kenya—right-wing code-speak for “a black man has no business being in the White House.” Oath Keepers has co-sponsored two “Racial Reconciliation of the Races” events with African American pastor James David Manning, whose vision of white-black unity centers on intense homophobia.

In 2014 and 2015, during Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police killing of Michael Brown, Oath Keepers sent heavily armed men (apparently all white) into Ferguson. The group said the men were there to guard businesses and homes against arsonists and looters, and to protect reporters with, Alex Jones’s right-wing conspiracist website. Many people interpreted the move as a white supremacist show of force to intimidate Black Lives Matter protesters. Support for this interpretation could be found in a statement by the New York state chapter of Oath Keepers, which dismissed Black Lives Matter as a pawn of Communist, anti-American “race-baiters.”

Yet before sending the armed men to Ferguson, Oath Keepers had harshly condemned the Ferguson police force for violating people’s right to protest and offered detailed criticisms of its “spectacularly un- safe weapons discipline and methodology,” such as pointing automatic weapons at unarmed protesters. The group also wrote an open letter to the people of Ferguson, which declared that “you have an absolute, God given, and constitutionally protected right to protest and speak your mind” and that “the police have no right, no authority, and no power to violate those rights….” The letter specifically urged black military veterans to form armed patrols and neighborhood watches to keep Ferguson safe, and cited the Deacons for Defense and Justice (whose armed members protected 1960s civil rights marchers in the Deep South and helped to inspire the Black Panther Party) as a “proud and noble” example to follow. By urging African Americans to arm themselves, Oath Keepers repudiated one of the traditional core principles of U.S. white supremacy, that black people must never practice—or be able to practice—self-defense.

But Oath Keepers would only take this so far. When St. Louis County Oath Keepers leader Sam Andrews announced plans to hold a march through downtown Ferguson in which Oath Keepers members would accompany fifty African Americans armed with long barrel rifles, the group’s national leadership withdrew support. Andrews and his “tactical team,” as well as a group of Oath Keepers in Florida, resigned from Oath Keepers in protest, and Andrews commented, “I can’t have my name associated with an organization that doesn’t believe black people can exercise their First and Second Amendment rights at the same time.”

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Sam Andrews’s split with the Oath Keepers national leadership foreshadowed Ammon Bundy’s conflict with his former Patriot movement supporters. Both reflect the contradictions of color-blind racism on the right: in a movement that disavows white supremacist ideology, some people will take inclusiveness too far for the majority. Such challenges are seen as threatening and disloyal, although they don’t really call national or racial oppression into question. These challenges are not aberrations but a logical part of the movement’s dynamics, and they point to tensions and fissures in the U.S. far right that antifascists need to understand. Lumping all far rightists together as “white nationalists” or “Nazis” makes it harder for us to do this.

Photo credits:
1. Cliven and Ammon Bundy speaking at a forum hosted by the American
Academy for Constitutional Education in Mesa, Arizona, 22 July 2014.
Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.
2. Refugees assembly discussing actions, Ciudad Deportiva Magdalena Mixhuca temporary camp, Mexico City, 9 November 2018. Photo by ProtoplasmaKid (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

5 thoughts on “Ammon Bundy, the refugee caravan, and Patriot movement race politics”

  1. Regarding the Oath Keepers in Ferguson: You seem to conflate arming to defend the right to protest with arming to defend property rights of businesses against the protesters. The Oath Keepers' example of the Deacons for Defense of Justice is a complete distortion of history. The Deacons were armed to defend the protesters against racist violence, not to defend businesses. And the call of some Oath Keepers' for arming black men was the same. It was an attempt to organize what would have amounted to a black vigilante movement against the protesters, especially anybody who might engage in property violence.

    The Oath Keepers were not an ally of the Ferguson protesters in any sense of the word. They were there to do what the police could not do.

  2. John, thanks for your comment. In the Ammon Bundy piece, and in the August 2015 piece about Oath Keepers and Ferguson that it references, I am NOT claiming that Oath Keepers has upheld anti-racist politics or was “an ally of the Ferguson protesters.” I am arguing that Oath Keepers and the Patriot movement as a whole embody an interplay and conflict between explicit white supremacism and the ideology of “color-blindness.” Color-blindness hides—and thereby protects—the continuing reality of racial oppression, but it is very different from white supremacist ideology and requires a different response.

    I agree that Oath Keepers puts a big emphasis on defending property rights, and that its invoking of the Deacons for Defense appropriates that legacy for ends that are fundamentally at odds with what the Deacons stood for. Nevertheless, calling on black people to practice organized, armed self-defense breaks with a core tenet of white supremacist ideology. Further, as I document in the August 2015 piece, Oath Keepers did in fact speak out publicly in defense of the Ferguson community’s right to protest, and publicly denounced the police’s crackdown against the Ferguson protesters as excessively militarized and repressive. We need to deal with this reality, in the same way that we need to deal with the reality that Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer include people of color in significant numbers and (in the latter case) in positions of leadership. Not because this makes such groups more “progressive,” but rather—as I emphasize in the August 2015 piece—because it makes them potentially more dangerous.

  3. Thank you for your explanation. I think your point about things being a little more complex than many like to think regarding both the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers is important to keep in mind. It's also important to keep in mind that even this somewhat more nuanced and less explicitly racist approach is still reactionary. I know some – mainly but not exclusively anarchists – who sympathize with the Malheur occupation because it's "against" the government. There is a similar sympathy for the Oath Keepers' presence in Ferguson. They picture that presence as being in armed self defense – something similar to the rolThey may have spoken for free speech rights, but that's not why they were there. They were there to encourage what amounts to a "shoot on sight" approach to anybody who destroyed property. Vigilante "justice" in other words. While I don't support looting and burning, I would point out this: After the QT store was burned to the ground, that lot became a central gathering place, a community center of sorts where the community met, discussed, shared food and music, etc. And completely aside from that, I think we'd all agree that we would not support shooting looters. I recognize that you don't say anything to the contrary, but I think it's useful to make that explicit.


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