Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Backlash over migrant caravan comments has Ammon Bundy rethinking his supporters

By Leah Sottile and Eli Rosenberg Washington Post

Ammon Bundy has been back in the news of late.

No, he is not involved in another armed standoff with the federal government, like he was in 2016 as the leader of an armed takeover at an Oregon wildlife refuge, and two years before that, a similar standoff over the rights to graze cattle on federal land near his father’s ranch in Nevada.

One of the figureheads of the anti-government sentiment that crested with the rise of Donald Trump, Bundy made waves last week when he criticized the president for demonizing the migrant caravan at the southern border. The statements were striking for a figure so closely identified with the country’s libertarian and anti-government right-wing.

And on Friday, BuzzFeed News reported that Bundy was “quitting the militia movement,” while powering down his social media accounts due to the backlash he’d received for his rebuke of Trump. The story drew a flurry of headlines, like “Ammon Bundy Quits Militia Movement in Solidarity With Migrant Caravan.”

When reached by phone Friday, Bundy disputed the framing of the BuzzFeed story, but admitted that he was frustrated with some of the elements of the right-wing groups for whom he’s served as an informal leader.

“I never joined a movement,” he said by phone. “We were a ranching family. We were ranching and the government came to take our livelihood away and we said ‘no.’ It was no more than that.”

He said the only real announcement he had made was that he was unplugging from Facebook, after being surprised by the angry response to his remarks on the caravan. His decision to speak out came after his views were solicited on the issue, and sought to do some research to figure out how he felt about it, he said.

“I was asked multiple times from different various individuals what I thought about these caravans, and I didn’t know, to be honest with you, I didn’t know the facts,” he said. “So I began to research and try to determine the facts.”

His verdict on the caravan, which he delivered in a 17-minute video at the time, broke sharply with Trump-aligned orthodoxy on the issue. In the run up to the midterm elections, Trump repeatedly disparaged the caravan as an “invasion,” a national security threat requiring the emergency deployment of thousands of military troops.

“He has basically called them all criminals,” Bundy said of Trump in the video. “What about the fathers, the mothers, the children, who have come here and are 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 by criminals?”

Bundy, whose family’s selective interpretation of Mormonism under-girds their anti-government views, said his views on the migrants were motivated in part by his religious faith. He criticized partisan-inflected media coverage of the caravan from both the right and the left, and said that the assertions that they were being paid by liberal philanthropist George Soros or are terrorists were “a bunch of garbage.”

The reaction was swift.

Some former supporters who had traveled to his father’s ranch in 2014 during the armed standoff with federal agents, expressed regret, according to BuzzFeed. Others went further, accusing Bundy of being paid by “globalists.” His page was filled with comments criticizing his stance.

“The facts were rejected,” Bundy told the Post. “I could only see that 99 percent of it was that same Trump rhetoric of calling all these people terrorists. And they’d pick out an isolated issue, and go ‘oh look 40 of them are charging the border so all 5,000 of them are bad. … These refugees are not all the same. They didn’t come from the same places. They didn’t even come from the same country.”

Dr. Sam Jackson, an expert on far-right extremism at the University at Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, wondered if Trump’s treatment of immigrants cut too close to a history that feels all-too-near for some Mormons such as Bundy. Adherents to the religious belief were persecuted in the United States in the 1800s before seeking out a new home in a part of North America that was then outside the country’s borders: present day Utah.

“They identify with the stranger,” Jackson said.

In his interview with the Post, Bundy said he felt smeared by “liberals” in a way similar to what the migrants experienced.

“They’ve lumped all the hatred and militia groups – they basically said that anyone that’s come and helped the Bundys are anti-government, violent militias,” he said. “We’re all individuals. We all make different choices. We all have agency.”

Jackson said that Bundy’s remarks have the potential to muddy the Bundy Ranch standoff in the eyes of the anti-government and militia groups, which is sometimes referred to as the “Patriot Movement.” According to the Anti-Defamation League, the “Patriot Movement is a group of a set of related extremist movements and groups in the United States whose ideologies center on anti-government conspiracy theories.”

During the Bundys’ two high-profile conflicts with the government, members from an assortment of groups – militias, sovereign citizens, anti-Muslim activists – united with the family in order to push back against what they all agreed was overreach by the federal government.

Bundy has expressed some reluctance about his role as a symbol for these groups in recent months. He told the Associated Press in October that he was hoping to spend more time with his wife and six children.

“I’ll always get someone that calls me,” Bundy said. “Life has never, ever been the same – in a good and a hard way. I think it’ll take years and years to kind of dissolve.”

Support from militia groups, who flocked to armed standoffs in 2014, at Bundy’s father’s Cliven’s ranch in Nevada, and in 2016 at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, has helped bring the issues the Bundys stood for to a wider audience.

Bundy said he didn’t expect that to change.

“I’m certain if they came at us again we would have even more people and we would be even stronger, because they would be there for the right reasons: to stand up for property rights, for family and basically for what this country was founded upon,” he said.

He told the Post that his social media shutdown is not an indicator that he will stop fighting for what he believes.

“In free governments, the people own the land and the resources. That is the battle,” he says. “I have every intention of running the BLM and the Forest Service and Fish & Wildlife right out of the west so the people can be free. Don’t think we’ll lighten up on that.”

Still he admits that his decision to challenge Republican orthodoxy carried weight. Bundy has been doing speaking engagements to right-wing crowds in recent years, on subjects like gun rights and the environment. In April, he told an audience in Modesto, California, that environmentalists were trying to “entirely destroy the happiness of human life.” He said the Bible dictated “what the animals are for, what the grass is for, what the trees are for, what the fruit is for,” and shared an unsupported theory about water being replenished on Earth by asteroid ice, according to the Modesto Bee. Bundy said that work might suffer from his remarks about migrants.

“I probably won’t be invited much,” he said.

Still, he said he was pleased with being freed from maintaining his Facebook page, on which he had more than 20,000 followers, and leaving the social media network at large.

“Not having to do that anymore will be a relief,” he said.