Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy sure knows how to start a stampede.
After Bundy, who became a right-wing hero for his refusal to acknowledge the authority of the federal government, wondered aloud about whether “Negro” people were “better off as slaves,” conservative figures who had celebrated his cause rushed to distance themselves from him.
Sen. Rand Paul, who had condemned the federal government’s attempt to enforce court orders against Bundy: “Offensive.”
Sen. Dean Heller, who had declared Bundy’s followers “patriots”: “Appalling and racist.”
And Sean Hannity, who had led a Fox News campaign that made a hero of Bundy: “Beyond repugnant.”
Bundy boosters are right to be appalled — but they should not be shocked.
The defiant anti-government strain of thought that Bundy advanced has been intertwined with racist and anti-Semitic views over the past several decades. Not all people who resist the authority of the federal government are motivated by race, of course, and not all racists are anti-government. But there is a long symbiosis between the two.
Among those who rallied to Bundy’s defense in Bunkerville, Nev. — the supporters Heller, a Nevada Republican, labeled “patriots” — was Wiley Drake, an Internet preacher affiliated with the “Oath Keepers” movement. According to reports from the scene, Drake told the crowd of Bundy supporters that they shouldn’t bow to the “half-breed” President Obama.
In general terms, Bundy’s notion of state supremacy — “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing” — is a variant of states’ rights claims that go back to the Civil War and were revived in segregationists’ opposition to civil rights laws. Because the federal government has been the protector of minority rights, states’ rights have long been used to justify discrimination.
Specifically, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks anti-government and hate groups, says Bundy’s sentiments align closely with those of the “Posse Comitatus” movement, founded by William Potter Gale in the 1970s. That movement based its anti-tax position — and its belief in the primacy of county and state authority over the federal government — on a belief that the levers of national power were controlled by Jewish bankers.
The SPLC puts “patriot” groups in a separate category from white supremacists and others organized around hate. The patriots make a constitutional argument to justify antipathy toward the federal government; this can be seen in the noise about secession, nullification, “state sovereignty” and the primacy of the 10th Amendment. But the two categories have some overlap — and that’s why politicians and commentators who try to harness the energy of the “patriot” movement got burned last week. If you flirt with those who deny the federal government’s legitimacy, you’re eventually going to end up with strange bedfellows.
Chris McDaniel, opposing Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi’s Republican primary, withdrew from being the keynote speaker at next month’s “Firearm Freedom Day/Tea Party Music Fest” conference when it was reported that the same conference also was touting the participation of a seller of “white pride” merchandise. Likewise, Greg Abbott, the GOP gubernatorial candidate in Texas, campaigned with Ted Nugent and got caught in an uproar over the rock musician labeling Obama a “subhuman mongrel.”
In Florida, Republican Rep. Ted Yoho had to backtrack after telling constituents that he couldn’t say with “100 percent” certainty that the Civil Rights Act is constitutional because “a lot of things that were passed are not constitutional.” Yoho later issued a statement saying the act “is one of the most significant, and constitutional, pieces of legislation in the past 100 years.” Yoho’s flap was reminiscent of Paul’s 2010 questioning of the act’s constitutionality and subsequent climb-down.
Paul, as it happens, was among those undermined by Bundy when The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney reported the rancher’s racist monologue Wednesday night. Paul had earlier sided with Bundy in the standoff . And while Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, early last week said the federal government was “using the jackboot of authoritarianism to come against the citizens,” by late in the week Cruz’s office was calling Bundy’s racism “completely unacceptable.”
And yet completely unsurprising.
Dana Milbank is also author of three books on politics — “Tears of a Clown” (2010), “Homo Politicus” (2008) and “Smashmouth” (2000).