One of the most striking news photos taken in 2014, 10 years ago, showed an armed man lying on a highway overpass in Nevada, aiming a long gun through a gap in the overpass’s concrete barriers. The target at which he was apparently aiming? Federal agents from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), then engaged in a lengthy standoff with a rancher, Cliven Bundy, who owed the government fees for allowing his cattle to graze on federal land.
Bundy’s stand against putative government overreach resonated on the right because of the Republican Party’s long-standing hostility toward federal power and because it emerged at a moment when right-wing rhetoric was particularly potent. Barack Obama’s election in 2008 triggered an enormous backlash centered on the U.S. government, and the Bundy standoff in April 2014 piggybacked on that anger. That year was pivotal in tilling the soil for Donald Trump’s emergence a year later, and disparate elements of right-wing politics quickly coalesced around his identity.
The Bundy standoff was resolved peacefully, with the government wisely preferring to exercise its massive bureaucratic power instead of its military power. Cliven Bundy’s explicitly racist comments reported by the New York Times eroded his mainstream political support, which made this easier.
Two years later, Bundy was arrested at an airport in Oregon. He was there to support his son Ammon Bundy, who, with some allies, had taken over a federal wildlife refuge. Ammon Bundy and his allies organized a peaceful protest to support two ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, who had been ordered to prison for setting fire to federal land. (The Hammonds rejected Bundy’s assistance.) But then Bundy and some of those at the protest seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
As with his father’s dispute in 2014, sympathetic people from across the country responded to calls to show support by joining the takeover. But, unlike in 2014, the incident did not end peacefully; the man who served as a spokesman for the group, LaVoy Finicum, was shot by law enforcement during officers’ effort to arrest the group’s leaders.
Ammon Bundy was acquitted of conspiracy charges related to the takeover. In 2022, he ran for governor of Idaho and lost. The Hammonds, though, received pardons from Trump in 2018. Two-and-a-half years later, of course, Trump made his own call to ideologically allied parties to join an effort to take a stand against the government.
Peter Navarro releases 36-page report alleging election fraud ‘more than sufficient’ to swing victory to Trump https://t.co/D8KrMHnFdK. A great report by Peter. Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2020
There are numerous parallels between the Bundy standoffs and the right during the Trump era, beyond those identified above. Cliven Bundy, for example, hosted his supporters for a barbecue at which attendees sported “domestic terrorist” name tags — a celebration of condemnation that was echoed eight years later at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Another parallel: While the Bureau of Land Management was engaged with Bundy, an ambitious Texas politician jumped in.
“The dispute spilled over this week into Texas,” the Times reported, “where Greg Abbott, the attorney general and a Republican running for governor, challenged the Bureau of Land Management on reports that it was looking to claim thousands of acres along the Red River.”
Abbott won that election and reelection in 2018 and 2022. During his most recent reelection bid, he was engaged in a dispute with the federal government — criticizing the Biden administration’s border policies. Texas’s efforts to block incoming migrants included stringing razor wire along the border and putting buoys in the Rio Grande to prevent people from crossing.
In recent weeks, Abbott’s efforts have grown much more contentious, with Texas law enforcement seizing control of a park along the river in Eagle Pass that is used by the U.S. Border Patrol. Texas officials are now blocking access to the park by federal law enforcement, a move that has earned the endorsement of dozens of Republican governors in other states.
In a post on social media, Trump encouraged “all willing States to deploy their guards to Texas to prevent the entry of Illegals, and to remove them back across the Border.” South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R), commonly mentioned in discussions of possible vice-presidential picks should Trump win the Republican nomination, quickly agreed.
But calls for support weren’t answered by just official state actors. A number of convoys of individuals supportive of Texas’s heavy-handed response to migrants — and its rejection of federal authority — are planning to travel to the area. One group, calling itself “Take Our Border Back,” made plans to head to Texas beginning on Monday. The effort was promoted on the conspiracy-addled platform Infowars last week — and by Rep. Keith Self (R-Tex.) on Fox Business on Friday.
Wired reported that the convoy includes armed participants. Self insisted that the organizers (some of whom reportedly called the participants “God’s Army”) were “committed to a peaceful demonstration.” When a Fox Business interviewer asked Self whether “there might be some sort of co-opting of this convoy” (since, she said, “bad actors” had in the past “co-opted these type of events”), Self replied, “That’s always a probability.”
There are a lot of links between those organizing the convoy and disgraced former national security adviser Mike Flynn. Just now one one those, Ivan Raiklin, who has been a major figure in fomenting Jan6 and pushing election conspiracies, was interviewed in Virginia
— David Gilbert (@daithaigilbert) January 29, 2024
Interest from the political right in policing the border is itself a long-established pattern. In 2006, after incidents involving self-appointed, right-wing border patrols had attracted national news attention, the Congressional Research Service compiled a report noting that vigilante efforts to confront border crossers extended back more than a century. The report also noted that such organized efforts, when not in violation of state or federal laws, had the right to exist.
In another social media post on Saturday, Trump exaggerated the danger posed by immigrants to the United States, 45 percent of whom in December were families or children traveling alone.
“Today we have a catastrophe waiting to happen. It is the WORST BORDER IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD,” he wrote. He added: “There is now a 100% chance that there will be MAJOR TERROR ATTACKS IN THE USA. CLOSE THE BORDER!”
This is the mix in play at the moment: Trumpian rhetoric, antagonism to federal law enforcement and armed individuals taking matters into their own hands, particularly at the border. The odds remain good that the tension will be defused peacefully and without incident, as happened 10 years ago in Nevada.
But it’s not a sure thing.