From the Bundys to the Rotunda: How allowing far-right terrorism to fester led to the Capitol riot

The path to Trump’s coup might have been avoided if the government had taken the threat seriously

Published January 6, 2022 4:30AM (EST)

Ammon Bundy makes his way from the entrance of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters in Burns, Oregon on January 6, 2016. (ROB KERR/AFP via Getty Images)
Ammon Bundy makes his way from the entrance of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters in Burns, Oregon on January 6, 2016. (ROB KERR/AFP via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on Raw Story


The sight of violent Trump supporters invading the Capitol a year ago may have been shocking but it was not surprising. It was the direct result of the government allowing right-wing political violence to smolder for years until it burst into a conflagration on Jan. 6.

While far-right terrorism is the story of America — Native genocide, slave codes, Klan terror, anti-Asian pogroms, racist mass shooters today — there was a specific path to Trump's coup that might have been avoided if the government had taken the threat seriously.

That path runs through the Bundy family. They incubated Jan. 6 by bringing together key actors who joined in the insurrection, showing the government was reluctant to confront right-wing terrorism, and proving that terrorism could work.

The deadly virus has spread with 40 percent of Republicans supporting violence for political ends. This genie can't be put back in the bottle. But right-wing terrorism can be eliminated root and branch by using the full force of the state. That was the mistake with the Bundys, which lead to the Jan. 6 insurrection. They were allowed to foment political violence with little pushback.

The story starts in April 2014 when the Bureau of Land Management tried to enforce court-ordered penalties on patriarch Cliven Bundy. He owed $1.2 million in fees for illegally grazing cattle on federal lands for 21 years, so BLM officials seized hundreds of them. But Cliven, driven by messianic Mormonism and a fringe interpretation of the Constitution that he has a divine right to the land and Washington almost no rights to the land, called for a "range war."

Hundreds of armed militiamen responded. They came from extremist groups that had grown by 600 percent after the election of the first Black president. In a foreshadowing of Jan. 6, the BLM was ill-prepared to deal with such a complex operation despite Cliven's threats he was "ready to do battle." Confronted by the militia, the feds stopped the roundup to lower tensions. That was a mistake, one being repeated with the kid-gloves treatment of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.

Leniency emboldened the Bundys. They surrounded the feds with snipers, one of whom stated, "I've got a clear shot." The feds retreated, the Bundys unlawfully retrieved their cattle.

The first effect of the Bundy standoff was images that thrilled anti-government extremists. It showed viral clips of right-wing violence were effective recruiting tools. The far-right realized not only could they play war against the government, but they could also reap followers and political gains. The lure of viral fame helps explain why so many Jan. 6 rioters posted their illegal exploits on social media, leading to their arrest.

The second effect was the Bundys acted as accelerants of far-right terrorism. Among those who flocked to Bundy were Jerad and Amanda Miller, who expressed an eagerness for violence against federal agents. The two were kicked off the ranch, but weeks later went on a killing spree. They gunned down a bystander and two cops, sticking a note on one cop saying "the beginning of the revolution," and tossing a swastika on the second, before killing themselves.

Trump threw gasoline on the terrorism fire: in PortlandCharlottesvilleamong mass shooters, "Boogaloo extremists," anti-BLM killings, an epidemic of ISIS-style car attacks encouraged by the GOP, all of which led to right-wing hero Kyle Rittenhouse.

A third effect of the Bundy standoff was to catalyze events that led directly to Jan. 6. Among those who traveled to Nevada in 2014 were the Oath Keepers and militiamen associated with the Three Percenters, which functions more like a network.

The two militias were all over the Capitol on Jan. 6. Twenty-one members of the Oath Keepers allegedly "played a critical role" in the insurrection, and four men affiliated with the Three Percenters have also been charged in connection. (Another 30 members and supporters of the fascistic Proud Boys have been arrested for involvement in Jan. 6, including four leaders.)

Both militias reek of white supremacism. The Oath Keepers have rallied with ACT for America, an anti-immigrant hate group, promoted racist Great Replacement-style conspiracies, and are anti-Black Lives MatterThree Percenters provided security for white nationalists during the deadly Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally in 2017. The next year the leader of a Three Percenter affiliate masterminded a Mosque bombing in Minnesota.

Racists gravitated to the Bundys because they are unreconstructed racists. Days after sending the feds packing, Cliven mused that Blacks were "better off as slaves." In his holy vision, white men have "ancestral rights" to the land, not the Shoshone Nation that has a treaty claim to nearly all of Nevada, including the land on which he illegally grazes his cattle. While fils Bundy are savvier than père in posing as defenders of freedom for all, Ammon removed his mask after a bit of praise for BLM. He now calls it "a wicked, Marxist, communist organization that deceives its members and destroys Black people's lives."

The infernal combination of militias, white supremacy, and frontier justice that coalesced at the Bundy ranch was the mood on Jan. 6. Foremost it came from Trump. Bellowing "take back our country," he repeated falsehoods that the election was stolen from him by non-citizens before he directed his mob to storm the Capitol.

Trump presided over a white-nationalist hate orgy: Confederate flags, a noose, rioters hurling N-words and flag poles, a "Camp Auschwitz" sweatshirt. One prominent face at the Capitol was Nick Fuentes, usually described as a white nationalist, but when combined with his Holocaust denialism, love of dictators, opposition to "race-mixing," and participation in Charlottesville, makes him hard to distinguish from Nazis.

The onslaught on the Capitol is a companion to the Bundy standoff in that both spring from the view that as white people alone own the land and the institutions, they can break any laws, commit any crime to secure them.

The fourth effect was Nevada created a model for right-wing violence. After the 2014 standoff, the Bundys and the militias took their show on the road. First, Ryan Bundy joined forces with a Utah county commissioner and backed by the sheriff, to lead a convoy of ATVs into Recapture Canyon, where they are banned because the area is rich in ancient Native American sites. Then rifle-toting Three Percenters and Oath Keepers descended on a mining site in Southern Oregon after the owners had a minor dispute with the BLM over their plans. In the summer of 2015, the two militias joined by the Pacific Patriot Network established a new front in Montana to confront the National Forest Service in another trivial beef over a mine.

The next incident delivered the drama the Bundys sought. On Jan. 2, 2016, nearly five years to the day before Trump's coup, Ammon, Ryan and a dozen heavily armed men seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon. They claimed to be defending a father-son pair of ranchers who had been sentenced to five years in jail after years of criminal behavior and violent threats against federal employees and their families. But the takeover was just another battle in their range war.

I was in Malheur for a week, reporting for The Raw Story until the feds nabbed the Bundys. I sat in Ryan's pickup truck, across from magazines of .223 ammo nestled in cup holders, as he held forth for hours on his fringe constitutional views. That inspired their revolt to take back land for the people, even if the people save a few in nearby towns rejected them. When questioned, Ryan did not deny they aimed to overthrow the federal government. Toward that end, they invited in a self-appointed judge who tried and convicted local officials in star chambers and planned to remove them from power.

By making themselves the law, the Bundys foreshadowed Trump's attempt to overthrow the government by whatever means he wished, martial law, suspending the Constitution, the Insurrection Act, or a violent conspiratorial mob.

The Bundys were sidelined for a couple of years by their arrest. But they emerged victoriously. The brothers were acquitted in the Malheur occupation after the jury allegedly demanded an absurd level of proof for a charge of conspiring to prevent refuge employees from doing their jobs. The feds' hands-off approach, allowing the Bundys to turn the refuge into a media circus for more than a month, also apparently led jurors to believe their presence was not illegal. Then in 2018, a judge in Nevada dismissed all the charges against all three Bundys in relation to the 2014 standoff because of prosecutorial misconduct.

Ammon Bundy found a new cause to spread his gospel of violent Christian nationalism: Covid. In April 2020, Ammon launched People's Rights, an anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-lockdown movement. Bundy talks of freedom and liberty, but he is building an army of anti-vaxxers, conspiracists, militia members and members of violent white nationalist groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer.

This is the fifth effect of the Bundys: The violent, conspiratorial white nationalist fringe is becoming the Republican mainstream. FOX News greeted the 2014 standoff enthusiastically, and the Bundys garnered support from a few obscure elected officials. The cross-organizing among militias and white nationalists in Nevada was hardly a lovefest, however, with rival groups reportedly pulling guns on each other. But as the Bundys kept provoking confrontations and Trump blew open space for white nationalism, they helped turn the GOP into a big tent of violent extremists.

Prior to the Jan. 6 Capitol invasion, there were five attacks on state Capitols. Ammon Bundy was in the forefront of the August attack on the Capitol in Boise. In Malheur, there was little support for Trump, but five years later, in December 2020, Ammon encouraged supporters to attend the "Stop the Steal" rally in D.C. On the day of the invasion, Cliven took to Facebook to lend unabashed support for Trump's coup.

The Bundys themselves are for the most untouchable. Ammon is running to be the Republican nominee for governor of Idaho. In a state where the GOP is so extreme it is Taliban-like, it has nonetheless spurned Ammon. But that is of no matter to him. As shown by the mob attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, he and his family have held the line. It's Trump and the Republicans who've rushed toward the Bundys.

By Arun Gupta

Arun Gupta, a New York writer and co-founder of Occupy the Wall Street Journal, covers the Occupy movement for Salon.

MORE FROM Arun Gupta

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