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The Western Roots of Contemporary American Fascism


When we look at what has happened to our nation, we are not spending enough time on how so much of this has originated in the rural West. I’m looking at this to some extent in my current book project and I know a number of other scholars who are as well. Incidentally, not a single one of these scholars started their career on these issues, including myself, but rather have moved toward figuring out what the hell happened to our country.

Meanwhile, Leah Sotille, who is an outstanding journalist working on these issues, has a good Slate piece about how the role of the Bundy occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in laying the groundwork for the rise of American fascism in the years since.

But van Tatenhove’s testimony made another thing very clear: Far-right militia groups have, for years, used the Western United States as a testing ground for extremist violence, staging stand-offs on public land to amass followers and experiment with what they could get away with.

Van Tatenhove would know. Sitting before Congress in a Descendants T-shirt and jean jacket adorned with punk pins, the former Oath Keeper told the committee that his association with the group began back in 2014, when he arrived as an “independent journalist” at the Bundy Ranch standoff in the Nevada desert. He was quickly sucked into the cause.

The 2014 standoff was started by the rancher Cliven Bundy, a man who considered himself a member of the 1970s anti-federal lands Sagebrush Rebellion, and who had been vocal since the 1970s about his disdain for federal ownership of land.For 20 years, Bundy had refused to pay the required fees to the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that he owed for grazing his cattle on public land. So, in April 2014, the BLM attempted to round up Bundy’s cattle as a penalty for non-payment. It was a repossession: Bundy hadn’t paid his bills, and the government came to collect.

But Bundy twisted the affair into something else entirely: taking to a right-wing YouTube livestreamer’s channel (someone who also positioned himself as an independent journalist), Bundy told a story of a rural family being attacked by a tyrannical government. He called for “We the People” to take a stand, and many people answered Bundy’s call. Supporters arrived from around the country — New Hampshire, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Arizona — and eventually outnumbered the federal officers. These supporters included the Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and members from chapters around the West, who seized the Bundy affair as an opportunity to promote their anti-government worldview. The feds found themselves surrounded: militiamen pointed sniper rifles at the small group of officers from overpasses. Eventually, the BLM let Bundy’s cattle go, and fled.

The moment the Bundys were found not guilty by a jury in Portland in the fall of 2016 was the moment that for me was when I realized that Trump was probably going to win.

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