Ammon Bundy Helped Bolster The Militia Movement. Now He's Walking Away From It.
For more than six years Ammon Bundy and his family amassed hundreds of followers and supporters willing to pick up their guns at a moment’s notice and rally to their side for a confrontation with the federal government.
Bundy led two armed standoffs against the feds in Nevada and Oregon, and his family quickly became the face of a growing militia movement, bringing a national spotlight to armed groups eager for an armed conflict with what they believed to be an overreaching government.
The militia groups, with members carrying a mix of right-wing, anti-government, and conspiratorial views, had been growing since 2008 thanks to their heavy use of social media and binding opposition to then-president Barack Obama. The standoffs in 2014 and 2016 made the Bundy family, including Ammon, leading figures in the movement.
Bundy knew most of his supporters stemmed from the political right, so when he logged on to Facebook last week to talk to his supporters in defense of the Central American caravan marching to the southern border, he knew he’d face some criticism.
“To group them all up like, frankly, our president has done — you know, trying to speak respectfully — but he has basically called them all criminals and said they’re not coming in here,” Bundy said in the video. “What about individuals, those who have come for reasons of need for their families, you know, the fathers and mothers and children that come here and were 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.”
Bundy went on, dispelling conspiracy theories that billionaire George Soros was behind the migrant caravan or that terrorists were using the group to sneak into the US.
The reaction was immediate, with supporters instantly repudiating Bundy. People who traveled to his father’s ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada, in 2014 during an armed standoff with federal agents over unpaid cattle grazing fees, said they regretting doing so. Others claimed Bundy was being paid by left-wing “globalists” to switch sides. Some told him they wished him dead, or that militias had never supported his family.
Bundy had no idea how swift the backlash would be.
“I expected to get a decent amount of pushback, but I also believed that I could explain to them why I’d taken those positions and why,” he told BuzzFeed News. “But you know, I’ve always had these kinds of thoughts that people were not really listening to the principles of things, that they had aligned with me for some other reasons, and that some of those [reasons] are good and some of those might not be, but this last video kind of confirmed that.”
So on Tuesday, Bundy shut down his social media accounts and said he was stepping away from the public light and the “patriot groups” that had gained national attention for supporting the Nevada ranching family. The decision to quit wasn’t an easy one, Bundy said, but the movement’s unforgiving opposition to the migrant caravan and what he called a dangerous and blinding support of President Trump, left him with no choice.
“It’s like being in a room full of people in here, trying to teach, and no one is listening,” he told BuzzFeed News. “The vast majority seemed to hang on to what seemed like hate, and fear, and almost war mongering, and I don’t want to associate myself with war mongers.”
Bundy’s sudden exit marks a defining moment in the so-called “patriot movement,” one his family helped bolster over the past four years. Members of militia groups would talk about being part of the Bundy standoffs as a point of pride, a sort of street cred for militia.
While Bundy said he supports many of Trump’s policies and is grateful for his presidential pardon of the ranchers at the center of the 2016 standoff in Oregon, he disagrees with his depiction of immigrants at the border and his approach to governing.
“I believe President Trump, the best way I could explain it is that, he’s a nationalist, and a nationalist in my view makes the decision that best benefits the nation, not the individual,” Bundy said. “That is not freedom, and that is not what America was built upon.”
For those who have followed the Bundy clan and their clashes with the federal government, the 43-year-old’s defense of immigrants was not a complete surprise, even if it was to his supporters.
His father, Cliven Bundy, has previously defended immigrants from Mexico and Central America, citing their right to provide for their families as a human right — an opinion echoed by Ammon Bundy in his videos. Both Bundys have said they believe migrants have a legal right to apply for asylum, and that it is America’s duty to give them the opportunity.
And although the family has generated a mishmash of support from militias, conspiracists, sovereign citizens, right-wing politicians and critics of federal public lands, the Bundy’s ideology has always stemmed from their specific brand of Mormonism, emphasizing personal freedom, empathy toward the prosecuted, and conflict with the government.
“Fear is the opposite of faith, faith is the opposite of fear, and we have been asked by God to help, to be welcoming, to assist strangers, to not vex them,” he said in his video. “As we do that, the Lord is going to bless us and bless them.”
Religion has always played a central role in the Bundy family’s ideology, Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow and an expert on right-wing extremism for the Anti-Defamation League told BuzzFeed News.
“Although their views are not orthodox, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is pretty welcoming to refugees,” he said.
Yet many of Bundy’s supporters are not members of the Mormon church, and their views about immigrants are more closely aligned with President Trump’s.
“[Bundy’s] followers come from several places in the right, but they are almost all from the far-right,” Pitcavage said. “There are very few parts of the far-right that are welcoming toward immigrants. They tend to be nativist or xenophobic.”
Brian Levin, director for the Center of For The Study of Hate and Extremism, said far-right groups, including alt-right and militia groups, have begun to show divisions and fracturing since the 2016 election.
Many united in opposition to the Obama administration, and then in opposition of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and then in support of President Trump. But Trump’s victory has left the groups without a target, and individual issues and topics have once again begun to split some of those groups.
“Once it changed from an insurgency into something else, once the left was thrown out of the hold of government the expectations for the far-right changed,” he said.
Simply put, he said: “Once they win, the bickering starts.”
Pitcavage doesn’t believe Ammon Bundy’s decision will split the militia movement, but the so-called patriot movement, which has for years pegged itself as an anti-establishment group aiming to curb the abuses of the government on its people, finds itself in a difficult position at the moment.
“The militia movement has been in this weird space, unlike anything its experienced in its previous history because someone they supported is the head of government,” he said.
The unequivocal support for the president is a big concern at the moment, Bundy said, and a factor in his decision to step away from the movement.
“Those on the right have been so fanatically loyal to him that any word of opposition to bring out light in what he might be doing that is incorrect draws hate,” Bundy said.
He then compared the support of Trump’s base to that of Hitler’s.
“The time we find ourselves in now that is closest found in history is Germany in the 1930s, and they had a leader that was loved, and it was the same kind of following,” he said. “I don’t want to say there is that extreme similarity, but it very well could go that way, and people just give up their thinking, their rights, and they give up their government because they were so willing to follow him.”
Other militia leaders who previously rallied to his side have called Bundy in recent days to offer private support and protection, he said, after his family received threats over the Facebook video. Some, Bundy said, told him they agreed with his critical views of Trump, but did not want to air their concerns publicly for fear of facing the same backlash.
For now, Bundy doesn’t want to be a figurehead for the militia movement and said he was considering writing a book about his experience.
“I think they have their leader,” Bundy said. “I think, you know, President Trump is clearly their leader, and I think wherever he tells them to go, they’ll go.”