A Rebellion in the West
by james pogue
henry holt & co., 304 pages, $28
At a time when most of the news on television is at some level fake, the 2014 standoff at the Bundy ranch in Nevada stood out as a real event. Here was no pseudo-spectacle thrown together for the cameras. Cliven Bundy, a Mormon rancher in Nevada, had a real quarrel with the Bureau of Land Management, and their armed confrontation had real stakes in terms of whether the federal government would succeed in rounding up and confiscating the stubborn rancher’s cattle over a regulatory dispute. It came down to a test of nerves, and the underdogs won and made the BLM back down. It could hardly have been more cinematic if they had scripted it.
Journalist James Pogue has written the best book of the half dozen published about the Bundys, Chosen Country: A Rebellion in the West. His advantage lay partly in access. He knew many of the cast of characters—including LaVoy Finicum, the sole fatality of the standoffs—from years of covering anti-BLM protests elsewhere in the West. He is also the best guide to the underlying policy issues. When Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity turned the Bundys into media celebrities, the focus was on their glamour as cowboys. But Cliven and his sons Ammon and Ryan were not just romantic; they had a point.
The Bureau of Land Management controls the federal government’s vast western holdings, including two-thirds of the land in Nevada and nearly half of Utah. Since the 1970s, the BLM’s decisions have been increasingly constrained by environmental regulation. When the desert tortoise was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1989, Nevada’s Clark County used an obscure provision of the law to allow real estate developers around Las Vegas to destroy tortoise habitats in exchange for offsetting protections elsewhere. The offsets were taken out of the ranchers’ grazelands. Ranchers sued the federal government over what looked to them like corruption. Cliven Bundy went further and ceased to acknowledge the BLM completely.
More paranoid voices like radio host Alex Jones of InfoWars told a darker version of the story where the favored interests crowding out the ranchers were not just Las Vegas developers, but also Chinese energy companies backed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—and that was mostly true, too. Sen. Reid really did recruit a Chinese company to build a solar farm in Clark County, and the BLM really did offset the environmental impact of solar projects by reducing cattle grazing (although the particular $5 billion project that most exercised Jones, where Reid and the Chinese company were connected through his son’s law firm, was eventually canceled).
The larger problem from the ranchers’ point of view was that it seemed like lots of people back east would prefer they go away altogether. America can import all the beef it needs, and then the West could be given back to nature. Thus the BLM has become, as Pogue explains,
part of an environmentalist plot to take their livelihoods, force people off the land, destroy rural communities, and turn the entire West into a manicured playground for bighorn sheep and hikers from Boston. And it’s true that this is a pretty fair picture of what some people want, and that some seem driven more by a cultural distaste for ranchers and rednecks than they are by a desire to challenge the larger forces that threaten the lands of the West.
In other words, powerful people hate the ranchers not for what they do but for who they are—which is ironic, because the people Pogue meets are far from being culture-war caricatures. One man tells him about a fellow militiaman back in Idaho who had a sex change, which their group decided after some discussion was okay: “We’re constitutionalists, and what does the Constitution say about a sex change?” Another man tells Pogue that the Bundy rebels could find common ground with left-wing protest groups like Occupy Wall Street: “See, like, we would like to go to that. But I don’t think they want us there.” Why? “Because we’re the kind of people everyone thinks are rednecks and racists.” Pogue never hears anyone mention the name Barack Obama.
Pogue is able to get these men to open up to him because of his own unusual background. He was raised in Cincinnati by Quaker parents who met in the sixties as Leninists and who brought up their children in Section 8 housing for financial and ideological reasons. “I was the only white kid in the nightly pickup baseball games,” he recalls. After leaving Quakerism in his twenties, Pogue had a spiritual revelation tied up with his growing interest in gardening. The plants connected him to a religious impulse that he chose to take seriously, and he and his girlfriend even started going to Mass. He was therefore more willing than the average journalist to accept it as rational when people told him they came to the Bundy encampment because it was God’s will.
Botany itself was useful in establishing his bona fides. On a car ride through Utah, Pogue spots junipers on the side of the road: “I made a guess, given that they were just appearing, at what our elevation must have been. I was pretty close.” His militiaman escort laughs: “That’s not bad. You might actually know more than we’d give an urban cowboy credit for.”
But when Pogue tried to convey the rebels’ perspective for readers at the New York Times, where he published articles during the Malheur standoff in 2016, the feedback was not just hostile but bloodthirsty:
a universally negative stream of comments from liberals arguing more or less that I was an ignorant terrorist sympathizer blindly enamored of cowboys and that LaVoy was a violent monster who got what he deserved.
Finicum was shot by the FBI at a roadblock as he either reached for a sidearm or flailed his arms stumbling through a snowbank, depending on whom you ask.
A common refrain on social media during the Bundy standoff was to ask how the government would have responded if they weren’t white men. The Bundys see a different double standard. In their experience, favored left-wing groups like environmentalists and renewable energy corporations get special treatment from federal bureaucrats; disfavored right-wing groups such as Mormons and ranchers get the full weight of the law. This holds true even when the environmentalists are just as lawless as the Bundys. The Biden administration’s current nominee to head the BLM, Tracy Stone-Manning, once personally assisted a group of ecoterrorists engaged in tree-spiking, an illegal practice that can be lethal to loggers.
Events since 2016 tend to support the Bundy view. Churches were shuttered during COVID lockdowns; Black Lives Matter protests were encouraged. Ashli Babbitt, an unarmed Trump supporter killed by Capitol Police on January 6, is condemned as a domestic terrorist on CNN, and her shooter goes unpunished; the Manhattan lawyers who threw a Molotov cocktail at a cop car during a Black Lives Matter protest last year are given glowing press writeups and offered a plea deal. Pogue describes the Bundy standoff as a portent, the first moment when “the full scope of our national derangement” was revealed and our politics started to go crazy. If present trends continue, it may be not just a portent but a preview.
Helen Andrews is a senior editor at the American Conservative.