When Ammon Bundy, the son of a Nevada rancher who led an armed confrontation with federal agents last year, claimed that the occupation of federal property in Oregon was about "freeing up" land and ending government "tyranny" that hamstrings miners, loggers, and ranchers, he gave voice to a deeply held, common-sense belief among many libertarians and conservatives.
Their claim is that government regulation, particularly as it relates to the environment, is the epitome of injustice, and that free people — as well as free markets — operate best when unfettered by agents of a creeping and dangerous collectivism: park rangers, surveyors, or land managers, among others.
And, while leading Republican presidential candidates have criticized the occupiers' tactics, they've remained unanimous in their support of the militia movement's goals, illuminating the American right's deep antagonism toward federal efforts to preserve clean air, water, and land for the public good.
Retired neurosurgeon and Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said he did not condone the takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, which began on Saturday after a protest in nearby Burns, Oregon, but aligned himself with the occupiers. "We have better ways of expressing our displeasure than that," Carson said in an appearance on CNN. "But the fact of the matter is there are legitimate grievances."
Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, both GOP contenders for the White House, agreed.
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"There is too much federal control over land especially out in the western part of the United States," Rubio told Iowa radio station KBUR, adding, "You've got to follow the law. You can't be lawless."
Cruz, according to the Washington Post, told an audience in Iowa that the Constitution protects speech and the right to protest. "[B]ut we don't have a constitutional right to use force and violence and to threaten force and violence on others," he said. "And so it is our hope that the protesters there will stand down peaceably, that there will not be a violent confrontation."
Cruz refrained, however, from criticizing the demands of the Oregon occupiers.
'They not only want the handout — they want the hand as well.'
Business tycoon and Republican candidate Donald Trump has remained silent on the Bundy occupation. But his recent criticism of the international ban on ozone-destroying aerosol sprays is revealing.
"You can't use hairspray because hairspray is going to affect the ozone," he said at a South Carolina rally. "They don't want me to use hairspray, they want me to use the pump."
"It comes out in big globs, right, and it's stuck in your hair and you say, 'Oh my God, I've got to take a shower again, my hair is all screwed up," he said to laughter from the crowd.
It was a criticism, albeit somewhat self-deprecating, of a widely praised international environmental policy, and it spoke to a resentment toward environmental regulation that is root and branch ideology these days within the Republican Party.
Whether explicitly or by omission during the Oregon occupation, Republican candidates have demonstrated their deep antagonism toward environmental protection, said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Suckling said that "the best" of the Republican field has failed to speak out against the takeover of the wildlife refuge. But he added, "The worst [of the Republicans] have endorsed parts of the radical anti-federal agenda, supporting its call to turn federal land belonging to all American's over to the counties, loggers, ranchers, and miners."
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Suckling recalled the widespread support that Ammon Bundy's father, Cliven, received among Republican leaders last year, when he led the armed standoff against federal agents in Nevada. The elder Bundy was embroiled in a two-decade-long dispute with the US Bureau of Land Management because he refused to pay fees for land he leased from the agency for cattle grazing.
Steve and Dwight Hammond, the jailed ranchers who Bundy and the two dozen or so militia members have pointed to as the proximate cause for their occupation, have received the equivalent of almost $250,000 in federal subsidies, according to Suckling. On one hand, he said, they've benefitted from grazing their cattle on federal lands, while, on the other hand, threatened federal employees and denied that the federal government has a right to even operate a wildlife refuge.
"The federal government has massively subsidized private ranches with public money, grass, and water for decades," said Suckling. "While many ranchers are thankful for the help and obey the federal policies that come with it, the Bundys and Hammonds are bitterly resentful of the very existence of the federal government. They not only want the handout — they want the hand as well."
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Christian Parenti, a professor at New York University who researches the history of government regulation of the environment, pushed back against the idea that the Oregon occupiers lie somewhere on the fringes of the Republican party.
"The militants are close to the mainstream of GOP ideology in their simultaneous fetishization of private property, while at the same time being dependent on federal handouts," he said. "Like many right-wing business tycoons — and let's be clear these guys are not business tycoons, they're just ranchers — they want to have it both ways. They want to hate the federal government, while being given, for almost nothing, access to federal land."
The hatred toward the federal government espoused by the Bundys and Hammonds, said Parenti, is something Republican leaders are eager to mobilize, whether it comes at the expense of public lands — or the atmosphere.
He said the grievances of the Bundys and Hammonds echo those of Charles and David Koch, the libertarian Republican donors that have funded efforts to undermine all sorts of federal environmental protections, most notably the Obama administration's efforts to rein in fossil fuel burning, which is the leading cause of climate change.
"This area in Oregon was declared wilderness 40-some-odd years ago and the Hammond family has had a 40-year grace period, during which they got to use public property at rock-bottom prices," Parenti said. "Their simultaneous dependence on public largess, while hating the public sector makes them pretty similar to the big business types who run the GOP: the Koch Brothers and their ilk who get federal tax breaks for producing and processing fossil fuels, while at the same time constantly badmouthing 'big government.'"
Follow Robert S. Eshelman on Twitter: @RobertSEshelman