Ammon Bundy and the other armed militants occupying a federal facility at a wildlife refuge in Oregon have a beef with the administration – the Teddy Roosevelt administration.
“It has been provided for us to be able to come together and unite in making a hard stand against this overreach, this taking of the people’s land and resources,” proclaimed Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who led a similar armed rebellion against the government two years ago. “If we do not make a hard stand, then we will be in a position where we won’t be able to as a people.”
But this “taking of the people’s land,” the “overreach” that moved these rebels to take up arms, occurred 108 years ago, when Roosevelt – a Republican president and a great conservationist – established the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, one of 51 such refuges he set aside, “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.”
So why have the militants chosen this moment to “unwind all these unconstitutional land transactions,” as Bundy put it?
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Perhaps it’s because they think the political atmosphere now condones such anti-government activity.
You can see why they might think so. Several of the Republican presidential candidates have been encouraging lawbreaking, winking at it or simply looking the other way.
A few months ago, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and others rushed to defend Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk jailed for refusing to obey federal law. A federal judge had held her in contempt of court for refusing to recognize same-sex marriages, and the Supreme Court specifically declined to give Davis relief.
But Cruz identified her jailing as “judicial tyranny” and said Davis was operating “under God’s authority.”
Donald Trump has put at the center of his campaign an extra-constitutional ban on admitting Muslims into the country. Marco Rubio said that if the law conflicts with the Gospel, “God’s rules always win,” and that “we are called to ignore” the government’s authority. Huckabee and Rick Santorum signed a pledge not to “respect an unjust law that directly conflicts with higher law.”
Huckabee floated the notion of using federal troops to block people from getting abortions and questioned the Supreme Court’s authority.
And, of course, there was the 2014 standoff in which Cliven Bundy, who refused to pay grazing fees for his use of federal land, got support or sympathy from Cruz, Trump, Huckabee, Rand Paul and Ben Carson. Cruz denounced the federal government for “using the jackboot of authoritarianism.”
The rancher lost much of his support when he delivered a racist rant. But not all of it: Paul earlier this year had a private meeting with the elder Bundy that the rancher said lasted 45 minutes. As my colleagues Katie Zezima and David Weigel noted, Paul and Cruz have both campaigned to transfer federal lands in the West to private ownership.
Flirting with extremists helps conservative candidates harness the prodigious anger in the electorate. A poll released over the weekend by NBC, Esquire and Survey Monkey found anger is particularly intense among Republicans: Seventy-seven percent said the news makes them angry at least once a day (compared with 67 percent of Democrats). Seventy-three percent of white Americans are angered daily (vs. 66 percent of Hispanics and 56 percent of African Americans).
So when some very angry people led by Ammon Bundy took over the (unoccupied) compound at the wildlife preserve over the weekend, the Republican presidential candidates reacted mostly with silence. A scan of tweets from Republican lawmakers also found nary a peep about the armed takeover of the federal facility.
An admirable exception (and one whose low standing proves the rule) was John Kasich, whose strategist John Weaver suggested “a good federal compound for Bundy and his gang: a U.S. penitentiary.”
Finally, in a radio interview Monday, Rubio said the militants “cannot be lawless” – though he added that he agrees with their complaints about federal lands. And Cruz, responding to a question, said he hoped Bundy’s gang would “stand down peaceably” because “we don’t have a constitutional right to use force and violence.”
That was mild criticism – Bundy had said he has no intention of using violence – but better than the usual wink.
As it happens, Cruz also released a TV ad Monday protesting inadequate enforcement of the border. “The rule of law,” he says in the ad, “wasn’t meant to be broken.”
That’s a fine sentiment. But to live under the rule of law we must follow all laws – not just those we like.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.