America has some history with populist demagogues.
A Catholic priest from Detroit became a major figure in the 1930’s by playing to fears about economic collapse. Charles Coughlin, a kind of Rush Limbaugh-like character, had a national radio following. Coughlin advocating monetizing silver as a panacea for the depression decimated economy. It was later revealed the priest was trading in the metal, using his secretary to conceal his purchases, but knowledge of that scam still didn’t derail him. He moved on to stoking anti-Semitism.
In the same period, a fantastic character skyrocketed onto the national scene touting a plan to make “every man a king.” Huey Long appealed to the have nots by building highways, hospitals and schools in Louisiana, but he also presided over a virtual police state where, among other things, he required state employees to hand over a portion of every paycheck to his political operation. Huey would almost certainly have made a play for the White House had not an assassin shot and killed him in a hallway of the state capitol building in Baton Rouge.
A more recent variety of domestic demagogue – Joe McCarthy, Pat Buchanan, a guy named Trump to name a few – came into being playing on old American tropes: fear of “others,” hatred of our government or the evil threats of vicious foreign elements bent on our destruction. Much of the American story has been built on need to defend the country against someone or something determined to undermine or demolish all that is good.
Usually, the demagogue defines the threat as “endangering the American way of life,” a statement so broad and ill-defined as to satisfy the grievance of that segment of our society that is always upset about something.
Until Donald Trump inspired an insurrectionist attack on the U.S Capitol six months ago, the American demagogues have sought, often in odious and fundamentally destructive ways, to achieve political power by winning elections. Or at least they attempted to crush their opponents in the marketplace of ideas. But Trump has brought a new reality to American life: the demagogue as commander of what can only be called an armed militia.
A significant number of the Americans who assaulted their own seat of government on January 6 identify with certain militia movements – the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers. The Guardian reported in March on leaked documents from some of these groups indicating that have attracted hundreds if not thousands of members who are current or former military or law enforcement personal, but the groups also “include men and women, of ages ranging from their 20s to their 70s, doing jobs from medical physics to dental hygiene and living in all parts of the country.”
One Three Percenter patch says: “We’re everywhere.” Another proclaims: “Be polite. Be professional. But have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” As evidence of the January insurrection has made clear, these militia groups are heavily armed and certainly dangerous. Chants of “Hang Mike Pence” were not a statement of abstract political theory.
Which bring us to the West latest home-grown demagogue: Idaho Republican gubernatorial candidate and anti-government militia crusader Ammon Bundy.
It’s easy to dismiss Bundy with his big hat and attention attracting antics as a joke, a marginal figure much like the usual marginal figures who pay the filing fee and show up on a ballot somewhere in the West. I’ve been guilty of dismissing Bundy as someone few people should take seriously. I was wrong. He’s different.
The Catholic priest in the 30’s or a Pat Buchanan, who proclaimed himself the head of the “pitchfork brigade” in the 1990’s, certainly had followers who could be and were stirred up at the drop of a microphone, but until recently American demagogues didn’t command armed militias. Now they do.
In a Los Angeles Times profile of Bundy this week one sentence stands out: “Standing in his kitchen, Bundy recently used his smartphone to pull up the latest stats for People’s Rights — nearly 60,000 members organized in 29 states and Canada, all promising to protect their fellow members if called, he claimed. Bundy is quick to describe it as a linked network of ‘neighbors’ who make independent choices and are not under his direction.”
The lie to that last claim is put to rest by a visit to Bundy’s YouTube channel where he certainly is directing those 60,000 folks. In other statements he has called his followers “neighborhood watch of steroids.”
An American demagogue like Huey Long certainly called his followers to action, but the action was aimed at winning elections. We know what kind of action Bundy is capable of. He masterminded the armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon, he defied federal agents in a grazing standoff in Nevada and he led a violent demonstration inside the Idaho capitol building. The $750 he was fined recently for failing to leave a legislative meeting room in Boise is less than a slap on the wrist and will almost certainly embolden Bundy and his followers for the next action.
“We have the potential for multiple Malheurs in multiple states, in that at any moment they could bring hardened far-right activists, often heavily armed, into any one event,” Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, told the Los Angeles Times in February.
Bundy’s play for political office in Idaho is a joke, at least in this sense. He doesn’t believe in his own government or the idea that a democratic society runs on rules and law. He flouts such conventions as easily as he summons a mob to intimidate a local elected official. His political campaign is a means to an end and the end is to menace real elected officials into silence and acceptance.
Who knows what Ammon Bundy, a true believer secure in the sacredness of his own opinions, is ultimately capable of? He has certainly given us a preview of coming attractions. No elected official in the West – and particularly in Idaho – should be surprised when he ratchets up his pressure campaign, as he surely will.
And while some elected Republicans, the fringe of the fringe, have embraced and encouraged Bundy’s anti-government nonsense most others have sat quietly, apparently hoping he will just go away. But he’s not going away. He’s now injected himself into the very heart of their party.
There is a stark choice here for most elected Republicans: risk alienating Bundy’s militia followers by pushing back on all that he stands for, or choose to support the rule of law and democracy. The recent Republican track record on that choice isn’t very encouraging.