I am so fortunate to have a very smart and informed group of readers who frequent this site. On occasion, I ask one of them to pen a guest post.
James Scaminaci III, PhD is an expert on the American religious right. I reached out to him for his opinion on the Bundy "standoff" in Oregon and what it reveals about the larger political dynamic at work in the United States. As he points out below, the Bundy Brigands may be cowboy cosplayers who believe in a bizarre view of the Constitution, and that Manifest Destiny gives them as white men the freedom to steal land, but nonetheless, they are a reflection of the neoliberal order and its assault on the commons.
When armed white militiamen seized and occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, on January 2nd the federal government and the American people became ensnared in another armed confrontation that stretches back to Ruby Ridge and Waco. The right-wing retaliation for those events was the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, including 19 daycare children, injured 650 people, and damaged around 300 buildings. Since then, the Patriot militia movement has warned the federal government that any more unnecessary loss of life from confrontations like Ruby Ridge and Waco will be met with force. As one of the Patriot militia’s leading Fourth Generation Warfare practitioners, Mike Vanderboegh, head of the III Percenters, repeatedly states, “‘No More Free Wacos.’”
Given those stakes, it is incumbent to look beyond the immediate issues—did the Hammond family receive fair legal treatment from the federal government and the right to graze cattle on the Wildlife Refuge—and examine the deep strategic background. While the Bundy insurgents may not articulate that strategic background in a coherent fashion, they are nonetheless participants in this strategic conflict. Moreover, by not examining the deeper strategic ideas and concepts, the main drivers of this confrontation are obscured and omitted from analysis.
In other words, without a strategic analysis we omit the Republican Party, the Christian Right, the American Lands Exchange Council, the State Policy Network, Americans for Prosperity, and myriad oil, gas, coal, diamond, gold, and timber companies and billionaires who have a huge financial stake in seeing that the strategy is successfully carried out.
The first background strategy of the Christian Right and its armed wing, the Patriot militia, is Fourth Generation Warfare. The central objective of Fourth Generation Warfare—a strategy and type of warfare developed by the Christian Right’s leading political-military theorist, William S. Lind, formerly the director of Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation, in two U.S. Marine Corps Gazette articles (1989 and 1994)—is for a non-state actor to contest and undermine the legitimacy of the central government, in this case, the federal government, while also contesting and removing the central state’s monopoly on the use of force through the formation of its militias.
The second background strategy is the transfer of hundreds of millions of acres of federal lands containing hundreds of trillions of dollars of mineral wealth owned by the American people, first to western states who lack the financial and expertise resources to manage these lands, and subsequently to the gas, oil, coal, precious metal mining, and timber companies, and individual billionaires.
The elasticity of the concept of “county supremacy” allows and fosters communications and collaborations between different movement segments. But, it also means something different. To the Christian Right and its corporate allies in the American Legislative Exchange Council, “county supremacy” means that county governments can seize federal lands and put them under county regulations, and, that the local county sheriff can interfere with or block federal law enforcement actions within the county outside of federal lands. It also means, consistent with the Christian Reconstructionist doctrine of the lesser civil magistrate, that these public officials, from the governor to the county sheriff, are responsible for interposing themselves or nullifying federal laws thought to be either ungodly or unconstitutional or a combination of both.
The Christian Reconstructionists, the strategic innovators and drivers of the Christian Right, developed the idea of the county as a fundamental and vital unit of government as early as 1963. The John Birch Society, in its support of white supremacy in the 1950s and 1960s, advocated supporting the local sheriff in order to oppose what they viewed as the communist-inspired civil rights movement. Latter Day Saints president Ezra Taft Benson and LDS W. Cleon Skousen author/activist placed heavy emphasis upon the county as a fundamental and critical element of government. Both were linked to the John Birch Society. It was the Christian Reconstructionists who in the 1980s developed the idea that “lesser civil magistrates,” that is, public officials from the governor on down had the biblical duty to interpose themselves and lead any resistance against federal tyranny. In 1990, the Christian Right’s Coalition on Revival through the latter’s National Coordinating Council promulgated the strategic objectives of electing Christians at the county level of government, including sheriff’s offices, and creating alternative Christian courts and militias under the authority of the local sheriff (see also Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility, pages 103 and 148).
If we go back to the antecedents of the Patriot militias in the 1990s, what is most striking, but overlooked by progressive analysts, is that both the Wise Use movement and the County Supremacy movement were created by, promoted by, and influenced by the mainstream of the Republican Party—including leading thinkers of the Reagan administration, the National Rifle Association, the Christian Right, and oil, gas, coal, mining, and timber companies and various trade associations.
David Helvarg’s exhaustive study published by the Sierra Club, The War Against the Greens, documented that the Wise Use movement’s network of power brokers included a bevy of organizations linked to Paul Weyrich—the Free Congress Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Legislative Exchange Council—and the Moon-financed Washington Times which provided extensive propaganda support, the Koch-funded Cato Institute, the Moon-funded Science and Environmental Policy Project, the Koch-funded Federalist Society, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Washington Legal Foundation, and nineteen other “pro-business ‘public interest’ law firms…providing the anti-green movement with tens of millions of dollars in free legal services. The firm’s directors coordinate strategy through an annual meeting sponsored by the Heritage Foundation.” The movement itself was funded by numerous trade associations and corporations in farming, livestock, logging, mining, and petroleum (pages 128, 129, 66, 136, 127, 22, and Chapter 1, “Inside the Beltway”). The County Supremacy movement, likewise, could be linked back to specific lawyers who had formerly worked for the Reagan administration and to key organizers of the Wise Use movement.
Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez in the latest edition of the journal Democracy noted that the ideological assault on the federal government is a three-pronged attack by the 50-state network of “think tanks” belonging to the State Policy Network, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, and the American Legislative Exchange Council. A progressive analysis that ignores the billions of dollars of ideological infrastructure created by the Christian Right and funded by billionaires and corporations engaged in an all-out assault on the federal government, as well as the Christian Right’s Fourth Generation Warfare strategy, is to invite strategic defeat.
Not only did the Christian Right form the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), but ALEC became the main driver of the Sagebrush Rebellion II and the current Sagebrush Rebellion III. David Helvarg (The War Against the Greens) pointed out that the original Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s gained the “support of the Cattlemen’s Association, Farm Bureau Federation, oil and gas industry, coal industry, NRA [National Rifle Association], and western sports groups.” Then Utah Senator Orrin Hatch claimed the federal government was “‘waging war on the West,’” while then Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt “called the rebellion ‘a land grab in thin disguise’” (pages 64-5).
During the April 2014 confrontation between the Bundy insurgents and the Bureau of Land Management William Jasper, a writer for the John Birch Society’s New American, wrote an article with a familiar title, “War on the West: Why More Bundy Standoffs Are Coming,” advocating “decentralizing, and dramatically downsizing (and then abolishing) many of these agencies and returning the land to the states and the people.”
But, it is a land grab. The Republican National Committee, mouthing the words of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s front group, the American Lands Council headed by Utah state representative Ken Ivory, which promotes the transfer of federal lands to the western states, stated in its resolution that “‘there is more than $150 trillion in mineral value locked up in federally controlled land.’” That $150 trillion belongs to the American people, not oil, gas, coal, diamond, gold, and timber companies, or billionaires.
The American Lands Council issued a statement distancing itself from the confrontation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, but insisted that the real issue was the transfer of federal lands to the states and then to the private sector. The ALC wrote that their policy “centered on transferring federally controlled public lands to the more responsive and accountable state and local governments so the American people can tend our environment locally, thoughtfully, and with common sense.”
In summary, what are these militia insurgencies about?
One, consistent with the principles of Fourth Generation Warfare, they are about delegitimizing the federal government by asserting that its ownership of western lands is unconstitutional and that its management practices and enforcement of all applicable federal laws are tyrannical and must be resisted by state and local officials, most importantly governors and county sheriffs.
Two, it is about transferring hundreds of millions of acres and hundreds of trillions of dollars of mineral wealth into the hands of billionaires and corporations.