Sure enough, as the Feds backed down and out–at least for the moment–the camera has shifted to Cliven Bundy, the rancher who doesn’t want to pay to graze his cattle on public lands. So far, it’s not such a pretty picture. At The New York Times, Adam Nagourney reports on the scene. Sure enough, there are a few dozen supporters, at least some armed and girded for battle with the feds. (In most contexts, we call people who are willing to shoot government agents in the service of their beliefs “terrorists.”)
Absent confrontation, Bundy has been filling the days with sparsely attended press conferences and opining not only about the grazing stand-off with the Bureau of Land Management, but also his beliefs on abortion, African-Americans, and government more generally. The comments that sound most racist have been reprinted all over the web:
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.
“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Expressing some nostalgia for the benefits of slavery is not quite as problematic for an independent rancher in Nevada than more mainstream (and it doesn’t take much to be more mainstream) political figures who might support him. And it’s lately been important for Bundy to mobilize such support. Senators who have lauded him or the cause are backing off–or disappearing from the conflict. Other ranchers, who are accustomed to paying to graze their cattle on public lands, have already dissociated themselves from the case and the cause. He’s not quite the poster child that even very conservative politicians want to paste everywhere.
Of course, some supporters remain. Over time, particularly if government action remains measured and low profile, the ones who stay are likely to be at least as unattractive as Bundy himself.
The challenge for the BLM is to resolve the outstanding fees issue without making stylistic mistakes that take the focus off Bundy. (The BLM can’t exempt Bundy from the responsibilities that it imposes on all other ranchers who want to graze cattle on public lands.)
The challenge for conservative activists who would use the Bundy case is to find a way to valorize independence, vilify the government, and stay away from the details of the case or the person.
In essence, they need to use Cliven Bundy without being associated with him. If the focus stays on Bundy, this will be increasingly difficult.