Why we made Cliven Bundy a folk hero
It’s worth spending a few moments to consider why some conservatives rallied around Cliven Bundy, in the first place.
Some of us warned against this instinct, of course, but there are many reasons why Bundy was a seductive force for some on the right. Part of the problem is that Bundy did represent a legitimate point: “It’s perfectly consistent to believe the federal government owns too much land and also believe Bundy’s remarks are offensive,” writes MSNBC’s Adam Serwer.
He also tapped into something else. As Josh Barro notes, “The rush to stand with Mr. Bundy against the Bureau of Land Management is the latest incarnation of conservative antigovernment messaging.” (Note: A year ago, I wrote a conservative defense of government. It could not have been timed any worse; the IRS scandal broke almost immediately upon publication.)
But there are some other reasons that I think deserve attention.
First, as I’ve long lamented, there is a pattern of conservatives embracing someone who is being bullied by the government or the mainstream media, and turning them into some sort of folk hero. But this “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” philosophy is dangerous.
Just because someone is being victimized does not bestow upon them the quality of virtue. What is more, the fact that someone is standing up to our political enemies (think Donald Trump, Ted Nugent, et al.,) does not, in and of itself, make them a worthy or honorable partner.
Yet, we find conservatives trapped in a cycle of abusive relationships. It’s almost like a trap. It usually goes like this: Government or the media oversteps its bounds, conservatives embrace the un-vetted victim, who — once feted and promoted on cable TV and talk radio (this is good business for conservative media, allowing them to pander to their viewers and listeners, and drive their political agenda) — says or does something utterly stupid. Then, MSNBC (and other liberal outlets) then spend weeks covering the boomerang part of the story.
… And then we repeat the cycle a few months later. What almost always starts out as a boon for conservatives leaves them with egg on their face.
Conservatives do this to themselves. In the grand scheme of things — with scandals like Benghazi and topics like Iran to cover — should it matter that some rancher in Nevada is a racist? Should it matter what some random guy thinks about race relations? Of course, not! But it’s hard to make that argument after you’ve spent weeks building him up just so someone else can tear him down.
So why do conservatives keep doing this?
Here’s a theory: When the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff resulted in the death of Randy Weaver’s wife and son — and when the disastrous 1993 Federal raid on the Branch Davidian in Waco, Texas took place — it’s fair to say that it did have a negative impact on the Clinton Administration (*Note: The Ruby Ridge standoff occurred in 1992, on President George H.W. Bush’s watch).
Both events were tragic, of course, but they also (understandably) fed an anti-government sentiment that was very good for the nascent conservative entertainment complex. Could it be that conservatives are still fighting the last war?
Like the aforementioned examples, Cliven Bundy had an “armed militia of supporters.” (As the New York Times recalled in 1995: “The Ruby Ridge confrontation involved an armed separatist brigade. The Davidians were also well equipped with weapons.”)
So if you are a conservative talk radio host, for example, might you not look at Bundy through the prism of Ruby Ridge? In the beginning, it might have been easy to assume Bundy would also go out in a blaze of glory, becoming a sort of martyr. And in this scenario, it would have been important to have staked out a pro-Bundy position before the government turned him into a real folk hero.
Instead of killing him, the Obama Administration, it turns out, simply assassinated his character. Or, more precisely — they gave him enough rope to hang himself.
It would have been better for the anti-government forces, I suppose, had Bundy met with a different fate.
Dead men tell no tales, they say. They also don’t make racist comments.