Cowboy Storiesby Nora Brooks
Once near the Alvord Desert—a corner of Oregon literally never in the news until last year, when cowboy militants took over the Malheur wildlife refuge in protest of the jailing of ranchers for burning federal land—my then husband and I stopped at a gas station on the way to a hot spring up the highway. We were almost out of gas. We had swimsuits on under our hiking gear. I had put my hair into two braids running down my shoulders and pinned a toy sheriff’s badge to my shirt. I didn’t think about doing this at all. Wearing the sheriff’s badge was a lark, like impersonating a character from Bonanza. It was supposed to be sexy and a little ridiculous.
You can’t pump gas yourself in Oregon by law, so we went into the store to find the attendant. The two guys standing by the checkout stared at me blankly, something itchy and uncomfortable in their gaze. The guy behind the counter had creases from the sun fanning out around his eyes and white hair. He was wearing the kind of thin white cotton shirt that hints at the undershirt beneath it, aviator glasses and a huge gray Stetson. “So you’re the sheriff,” he said.
I looked down at my chest. I waved my plastic badge away like imaginary flies. “It’s nothing.”
I did this partly because this was the only place to buy gas for 100 miles.
He showed me his own badge, which was real. It made a heavy noise when he put it down on the counter. I unpinned mine and handed it to him. Without hesitation, he took it. I was playing a character, but he was not, not for a second.
In the West cowboys can be found everywhere, just as soon as you get outside the urban outposts of liberal thought and artisanal pickles that dot the coastal edge of the continent: namely Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland. (You could throw in some of the larger towns like Boulder, Colorado.) Outside of this, the landscape is comprised mostly of churches, diners, bars, and sagebrush. This polarized geography can make for some remarkable moments of mutual misunderstanding. It is precisely the sense that what was valuable in this sheriff’s world was a joke to mine that Trump was able to ride to victory.
Even in the West and the great swaths of the Midwest, most people live in cities or the suburbs that ring them; the rural areas are underpopulated, with only 20% of the U.S. population according to the 2010 Census. But Trump didn’t need to get the votes of city-dwellers. He just needed enough geographical distribution of his wins to get the electoral vote. Just before the election, the Agri-Pulse Farm and Ranch Poll reported that 55 percent of farmers and ranchers who responded were voting for Trump, compared to 18% for Clinton. Thirty states, nineteen made up of vast pasture lands and farms, gave Trump the votes he needed.
One thing that made Trump so popular in these parts was his stance towards federal regulations that hold sway over how land and water can be used, and can make the difference as to whether a small family outfit will survive. The president of the Nebraska farmers’ union told Modern Farmer just after the election that farmers were “just by god mad, and they don’t want the EPA telling us what to do.” Oregon farmer Shelly Boshart-Davis told the local news that: “When Trump would talk, he talked about getting rid of regulation. As a small business, as a farm, that really, really spoke to us.”
It’s not so much that Trump made himself seem one of them—no one would mistake him for a farmer or rancher—as he convinced them he heard them.
A case in point is the Bundy family. During the presidential race, one commenter for Daily Edge, a political news company, tweeted in early November that Trump was “Cliven Bundy in a suit and tie.”
Cliven Bundy is the patriarch of a Nevada ranching family with a long history of bucking the authority of the Bureau of Land Management. He first achieved minor folk hero status in 2014 at the Battle of Bunkerville, as it is known in certain corners of the Internet. At issue was more than a million dollars in fines owed to the BLM for illegally grazing his cattle on public land for over 20 years. His family had made use of land in the area since 1877, some of which is now part of the nearby national park. In 1993, environmental restrictions meant to protect an endangered turtle put new limits on grazing. He refused to recognize the authority of the BLM and continued to make use of the land. When in 2014, the BLM finally insisted on collecting their money, he refused to pay them. Consequently, they confiscated his cattle.
The story might have ended there, except for an ex-marine named Ryan Payne and the network of militia groups he founded, Operation Mutual Aid. Cliven posted pics of his cattle on social media and issued a plea for help. Within 24 hours, Payne and his men were at the Bundys’ back door, having driven through the night to reach them. “We’re just a little farm family down here. We don’t have military training, we don’t have military equipment. We don’t even have a shotgun that works right,” Cliven’s son Ryan said at the time. “So when Ryan Payne and his militia started showing up, we could finally have a ray of hope that we can have a little bit of defense.”
Payne soon was in charge of tactics for the whole operation. Under Payne’s guidance, protesters surrounded BLM agents guarding confiscated Bundy cattle, at one point shutting down a highway with snipers. Finally, the BLM surrendered the cattle and went away. The Bundys draped a banner over a freeway overpass reading: “The West Has Now Been Won!”
The BLM probably backed down so quickly that day at Bunkerville because of the specter of Waco.
Many in the left-leaning swaths of the country have forgotten Waco, but for militiamen Waco is a cautionary tale, a “convincing last straw that our government had become a murderous tyranny,” as Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center told The New York Times. The Bundys’ YouTube channel is papered with comments like “We don’t need another senseless Waco, Ruby Ridge, Waco situation. Fed. Keystroke [sic] cops stay home.” For an over-educated city-dweller like me, even the spelling errors are an invitation into a perspective very different from my own.
Official accounts of the Waco conflict read like a good political thriller. On the road from Waco, in central Texas, out to the Mount Carmel compound of a group of Christian sectarians who called themselves the Branch Davidians, a package fell off a UPS truck and broke open, revealing parts for converting semi-automatic rifles into machine guns. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) obtained a search warrant for the weapons, and for statutory rape, since the Branch Dravidian leader, David Koresh, had reputedly taken girls as young as 11 or 12 as polygamous brides. The initial raid almost immediately escalated to a state of siege, at which point the FBI took over. Negotiations filled hours of tape with Koresh’s lunatic glosses on the Bible. Finally, the FBI pumped in tear gas to flush them out and rather than surrender, the Branch Davidians lit Mt. Carmel on fire and shot each other dead.
Or so the FBI testified, but you should see Waco: The Rules of Engagement, an Academy Award-nominated documentary that makes use of the FBI’s own transcripts and footage to reconstruct events. As I watched, the argument for government overreach began to take hold, a slippery sensation: the feeling of sliding very far to the right of where I normally land. I’m telling you this because Waco is the prequel to Malheur. If you believe that the U.S. government would massacre an entire town without any shred of due process, then everything the Bundy family and Operation Mutual Aid did makes sense.
The film lays out the government’s overreach in Waco via a series of arguments. For starters, the sheriff had found no machine guns on the compound in a previous inspection, and the Branch Davidians sold weapons legally—so the ATF’s weapons charges may have been trumped up altogether. There was ample reason to investigate statutory rape, but this crime is not under the ATF’s jurisdiction. The search warrant was therefore most likely groundless on both counts. This aspect alone provided a foundation for the far right’s mistrust of government, but this was not the end of the discrepancies between what federal agencies said they were doing and what they actually did at Waco. The ATF prepared to deliver the search warrant to Mt. Carmel as if they were orchestrating a publicity stunt, according to testimony at the judiciary hearing. They tipped the press off. Agents wrote their blood type on their arms or necks, as if anticipating bloodshed. None of this was standard procedure for what was supposed to be a simple “knock and serve” search warrant.
The FBI’s stated goal was to rescue the children, who were officially considered hostages of Koresh. But no one had any wish to leave Mt. Carmel. The agents outside the compound flashed their bare asses at the windows of homes inside and bombarded them with high-decibel screams of rabbits being slaughtered. Then they cut power and water to the building. All of this was particularly frightening to the parents the FBI were asking to entrust them with their children. Once the final attack began, the FBI pumped in tear gas throughout the compound, knowing that gas masks do not fit little kids. The effects of tear gas in closed spaces are: nausea, skin that is painful to the touch, unconsciousness, and eventually, death. In desperation, the mothers hid in a pantry off the kitchen, essentially a concrete bunker with no windows, and put wet blankets over themselves and the children. The FBI, who knew about the bunker, pumped it full of “massive gas,” according to testimony. The children would at this point have been inert and barely breathing—the same children whose rescue was the justification for the attack.
All of this contributed to an impression on the far right that the government does not care about the rights of certain people: the rural, the poor, those belonging to a less common sect of Christianity—the Bundys are Mormons—and anyone else outside the mainstream. In fact, the government may even be gunning for them. When the Bundys first opposed the BLM’s seizure of their errant cattle in 2014, one evangelical chaplain broadcast a video to his congregation warning that the Bundy Ranch might be the next Waco, Texas massacre. Another supporter’s You Tube channel put out a video that April titled: “Feds Prep for Waco Style Raid.”
Outside the FBI checkpoint at Waco, a disaffected Timothy McVeigh had sat and watched the tanks circle the ruins of Mt. Carmel. McVeigh timed the Oklahoma City bombing to the first anniversary of Waco. After Oklahoma City, something new developed—the militia, a combination of the turn-of-the-century paramilitary organizations and anti-government ideology. Militias soon spread to every state in the country.
The perception of the government as a threat to its own citizens is now a social currency, one that Tea Party Republicans have been more than happy to trade in. When Cliven Bundy made his stand against the grazing limitations set by the so-called Washington Establishment, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul fell over themselves to claim association with him. Michelle Fiore flew out to pose cuddling a calf recovering from the BLM’s roundup. Trump—ever aware of appearances—was right there with them in 2014, tweeting that he “admired” Cliven. He “liked his spunk.” Trump was also the only politician not to back away in the wake of Cliven’s revelation to Fox News that he believed black people were better off under slavery. Trump didn’t defend him, but he didn’t distance himself either, something that must have come off to Cliven as like-minded. Of course, Trump refused to disassociate himself from David Duke as well.
Two years later—in the same area I had so casually explored with a tin sheriff’s badge pinned to my chest—Cliven’s sons, Ammon and Randy Bundy, came to the aid of an Oregon ranching family named the Hammonds, some of their supporters at Bunkerville who had run afoul of the BLM for setting fire to grazing in a nearby national park. Controlled firing is a practice meant to improve the quality of pasture, but they had performed it on land they didn’t own. The Hammonds were originally sentenced to just a few months for their offenses by a local trial court, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had extended their term to five years under the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, a statute adopted in 1996 to stop the spread of militias. The federal judge clearly saw the Hammonds’ actions as political.
The Bundy brothers and their followers joined a protest at a courthouse in nearby Burns, but their participation quickly gained a manic momentum of its own. By the end of the day, the group of men dressed in Stetsons and jeans and carrying assault rifles had walked into the Malheur federal wildlife reserve perched over a wetland populated by rare cranes and taken it by force. Their demands: release the Hammonds and cede federal park lands to local control.
The weapons were hardly necessary. Unarmed biologists manned the low stone building. But it made for a good show. From a distance—although the group included both cowboys and militiamen who’d never worked on a ranch—the men looked like something out of a nineteenth century frontier portrait. In one photograph, a man rode a horse along a long silver expanse while a flag drooped off a pole held in one hand. They might as well have been in a John Wayne flick.
This iconography suggests a specific kind of freedom, what was promised by the line in the U.S. Constitution that reads: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” specified in the text as an inalienable right belonging to all men, who are created equal. The glue that gels this infamous list together is perhaps the last item: a citizen is promised the chance to pursue happiness without interference, whatever that might mean to them. They are not promised happiness itself. In other words, every person is free to grab their chances for themselves.
The primacy of this promise is perhaps best summarized by critic Greil Marcus in countless glosses on the DNA of American culture from music to art to literature. “America can be attacked through its symbols because it is made up. It is a concept, an idea. Take away the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution... and as a nation you have little more than a collection of buildings, and people who have no special reason to speak to one another,” he wrote in The Shape of Things to Come. “A few agreements made more than two centuries ago make up the contract that binds all Americans to each other.” We are as a nation rootless, immigrant, with little shared history or tradition to hold us together beside those political contracts.
The freedom promised in those documents is partly economic: the ability to start a small business, buy a split-level in a sweet suburb, or hold down a cattle ranch. It’s ultimately what Thomas Jefferson said he wanted when he envisioned a nation comprised of self-reliant farmers not beholden to anyone. It was supposed to be more democratic than a centralized government. It has rarely worked that way.
The problem with this blueprint is freedom in the abstract means nothing. In practice, there are always conflicts of interest. To increase one party’s freedom invariably means to constrain another’s. Put another way, the rhetoric of freedom for all really means freedom for some, and it was meant to. Those included in this entitlement to freedom were originally defined elsewhere in the Constitution more narrowly: owned exclusively by white men.
As the frontier crept west from Missouri, white men on horseback exercised their entitlements by seeking to lay claim to land. This is when the cowboy first stepped into the public imagination, and it was obvious from the beginning they were who the freedom of the frontier really belonged to. The vast buffalo herds of the Great Basin used to fill the horizon when on the move, a mainstay of many tribal groups. Frontiersmen took pleasure in shooting at them en masse from trains, apparently just because they could. The Northern Paiute who once lived near the Malheur wildlife refuge nearly starved to death when their pine nut orchards and seed grasses were cut down or trampled by ranchers. When they asked for a kind of rent out of the cattle herds and the silver lodes discovered in the Comstock, they were largely denied and went to war to recover their property. Federal forces joined a volunteer regiment to subdue them.
The few black and brown people who attempted to homestead in the Oregon Territory were met from the beginning with various attempts at exclusion. The earliest provisional government in 1844 both freed any slave found in the territory and demanded they immediately leave or be publicly whipped. Later, they arrested them. Until the ‘70s, there were sundown laws on the books in several Oregon towns.
One pioneer titled her account of settling in Oregon’s high desert: The Right to Dream. The Malheur area now is a patchwork of ranches owned by exclusively white men, and the wild buffalo and antelope herds are miniscule. Cattle dominate the grasslands. The Paiute largely live in small reservations or colonies dotting Oregon, Nevada, and California. If the right to pursue happiness is in effect the right to dream, this was the content of the cowboy’s dream, in real terms.
Cliven Bundy certainly sees himself as one of those entitled to liberty. “I don’t recognize the United States even as existing,” Cliven told The Atlantic, disputing federal jurisdiction over Nevada state law. In a press release issued the day before Ammon headed to Malheur, he wrote, “The U.S. Constitution limits United States government,” as if disputing the rule of federal law altogether.
In the early days of the Malheur occupation, Ryan Bundy told Rolling Stone what he wanted was to shutter the wildlife refuge forever: “The best possible outcome is that the ranchers that have been kicked out of the area... will come back and reclaim their land.” That was apparently the content of his dream. Like his father, he used the Constitution to widely justify his actions to the press: “What we’re doing is not rebellious. What we’re doing is in accordance with the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.”
In fact, the entire Bundy family and many of the other militants kept the document on their persons at all times in the form of a slim volume titled The Pocket Constitution. It’s marketed primarily to Mormons and the ultra-right like members of the John Birch Society, and includes an annotation by a conspiracy theorist named W. Cleon Skousen. One of Skousen’s notes claims that the Constitution was made only for the moral and the religious: so really, freedom for some. Probably Mormons.
Other of Skousen’s notes center on the notion that the role of federal government should be limited. Interestingly, the Bundys didn’t seem to have a problem with the federal government when it came to federal farm subsidies. Cliven Bundy was so heavily dependent on them to keep his ranch afloat that he earned the following moniker from his neighboring ranchers: “welfare cowboy.”
It’s a striking disparity between actions and words, since Cliven has now made a career out of arguing the feds should simply butt out. Clearly this rhetoric only applies when he’s seeking additional grazing for his cattle, not when he needs a bailout. There’s a whiff of self-serving desperation hanging in the air around his words.
As the standoff went on, Ammon’s description of the Bundys’ actions took an increasingly heroic tone. I spoke with a NBC correspondent, Gisele Lamarre, who told me that he said he felt himself to be “leading a movement.” And, despite being a self-described liberal, in the few hours she spent with Ammon she came to think his stance was justified. “Most ranchers work well with the BLM, but when they don’t, there’s nowhere for them to go to appeal...a Harvard-educated environmental scientist says no [to their request for grazing] without consideration for what the ranchers are supposed to do with their cows.” She told me her husband joked she had Stockholm syndrome.
But she’s not alone in finding claims of government overreach to be credible. People like the Bundys are not quite the outliers they once were. A 2010 CNN poll found that 56% of Americans thought the federal government posed a threat to the freedoms of ordinary citizens. It’s an interesting sentiment given that most of these people are not in the position the Bundys are: they’re not looking for grazing rights, or to start an outpost of renegade Mormonism. But freedom from government is popular, on a couple of levels.
The first is simple economics. People are hurting, and shortly after the 2016 election, there was much talk of the politics of resentment. Social scientist Katherine Cramer wrote for the Washington Post that rural Wisconsin was fed up. “They said that the big decisions that regulated and affected their lives were made far away in the cities...To them, urban types just did not get small-town life—what people in those places value, the way they live, and the challenges they face.” They felt overlooked, trapped in scenarios where hard work leads to economic hardship rather than success. For them, Trump’s message was appealing, with its promise of making America “great again.” It’s not that America was ever a place that truly offered equal opportunity to all, but what was resonated was the illusion that the Trump voter will be among those included in the liberties promised in the Constitution. A woman said at the Battle of Bunkerville that the standoff was “the beginning of taking our country back again,” which begs the question who she feels it needs reclaiming from: clearly not people like her. There’s an accompanying implication: the country ought to belong to people like her.
This economic side of rural resentment is easy to sympathize with. The Rust Belt has been decimated by the relocation of jobs abroad, and the middle class is declining, real wages sliding backwards since the ‘70s. More troubling though is the racial nature of the resentment among militiamen. After a rash of jailings under the 1996 antiterrorism statute, militias had become rare. Until Obama got elected. Within three years, militia numbers had spiked, according to the Southern Poverty Law Project. Their report notes that: “a key difference this time is that the federal government—the entity that almost the entire radical right views as its primary enemy—is headed by a black man.” One factor in this was the xenophobic kerfuffle over Obama’s birth certificate. Trump’s role in fanning the flames could only have added to a perception of like-mindedness.
In many ways, Trump offered a return to a cowboy America, for both those who consider themselves cowboys and those who don’t. He promised to weaken federal regulations concerning water use, public lands and other environmental protections that often hamstring ranchers and farmers. He promised to return manufacturing jobs, and to crack down on illegal immigrants so often scapegoated for the diminishing availability of jobs on American soil. He claimed in a speech to the NRA that any attempt at gun control would spark a revolution.
He’s also a walking attack on politically correct speech, which is appealing to those who—like Cliven Bundy—have to bite their tongue in polite society when it comes to race relations. Bundy got in trouble for suggesting black people were better off under slavery, but he had previously publicly characterized people of color on government assistance as welfare queens. Trump was well-known during the election for denying housing to black people, which he defended by stating he was targeting welfare recipients.
Side note: his stance on government assistance is ironic since much like Cliven Bundy, he has been called a “welfare king” for receiving $885 million dollars in federal tax breaks, grants and other subsidies.
But the militias that supported the Bundys go beyond mischaracterizing people of color as welfare parasites. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described militias as not only racist, but violent. There too, Trump is all in: he once encouraged a crowd of supporters at a rally in Louisville, Kentucky, to verbally assault an African-American college student for holding up a sign criticizing him. The n- and c-words were shouted inches from her face as she made her way out of the crowd. Trump’s response from the podium was “You know, in the old days—which isn’t so long ago—when we were less politically correct, that kind of [protesting] wouldn’t have happened. Today we have to be so nice.” A vote for him appeared to some to be a heady cocktail of access to economic opportunity and fewer restrictions on personal freedom, including the freedom to spew hate speech.
This combination appealed to many in the Bundys’ neck of the woods. In Nevada, exit polls for the Republican primary indicated that 71 % of those who were angry with the federal government voted for Trump, more than any Tea Party candidate who had posed with Bundy’s cattle. The main issue they were angry about was federal ownership of land. A VICE article in February of 2016 deemed them the “Cliven Bundy vote.”
Trump’s anti-establishment stance also played well with the kind of person who drives through the night to support a Bundy standoff. Trump warned of rigged elections, and the Oath Keepers—one of the groups at Bunkerville—went into minority neighborhoods in Philadelphia to “monitor voting sites,” drawing subsequent legal attention for voter intimidation. The Three Percenters—a national affiliation whose name comes from the three percent of American colonists who fought in the War of Independence—told The New York Times just before the election that Trump “spoke for them.” The Three Percenters were also among those who showed at the wildlife refuge.
As the Malheur standoff wound down, both Bundy father and sons were arrested. From his jail cell, Cliven blogged that if Trump was elected, he would protect their freedoms: “VOTE – Donald Trump. He believes in the proper form of government...He will protect each of our lives, liberty, and our property, and defend our first and second amendment rights.” Cliven must have thought Trump was in agreement with him on the subject of federal overreach. After all, one of his Bunkerville supporters, Gerald DeLemus, had just been named co-chair of a New Hampshire veteran’s coalition associated with Trump’s campaign. In the same blog post, Cliven railed: “We are all tired of the establishment, the large central government. We are not happy. We are scared. We do not feel secure in economy or safety.”
Days before the election, Cliven again urged his followers to vote for Trump. Over an image of himself on horseback on the open range, wearing a Stetson and holding the American flag, was emblazoned: “Blow your ‘Trumpence’! Family and Friends...VOTE VOTE VOTE.” The he signed off with a prayer for America.
As of this writing, the Bundys and the Hammonds are still in jail. Trump, thus far, has not acknowledged the Bundys’ legal troubles, though he did urge the remaining militants to stand down in the waning days of the insurrection at Malheur. He also hasn’t commented on the fate of DeLemus, who recently pled guilty to conspiracy against the U.S. and was sentenced to over seven years. In fact, since he was elected, Trump has come out for maintaining federal control over public lands. He told Field & Stream that he wanted “to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state will do...we have to protect the land.”
However, he’s not protecting the land for endangered turtles. Late last spring, he signed executive orders meant to increase access to the national parks for oil and gas drilling.
That long-ago day when I stood in the gas station across the counter from the sheriff of Fields, tin badge pinned to my Patagonia-clad chest, something strange glinted in his eyes. It most resembled scorn, but also could have been pity, or fear. I might as well have been standing on the other side of a great canyon that prevented me from understanding what it possibly could look like to be a real sheriff in an actual cowtown.
But I think I’ve come to understand something about the Bundys. Whether they know it or not, they are just as much faux cowboys as I was the day I stood on the peeling linoleum floor of the Fields gas station and handed over my flimsy badge. What they really are is failing small businessmen. It’s the way capitalism works, not enemies of the Constitution, that makes them both take federal subsidies and try to take over fragile public lands to avoid going bust. Are they learning that Trump’s support is about as real as my plastic star?
Nora Brooks is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in PopMatters, The Best American Poetry blog, Poets & Writers online, and H.O.W. Magazine, among others. She holds an MFA from The New School, where she was an assistant to the critic Greil Marcus and the poet and editor David Lehman.