In the comment threads to the posts about the standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge there has been both speculation about, and references to, what exactly is driving Ammon Bundy and his fellow travelers. The answers to this are neither simple, nor are they necessarily straightforward and easy to follow. Charles Pierce at Esquire, as several have done in the comments, has articulated that Bundy and his followers are seditionists. I think this understanding of what they are doing makes a lot of sense, but I also think they are insurrectionists. The reason for this is that they clearly believe they are rebelling against not just governmental power, but tyrannical and despotic government power. That this, as Mr. Pierce has observed, is an irrational understanding of the United States in 2015, and the institutional problems that it faces, doesn’t really matter. They believe it and it is the basis of the definitions neutralizing of acceptable norms and favorable to their current actions.
So what exactly do they want? If you watched Ammon Bundy’s statement of his and his followers intentions, you might have come away confused. And if you watched his 19 minute statement from last Thursday, or John Ritzheimer’s from Saturday, you might be even more perplexed. The reason for this is that the ideology or theology or doctrine that is driving this is a bricolage – an ideational construct from a diverse set of ideas, theologies, dogmas, and beliefs. Not all of which actually compliment each other or fit and play well together. For those that accept them, they have a functional coherence. For those that do not subscribe to them, they are confusing, appear irrational, and seem to be contradictory, incoherent, and make little sense.
In short Ammon Bundy and his fellow travelers want the Constitution upheld, starting in Harney County, Oregon. They also want to reclaim the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and give it back to the people. Also, they intend to be non-violent until they are forced to be violent. Most of us hear or read this and think: huh? The Constitution has not been suspended by the Harney County Commission. The Malheur Wildlife Refuge already belongs to the people and is held in trust and administered for them by the Department of the Interior. And if your intention is to peaceably assemble to seek a redress of your grievances, why have you broken into and are unlawfully squatting in a Federal building where you’ve established sniper’s nests and are stating that you’ll become violent (non-peaceful) if your actions are challenged in a manner that you do not like?
The real issue here is that Ammon Bundy, as well as his father (as evidenced in his orations during the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014), and the others involved with taking the Malheur Wildlife Refuge headquarters building have learned, and are now acting on, a completely alternative understanding of US history, the Constitution, their particular religion’s belief, etc. This is a combination of epistemic closure originating from alternative, and factually inaccurate*, source material combined with an equally irrational paranoia that powerful, sometimes secretive, forces are arrayed against them and trying to destroy their way of life. It is all cemented by a pervasive belief that everyone and everything that is not part of their ideological/theological/doctrinal system is either purposefully trying to deceive them or being manipulated and fooled into doing it unwittingly. This is why they first appealed to the Harney County Sheriff, because they believe he is the highest level of legitimate Constitutional government in America**, and once he rebuffed them, they immediately denounced him as somehow being coopted by their enemies or an outright traitor.
Some of Bundy’s and his followers ideas appear to come from the extremes and fringes of Mormon theology. This includes the references to Captain Moroni, who according to Latter Day Saints’ scripture led a successful uprising against a despotic king. It also includes a healthy dose of good old American millenarianism and eschatology and the belief that the Deity is blessing one’s endeavors because one believes them to be righteous. This has been with us since the Revolution when many of the Founders framed the coming fight with King George in apocalyptic terms and the revolutionaries as godly, righteous, and blessed. There also appear to be concepts carried forward from the Sagebrush Rebellion and the Wise Use movement of the 1980s. From what’s been presented, their beliefs also include typical and traditional tropes from the American extreme right. These include ideas about the role of government, civil society, and race relations incorporated from the John Birch Society; the Posse Comitatus movement; Christian Reconstructionism/Dominionism; Charismatic Christianity (which was also a baseline for Christian Identity); long standing anti-tax beliefs; and an extremely absolutist understanding of the 2nd Amendment combined with minimalist interpretations of the 1st and 10th Amendment; as well as the Supremacy Clause. Finally, a number of concepts that were in the Confederate Constitution, or in one case the lack of a clause about promoting the general welfare in the Confederate Constitution, seem to also be in play here.
It would be easy to dismiss all of this externally incoherent thought except that it is the social behavioral driver of an increasing number of disturbing incidents that the US seems unprepared to address. What we are witnessing is the result of social learning. These ideas and beliefs are transmitted through the primary associations of family, religion, and education – sometimes religious and sometimes home schooling. Learning that is both formal and informal. They function as the definitions favorable, unfavorable, and neutralizing that enable, promote, or retard behavior. Definitions favorable tell us what acceptable behaviors are. Definitions unfavorable retard unacceptable behaviors. Definitions neutralizing temporarily override definitions unfavorable, based on specific contexts, allowing normally unacceptable, illegal, illicit, deviant, and/or delinquent behavior to occur. These definitions are then socially reinforced within the group, movement, or society when they see other members rewarded or punished for their behavior. This leads to imitation – recreating the behaviors that the group or movement or society seems to reward. It is also almost impossible to counter or disrupt social learning from the outside without an overwhelming intervening event. This is why, 150 years after the end of the Great Rebellion (now doing business as the Civil War), white supremacy and racism still flourish in the US. It is very, very hard to disrupt and change (reconstruct) ideational systems and the cultures that they reside within. The Egyptians believed they had deradicalized the Muslim Brothers while they were incarcerated. Egypt’s reality over the last three years tells us this was not a successful endeavor.***
So what does all this mean for what is happening at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge? At one level it means we know what it is they believe, even if it doesn’t quite seem to add up for those of us looking in from the outside. It also means we know the process by which these beliefs are transmitted, as well as how they are adjusted over time. Developing a way to ever be able to successfully neutralize those beliefs, even if it is just long enough so that the current standoff can be ended without further incident, is the difficult part. In many ways Ammon Bundy, his father and brothers, and his followers at Malheur Wildlife Refuge and across the country are using the same words, grammar, and syntax as the rest of us. Unfortunately, they are also speaking a completely different language and there is no translation codex to help us interpret the conversation, establish communications, build rapport, and engage with them to constructive ends.
* That the material and what is derived from it is factually inaccurate is irrelevant. Even trying to demonstrate the inaccuracies is enough to further confirm them.
** That one of Bundy’s leadership circle is the husband of a NH state legislator (the one from CNN’s focus group who believes the President comes on the television in order to lie to her) just shows how little external coherence and validity the belief system has. If the highest, legitimate Constitutional officer is the county sheriff, then why would one support one’s spouse in seeking state level elected office?
*** Full disclosure: I was asked to write the review of Ashour’s book on the deradicalization of jihadis for the journal Politics and Religion.