The ‘Best People’?

‘Chosen Country: A Rebellion in the West’
(Henry Holt and Co.)

In Chosen Country: A Rebellion in the West, journalist James Pogue investigates the 2016 occupation near Burns, Oregon, in which armed militants seized the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge demanding the return of federal land to local control. Led by the charismatic Ammon Bundy, the forty-day siege was joined by a variety of right-wing militant groups and so-called sovereign citizens. Embedding himself in the siege, Pogue finds not so much a movement looking to sever itself from the United States, but one intent on returning America to a largely apocryphal past premised on devout constitutionalism and individualism. As one Oregon occupier put it, “We’re, like, the best people that you could possibly imagine.”

Pogue understands firsthand the allure of the West. His own time trekking about vast expanses of federal terrain, living off the land and out of automobiles, satisfied a longing he developed from an alienating upbringing as a teenage anarchist living in Cincinnati’s posh East Side. He touches on the history of the Great Basin—a watershed that touches Oregon, Nevada, California, Idaho, and Wyoming—to explain its importance as a backdrop to the long struggle between the United States government and homesteaders, ranchers, and prospectors who pushed out West ahead of the nation in the late nineteenth century. For more than a hundred years, the Homestead Acts had served as the mechanisms for managing and dividing up these expanses, permitting Americans to stake their claims to unsettled land. But in 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The law gave the Bureau of Land Management—which had, up to that point, worked in relative concert with ranchers, loggers, and miners—new territorial policing powers and the right to exact licensing fees for use of the land for commercial purposes.

Seen as evidence of encroachment by a distant, elite-driven government, the 1976 law deepened the ongoing rivalry between government conservationists, who established vast expanses of protected federal land, and cattlemen, who insisted that the government held no right to own property beyond that which is enumerated in the constitution. This gave rise to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and ‘80s. Though originally local and limited in scope, the Sagebrush Rebellion drew nationwide attention and support among advocates of limited government. These included conservative politicians—Ronald Reagan, for example, counted himself among the rebels. It also helped spawn a sometimes violent militia movement. Although these groups have seen their numbers fluctuate over the years, right-wing militia activity spiked after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In 2016, Pogue was on hand to see how the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign dovetailed with the activities of the Bundy clan, whose acts of resistance became symbolic of the broader political divide. Much of Pogue’s focus is on Ammon Bundy, who became an avatar for conservatives like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul warning against an overreaching federal government intent on dictating the lives of ordinary citizens. Cruz went so far as to call the standoff “the unfortunate and tragic culmination” of President Obama’s “jackboot of authoritarianism.” 

The rancher rebellion resembles little more than a kind of rural entitlement, promulgated by mostly white men with a narrow and selfish understanding of freedom.

Through a confluence of fringe Mormon millennialism, western mythos, and a selective understanding of history and the constitution, an insurgency grew, not altogether unlike those in the Sunni heartland of Iraq and Syria, or in the Irish bandit country of South Armagh. And while Ammon Bundy’s less-than-civil disobedience may have been viewed as an outlier tendency in earlier years, Trump’s presidential victory, Pogue claims, demands that we reappraise the various political forces that go into the Bundys’ worldview—a myopic understanding of freedom and patriotism—and the extent to which this worldview has grown and spread.

During his time at the Malheur Refuge, Pogue learns to distinguish between genuinely disgruntled ranchers and so-called sovereigntists, those who have converged on the refuge to peg the rebellion to a broader nationalist movement. Many ranchers latch onto arguments for land transfers and deregulation—promulgated often by distant conservative think tanks—simply because they provide an alternative to a federal policy that they view as imperious and invasive. The turning over of federal lands to states and local governments would likely open protected territory to commercial exploitation and development, something ranchers with local concerns would not ultimately desire. In the end, he explains, “they use ranchers to advance the ideology of bankers.”

Pogue’s tale often reads like an ode to the drug-addled offerings of gonzo journalists like Hunter S. Thompson. Sometimes this tone works, but at others—such as when he recounts his drives through Brooklyn in a four-by-four with a shotgun in the back—it comes across as unnecessarily cavalier. Mostly, however, the author’s personal experiences and expertise shine through. Pogue’s love of nature and wildlife and knowledge of weaponry help him establish credibility with the rebels who distrust outsiders unfamiliar with their way of life. By the author’s own admission, this relationship at times tests the boundaries of journalistic objectivity. Pogue, for instance, is put in a compromising situation when a few of the Malheur occupiers ask him to chauffeur them to Salt Lake City for a gun run.

Pogue ultimately concludes that the rancher rebellion resembles little more than a kind of rural entitlement, promulgated by mostly white men with a narrow and selfish understanding of freedom—one devoid of accountability and indifferent to responsibilities they have to future generations. Behind the cowboy hats and the Mormon “yes ma’am’s” hides a more nefarious right-wing interest seeking to turn back the clock on American society and push for unfettered access to public places. For all of their sermonizing and constitutional tut-tutting, these radical ranchers in fact “have a teenage boy’s conception of freedom,” Pogue writes, one that lacks any real sense of collective national purpose. 

But the Bundys and others like them are not mere outliers. Pogue warns that the election of Donald Trump offered a lodestar in a dark and despairing night for forces—political activists and would-be insurgents alike—who wish to further divide the country and take from it what they see fit.  Bundy acolytes were not the only ones to notice this flare in the night, and even uglier movements—like the white nationalists who descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer—see a likely ally in the Oval Office who, with a wink and a nod, shares their understanding of freedom, the constitution, and one vision of an American way of life.

 

Chosen Country: A Rebellion in the West
James Pogue
Henry Holt and Co., $28, 304 pp.

Kevin B. Sullivan is a writer and editor based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @kevinbsullivan

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