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Ammon Bundy Is Quitting The Militia Movement After Breaking With Trump On Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric

"The vast majority seemed to hang on to what seemed like hate, and fear, and almost warmongering, and I don't want to associate myself with warmongers."

Posted on December 6, 2018, at 11:05 p.m. ET

Rob Kerr / AFP / Getty Images

For more than six years Ammon Bundy and his family amassed hundreds of followers and supporters willing to pick up a gun at a moment's notice and rally to their side for a confrontation with the federal government.

Bundy led two armed standoffs against the feds in Nevada and Oregon, and his family quickly became the face of a growing militia movement, bringing a national spotlight to armed groups eager for a conflict with what they believed to be an overreaching government.

The militia groups, with members holding a mix of right-wing, anti-government, and conspiratorial views, had been growing since 2008 thanks to their heavy use of social media and binding opposition to then-president Barack Obama. The standoffs in 2014 and 2016 made the Bundy family, including Ammon, leading figures in the movement.

So when he logged on to Facebook last week to speak to his supporters in defense of the caravan of Central American migrants gathered at the southern border, a frequent target of President Trump, he figured he'd face some criticism.

"To group them all up like, frankly, our president has done — you know, trying to speak respectfully — but he has basically called them all criminals and said they're not coming in here," Bundy said in the video. "What about individuals, those who have come for reasons of need for their families, you know, the fathers and mothers and children that come here and were willing to go through the process to apply for asylum so they can come into this country and benefit from not having to be oppressed continually?"

Bundy went on, dispelling conspiracy theories that billionaire George Soros was behind the caravan or that terrorists were using the group to sneak into the US.

But the backlash from his supporters was immediate, with many repudiating Bundy for his views. Followers who had traveled to his father's ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada, in 2014 during an armed standoff with federal agents over unpaid cattle grazing fees said they regretted doing so. Others claimed Bundy was being paid by left-wing "globalists" to switch sides. Some told him they wished he was dead, or that militias had never supported his family.

Bundy was shocked by the swift reaction.

"I expected to get a decent amount of pushback, but I also believed that I could explain to them why I'd taken those positions and why," he told BuzzFeed News. "But you know, I've always had these kinds of thoughts that people were not really listening to the principles of things, that they had aligned with me for some other reasons, and that some of those [reasons] are good and some of those might not be, but this last video kind of confirmed that."

Screenshot / Facebook

So on Tuesday, Bundy shut down his social media accounts and said he was stepping away from the public light and the "patriot groups" that had gained national attention while supporting the Nevada ranching family. The decision to quit wasn't an easy one, Bundy said, but the movement's unforgiving opposition to the migrant caravan and what he called a dangerous and blinding support of President Trump left him with no choice.

"It's like being in a room full of people in here, trying to teach, and no one is listening," he said. "The vast majority seemed to hang on to what seemed like hate, and fear, and almost warmongering, and I don't want to associate myself with warmongers."

Bundy's sudden exit marks a defining moment in the so-called "patriot movement," one his family helped bolster over the past four years. Members of militia groups would talk about being part of the Bundy standoffs as a point of pride, a sort of street cred for militia.

While Bundy said he supports many of Trump's policies and is grateful for his presidential pardon of the ranchers at the center of the 2016 standoff in Oregon, he disagrees with his depiction of immigrants at the border and his approach to governing.

"I believe President Trump, the best way I could explain it, is that he's a nationalist, and a nationalist in my view makes the decision that best benefits the nation, not the individual," Bundy said. "That is not freedom, and that is not what America was built upon."

Protesters gather for rancher Cliven Bundy near Bunkerville, Nevada, in April 2014.
Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Protesters gather for rancher Cliven Bundy near Bunkerville, Nevada, in April 2014.

For those who have followed the Bundy clan and their clashes with the federal government, the 43-year-old's defense of immigrants was not a complete surprise, even if it was to his supporters.

His father, Cliven Bundy, has previously defended immigrants from Mexico and Central America, citing their desire to provide for their families as a human right — an opinion echoed by Ammon Bundy in his videos. Both men have said they believe migrants have a legal right to apply for asylum in the US, and that it is lawmakers' duty to give them that opportunity.

And although the family has generated a mishmash of support from militias, conspiracists, sovereign citizens, right-wing politicians, and critics of federal public lands, the Bundys' ideology has always stemmed from their specific brand of Mormonism, emphasizing personal freedom, empathy toward the persecuted, and conflict with the government.

"Fear is the opposite of faith, faith is the opposite of fear, and we have been asked by God to help, to be welcoming, to assist strangers, to not vex them," he said in his video. "As we do that, the Lord is going to bless us and bless them."

Religion has always played a central role in the Bundy family's ideology, Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow and an expert on right-wing extremism for the Anti-Defamation League told BuzzFeed News.

"Although [the Bundys'] views are not orthodox, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is pretty welcoming to refugees," he said.

Yet many of Bundy's supporters are not members of the Mormon church, and their views on immigration are more closely aligned with President Trump's hardline stance.

"[Bundy's] followers come from several places in the right, but they are almost all from the far-right," Pitcavage said. "There are very few parts of the far-right that are welcoming toward immigrants. They tend to be nativist or xenophobic."

Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, said far-right groups, including alt-right and militia gatherings, have begun to show divisions and fractures since the 2016 election.

Ammon Bundy (left) meets with Harney County Sheriff David Ward near Burns, Oregon, in January 2016.
Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Ammon Bundy (left) meets with Harney County Sheriff David Ward near Burns, Oregon, in January 2016.

Many involved in the groups were united in opposition to the Obama administration, then to Hillary Clinton's campaign, and later in support of President Trump. But Trump's victory has left the groups without a target, and individual issues and topics have once again begun to split some of their followers.

"Once it changed from an insurgency into something else, once the left was thrown out of the hold of government, the expectations for the far-right changed," Levin said.

It's unlikely Bundy's decision to exit will further splinter militia groups, Pitcavage said, but the so-called patriot movement — which has for years pegged itself as an anti-establishment collective aimed at curbing government abuses — finds itself in a difficult position at the moment.

"The militia movement has been in this weird space, unlike anything it's experienced in its previous history because someone they supported is the head of government," he said.

The unequivocal support for the president by his followers was a big concern, Bundy said, and a factor in his decision to step away from the movement.

"Those on the right have been so fanatically loyal to him that any word of opposition to bring out light in what he might be doing that is incorrect draws hate," Bundy said.

He then took it a step further, comparing the support of Trump's base to that of Adolf Hitler's.

"The time we find ourselves in now that is closest found in history is Germany in the 1930s, and they had a leader that was loved, and it was the same kind of following," he said. "I don't want to say there is that extreme similarity, but it very well could go that way, and people just give up their thinking, their rights, and they give up their government because they were so willing to follow him."

Other militia leaders who had previously rallied to Bundy's side have called him in recent days to privately offer support and protection, he said, after his family received threats over the Facebook video. Some, Bundy said, told him they agreed with his views critical of Trump but did not want to air their opinions publicly for fear of facing a similar backlash.

For now, Bundy doesn't want to be associated with the militia movement and said he was considering writing a book about his experience.

"I think they have their leader," he said. "I think, you know, President Trump is clearly their leader, and I think wherever he tells them to go, they'll go."


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