Profile: Armed Standoffs With the Government, “Uber Militias,” and Ammon Bundy’s Run to Be Idaho’s Next Governor
For six years now, Josh Thayer has been at war with his next-door neighbor over the location of their property lines in Salem, a small town in Utah. Thayer has been prosecuted for trespassing and cited for keeping chickens on his property. He has accused the neighbor of various transgressions, a dispute memorialized in restraining orders, plus a lawsuit and an appeal—both of which Thayer lost. City officials, he claims, have conspired to steal his land so they can give it to well-connected developers. And these days in the West, when you think the government is trying to steal your land, there’s one person you call: Ammon Bundy.
Bundy, 45, is one of the 13 children of Cliven Bundy, a devout Mormon who in 2014 organized an armed standoff against the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at his ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada, where his family had been grazing cattle on public land for more than 60 years. Cliven had stopped paying federal grazing fees in 1993 to protest new environmental restrictions. After a federal judge ordered the cattle removed, the Bundy family, supported by armed militia groups, confronted BLM agents, who ultimately retreated to avoid a bloodbath. The drama played out nightly on Hannity.
The successful standoff turned Ammon into an instant star in the anti–public land firmament, especially after law enforcement failed to arrest any of the Bundys for two years. But the next confrontation would not end so peacefully. In 2016, Ammon traveled to Oregon—claiming the Lord had sent him—where he led a 41-day armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest the reincarceration of two local ranchers who’d been convicted of arson on public land. During the occupation, Bundy’s friend, a rancher named LaVoy Finicum, tried to charge a police blockade. Officers shot Finicum dead as he appeared to reach for his gun, yelling, “Just shoot me!”
Only then were Ammon, Cliven, and several Bundy siblings arrested and charged for their roles in the earlier Nevada standoff. Ammon and his brother Ryan were also charged for the Malheur takeover. But the Lord delivered: An Oregon federal jury stunned observers by acquitting the Bundys. The Nevada case ended in a mistrial after the judge ruled that prosecutors had engaged in “gross misconduct” by improperly withholding evidence from the defense.
The government’s failure to hold the Bundys accountable turned the family into folk heroes in some quarters. After spending two years in jail awaiting trial, upon his release, Ammon became a headliner on the “patriot” speaking circuit, and people all over the West invited him—and the militia groups in his orbit—to parachute into their local land conflicts. His popularity only grew after he mobilized his followers to oppose pandemic restrictions and covid vaccinations. In a timely merger of far-right extremism and Republican politics, Bundy has even leveraged his outlaw celebrity into a campaign for governor of Idaho.
The notion that Bundy, whose critics jokingly deride as the leader of “Y’all Qaeda,” might stand a chance in a statewide election would strike many Americans as absurd. Then again, nobody ever thought Donald Trump would be president. “[Bundy] has this arm reaching really far to the right, to the real extreme kind of militia groups, but he is always careful to position himself as nonviolent,” says James Skillen, a Calvin University professor and author of This Land Is My Land: Rebellion in the West. Bundy’s politics are extreme, Skillen says, but he speaks a language that appeals to mainstream conservatives, Trumpians, and libertarians, as well as Mormons and evangelical Christians. “He’s a meaningful link between mainstream and extreme conservativism in America.”
Win or lose, Bundy’s activism has consequences that extend well beyond Idaho. In late 2019, he formed an organization called People’s Rights, which now claims more than 60,000 members nationally. Dubbed “Ammon’s Army” by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a nonprofit watchdog that monitors far-right extremism, People’s Rights is rooted in what IREHR President Devin Burghart calls “middle-American neighborhood nationalism”—the idea that the only way to fight government tyranny is to stand with your neighbors to defend your constitutional rights. “For Bundy that goes farther,” Burghart told me. “It’s not just about neighbors but that battle between the righteous and the wicked.”