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It’s only fitting that Oregon’s self-aggrandizing militia sit-in is happening in a state with such a rich history of institutional racism. Make no mistake, despite their constitutional fervour, the daddy-swore-an-oath movement is symptomatic of an increasingly xenophobic, reactionary, and racist American right wing.
The current Oregon stand-off began when ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond were ordered to return to prison for an earlier conflict over grazing rights and arson. Ammon Bundy, son of noted racist and right-wing extremist Cliven Bundy, latched onto the issue as a way to continue his family and their supporters’ fight against the federal government, having already engaged in a tense 2014 stand off with the FBI over an on-going grazing dispute. While the Hammonds have since turned themselves in to police, publicly distancing themselves from the militia ostensibly fighting in their name, Ammon Bundy and his supporters are prepared to kill or be killed.
To understand the motivations of the ‘patriots’ hunkered down in a Harney County wildlife preserve, you first have to understand the growing anti-federalist sentiment that has cropped up during the Obama administration. In 2009, the US Department of Homeland Security warned that the economic downturn and election of a black president would lead to a surge in the growth of extremist right-wing and militia groups. It happened.
Since Obama’s 2008 election, anti-federal militias have surged in popularity. Comprised overwhelmingly of white men, many with previous military experience, these militia lean heavily towards the extreme right wing. For these ‘patriots,’ conspiracy theories are accepted fact—it’s just a matter of time, they feel, until Obama declares martial law, takes their guns, and secures an unlawful third term in office. In early 2015, Texan militias mobilized against the Jade Helm military exercises, fearing a federal government takeover. The militia currently in Oregon believes that they are fighting against "a socialist agenda to seize rural private land and drive predominantly white farmers into the cities. There, they believe the government will detain right-wing activists, seize privately held guns, turn the cities into concentration camps, and allow the UN (or China) to invade."
Another key ideological platform? Anti-Islamic hate speech. These radical grassroots organizations are part and parcel of the political normalization of virulent Islamophobia in American politics. A fundraising website associated with Bundy’s militia claims to be "leading the fight against Islam," apparently by selling shirts and bumper stickers emblazoned with the words "Fuck Islam." This is not an isolated case: as Islamophobic hysteria spreads across the United States, militias and right-wing extremists are leading the way.
It would be tempting to categorize these groups as fringe lunatics if their values were not so widespread, or if mainstream presidential hopefuls weren’t pandering to their conspiracy-theory addled delusions. When Donald Trump proposes a blanket-ban on Muslims entering the United States "until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on," or when Ted Cruz formally supports the inquiry into whether the Jade Helm exercises are in fact an Obama-led plan to disarm Texans, they are reinforcing the toxic ideology of the Bundys and their ilk. Cruz, Trump, Carson and the rest can call for a peaceful resolution all they like—it doesn’t change the fact that the right-wing, anti-federalist, Islamophobic militia ideology is legitimized by the dog-whistling of the leaders of the Republican party.