Ammon Bundy has carried a small copy of the U.S. Constitution in his front pocket for the past seven years. He does so to remind himself of what the government is supposed to do to serve the people without abusing its authority, he said.
The far-right activist known for his armed occupation of federal land in Oregon rejects the “anti-government label” but is happy to swap it for a catchier one: “I am definitely anti-corrupt-government, anticronyism,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post, adding that he has never rallied for a revolution to overthrow the government.
Over the weekend, Bundy, 45, announced his bid to be governor of Idaho in what analysts say is a sign of state politics moving further to the right — and a wider national trend of anti-establishment candidates going mainstream.
Jeffrey Lyons, an assistant professor of political science at Boise State University, said Bundy is an example of politically extreme candidates garnering attention and support not only in Idaho but across the country — and across party lines.
“In American politics it’s a good time to be in the ideological extreme, and we have seen success in local, state and federal elections and across both parties people running on an anti-establishment platform,” said Lyons, citing other examples of far-right representatives including U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.
In a nation where frustration toward the political establishment runs deep — and is heightened by pandemic-related anxiety — Lyons said nontraditional leaders such as Bundy offer an engaging and appealing alternative.
“People aren’t satisfied, so you have this sense of anger toward how things have been going and as a result rejection to people who have been running the show,” he added.
In an announcement video posted Saturday, Bundy said he is running for office because he is “sick and tired of all the political garbage.”
“I’m tired of our freedoms being taken from us, and I’m tired of the corruption that is rampant in our state government,” he says in the video, wearing his signature cowboy hat.
Bundy’s platform for the 2022 election revolves around the notion of minimal to no intrusion of government, and he vows to eliminate property and income taxes, as well as federal control over land and public health mandates.
In the video, Bundy warns that President Joe Biden will “try to take away our gun rights, freedom of religion, parental rights, and more.” Biden has pushed for Congress to pass stricter gun laws and has expressed support for abortion rights.
The rancher from Nevada is not only a staunch opponent of federal government intrusion but of state government as well.
“The government is supposed to be there to defend peoples’ lives and property; they are not supposed to be an intrusion,” Bundy told The Washington Post. He said he would be “a governor that leaves people alone, allows them to trade, to speak, to assemble, to worship.”
Bundy says that although he agrees with the Republican Party’s fundamental tenets — which he said include “minimal government intrusion in people’s lives” — it “has turned away from these principles” and “failed to stand for their rights and liberties.”
“It needs to be shaken up,” he added. “Republicans need to start serving the people again rather than serving themselves.”
Robert Futrell, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said Bundy is tapping into a political and social climate in which extreme ideologies, considered “fringe” in the past, are becoming more widely accepted as a part of mainstream politics.
Like other “extremists,” Futrell said, Bundy is trying to push radical ideas into mainstream political thinking “to skew what is deemed acceptable and reasonable to talk about in the political realm.” Futrell researches political extremism and white supremacy in the United States.
“When you move that acceptability, you are changing the conversation in important ways that allow the most extreme to have opportunities to get into that conversation and claim legitimacy that they weren’t able to claim years ago,” he said.
A popular renegade-type figure, Bundy is known for his repeated conflicts with the government, including an armed standoff with federal officials at his family ranch in Nevada in 2014, over the refusal of his father, Cliven Bundy, to pay grazing fees.
He was charged with using “force, threats and intimidation” to stop federal agents from performing their duties. Ammon, his brother Ryan and Cliven Bundy were indicted and served jail time, but the charges were later dismissed.
In 2016, he gained national attention when he led an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, which began as a rally supporting two ranchers convicted of arson on federal land. Although he was arrested along with other activists including his brother, they were acquitted of federal conspiracy charges related to the operation that lasted 41 days and left one occupier dead.
Bundy gained more supporters during the COVID-19 pandemic by vociferously opposing federal and state coronavirus-related measures, and by staging numerous protests including several outside Idaho lawmakers’ homes.
Last year, he was arrested at the Idaho Capitol after leading a march to protest the state’s stay-home orders. He was charged with misdemeanor trespassing for disrupting a meeting of the Legislature.
He was arrested in March for refusing to wear a mask in an Idaho courtroom where he was to appear for his trial on the trespassing charge.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Bundy founded “People’s Rights,” which he described as “neighborhood watch on steroids,” a system to swiftly mobilize and respond when someone’s rights are being infringed.
The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights and the Montana Human Rights Network found that People’s Rights and Bundy seized on coronavirus anxiety and cultivated “a dangerous new network” of gun-toting “militia members, anti-maskers, conspiracists, preppers, anti-vaxxers, and others.”
What started “with a few dozen supporters” in March 2020 has expanded to more than 20,000 members across the country. The report concluded that Bundy and the People’s Rights leaders differentiate themselves from a more traditional “anti-government” narratives, aiming instead for “governmental power to be used to protect the ‘righteous’ against ‘wicked’ liberals.”
The report highlights that the network shares many commonalities with far-right paramilitary movements of the past.
Bundy denied that the network has members with militia or paramilitary backgrounds, and he said the membership of “more than 60,000” people includes many “soccer moms,” adding that most of its members believe that they have the right to “defend themselves” when the government is stepping on their liberties.
Analysts and observers say that in the past few years there has been a rightward push in the deeply conservative state where the Republican Party has held the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature since 1995.
Bundy is among a pool of other conservatives running for governor, including Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, R, who issued an executive order to ban mask mandates last month while Republican Gov. Brad Little was out of the state.
McGeachin’s order came after she announced that she is looking to unseat Little, a more moderate Republican, in 2022.
Another far-right Republican, state Rep. Priscilla Giddings, is running to replace McGeachin as lieutenant governor.
Rep. Ilana Rubel, leader of Idaho House Democrats, said Bundy’s candidacy is not particularly extreme in a “radicalized” Republican Party. Elected GOP officeholders have made moves that align with Bundy’s, she said, such as the initiative to take over federal lands and to end income and property tax.
“That is mainstream Republicans here in Idaho,” Rubel told The Post.
The state’s GOP leadership has denounced Bundy, with Chairman Tom Luna rejecting the notion that Bundy represents the party’s ideals.
“He is not a Republican in Idaho, and he has never been,” he said in an interview.
“We don’t support his antics, and he has been very critical of the party,” Luna said, adding that some of his stances, such as support with initiatives to defund the police, “are more aligned with the Democratic Party” than they are to the GOP.
Luna said the Republican Party would not show their support for someone who tried to register as a Republican “last-minute.”
Bundy, who said he moved to Idaho six years ago because of its “rural culture,” is confident that the stars are aligned for his candidacy to succeed.
“It is the right place to run, the climate is right,” he said. “Once we correct the narrative, we will have the majority of Idahoans on our side.”