America has some history with populist demagogues.
A Catholic priest from Detroit became a major figure in the 1930’s by playing to fears about economic collapse. Charles Coughlin, a kind of Rush Limbaugh-like character, had a national radio following. Coughlin advocating monetizing silver as a panacea for the depression decimated economy. It was later revealed the priest was trading in the metal, using his secretary to conceal his purchases, but knowledge of that scam still didn’t derail him. He moved on to stoking anti-Semitism.
In the same period, a fantastic character skyrocketed onto the national scene touting a plan to make “every man a king.” Huey Long appealed to the have nots by building highways, hospitals and schools in Louisiana, but he also presided over a virtual police state where, among other things, he required state employees to hand over a portion of every paycheck to his political operation. Huey would almost certainly have made a play for the White House had not an assassin shot and killed him in a hallway of the state capitol building in Baton Rouge.
A more recent variety of domestic demagogue – Joe McCarthy, Pat Buchanan, a guy named Trump to name a few – came into being playing on old American tropes: fear of “others,” hatred of our government or the evil threats of vicious foreign elements bent on our destruction. Much of the American story has been built on need to defend the country against someone or something determined to undermine or demolish all that is good.
Usually, the demagogue defines the threat as “endangering the American way of life,” a statement so broad and ill-defined as to satisfy the grievance of that segment of our society that is always upset about something.
Until Donald Trump inspired an insurrectionist attack on the U.S Capitol six months ago, the American demagogues have sought, often in odious and fundamentally destructive ways, to achieve political power by winning elections. Or at least they attempted to crush their opponents in the marketplace of ideas. But Trump has brought a new reality to American life: the demagogue as commander of what can only be called an armed militia.
A significant number of the Americans who assaulted their own seat of government on January 6 identify with certain militia movements – the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers. The Guardian reported in March on leaked documents from some of these groups indicating that have attracted hundreds if not thousands of members who are current or former military or law enforcement personal, but the groups also “include men and women, of ages ranging from their 20s to their 70s, doing jobs from medical physics to dental hygiene and living in all parts of the country.”
One Three Percenter patch says: “We’re everywhere.” Another proclaims: “Be polite. Be professional. But have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” As evidence of the January insurrection has made clear, these militia groups are heavily armed and certainly dangerous. Chants of “Hang Mike Pence” were not a statement of abstract political theory.
Which bring us to the West latest home-grown demagogue: Idaho Republican gubernatorial candidate and anti-government militia crusader Ammon Bundy.
It’s easy to dismiss Bundy with his big hat and attention attracting antics as a joke, a marginal figure much like the usual marginal figures who pay the filing fee and show up on a ballot somewhere in the West. I’ve been guilty of dismissing Bundy as someone few people should take seriously. I was wrong. He’s different.
The Catholic priest in the 30’s or a Pat Buchanan, who proclaimed himself the head of the “pitchfork brigade” in the 1990’s, certainly had followers who could be and were stirred up at the drop of a microphone, but until recently American demagogues didn’t command armed militias. Now they do.
In a Los Angeles Times profile of Bundy this week one sentence stands out: “Standing in his kitchen, Bundy recently used his smartphone to pull up the latest stats for People’s Rights — nearly 60,000 members organized in 29 states and Canada, all promising to protect their fellow members if called, he claimed. Bundy is quick to describe it as a linked network of ‘neighbors’ who make independent choices and are not under his direction.”
The lie to that last claim is put to rest by a visit to Bundy’s YouTube channel where he certainly is directing those 60,000 folks. In other statements he has called his followers “neighborhood watch of steroids.”
An American demagogue like Huey Long certainly called his followers to action, but the action was aimed at winning elections. We know what kind of action Bundy is capable of. He masterminded the armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon, he defied federal agents in a grazing standoff in Nevada and he led a violent demonstration inside the Idaho capitol building. The $750 he was fined recently for failing to leave a legislative meeting room in Boise is less than a slap on the wrist and will almost certainly embolden Bundy and his followers for the next action.
“We have the potential for multiple Malheurs in multiple states, in that at any moment they could bring hardened far-right activists, often heavily armed, into any one event,” Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, told the Los Angeles Times in February.
Bundy’s play for political office in Idaho is a joke, at least in this sense. He doesn’t believe in his own government or the idea that a democratic society runs on rules and law. He flouts such conventions as easily as he summons a mob to intimidate a local elected official. His political campaign is a means to an end and the end is to menace real elected officials into silence and acceptance.
Who knows what Ammon Bundy, a true believer secure in the sacredness of his own opinions, is ultimately capable of? He has certainly given us a preview of coming attractions. No elected official in the West – and particularly in Idaho – should be surprised when he ratchets up his pressure campaign, as he surely will.
And while some elected Republicans, the fringe of the fringe, have embraced and encouraged Bundy’s anti-government nonsense most others have sat quietly, apparently hoping he will just go away. But he’s not going away. He’s now injected himself into the very heart of their party.
There is a stark choice here for most elected Republicans: risk alienating Bundy’s militia followers by pushing back on all that he stands for, or choose to support the rule of law and democracy. The recent Republican track record on that choice isn’t very encouraging.
Items I found interesting, important or fun….
White House fire meeting was a bunch of hot air
President Joe Biden summoned a group of western governors to the White House recently to talk about the latest terrible fire season in the region. He left the governors of Montana and Idaho out of the meeting. It was a dump call, whether intentional or caused by West Wing bungling. Here’s Darrell Erhlick in The Daily Montanan.
“It seems like someone in the White House would have gazed over the terra incognita on the map of the United States — that vast expanse between the two better-known coasts — and thought, ‘Hmm, there seem to be a lot things that could burn up there in northwestern land located between, say, North Dakota and Washington.’
“But if such a musing or consideration happened, we didn’t hear about it.”
Read the full piece here:
Reasserting Checks and Balances: The National Emergencies Act of 1976
A great – and mostly forgotten – piece of American political history.
“The story of this obscure Senate committee begins with the Vietnam War. In 1968 Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon pledged to end the war if elected. In the spring of 1970, however, President Nixon secretly expanded the war into Cambodia—without congressional approval. Weeks later, Nixon announced the expansion of the war into Cambodia on national television. The administration’s actions infuriated many senators, especially Frank Church, a long-time Vietnam War critic.”
From the Office of the Senate Historian:
The 3 Simple Rules That Underscore the Danger of Delta
I confess to not understanding the reluctance by millions of people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. I keep wondering if they realize why hardly anyone of my generation contracted polio – because we got the vaccine!
In any event, I hope they will reconsider and in the meantime this from Pulitzer Prize winner Ed Yong in The Atlantic.
“Fifteen months after the novel coronavirus shut down much of the world, the pandemic is still raging. Few experts guessed that by this point, the world would have not one vaccine but many, with 3 billion doses already delivered. At the same time, the coronavirus has evolved into super-transmissible variants that spread more easily. The clash between these variables will define the coming months and seasons. Here, then, are three simple principles to understand how they interact. Each has caveats and nuances, but together, they can serve as a guide to our near-term future.”
The bottom line: vaccines work. Read the full piece:
When George Harrison vacationed in southern Illinois
A great story about a member of The Beatles before he was famous. Turns out George Harrison spent part of 1963 in the rural Midwest. Who knew?
“Louise said George was in a band back in England, where he lived. So, later that day, Chris and Monty went to Skaggs Electric Supply Company, which sold records alongside light bulbs and extension cords, and asked the proprietor if he had anything by a band called the Beatles. The man shook his head. ‘Never heard of ’em,’ he said.”
Good story…read it here.
Many thanks for following along. Be well.