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What Were Bundy's Supporters Thinking?

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy wants to graze his cattle on public land, without paying fees.
Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy wants to graze his cattle on public land, without paying fees.

Cliven Bundy’s racist rant gave his erstwhile backers an easy out.

The Nevada rancher became a right-wing hero by not paying legally imposed fees for grazing his cattle on federally owned land. Bundy has been at loggerheads with the Bureau of Land Management for years; numerous courts have ruled he must pay the fees, but he has refused, recruiting armed supporters to aid him in confrontations with federal agents.

Those conservatives who extolled his “anti-government” stand began to desert Bundy after he mused to a reporter for The New York Times that the “Negro” people were “better off as slaves.” That’s unfortunate, because it means Bundy’s right-wing supporters do not have to confront the implications of their unthinking support of a lawbreaker.

A bit of background on land ownership in the West: For historical reasons, the federal government owns huge amounts of western land. Much of that land is open to ranching, mining, and other uses. The federal government is like any other landowner: It charges a fee to use its property. But the difference between the Bureau of Land Management and private landowners is that the BLM charges extraordinarily low fees.

Ranchers pay $1.35 a month for every head of cattle they graze on federal lands. “Which doesn’t come close to covering what it’s worth, or what it would cost if they were grazing on private land or state lands. It doesn’t even cover the administration costs,” Debra Donahue, a University of Wyoming law professor and expert on public land use, told Gail Collins of The New York Times.

In other words, ranchers who graze cattle on public lands are subsidized by the United States government — by taxpayers. Bundy and his supporters may complain about those in public housing who get a “government subsidy,” but he’s no rugged individualist fighting the evils of big government. At best, he’d be a moocher living off federal handouts.

But Bundy refused to pay even the less-than-market value for using federal land. Instead, he wanted to graze his cattle where he chose — for free. Imagine if he grazed his herds on land belonging to a neighbor without paying. Imagine if he and his supporters brandished guns when landowners tried to collect rent. Would Sean Hannity of Fox News and Senators Rand Paul and Dean Heller, Bundy supporters before his racism became public, have backed him then?

There is nothing conservative about breaking the law, a point made by an article in the reliably conservative Weekly Standard: “Cliven Bundy is no hero of any kind. No conservative would pick and choose the laws he intends to obey, defy the rest, and challenge the rule of democracy with guns. No hero would adopt the terrorist’s tactic of placing innocents in harm’s way. Any fool can pick up a weapon and aim at an officer of the law; the moral power of civil disobedience lies in the willingness to defer to the law and accept punishment on principle.”

It’s a given that Hannity, Paul, and Heller would distance themselves from Bundy’s racism. But they should never have bellied up to a gun-toting anarchist like Bundy, a rancher who wanted to get rich at taxpayer expense. This is a man infamous for saying, “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing,” which makes him a strange ally for a U.S. senator, ever a libertarian one like Rand Paul.

The Kentuckian’s initial support for Bundy runs counter to his recent emphasis on the need for Republicans to broaden their coalition to win national elections. "If we want to have a bigger party, we have to show concern for those who aren't doing very well: the long-term unemployed... those who live in poverty, those who live in big cities," Paul said last week.

Which is another way of saying that the GOP has a huge demographic problem that promises to get worse in every presidential election in the future. Nine out of every 10 Republican voters in 2012 were white. Mitt Romney lost the African American vote by 87 points and the Hispanic vote by 44 points. That’s not a recipe for success given that the white percentage of the population is shrinking.

Senator Paul ought to know that backing a lawless Nevada rancher who turns out to be a welfare queen is not a formula for leveraging minority voters.

That the lawless Nevada rancher turns out to be an old-fashioned bigot only compounds the problem.

What were Senator Paul and others on the right thinking?

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