It has a been a strange year in the West: widespread paranoia about Jade Helm, the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed militants, and Donald Trump’s outrageously unrealistic plan to build a wall along the US-Mexico border. Taken together, these events reveal a profound sense of fear on the part of some Westerners, most especially rural, conservative whites, but what accounts for this siege mentality?
Indeed, “siege” seems appropriate in both a literal and metaphorical way. Ammon Bundy and his followers, occupying federal buildings, planned for a long siege. Some West Texans, fearful of government takeover during the Jade Helm military exercises in the summer of 2015, prepared for an invasion. Donald Trump’s wall, were it ever built, would symbolize a nation withdrawing from the world; walls have always been better at keeping people inside than keeping others outside.
Perhaps all of this reflects conservatives’ distrust of President Obama, and indeed the last time such anti-government sentiments reached a fever pitch was during President Clinton’s time in office, with deadly confrontations at Ruby Ridge, Idaho; the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas; and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Twenty years ago, in the wake of these confrontations, the historian Richard White (in the spring 1997 issue of the Western Historical Quarterly) attributed the “current weirdness” to rural Westerners’ dislike of federal land management policies. This is still a major complaint of the right. While the press tended to portray Bundy and his cohorts as inarticulate and hypocritical, a closer inspection reveals coherence in their argument against federal ownership of millions of acres in the West. Robert “LaVoy” Finnicum, the Arizona rancher and Oregon militia spokesperson killed in the recent standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, argued in a series of videos on YouTube that as new states were added to the nation, they should have been given control over their public domain rather than it remaining under the purview of the federal government. Today the federal government remains the largest landholder in every state, from the Rockies to the Pacific. Ranchers, like the Bundys, advocate local control, believing that state and local governments would be more amenable to letting them make decisions about their livestock based on market conditions and not environmental conditions; this is self-serving but far from delusional.
The siege mentality, I believe, also extends to the cultural changes in the American West. While the region has long had a diverse population (American Indian, Hispanic, Anglo, Asian, and African American), in myth and practice it was seen as a white man’s country, a place where rugged white settlers carved livelihoods from a harsh and difficult land. The West, however, had never been a white man’s country, and in recent decades it has become even less so as growing numbers of immigrants have called the region home. Indeed, California, once held up as a white man’s utopia, no longer has a dominant ethic or racial group. The West, in short, has changed.
Perhaps the fear of change accounts for this siege mentality. Looking beyond the political fringe, are there legitimate issues affecting rural Westerners that need to be addressed? Watching Finnicum’s videos, I don’t see an irrational extremist; I see a Westerner who loves his land, his aged dog, and his shy teenage daughter. But there’s a more recent video, too: Finnicum, surrounded by Oregon state troopers, standing in the snow and reaching, apparently, for a gun. For some this is an act of defiance, of martyrdom, and for others his death is justice. These videos, for me, blend together, and it all seems so pointless and sad. To avoid more violence and tragedies, perhaps, we need to start building bridges instead of walls.
Jason E. Pierce is associate professor of history at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, and author of Making the White Man's West: Whiteness and the Creation of the American West.