At the end of July, my girlfriend Maddie and I took a road trip up the California coast, planning to visit Monterey and Big Sur. First, though, we drove to see friends in Santa Cruz, our route taking us through farmlands, past roadside shacks with hand-painted signs that sell fresh strawberries and avocados.
Then we spied a house proudly flying the Confederate flag from a 30-foot pole in the yard.
Later, we followed behind a pickup truck with a window sticker of the Roman numerals “III” set in a circle of stars, the insignia of an anti-government militia known as the 3 Percenters. This year, a 24-year-old man professing belief in their violent ideology was convicted for attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in 2017, when an undercover FBI operation led to his “detonation” of a fake bomb outside an Oklahoma City bank.
We also passed close to, but not through, Gilroy, California. Just days later, a shooter opened fire at the city’s annual garlic festival, killing three people — including a 6-year-old — and after police shot him multiple times, turned the gun on himself. He’d bought the assault-style WASR-10 semi-automatic rifle in Nevada, where purchase and possession of such a firearm is legal, whereas California has banned the weapon. He left no manifesto, but his alleged Instagram account made reference to a white supremacist text. The feds nonetheless declined to assign motive, having uncovered the 19-year-old’s collection of wide-ranging extremist literature and a target list that was virtually indiscriminate, encompassing religious organizations, Republican and Democratic institutions and courthouses and federal buildings. All this merited an investigation of domestic terrorism.
The entire country is gripped by a justified paranoia: the idea that a “lone wolf,” spurred on by a decentralized network of violent fantasy, may at any moment sever or destroy our lives. But something else has colored that mood in the vast, rugged American West. The fear could be said to live in the awesome land itself, terrain colonized first in a wave of genocide, and again, shortly afterward, by a frontier mythology that romanticized those murderous pioneers. And it’s entangled in the old archetype of a man who stands apart in the wilderness, the cowboy figure who, as the history book The Enduring Vision has it, becomes in legend “the Christian knight of the Plains, indifferent to material gain as he upheld justice and attacked evil.”
The upshot being that, out beyond the reach of law and society, a man will define “justice” and “evil” for himself. Out here, the stories say, a man can make his own morality — with no other judge except God.
I find it no coincidence that lately far-right rebellion in the West has centered around a family of cattle ranchers. Nor can I be surprised that the Bundys, led by patriarch Cliven Bundy, claim ancestral rights to farmland in Bunkerville, Nevada, that was seized from the Southern Paiute tribe in the mid-1800s.
It likewise makes perfect sense that contemporary cowboys would take up the mantle of anti-government extremism inspired by the deadly sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco: It was March 1993, during the latter standoff, that Cliven stopped paying the fees to have his livestock graze on nearby federal land. More than two decades later, the Bundys were in an armed standoff of their own with the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, whose agents had arrived to round up the trespassing cattle. Cliven wasn’t arrested until 2016, when he arrived in Oregon on his way to the militia occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Reserve, another anti-BLM effort, this one led by his son, Ammon.
No one has done a finer, more fearless job of reporting on the Bundys’ crusade against the Department of the Interior than journalist Leah Sottile, host of the engrossing podcast Bundyville. Her work not only clarifies the family’s politics but endeavors to explain the cowboy mystique the Bundys wield in the so-called “patriot movement,” an eclectic coalition of Second Amendment hardliners, religious zealots, conspiracists, white supremacists and doomsday preppers knitted together by extremist web forums and YouTube channels. And she sees the Bundys’ take-a-stand mentality as part of a long tradition.
“I think where the patriot movement has had success in recent years in finding new sympathizers is that spirit of defiance that’s always been around in the American West,” Sottile tells me. “You can look to lots of places in white Western history and see examples of rebellion and risk driving people to come out this way.” She cites the Mormon church, which migrated west from persecution and happened to spawn an idea that falls outside the organization’s official doctrine, but squarely within the Bundys’ worldview: the so-called White Horse Prophecy. It blends theological and patriotic principles into a concept that was later echoed by the cowboy cinema of the 20th century.
The disputed notion comes from Edwin Rushton, a follower of church founder Joseph Smith Jr., who years after Smith’s death attributed to him this prediction: The Mormons “will go to the Rocky Mountains and will be a great and mighty people established there, which I will call the White Horse of peace and safety.” In time, they would “see the Constitution of the United States almost destroyed,” and the divinely written document would “hang like a thread as fine as a silk fiber.” Only the Latter-day Saints, or the White Horse, would be able to preserve it.
To me, it sounds a bit like the lone sheriff who rides into a lawless town to impose a moral order.
That kind of image may well entice the variety of self-styled patriots who sought to enter the Bundys’ orbit, either by traveling to the family’s ranch or joining the 2016 occupation in Oregon. While the Bundys, as Sottile notes, are definitely ranching, you’ll see lots of people around them “wearing cowboy hats” who “are actually militia guys posing as cowboys — so it becomes a costume for them, that they adopt as their own because it represents something.” It’s analogous, she says, to “when members of the movement wear ‘tacticool’ outfits to try to look tough, or claim they have ‘special forces training’ when in fact they might have driven a truck on a military base and never seen combat. These are all hyper-masculine symbols.”
And appropriating cowboy aesthetic clearly isn’t just for would-be revolutionaries. Think of presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who couched their brand of conservatism (and foreign wars) in the fog of frontier myth. Or David Clarke, former sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, now a Fox News regular and Trump mouthpiece, who last year remarked that he wears a cowboy hat “because it pisses off the left.” Or Glenn Beck, a far-right commentator raised Catholic in urban parts of Washington state: He sells Beck Cowboy Boots, handmade “for the hard-working cowboy” in Amarillo, Texas — and as a Latter-day Saints convert, has quoted the language of the White Horse Prophecy.
This illusion of cowboy righteousness can obscure the true American West. “I think most of the people who feel drawn to the cowboy are drawn to what they know of that lifestyle from advertising (the Marlboro Man) or Westerns (Clint Eastwood), not reality,” Sottile says. “The cowboy, to them, is tough, independent and will bite back at anyone who encroaches on that; in reality, most ranchers and cowboys work to find compromises in rural places and to find ways to not damage the land permanently.” She sees “this clash of ideas over the cowboy lifestyle” in the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. “The Bundys and their supporters came into the county and said land-management agencies were killing jobs and ruining lifestyles,” she explains. “In actuality, people in Harney County had been working for years to find compromises that provided for multiple uses of the lands. The Bundys were turning a blind eye to reality to push their agenda.”
Most of the rural people Sottile has interviewed out west, from the Canadian border down to Mexico, don’t agree with the cowboy-inflected movement that has sprung up around the Bundys. She says many cattlemen believe them to be “crackpots,” which is why almost none showed up to support the effort at Malheur. “In fact,” she says, “the only rancher to be there for the long run was Robert ‘LaVoy’ Finicum, who became a rancher at the age of 50. Finicum had been in perfect standing with the Bureau of Land Management until he attended the 2014 standoff on the Bundy’s ranch, and was radicalized there.”
Finicum would become the lone fatality of that standoff, killed by law enforcement at a roadblock as he reached for a concealed firearm. His last words were: “You’re gonna have to shoot me.” Jordan Page, a rock and folk musician who bills himself as “a leading voice of liberty in America,” later released a track titled “The Ballad of LaVoy Finicum (A Cowboy’s Stand for Freedom).” A sample lyric: “He’s riding off into the setting sun / Drive on, cowboy; he’s heading home.” In his description of the song, Page wrote: “This cowboy ballad reflects [Finicum’s] honor, character and sacrifice. It matters how you take a stand.”
It received a glowing review from AmmoLand, a firearm enthusiast website that currently features this headline: “American’s Gun Rights Under Attack from All Sides, Get Ready to Keep Your’s [sic] By Force.”
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So, while cowboys have hardly turned radical as a group, the classic signifiers and stereotypes around them have proven effective propaganda for a hardened fringe right — one eager to perform their masculinity on a legendary scale by defying federal control of the West. In part, it’s a resistance to the march of time. The thought is that after this land had been seized from the Native Americans, it belonged entirely to the white settlers and their descendants, never the forces of civilization emanating from the east.
Change is their enemy, Sottile says: “Some people don’t want to see America diversify. Some people don’t care about environmental damage to the earth if they believe there is money to be made off of the land (mining, ranching, etc.). Some are pissed off about a national monument being established in their backyard.”
The cowboy, in their imagination, is a figure who can stand against that tide of meddling bureaucracy (one point of dispute between the government and the Bundys is that their cows were a threat to the endangered Mojave desert tortoise, which has a federally designated habitat where the family lets their cows graze). He can also fend off the “Other” in a purely xenophobic sense; the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups and extremists throughout the U.S., has in its archives a meme depicting shotgun-carrying cowboys with the text “SADDLE UP MOTHERFUCKERS — IT’S TIME TO PLAY COWBOYS & MUSLIMS.” The photo happens to be of actors Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner, in character for the 2003 film Open Range, which is about a former gunslinger “forced to take up arms again when he and his cattle crew are threatened by a corrupt lawman.” This is a rather tidy summation of the fantasy harbored by some in the patriot movement.
Because most importantly, the mythic cowboy is one who fights unjustly wielded power. The advantage of that perceived dynamic is what allows the would-be cowboy to pick his targets at will, always adopting the posture of the unbowed underdog, a man who hasn’t been diminished by the desolate grandeur of his chosen surroundings. “We’ve got a Muslim for a president who hates cowboys, hates cowgirls, hates fishing, hates farming, loves gays, and we hate him!” declared Hank Williams Jr. at a 2012 concert in Texas, to cheers from the crowd.
But what of Barack Obama possibly hints at a hatred of the cowboy? Only that he wasn’t Bush, while also being black — a leader different enough to feel like a threat to one’s rosy, apocryphal view of the past. It’s the same story as “Make America Great Again,” a slogan by which the demand for white male dominance is endlessly repeated. Maybe that control is over the family, the corporate world or political parties. In the case of the would-be cowboy patriot, it’s as simple as a claim over the bloodied dirt he’s standing on.