Three key incidents help illuminate why Cliven Bundy has gone from someone who dislikes the government to someone who is willing to gather an army against it.
The first happened in the 1950s and 1960s near his lifetime home in Bunkerville, Nevada.
During this period of time, the United States government was ramping up its Cold War with the Soviet Union and testing hundreds of nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert.
“The tacit assumption is that no one would be really be affected by nuclear testing if we do it at this location,” said Leisl Carr-Childers, a historian at the University of Northern Iowa. “That was profoundly untrue.”
While Cliven Bundy was a child, nuclear fallout was covering Bunkerville and surrounding communities. And all the while, the government did little to warn people about the dangers.
Later, the federal government would have to offer payouts families from that part of the country after many people died of cancer.
So you can see why Cliven Bundy started to become skeptical of the government at a young age. But it’s important to remember that the nuclear testing in Nevada affected a lot of people. It was only Bundy who helped orchestrate two armed rebellions against the government.
The other two key incidents that pushed Bundy toward radical action happened hundreds of miles away from Bundy’s ranch.
Watching the armed confrontation at Ruby Ridge in northern Idaho and another in Waco, Texas, helped make the Bundys highly skeptical of the federal government. In both those cases, the government went after people with fringe belief systems. And in both cases, people ended up dead.
Cliven Bundy’s son Ryan Bundy said he sees a direct line between those confrontations and what happened with his family.
“It appalls me (what happened at Waco),” Ryan Bundy said. “It appalls many people. In fact, that’s one of the reasons so many people came to support us in 2014, was because they said, ‘not another Waco.’”
To this day, Ruby Ridge and Waco remain a draw for conspiracy theorists and far-right groups, including militias. They see the confrontations as proof of a tyrannical government in America.
And it is that anti-government sentiment that the Bundys have tapped into as one of their most powerful tools.
“The federal government is an easy boogeyman,” said John Ruple, a University of Utah law professor. “It’s easy to put them up as the problem, as the cause, as the enemy.”
Throughout the 1990s, Cliven Bundy took more and more bold actions against the federal government to see if they would react. First he joined protests, then he stopped paying his grazing fees in 1993. When federal agents handed him tickets, he tore them up in their faces.
And then in 2014, he led an armed standoff. Now the question is, with Bundy out of jail and riding high on his court victories, what will he do next?
“Bundyville” is a joint podcast by OPB and Longreads, hosted and reported by award-winning freelance journalist Leah Sottile. It is produced by Peter Frick-Wright and Robert Carver of 30 Minutes West Productions, and OPB’s Ryan Haas.