How “Woke Ammon Bundy” Became the Year’s Most Surprising Resistance Figure

The split between Bundy and his followers exposes the complicated divisions within the America militia movement.

Ammon Bundy speaks to members of the media in front of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters on Jan. 5, 2016 near Burns, Oregon.
Ammon Bundy speaks to members of the media in front of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters on Jan. 5, 2016, near Burns, Oregon. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ammon Bundy is an unlikely hero of the resistance. In 2016, he led an armed citizen takeover of a wildlife refuge in Oregon, in protest of federal land-management issues. Two years earlier, he was on the scene of another armed anti-government confrontation at his father’s ranch in Nevada, this time over grazing rights. In the wake of those two standoffs, the 43-year-old has attracted thousands of fans and followers who revere him as a militia leader willing to take a stand against government overreach.

Then a few weeks ago, Bundy seemed to go rogue, posting a 17-minute video to his Facebook page in which he criticized Trump’s fearmongering approach to the caravan of migrants approaching the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump “has basically called them all criminals,” Bundy said in the video, which has since been deleted. “But what about the individuals? … What about the fathers, the mothers, and the children that have come here and are willing to go through the process to apply for asylum so they can come into this country and benefit from not having to be oppressed continually by criminals?”

On Twitter, some dubbed him “Woke Ammon Bundy.” But the backlash from Bundy’s supporters was swift and harsh. Commenters on his popular Facebook page accused him of being paid by “globalists.” In response, Bundy shut down his social media accounts and told reporters that he had grown disenchanted with the “patriot” movement as a whole. “It’s like being in a room full of people in here, trying to teach, and no one is listening,” he told BuzzFeed. “The vast majority seemed to hang on to what seemed like hate, and fear, and almost warmongering, and I don’t want to associate myself with warmongers.”

The split between Bundy and his followers exposes the complicated allegiances and divisions within the militia movement in America, and the far right more broadly. Since the movement’s first major rise in the 1990s, it has included white nationalists, extreme libertarians, gun rights enthusiasts, Tea Party followers, paranoiacs, and a wide range of others. These factions share many sympathies, but not all. In publicly criticizing Trump, Bundy has highlighted the weakness of the allegiance between the pro-Trump and anti-authoritarian wings of the movement. (Should it really be surprising, after all, that an anti-government activist has some issues with the head of the federal government?)

Bundy later disputed the idea that he was formally quitting the movement, as BuzzFeed and other news outlets had characterized the move. “I never joined a movement,” he told the Washington Post, so he couldn’t possibly quit one. He is simply getting off Facebook, he said. But he’s also taking pains to distance himself from his followers, seemingly at significant expense to his own influence among conservatives.

Bundy told the Post that he started reading about the Central American caravan because so many people had asked him for his thoughts. He didn’t know much, so he started researching. He found no evidence that the caravan was funded by George Soros, or posed an economic or physical threat to American citizens. He’s grateful for Trump’s pardon of several ranchers involved in an arson case that preceded the 2016 Oregon standoff, he told BuzzFeed, and he supports many of the president’s policies. But Trump, Bundy said, is a “nationalist,” by which he meant that the president’s priority is the nation as a whole, rather than the individuals who populate it. “That is not freedom, and that is not what America was built upon,” he said.

As unexpected as it might seem, Bundy’s heterodoxy didn’t come out of nowhere. For one, he is Mormon. Mormon voters support Trump at much lower rates than their white evangelical peers, although both groups overwhelmingly vote Republican. And the church has a reputation for moderate views on immigration in particular. Not incidentally, the church’s earliest followers were persecuted violently within the United States in the 19th century and forced to flee west until they reached a safe haven in Utah. “Fear is the opposite of faith,” Bundy said in his video, “and faith is the opposite of fear.”

Bundy’s personal history is instructive here too. His father, Cliven, is a cattle rancher, an industry that relies on immigrant labor, including many workers who have entered the country illegally.* Cliven has spoken out against Trump’s immigration policy too, telling the Guardian last month, “I don’t like walls.”

In his Facebook video, Ammon Bundy explicitly linked his religious beliefs and his family’s needs for labor, as Jones’s post points out. “We have been asked by God to help, to be welcoming, to assist strangers; to not vex them,” Bundy tells the camera. “And one way I can think immediately is, this country is in a labor crisis. Our labor workforce is so minimal that every employer will tell you that they cannot find the employees needed to fill the positions in their businesses. … And yet now we have thousands of people willing to come in here, and it appears … that they’re willing to work. … My family would love to sponsor a couple of their families.”

*Correction, Dec. 12, 2018: An earlier version of this article misstated that Ammon Bundy spent time as a missionary in Argentina. He did not.