Conservatives Take the Bait

The mainstream right will learn all the wrong lessons from the Cliven Bundy mistrial, while the left will exploit the case for long-term political gains.

Conservatives Take the Bait

by Gaius Marcius


Earlier this month, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy was released from jail after the court case against him was declared a mistrial. Bundy had for years refused to pay federal grazing fees for the cattle he raised on public land. In 2014, the Bureau of Land Management attempted to round up Bundy’s cattle, which resulted in an armed standoff between ranchers, militia members, and federal agents. Amazingly, the Obama era feds withdrew, and Bundy appeared to have won the day with his message of small government, armed citizenry, and states rights. Bundy was then arrested in 2016 and faced numerous charges related to the unpaid fees and the armed defiance of government officials, but the prosecution improperly withheld evidence, leading to the declaration of a mistrial.

Libertarians and conservatives who celebrate this case as some sort of harbinger of increasing skepticism of federal power or a sign of popular demand for small government are misreading the political landscape. Bundy was released on a technicality, not on the merits of his case against federal jurisdiction over public land. The rare cases where anti-government activists are declared not guilty tend to occur in rural, extremely White jurisdictions, but conservatives and libertarians steadfastly refuse to see the implications of courtroom identity politics. Many conservatives, far from learning to organize their political agenda around White identity, will actually decry their own victories if they are based on ethnic solidarity rather than abstract ideological principles (see Never Trump 2016).

The left has no trouble turning slight political setbacks to their long term advantage. The Bundy mistrial is an excellent opportunity for the left to misdirect conservative energy into the endless battle for small government, while also creating a rift between Trump and so-called principled conservatives. Late 20th century American politics is a recurring cycle of the right celebrating short-term tactical victories while conceding long-term strategic victories to the left. Reagan slowed the growth of government but accelerated demographic replacement of Whites with an amnesty bill. George W. Bush cut taxes but created huge, expensive agencies like Homeland Security. A clever political party lets many lesser issues fall by the wayside in their quest to control the defining issue of the times, as the Democrats have done since 1965. The GOP thinks that modest changes to bureaucratic procedure are significant victories, but liberals know as well as Trump does that immigration is the defining issue of this era, so they must prevent Trump from getting political support for immigration restriction in his own party.

The left will use the principle of small government to argue that true conservatives cannot support the exercise of federal power necessary to reverse the tide of illegal immigration. A chorus of pundits will spring up to accuse the GOP of hypocrisy every time they make effective use of the federal apparatus to defend the nation from invasion. If Trump ever comes close to getting his wall built, guilt-ridden cuckservatives will refuse to support the necessary federal takeover of border land. In the perverse logic of cuckservative individualism, federal power is dangerous and should be opposed; no distinction is made between federal power that is used to abuse citizens and strip away their rights, and federal power that is used to protect citizens from hostile illegal aliens.

Jonah Goldberg of National Review has a clever anecdote about false moral equivalency that was popular during the Cold War. If a psychopath goes out and pushes an old lady in front of a speeding bus, and a Boy Scout comes along and pushes her out of the way of the bus, it is not legitimate to describe both men with the simplistic explanation that they are just the sort of people who enjoy shoving old ladies. Conservatives need to learn this lesson quickly, before the next few election cycles teach them the consequences of placing their trust in hollow victories and meaningless rhetoric.

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