Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Republicans back away from rancher renegade Cliven Bundy

Embracing momentarily popular folk heroes has always come fraught with risks

What a difference 24 hours made for former champions of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher first hailed by some GOP politicians as “a patriot” for standing up — with rifles — against what he saw as the yoke of the federal government, and now backed away from as an unreformable and politically toxic bigot.

It’s easy to see why Bundy, with his anti-authoritarian disdain for the federal government and embrace of states’ rights, initially cut a sympathetic figure to certain factions of the conservative movement.

For decades, Bundy had been embroiled in a dispute with the Bureau of Land Management, illegally grazing his cattle on federal lands but refusing to pay $1 million in the appropriate fees.

When BLM agents came to seize 500 of Bundy’s cattle as repayment last week, Bundy and his supporters met them with armed resistance, eventually forcing the federal officials to stand down. The incident prompted steady and supportive coverage from Fox News and endorsements from certain Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Texas gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Greg Abbott, who said there were legitimate concerns regarding federal control of Western lands.

That was before Bundy mused to The New York Times about whether “the Negroes” were “better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things.”

Cue the backpedaling.

“His remarks on race are offensive, and I wholeheartedly disagree with him,” said Paul, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, in a statement.

A spokesman for Heller similarly said the senator “completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy’s appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way.”

A spokesman for Abbott told the Times that Abbott maintained his views on the Bureau of Land Management’s overreach, but that his concern about land grabs in Texas were “in no way related to the dispute in Nevada.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had also been supportive of Bundy’s cause, echoed those comments on CBS Thursday morning.

"I don’t know what he said, but the fact is Cliven Bundy is a side issue here compared to what we’re looking at in the state of Texas," Perry said. "He is an individual — deal with his issues as you may. What we have in the state of Texas … is the federal government is coming in and attempting, from our perspective, to take over private property.”

His spokesman later clarified to say that Perry had not seen Bundy's remarks before his interview and found them “reprehensible.”

Of course, the embrace of (momentarily) popular folk heroes has long been fraught territory for lawmakers and politicians, laden with the potential to strike a resonant chord with base supporters but also the risk of being associated with the individual if he or she should go wandering beyond palatable political discourse.  

Similar backtracking followed when Detroit musician Ted Nugent, a conservative activist and GOP supporter, called Obama “a communist-raised, communist-educated, communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel.” On the other hand, many Republicans rushed to the defense of Phil Robertson, the star of the reality television show “Duck Dynasty,” and his right to free speech when he lumped in the LGBT community with those who practice bestiality, prostitution and polygamy. A different member of the family even managed to subsequently land an invitation to the 2014 State of the Union as the guest of a GOP lawmaker.

Former President Bill Clinton gave a name to the delicate tango when in 1992 he publicly distanced himself from remarks made by black activist and rapper Sister Souljah in which she seemed to endorse black violence against whites. Situations in which a politician repudiates extremists from his or her own party were from then on branded “Sister Souljah moments.”

In the case of Bundy, some said those who clamored to embrace the renegade rancher should have seen the pitfalls coming.

Leola Johnson, chair of the media and cultural studies department at Macalester College, said states’ rights have since the days of the Civil War been used as a code for racism against African-Americans.

“Conservatives are able to run around and say they believe in states’ rights and not have it associated with anti-black racism the way it used to be. Cliven Bundy’s comments reinvigorate that connection,” she said. “These prairie rebellion people who say we don’t like the federal government — part of the reason they don’t like the federal government is because they believe that the state intervenes on behalf of African-Americans. Now they’ve exposed it.”

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