On the far right fringe of American politics and society, in locales where people haven’t internalized Donald Trump’s “pivot” toward responsible conduct on the coronavirus pandemic, there are plenty of posturing charlatans ready to fan paranoia about social-distancing orders representing a conspiracy to crush freedom and impose totalitarian government. But few are as experienced in the incendiary game of insurrection as Ammon Bundy, the militia leader famed for leading a 2016 occupation of federal land in Oregon that culminated in a tense standoff with law enforcement officials and then an acquittal in court on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.
Bundy’s legend actually began earlier, when he was on hand for his father Cliven Bundy’s defiance of the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada in 2014 — based similarly on the family creed that the feds had no right to own the land they did indeed own. So now he’s sort of a patriot movement Johnny Appleseed in the mountain West, always a threat to show up and politicize disputes with Big Government. Indeed, just before the coronavirus pandemic struck, he had mulled (but then abandoned) some sort of big action on behalf of a family involved in another Idaho land dispute.
But now Bundy and his friends have a new and much grander cause, as he made clear (per Stephanie Mencimer) the moment Idaho’s Republican governor, Brad Little, issued a self-isolation order on March 26.
On Thursday, Ammon Bundy, one of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s 14 children, posted a video on Facebook inviting people to a public meeting in Emmett, Idaho, where he lives, to talk about the coercive measures included in the governor’s self-isolate order. He read from the 11-page document, explaining that it would prevent people from gathering, riding a scooter, or traveling around the state. What’s more, law enforcement would be empowered to issue fines or even put violators in jail.
That was just the beginning of Bundy’s latest project, which is to encourage defiance of measures taken to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Idaho. The plan includes a big gathering on Easter Sunday, which should appeal to certain conservative evangelicals already prone to regard the whole pandemic as an excuse for persecuting them. The New York Times’ Mike Baker reports Bundy as being at the center of a “liberty rebellion” in a state with more coronavirus cases per capita than California:
Inside an old factory building north of Boise, a few dozen people gathered last week to hear from Ammon Bundy, the man who once led an armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge.
The meeting, which appeared to violate orders by Gov. Brad Little of Idaho to avoid group gatherings, was an assertion of what Mr. Bundy said was a constitutional right to peacefully assemble. But Mr. Bundy said he also hoped to create a network of people ready to come to the aid of those facing closure of their businesses or other interference from the government as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
Bundy isn’t the only self-styled freedom fighter counseling opposition to public-health orders; as Baker notes, resisters include Republican elected officials and religious leaders, particularly in the rural northern “panhandle” part of the state. But Bundy surely has the most dangerous and outrageous view of what to do about coronavirus:
Much of the region’s tensions revolve around skepticism over the advice from medical leaders, which some people here regard as unwarranted. Mr. Bundy compared the effects of the virus to the flu, even though epidemiologists have warned that it can kill at a much higher rate.
He said that he would prefer in any case to become infected soon, while he is otherwise healthy.
“I want the virus now,” Mr. Bundy said.
If organizers of an Easter protest find a venue in Boise for the 1,000-person service Bundy has endorsed, he may have some company in a political fellowship of the defiantly infected.