Two Federalist writers found themselves squaring off on Twitter about reports that a band of 100 to 150 men have seized public property in Oregon to protest the prosecution of two American ranchers accused of terrorism for allegedly starting controlled-burn fires to manage their land. Read more about that here.
Kurt Schlichter is a trial lawyer, writer, and retired Army colonel who holds a masters in Strategic Studies at the U.S. Army War College. Tom Nichols is an author and a professor at the Naval War College. The views expressed here are their own.
Tom Nichols: Kurt, most of the time, you and I are on the same side of a lot of issues important to conservatives. We tend to disagree on strategy, but conservatives (no matter what leftists think) are not monolithic. As you often say, we just take different roads to the same bar.
I’m kind of shocked, however, that we seem to have a real disagreement of principle on the Bundy takeover of a public building in Oregon. I despise these guys, not only because I think they’re dangerous, but because I think they’re hypocrites. These are people whose beefs with the government seem pretty much to be a matter of whether they get their way in disputes over money, not freedom.
But here’s my bigger issue: I don’t care if they have a legitimate grievance over Dwight and Steven Hammond going to jail. While there might be a legal issue here (although the Supreme Court didn’t think so), when you pick up a weapon and occupy a building, your grievances go out the window.
My question is: why aren’t you, as a good conservative, as outraged as I am about this kind of lawless thuggery? I agree that the cops should just wait these guys out and then charge them with criminal trespass or disorderly conduct or, for all I care, Aggravated Mopery With Intent To Gawk. But you and I both know that what they’re really doing is nothing less than armed sedition, encouraging others to take up arms against law enforcement and the U.S. government itself.
When did conservatives stop being the law and order party? One of the great virtues of conservatism is consistency—even if we don’t like the results—and if this were a group of Black Lives Matter activists in there with guns and waving around little pocket Constitutions, we’d both be calling for throwing them all in the pokey.
I would, anyway. Why aren’t you joining me in that same call now?
Kurt Schlichter: I need to be clear that I am not happy about this or supportive of this particular action. But I am disgusted with the way our government has disregarded law, norms, and processes to impose its will on people the elitists at the helm in on the coasts think unworthy of consideration. When did conservatives get less fussy about observing the social contract? When liberals breached it.
But this is a terrible situation. I served in Kosovo and saw up close the chaos and destruction that comes when the rule of law goes. Some on social media accused me of “rationalizing” what’s happening in Oregon; no, I am trying to explain it, because until we understand why it is happening we can’t do what we need to do to stop it.
You are correct that my response to this situation is different from other, superficially analogous movements in recent years. We need to distinguish these Oregon people from the left-wing groups, like Occupy and Black Lives Matter. These guys are marching with American flags, not burning them. Many are apparently vets. The leftist groups are seeking to take more money from people who actually worked for it, and to stop the police from effectively controlling crime.
They are not looting. They are not rioting. They are trespassing, albeit armed. To lump them together with the leftists is a false analogy and not helpful to addressing the problem.
You don’t care about their grievances, so that doesn’t leave you with many options. You either treat their concerns seriously and make it so they don’t feel this is their only outlet, or you use force to suppress them.
We are both coastal, but we know flyover Americans well enough to know they won’t just shrug and submit. The answer, I think we both know, is not force—in fact, insurgents (and make no mistake, this is a pre-insurgency with terrifying potential to expand) need the government to overreact in order to win support.
Right now, most citizens would probably prefer that these guys just go away. But if the feds kill some of them, then many people will see them as the victims, and it will further prove many of what today seem wild claims of oppression.
The wisest thing the Obama administration ever did was walk away from the Bundy ranch. That’s step one here. The next step is to address some of their grievances. We need to show that our political and legal processes can work fairly. If not, this will only continue—and get worse.
Tom Nichols: Well, as a matter of tactics, I agree: this should be allowed to fizzle out—although when it does, I want these guys in court and doing jail time if convicted. I’m not swayed by the argument that they’re not violent yet—that means nothing when a bunch of guys show up with guns.
Isn’t the problem here that they’ve not made the problem about them and their actions, and not about the Hammonds? And doesn’t that play right into the analogy—that you reject—with Black Lives Matters? We could all agree that there were real problems in the streets with black men and cops, but when protesters chanted for “frying the pigs,” that was the end of any interest in dialogue. So why should we cut the Bundys a break? Why not simply say: until your guns are down and you leave that building, no discussions.
You believe this insurgency has deeper roots than just the Bundys; I’m less sure, but I don’t see what’s achieved here, or what conservative principle is observed by a willingness to engage in exactly the same permissive double standard for which we’d excoriate the Left. Where’s the rule of law that conservatives like us defend above all else?
Kurt Schlichter: There’s no denying that the Oregon action is contrary to the rule of law. But then, is there really a rule of law anymore, at least for the kind of people who participated in this action? They have been labeled “rednecks” and mocked, primarily by coastal liberals, as uneducated Neanderthals whose interests are unworthy of consideration.
You look at it from their perspective, and you see an Obama administration that enforces two sets of laws. Its opponents, like troublesome ranchers, get the Department of Justice going to the Court of Appeals to send them away for longer terms than the judge would impose over relatively minor misbehavior.
But friends of the administration like Hillary commit crimes with classified material that, as you and I know from our military experience, would land us in federal prison in a half a heartbeat. Illegal aliens get welcomed into our country, and these folks—many of whom fought for this country in the military—get handed the bill and labeled “racist” for objecting.
When they do make their will clear at the voting booth, like with gay marriage, five judges on the coast tell them their vote doesn’t count, and if they don’t submit and bake a wedding cake their life savings will be taken. Now you can argue about whether they are right to feel this way, but the reality we need to deal with is that they do feel this way. Simply telling them to shut up and accept it isn’t going to work—this situation in Oregon is going to be repeated until they feel they are being heard.
Tom Nichols: Well, I can’t deny that I’m one of those people, and I’ve mocked them pretty hard, and probably insulted more people than I should have in the process.
But I’d contend you’re giving them, and their supporters, way too much credit. You’re taking their issue—that is, their generalized hatred of government—and linking it into your issue, which is your understandable contempt for the way this administration exercises executive branch muscle at will and treats ordinary citizens and their legitimate concerns as just so much whining from the peasantry.
You say I should look at it from their perspective, but what I think you mean is to look at it from your perspective—one I largely already share.
I just don’t buy the linkage to the Obama era, because I don’t believe that Bundy and his goons would have acted any differently under any other administration. I doubt any of them give a damn about Supreme Court decisions, and I bet most of them can’t explain even the basics of the Constitution they’re so fond of waving around. That’s why people like me mock people like them: because I don’t for one minute believe in their sincerity.
They’re about what’s best for them, legal or not. To me, they’re not that different from Black Lives Matter: they want court cases to go their way or they’re going to raise hell. They seem to love our system of government—so long as it gives them exactly what they want from it.
Even more important, when they pick up guns, potentially endangering the lives of ordinary cops and soldiers, to say nothing of innocent citizens, they’re showing the same contempt for the rule of law they claim to be protesting. That’s not democracy, that’s anarchy, and I always thought that’s what conservatives were against. Why shouldn’t we treat them with the same contempt we’d treat any other group engaging in the same kind of behavior?
Kurt Schlichter: As a practical matter, we had better treat them differently than other groups engaging in large scale anti-government activities. Take the Ferguson rioters—that’s one town. You secure the perimeter, they rampage though their own town, and that’s it. You can localize it. It’s a bunch of thugs throwing rocks and maybe popping a few caps off at the cops then running away.
But these guys are spread out over the rural West. Many of these guys are themselves ex-military. They are not street thugs. I bet few of them even have a criminal record. They have sympathizers—and some of them are law enforcement.
I get that this is not conservatism. I don’t think it’s good news; I think it demonstrates a sickness in our politics, one that manifests itself much less scarily in the Donald Trump phenomena (of which I have been aggressively critical). We have told these people they don’t matter, something that’s accelerated since Obama took over (I disagree that this would happen anyway—this has happened only now, and for the reasons I mentioned). They are responding.
Tom Nichols: We’ll have to disagree on whether this is tied so tightly to Obama; seems to me this kind of behavior is a tradition in some parts of the country. Seems we also disagree about the effect that putting these guys in the slammer will have on others. I still believe that this kind of anti-government extremism is relatively rare, that mostly people want little to do with it, and it would abate if conservatives held to the principle that no one has the right to endanger public order or call for sedition over their own personal disputes. You don’t see it that way.
You get the last word, counselor.
Kurt Schlichter: We don’t have to accept their grievances. But what we think really makes very little difference. The idea that the Obama administration has ignored the law and bypassed the process can’t help but motivate those already inclined to distrust the far-away federal government. No one is going to shame these guys into submission. And I pray no one is stupid enough to try and beat them into it.
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