JUNE 18, 2018
WHEN MILITANTS RISE UP against the government in the farmland of the American West, their insurrections tend to take place in stark landscapes that are well suited to narratives of rural oppression. Like all social media influencers, these self-described patriots know that optics matter, and over the last half-decade, they’ve often staged their battles against federal land management policies in cinematic settings.
Whether carrying guns on horseback through rugged desert terrain, or denouncing the FBI against a backdrop of flags and red rock canyons, today’s Sagebrush Rebels often operate in battle spaces that yield both tactical and cinematic advantages. Sympathizers as far away as the East Coast have been wooed by their deft command of rural iconography, which can give a noble sheen even to those who flirt with bloodshed under the claim of protecting American agriculture from socialist plots and federal overreach.
It might seem unfitting, then, that one of the patriot movement’s most important events of 2018 was a low-profile gathering in Modesto, California, a city of 201,165 that usually grabs headlines with its high crime rates and asthma-inducing smog. The Range Rights and Resources Symposium opened on an April day at a community college next to Highway 99, a raging freeway also known as Blood Alley. For two days, some of the movement’s leading activists gave fiery speeches alongside local dignitaries, railing against federal bureaucrats and other enemies in diatribes that sometimes took on the tone of Old Testament scripture.
Two renowned figures of the far right adorned the speaker’s bill: Ammon Bundy, who rallied militias to take over Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 in protest of federal land management, and Congressman Devin Nunes, a former California dairy farmer who launched the Republican effort to discredit the investigation of President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.
Back in his congressional district, which begins about 85 miles south along Highway 99 from Modesto, Nunes has recently faced criticism for treating his constituents with an attitude that some see as distant. Even in his hometown of Tulare, where he is largely revered, he has been accused of avoiding his district offices and refusing to hold town hall meetings with residents concerned over issues like poverty and rampant drinking water contamination. He has denied those allegations, calling them left-wing talking points for Andrew Janz, his rival in an upcoming congressional election.
Yet at the symposium, Nunes gave some credibility to his critics: at best, only a small minority of the roughly 40 event attendees were actually his constituents. Local farmers and ranchers in the crowd were outnumbered by radio hosts and fringe academics who have made careers out of traveling to patriot gatherings all over the West, encouraging rural discontents to resist federal land management programs through civil disobedience and the threat of armed insurrection.
For some who shared the stage with Nunes, battling the government is a multigenerational tradition. Thara Tenney spoke of the struggles she has faced as the daughter of LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona patriot hero killed by federal agents and state troopers during the Malheur takeover, and pledged to carry on her father’s activism by raising her boys as “sons of liberty.” Speakers Zach Gerber and Wayne Hage Jr. also gave lectures drawing on the activist legacies of their fathers, who were known for battling government restrictions on logging and ranching.
Nunes moved confidently in this crowd of out-of-state Sagebrush Rebels, defying snubbed residents in his congressional district who might note that not long ago, some of the activists in the room faced accusations of promoting domestic terrorism. Sheltered by the college security staff posted around the symposium, Nunes looked relieved to be free from the protestors who have hounded Republican congressmen at town hall meetings ever since Trump’s election. He reveled in the echo chamber of contempt created by Bundy and other speakers, whose anger toward environmentalists, journalists, and other perceived enemies of agriculture at times bordered on bloodlust. “Who would destroy the ranches and the farms?” Ammon Bundy asked during his keynote address. “Only someone who does not want humans to be fed, and as the founders said, pursue happiness.”
Though residents of California’s Central Valley were in the minority at the symposium, the presence of Nunes and other leaders from the region offered a striking example of the coalition-building ambitions of a movement that has helped radicalize rural conservatives and the broader Republican Party, and whose state-gutting ideology is fast becoming reality under presidential appointees like Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
The potential impact of the event would be hard to ignore for anyone acquainted with politics along Highway 99, a 425-mile corridor through inland California that seams together a complex patchwork of mega farms, sprawling cities like Modesto, and poverty-stricken farmworker enclaves. This drought-stressed region, where boundaries between rural and urban constantly dissolve, remains a spiritual heartland for agricultural militants. Extremist views on property rights, water use, and race have a long history of taking root here and spreading far beyond the state.
When examining the significance of the symposium, it is important to take note of regional demographic trends that are tempering the region’s receptivity to the ideas of the far right. Left-leaning economic exiles from the Bay Area are streaming into inland California in search of affordable housing, making the Highway 99 corridor less conservative, and people of color, who tend to gravitate toward Democrats, are well on their way to eclipsing the voting power of white conservatives who might sympathize with Bundy’s paramilitary tactics. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in Modesto and surrounding Stanislaus County 47 to 45 percent.
Still, some speakers expressed confidence that even these trends could be harnessed to the advantage of the patriot movement, which presents extremist rhetoric and armed rebellion as the only viable options for stopping the decline of agriculture, industries of extraction, and conservative values. With rising costs of living forcing many out of their homes and disrupting social balances throughout California, speakers argued that the state was becoming prime territory for a religiously inspired movement that claims it can create economic and cultural stability by eliminating government’s role in regulating agriculture, education, and other realms of life.
“We are the champions of abundance,” said John Duarte, a grower from the Central Valley who became a patriot movement hero while defending himself from federal charges that he damaged endangered species habitat. “The government is practicing anti-human environmentalism.”
Symposium facilitator Trent Loos, a Nebraska rancher and Bundy loyalist who has served as a member of a Trump agricultural advisory committee, also spoke of the Central Valley’s promising role in the future of the movement. The decision to hold the meeting in Modesto, he said in his opening remarks, was an intentional step toward bringing the patriot movement philosophy out of western backwaters and into powerful coastal cities, with California’s agricultural leaders serving as key ambassadors.
“We’re bridging the gaps right here within the city of Modesto,” said Loos, a talk radio host and cowboy entertainer who is a regular at patriot movement gatherings. “We’re here to have some vibrant dialogue.”
The venue for the symposium was a massive pavilion with dirt and concrete floors. Built for livestock auctions, rodeos, and tractor-driving competitions, it looks from afar like a mega-sized barn, its design symbolizing the might of industrial agriculture in the region. Four miles south on Highway 99, past the offices of Crystal Creamery milk company — one of several food industry giants in the area — a historic archway also speaks to a local history of producing crops on a massive scale. Its slogan reads:
WATER WEALTH CONTENTMENT HEALTH
Back in the pavilion, the dusty air reverberated with a more desperate narrative, as the Range Rights crowd listened to talks by activists who say the local agribusiness foundation is crumbling under the burden of government regulations, many of them invented by urbanites with no connection to farming. “They’re restricting agriculture into oblivion,” said Paul Wenger, a former chairman of the California Farm Bureau, a leading agricultural organization in the state, who praised the efforts of Bundy’s movement.
A chief concern on the agenda was the uncertain future of water rights in regions such as the Central Valley, which are threatened by prolonged droughts and a rising population that has added strain to existing water resources. Proposed water storage dams and diversion projects, seen by many farmers as a means of adapting to these new realities, have been unpopular among California lawmakers, especially the Democrats that make up a majority in California’s legislature.
Lacking access to surface water, almond growers and other producers have taken to irrigating crops with well water, siphoning aquifers at levels that are considered unsustainable. Scientists estimate that current rates of pumping are creating an annual overdraft of 1.8 million acre-feet from underground water banks, a rate that could lead to deteriorating water quality, empty wells, and farmland sinking into emptied aquifers. “The biggest problem is we live in a dry state,” said Jay Lund, a hydrologist at the University of California, Davis, when reached by phone after the symposium. “Everyone would like to have more water, and everyone blames everyone else for water they can’t have.”
Others condemned government regulations as the cause of strife in the dairy industry, an economic cornerstone in some parts of inland California, and claimed that state intervention has laid waste to ranching and timber harvesting communities in the mountains that ring the Central Valley. Wenger noted that suicides among dairy farmers have been on the rise nationwide, with small producers taking their lives as their businesses fold under the pressure of plunging milk prices. Zach Gerber spoke of a similar existential despair stalking towns adjacent to forests managed by the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies. Limits on cattle grazing and logging, he argued, have destroyed multigenerational businesses and filled forests with excess timber and brush, making them more prone to air-polluting wildfires.
“We’ve got to protect ourselves and we can’t fight amongst ourselves,” Wenger said. “If we are going to wait for the last gasp and think that’s our future, we are too late.”
These narratives were rife with suspicious science — Gerber, for example, made the dubious causal argument that logging restrictions are leading to fires that make parts of the Bay Area more polluted than Beijing. But like many talking points circulated by patriot leaders, the symposium presentations were not exactly intended to teach facts, but rather to validate a real-life sense of doom that is plaguing the forgotten towns of the West, and quite possibly playing a role in high rates of early death among the white men who make up a core part of the movement.
Public health experts have noted that deaths of despair — those resulting from overdoses, drug-related diseases such as Hepatitis C, and self-injury — are on the rise in the Central Valley, particularly among older white residents in struggling farming areas. According to a study by the University of Pittsburgh, suicide rates among middle-aged whites in the region have increased by 37 percent since the year 2000, and deaths by alcohol poisoning rose by 1,163 percent within the same time period. While the phenomenon has also visited rural coastal areas north of the Bay Area and the Sierra Nevada mountains and foothills, metro areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles have been comparatively untouched.
In Modesto, blazing at the edge of the symposium stage, a banner provided by the nearby Tuolumne County Farm Bureau crystalized the nihilism haunting inland Californians who see themselves as part of an oppressed agrarian minority, and who believe their struggles portend the end of days. The banner’s slick graphic showed a logging truck driving into a dewy mountain valley, where cows grazed in a verdant pasture. The scene looked pristine until one’s eye caught the wildfire menacing the livestock from a nearby hillside. Superimposed on the ominous scene was a slogan far more reflective of the Central Valley’s combustible atmosphere than the quaint optimism of the Modesto arch:
PUBLIC LAND: LOG IT, GRAZE IT OR WATCH IT BURN.
While Biblical rage and despair were vital forces at the symposium, so too was a paranoiac sense, endemic to the Central Valley, that the federal government is unworthy of trust due to infiltration by agents of a socialist conspiracy. That mistrust extends to other democratic institutions, chief among them newspapers and universities.
When Devin Nunes walked into the pavilion, protected by uniformed police officers and watchful men in plain clothes, he wasted little time before accusing the three journalists in the room of plotting against farmers and ranchers. “They’re not here to tell the truth,” said Nunes, who grew up working on a family farm in Tulare County, where he claims to have experienced harassment by government entities including the local mosquito control district. “The media that’s here, that’s covering this right now, I’m sure they’re here to mock you, make fun of you, call you cowpokes,” he said. “Look at you guys in the cowboy hats. They are here to perpetuate their brand of politics, which is a socialist brand of politics. If you look at the ownership of these media organizations, when you have 90 percent of them owned by hard left billionaires, it’s going to be very, very difficult, I think, to ever fix this. So you have to understand what the battlefield looks like and what we’re up against.”
The talk soon turned to water, and when asked whether he could think of any way to resolve the Central Valley’s struggle to balance its water needs, Nunes had little to offer except for words of resignation and denouncements of a perceived conspiracy against farmers. He argued leftists had created the myth that there was not enough water to go around, when in fact it was getting dumped out to sea by water regulators in the name of protecting endangered fish populations.
“Most of the elected officials have given up hope that we’re going to continue to farm what is the most fertile farmland in the world,” said Nunes, who sold his interest in his family’s Central Valley dairy farm in 2006, investing between $50,000 and $100,000 in a vineyard in Napa County. “You have people who have essentially thrown up their hands and said, well, we’re just going to have to take a million acres out of production, and that’s what happens if you have one-party control with no organized opposition and power.”
The worry over fields going fallow was not entirely unfounded: leading water experts in the state agree that large tracts of land may be eventually taken out of production, as resource managers work to restore a sustainable balance between the needs of farmers, a growing population, and efforts to protect waterways such as the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta from species decline, pollution, and rising salinity.
“There’s no magic bullets to these problems,” Jay Lund, the UC Davis hydrologist, said in a phone call. “I’m not in favor of rural poverty, but we’re going to have to cut back on total crops just because of the water balance.” There was still a place for region’s farmers to thrive, said Lund, who thinks that the keys to the industry’s survival may include shifting to drought-tolerant crops, creating infrastructure for groundwater recharge, and shifting production away from low-value land where farming places a strain on scarce water resources. Yet some environmental regulations deserve a critical look, too, Lund said, as so many people in the state have their livelihoods staked on steady irrigation flows.
“This is a very complex system with a lot of users and a lot of uses,” Lund said. “We’ve got to be flexible in this state to respond to opportunities and problems as they come and go. It’s always going to be controversial.” But within the patriot movement, it’s considered cowardice to recognize such complexities, and Nunes didn’t seem game to engage them either. Instead, he railed against a specter of socialist leaders masquerading as Democrats, colluding with foreign entities to maintain one-party rule in California and a grip on federal bureaucracies. He suggested that those same actors were at work in the plot to undermine Trump’s authority through the Russia investigation.
“There are some interesting ties between the left, the far left, and multiple entities across the globe,” said Nunes, praising members of the patriot movement for their efforts to counter the alleged socialist threat. “It’s tough to actually drain the swamp.”
Angry slogans frequently appear on signs at the edges of orchards and fields along Highway 99 in Nunes’s district. Some are billboards posted by the congressman’s political opponents, suggesting that he has grown cold to his constituents because he prefers contact with Russia. Yet others are smaller banners posted by farmers who support Nunes and other Republicans, and who blame the Central Valley’s woes on urbanites who have failed Californians living in its dusty interior.
IS FARMING A WASTE OF WATER?
MAKE CALIFORNIA GREAT AGAIN
Nearly a century ago, in the post–World War I era and during the Great Depression, there were angry signs along the highway, too, also speaking to struggles over the future of food production. But in those days, the dominant concern for growers was assuring access to a cheap labor force, and the signs along the roads were often pickets carried by striking workers. In an atmosphere that The New York Times once likened to a civil war, crop rows along the length of Highway 99 and further south around Los Angeles frequently erupted into clashes between growers and farmworker unions. The battles often turned physical, at times with fatal results.
Historians say those conflicts still inform politics in the region today, as they helped to perpetuate socialist conspiracy theories and codify a culture of mistrust toward people of color, who have long made up a bulk of the state’s agricultural labor force. Groups that sought to organize for better wages and standardized working conditions were considered a threat, not only to the agricultural industry, but also to notions of white supremacy and to capitalism itself.
What emerged from these eruptions of ethnic struggle and class warfare was what the historian Carey McWilliams called “the vigilante spirit,” a California-grown propensity toward a fear-based and often brutal treatment of out-groups.
This animus toward nonwhite workers and suspected socialists often resulted in intimidation, beatings, and shootings, sometimes led by local civic groups and veterans’ organizations, which were organized into anti-labor militia forces. Sheriff’s departments were known to aid in the process, deputizing vigilantes and looking away when violence occurred, sometimes failing to pursue assault and murder cases.
These so-called farm protection forces were rallied in instances such as the Orange County citrus pickers’ strike of 1936, during which protesting workers brawled with a force of deputies and vigilantes led by a sheriff who also happened to be an orange grower. Strikers used iron bars and their fists to fight off a force of deputies and vigilantes wielding tear gas, ax handles, and other weapons.
Three years prior, a massive cotton strike centered around the southern Central Valley had an even bloodier outcome. With some 20,000 farmworkers on strike across eight counties, growers rallied a vigilante army that terrorized protesting workers and eventually killed four people, including a Mexican consular official who was on hand to press for the rights of foreign-born workers.
“The viciousness of the vigilante tradition to date has been that it feeds itself; it is self-perpetuating,” McWilliams wrote in his 1935 book Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California. “From the outset, racial feeling has been at the root of the phenomenon of mob violence. Nowadays, of course, vigilantism is sophisticated by self-conscious artistry, and it is not always colored by race feeling. But historically, vigilantism is intimately related to the prejudice against the foreigner of a different color.”
Kathryn S. Olmsted, a professor of History at the University of California, Davis, said that workers weren’t the only ones vulnerable to the anti-labor climate of the times. As she describes in Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, attorneys, journalists, and others who were deemed enemies to agriculture also became targets for growers and their forces.
“They were not afraid to use violence, not only against the striking workers, but anybody who tried to help them,” Olmsted said in a phone interview.
The political culture that emerged during the labor struggles of the era continues to tint present-day debates over everything from resource management to immigration policy. “A lot of the themes of modern conservatism you can see in California in the 1930s, and in particular the way that the wealthiest people in rural areas made alliances with very fringe conservative figures,” Olmsted said.
Paramilitary security patrols are common at events held by the Bundy family, often complete with armed men in olive and desert-patterned uniforms monitoring strategic points in the room while listening to radio chatter on earpieces, their shorn heads swiveling. Such details were scrubbed for the Modesto event, perhaps due to local gun laws, but a martial atmosphere could be felt in the pavilion when Ammon Bundy arrived.
Not long after Bundy walked into the pavilion, a group of protestors began gathering outside. Among them were representatives of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has spent years opposing Bundy’s efforts to privatize federally controlled forests and pastures.
“Keep public lands in public hands,” they chanted, repeating a phrase heard often during the group’s protests at Bundy’s occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Some carried signs calling for the Bundy family to pay over $1 million still owed to the federal government for its refusal to pay fees for grazing livestock on public land.
Counter-protestors quickly emerged from pickup trucks in the pavilion parking lot, carrying the yellow Gadsden flags favored by libertarian extremists and picket signs of their own.
GOV’T OVERREACH IS THEFT
THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO KEEP AND BEAR ARMS, SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED
Back in the pavilion, as protestors’ chants continued to resound through the walls, the conversations on stage began to take on a more emotional tone, as speakers capped off the symposium by describing their personal struggles as members of a dwindling agrarian population. Loos introduced a new narrative of white victimhood, asking whether American farmers will suffer the same fate as their counterparts in Africa, where the end of white minority rule has led to the loss of land held by European families. Erin Maupin, who lives near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, wept as she described her community as a place struggling with oppression by federal land managers, and still haunted by past battles between logging companies and environmental activists. Choking back tears, she spoke of green radicals sabotaging logging equipment, secretly driving spikes into trees to endanger chainsaw operators. “So I ask you,” Maupin said, “who are the terrorists?”
Minutes later, Ammon Bundy arrived at the lectern to deliver an ecclesiastic answer to Maupin’s question. Dressed in a lightweight navy blazer and a wide-brimmed straw hat, he had the relaxed air of a guest at a springtime cocktail party. But before long he would take on the demeanor of an apostle, guiding his listeners through his justifications for something akin to a holy war on environmentalists and bureaucrats. The speech was steeped in the doctrine of dominionism, a fringe belief of Mormon and Christian fundamentalism that holds that humans have a God-given right, or even duty, to use natural resources without restriction, to eliminate government regulation, and also to subdue those who are enemies of this divine hierarchy.
Bundy, at times crying on command, argued that the Central Valley was not a place of limited resources, but rather a place of plenty, with a great carrying capacity for a growing population. Bureaucrats who seek to restrict access to that divine bounty, he said, are part of a destructive plot to deny the joy of receiving God’s gifts. “If they’re allowed to continue with their plans,” Bundy said, “they will destroy the happiness of human life.”
Bundy went on to denounce the environmental activist Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. He attacked his scientific credentials, his study of world religion, and his alleged machinations with a database of species, which he argued was part of an agenda of placing animal life over that of humans. Environmentalists like Suckling, Bundy said, are comparable to the Biblical figures known as worshipers of Baal. He didn’t go much further with the analogy, but in one passage of the Christian Old Testament, those who followed Baal were slaughtered by the Prophet Elijah for their worship of a false God.
“They are an enemy to humans,” Bundy said. “They live by another doctrine, and it is not based on Christian principles.”
The soft sound of hushed weeping, common at the end of a damning church sermon, filled in the room. In that vulnerable silence, Loos took one last turn at the microphone, presenting a wild conspiracy theory that linked Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to the Whole Foods grocery store chain, the Washington Post to scheming Silicon Valley tech executives, and the Democratic Party to a multinational uranium company colluding with the Bureau of Land Management. Somewhere within that nexus, Loos said, one could find a sophisticated plot to seize the property of Dwight and Susie Hammond, the Oregon ranchers whom Bundy intended to protect when he took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. “I think the reason for me to close this way is not to scare the bejeebers out of you,” said Loos, “but rather to motivate you to no longer be complacent, to sit back and say, ‘Oh, I can’t do anything about it.’ I absolutely think we’ve created a momentum here.”
Soon the pavilion emptied and symposium guests steered out onto Highway 99, past fields, orchards and towns where angry rants by fringe political figures are an old sound, belonging to the region just as much as the noise of tractors cutting furrows into the earth and combines reaping their harvests. One could follow the highway either north or south from Modesto and visit numerous places where angry speeches have led to bloody skirmishes and even to murder:
Stockton, 1937: 50 striking cannery workers injured, one with buckshot wounds.
Arvin, 1933: One protesting cotton worker killed by gunfire.
Pixley, 1933: Two labor advocates killed, several wounded.
Driving past such places, the words uttered onstage at the symposium take on an ominous resonance, one that seemed lost on Nunes during a brief interview after his talk. Asked whether he endorsed the extreme tactics employed by Bundy’s movement, he replied: “I always say we should follow the law but we should make sure the laws are implemented properly, and we need to understand what we are up against.”
Yet even that caveat seemed to move to a drumbeat of war. Onstage in the pavilion, Nunes had played a role that is all too familiar in the Central Valley. Like many men before him, he had rallied forces for a battle with the alleged enemies of agriculture as the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau banner blazed below his feet, its fiery slogan as bright as a rifle’s muzzle flash.
“It’s very much appreciated what you guys are doing on the frontlines,” Nunes said. “If we don’t marshal our forces here in this state, we are going to become extinct.”
Scott Bransford grew up in a farming community in California’s Central Valley and has covered life in the region for outlets including The New York Times, High Country News, and Utne Reader. He has been closely following militant politics in the West since 2016, when he traveled to Oregon to document the takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by militia groups, and later covered Ammon Bundy’s federal trial for Reuters.