Ronald Reagan made it all worse: How Republicans — the real party with their hands out — convinced white America that government was out to get them

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Heather Cox Richardson is the author of "To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party," amongst several other books, and a professor of history at Boston College.

The men occupying Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge represent a bizarre contradiction. They howl about the overreach of the federal government, but they are among the biggest beneficiaries of government programs. For 150 years, their brand of logic has pitted individuals against an activist government, Western cowboys against black Americans, and the West against the East. Behind their protest is a uniquely American story that welds racism to anti-government sentiment. It comes from a peculiar coincidence of timing: that Reconstruction after the Civil War coincided with U.S. expansion into the American West.

Real “patriots,” the Bundys claim, stand against a behemoth government that has grasped their lands and their rights. America, after all, is made by ambitious individuals working their way up. A government that promotes social welfare or regulates business destroys the American system because it both limits a man’s ability to make money and requires tax revenue. Those taxes strike at the very heart of individualism because they redistribute money from hard workers to lazy people.

Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their compatriots are quite clear about exactly who those lazy people are. The younger Bundys’ father, Cliven, the Nevada rancher who started an armed standoff with government officials in 2014 over grazing rights, had plenty to say about the “Negro” who lived in government housing and “didn’t have nothing to do.” African-Americans’ laziness led them to abort their children and send their young men to jail. Bundy wondered: “are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life… or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

And yet, the Bundys are perfectly comfortably taking money from government programs themselves. Aside from animal kill programs that protect herds, drought relief payments, and the 93 percent discount at which the government assesses grazing fees, Ammon Bundy borrowed more than $500,000 from the federal government through a loan guarantee program for small businesses. Ammon Bundy’s father, Cliven, owes the government more than $1 million in grazing fees for running his cattle on public land. No matter how you slice it, taxpayers have subsidized the Bundys.

Observers have made much of this obvious contradiction. But it is not a sign only of the Bundys’ lack of self-awareness, or even simply of white supremacy. It is the intellectual formula that has driven American politics since 1980. ...




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