The toxic roots of Oregon building takeover

Armed protesters occupy federal land
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Story highlights

  • Brian Levin: Anti-government sentiment not new in U.S., but a fresh era of fear and distrust has brought violent extremists in from fringe
  • He says making political folk heroes from destructive extremists with toxic underlying philosophy undermines the country and U.S. safety

Criminologist and attorney Brian Levin is a professor of criminal justice and director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)The re-imprisonment scheduled for Monday of two rural Oregon ranchers on arson charges was the catalyst, but not the cause of the armed takeover of federal property by anti-government protestors that began on Saturday.

The incident is the latest symbol of distrust for what some perceive as an overarching and predatory government. It's a perception that resurfaced with the ascendancy of Barack Obama, but it actually dates back to the Whiskey Rebellion just after the Revolutionary War.
Back then, it was conflict over taxes, slavery, civil rights, and immigration, but in recent years the sentiments have expanded.
    Brian Levin
    Gay rights, abortion, gun control, environmental regulations and land use are issues not only of public debate in the mainstream, but in the extreme realm as well.
    The Bureau of Land Management has been a prominent, if not hated, symbol for decades within the extreme volatile fringes of this blustery, but mostly non-violent anti-government movement.
    Our center assesses the anti-government movement's violent fringe, responsible for almost 50 fatalities since 9/11, as the nation's second most prominent terror threat to the United States, after Salafist jihadists such as ISIS.
    Challenges for media as armed group seizes federal property
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    The Oregon ranchers -- Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven Hammond, 46, of Harney County, Oregon -- are the latest cause célèbre of the so-called "patriot" anti-government movement. They were sentenced to five years' imprisonment in October 2015 for two arsons, in 2001 and 2006, involving federal grazing land for which they had leases. Their resentencing from shorter terms to statutory five-year minimums, while convoluted, was also legally sound.
    For anti-government "patriots," however, the legal twists and prosecution felt unfair, unconstitutional and oppressive. Among those occupying the federal property are the sons of Cliven Bundy, a rancher who had already evaded two decades of court decrees over illegal cattle grazing when armed supporters faced off with federal officials near his Nevada ranch in 2014.
    What makes symbols like these standoffs so important, however, is less the particular facts of the dispute than the place they hold in a narrative of Americans who are fearful of their own government.
    In 1964, 77% of Americans trusted the government always or most of the time. Today, in the wake of Watergate and other scandals, surveillance, controversial wars, and an uneven economy, such support is only 19%.
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    Republicans today are far angrier at the government than Democrats, with 42% of frequent Republican voters saying so, compared to only 11% of Democrats. A CNN/ORC poll last month found 75% of Americans are dissatisfied with government, with 69% being angry.
    Among Republicans, dissatisfaction is at 90% -- and at 97% among Trump supporters. A CNN/ORC poll taken in mid December found that whites, rural residents, conservatives and gun owners have the least amount of confidence in the administration's ability to protect them from terrorism, consistent with a deeper mistrust of government authority overall.
    More broadly, this fear is accompanied by a notion among many conservatives that America's cultural, political and demographic foundations have profoundly shifted and abandoned them. Some of this malaise has manifested socio-politically in a skeptical, even angry populism that has confounded political analysts (and Jeb Bush), but its individual effects appear to be personally devastating as well.
    In November, two Princeton economists found that middle-aged whites with a high school education had significantly increasing mortality due to factors including substance abuse, afflictions and suicides that ran counter to the declining mortality rates of other Americans and white Europeans.
    While they may appear angry to political scientists, many conservatives also feel defensive -- of turf, faith, safety and values. Some will react through political activism, with a subset embracing a highly skeptical, visceral electoral populism that demands blunt solutions from a leaner government. Some shun political insiders, even from their own party, decorum and convention. Others become disengaged and abandon the political process altogether.
    The smallest cohort -- anti-government extremists -- however, go a step further, intoxicated by a vitriolic view of the government as traitorous and tyrannical.
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    Politically anchored voting populists and anti-government extremists are intertwined, yet distinct -- both groups fueled by skepticism, conspiracy theories, distrust and sometimes hatreds.
    The extremists wish to torpedo the American ship of state, while the reformative voting populists want an honest leader to commandeer it and steer a course to a nostalgic past that never quite existed. The patriot movement is a rejectionist umbrella movement of freemen, sovereign citizens, posse comitatus and others whose historic foundational beliefs challenge the very legitimacy of the courts, federal government, international treaties, the financial system, and restrictive laws outright.
    Their insurrectionist view of the Second Amendment contends that an armed citizenry has a duty to overturn oppressive government and that they, not you, determine when that is. Distressingly, mainstream politics aid their cause by tolerating extremist conspiracy theories that previously were isolated.
    In doing so, they give credence to canards about nefarious federal military exercises in Texas, U.N. takeovers, concentration camps, Barack Obama's "false" citizenship and faith, and the imminent confiscation of all guns.
    Fear, armed squatters and mistrust creates a volatile mix, one that could be ignited by more irresponsible political rhetoric, an overarching law enforcement response to them, or -- conversely -- an abandonment of the rule of law to them that emboldens other armed malcontents. By the same token a measured wait-and-see approach by law enforcement and a media stand down would work wonders for de-escalting the situation.
    One thing is certain: Making political folk heroes out of destructive extremists without scrutiny of their toxic underlying philosophy undermines both our political system and our safety.