Who Is Cliven Bundy? How A Racist Cattle Rancher Become The GOP's Poster Boy

By now, you've likely heard of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada cattle rancher locked in an obstinate battle with the federal government over his land use, and refusal to pay grazing fees for two decades. Bundy's become a celebrity in conservative circles, not just for his refusal to stop his cattle from grazing on land designated as a threatened species preserve, but also his boisterous anti-government rhetoric, and down-home cowboy aesthetic. Just one complicating factor, which broke Wednesday night: Bundy thinks that black Americans were better off under slavery. Way to pick 'em, GOP.

It's a terrible turn of events for those conservatives who threw themselves in with Bundy and his cause. Perhaps none should be as embarrassed as former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, who just last week publicly compared Bundy and his plight to that of civil rights legend Rosa Parks: "... That’s exactly what this was. This was Rosa Parks refusing to get to the back of the bus."

To whatever extent Bundy sees himself as the inheritor of this grand struggle for civil rights in America — you can take his civil war rhetoric for what you will — it's worth mentioning that Rosa Parks never claimed black people were ending up in jail because "they never learned to pick cotton." According to Bundy:

I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro. ... in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do. And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do? They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.

Somebody get this guy tweeting for the #GOPRebrand.

So, how exactly did we get here? Back in 1993, the federal Bureau of Land Management moved to protect a hundreds-of-acres swath of land near Las Vegas, Nevada, so to help the dwindling desert tortoise population. The tortoise was classified as "endangered" in 1989, and was change to "threatened" a year later.

And even back then, Bundy had a way with getting his message out there, being mentioned in a write-up by The Washington Post: "Cliven Bundy, whose family homesteaded his ranch in 1877 and who accuses the government of a 'land grab,' are digging in for a fight and say they will not willingly sell their grazing privileges to create another preserve."

George Frey/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The intervening 20 has been a long, intractable standoff between Bundy and the BLM, with the latter refusing both to remove his cattle from the off-limits land, and to pay the fees he's accrued in doing so, which he says exceed $300,000.

In a rural, conservative cultural climate that's stridently anti-federal government, Bundy's story was the perfect backdrop: The valiant, rugged cowboy versus the imperious government. It also intersects politically with the state's power of eminent domain, a hot-button issue in grassroots conservatism. It should come as little surprise, all this considered that Republicans like Joe Walsh ran out to visit the embattled Bundy ranch.

The scene was not a safe one — the protesters who descended on the ranch on April 12th in an ultimately successful attempt to thwart the BLM, were largely armed and made for a very tense environment. The aforementioned Richard Mack drew criticism for detailing the protester's plans to "put all the women up at the front. If they are going to start shooting, it's going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers." As you can see, he's not the most polished PR guy.

In the aftermath of the revelations of Bundy's racist remarks, as well as the diffusing of the immediate threat to his cattle — the BLM will reportedly seek legal avenues to extract a possible seven-figure fee from him — some in conservative media have begun to turn away. If only the vetting of Cliven Bundy had been a bit more thorough, they could've avoided this embarrassment — but to save face now, it's too little, too late.