One recent Friday afternoon far-right militia figure Ammon Bundy started a live video feed on his YouTube channel in the wake of being arrested on trespassing charges at a hospital in Idaho, where he is running for governor.
Bundy appeared disappointed to tell his followers what he believed the government was forcing him to do next. He looked down at the camera, wearing an open-collared shirt and his usual cowboy hat, and let out a sigh. Then he threatened a sitting Idaho judge, summoning his supporters to go to his home.
Addressing his followers, he told them: “I’m calling on you to put off whatever you’re doing tomorrow, and come to [the judge’s] house … Patriot groups all across Idaho and around the country, I cannot try to hold you back any longer.”
What had excised Bundy so much was a child custody case. But what his actions really revealed was a troubling development in America’s ever-more divided political landscape where far-right figures feel emboldened enough to threaten a judge, wield their followers against the institutions of the state and where an implicit threat of violence is increasingly present as they seek elected office.
By the time Bundy made his remarks, his 17,000 YouTube subscribers were receiving near daily updates about a 10-month-old child near Boise, Idaho, who was taken into temporary protection from his parents after officials determined the child was suffering from severe malnourishment and in imminent danger.
Diego Rodriguez, Bundy’s campaign consultant and friend, is the grandfather of the child at the center of a controversy in which even the far-right deputy governor, Janice McGeachin, has become embroiled. An ultra-converative pastor, Rodriguez is emblematic of the Christian fringe pushing to create a US “theocracy” in Idaho.
Bundy railed against what he considered a “kidnapping” at the hands of the government. After an Ada county judge signed a warrant transferring temporary custody of the child to health and wellness officials, Bundy urged his followers – who are often armed – to physically descend on the judge’s house, to the deep alarm of local police.
It was hardly Bundy’s first time in the headlines. Nor was it even his first time getting his followers to swarm an Idaho judge’s home, following a similar call in 2021.
Bundy and his family have long been established figures in anti-government folklore after leading an armed standoff at their ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada. For 20 years Cliven Bundy, Ammon Bundy’s father, avoided paying grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management, insisting that his cattle had more right to the land than the federal government.
When armed federal agents were sent to confiscate the cattle for non-payment, hundreds of protesters and some armed militia members came to their support. Charges for Cliven and his two sons, Ammon and Ryan, were dismissed after a mistrial in which the federal prosecutor failed to turn over evidence and disclose the existence of surveillance camera footage and the presence of federal snipers in the area.
Two years later in 2016 Ammon Bundy led a high-profile armed takeover and lengthy occupation of the Malheur national wildlife refugee, a sanctuary for birds in eastern Oregon. That year Ammon and Ryan Bundy were charged with conspiracy in federal court but again found not guilty.
But Bundy has adapted to new times in US politics as the Republican party has lurched right under the influence of Donald Trump, and far-right militia groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers have dominated headlines, including after the January 6 assault on the Capitol. Bundy, however, has attracted far less attention as he built up a state-by-state-level, cell-like network that can host dinners to create a sense of community but also produce on-demand protesters.
Bundy’s People’s Rights Network aims to form a coalition of militia members, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, preppers and other far-right travelers. Its size eclipses most far-right groups put together. And many experts see it as a real threat to democracy.
“They’ve repeatedly shown an ability to mobilize large number of armed far-right activists to threaten, harass, and intimidate public officials,” said Devin Burghart, director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a non-profit that monitors the far right.
While 2021 saw a retreat for many of the national far-right groups as they came under intense scrutiny from law enforcement, People’s Rights Network grew last year by 53%. Today it has 33,000 members across 38 states, according to a report from the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.
“Ammon Bundy, with People’s Rights Network, was the first to grasp on to Covid-19 denial as a mobilizing vehicle. The first to galvanize militants to oppose Covid-19 restrictions and to meld together anti-vaxxers, paramilitaries, Proud Boys and others into a larger movement to protest and protect these kinds of efforts,” said Burghart.
Burghart says Bundy has shown the ability to radicalize people by “engaging in local conflict. Whether that’s showing up at vaccination sites and threatening healthcare providers or showing up at school boards and harassing school board members.”
In the case of the call for militias to descend on the Ada county judge’s home, local police announced the baby at the center of the spat would be returned to the parents under stipulations agreed upon by the court. In a statement, Meridian police concluded with a plea: “There is no need to continue protesting or harassing our public health officials, police officers or anyone else involved.”
Bundy called off the protest. But within a week Bundy had announced a new rally – a potluck to recruit new members to the cause.
“Ammon Bundy is important because in many ways his efforts are a bellwether for where the paramilitary side of the movement is moving,” said Burghart.