The protestors who took over the aptly-named Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon have garnered a fair amount of conservative empathy. Their issue, the Federal government’s ownership of vast tracts of western land, is a legitimate one. As a story in the January 29 New York Times, “And Then There Were Five, or Four, Occupiers”, put it, “the standoff did put into sharp relief a question raised time and again in American politics: Is the government us, or is it them?” Most conservatives know the answer is “them”.
None of that changes the fact that the occupiers offer a wonderful example of how not to fight the federal government. They blew it on every level: physical, mental, and moral.
Physically, the idea of taking on the federal government with a handful of hunting rifles is beyond absurd. Such an effort can have only one result: defeat. Any armed challenge to the government must and will end in failure. Since early World War I, the battlefield has been dominated by crew-served weapons: machine guns, artillery, tanks, aircraft, etc. In theory, a movement could launch a guerrilla war against the U.S. government, but the result would be the destruction of the country, as we see in places like Syria. Armed resistance is not the way to go.
When the current political establishment falls, it will fall of its own weight. No outside force can bring it down, much as I would like to see Trump, or even Cruz or Sanders, do so. It is already on the skids, although it doesn’t know it. A combination of serial policy failures and adherance to an ideology, cultural Marxism, which seeks to destroy the common culture is undermining its legitimacy.
If the Establishment takes the state itself with it–a possibility no conservative welcomes–then armed citizens may have to take over the job of establishing and preserving order. That is the scenario in Thomas Hobbes’ book Victoria. But the goal of those armed citizens should be to restore a state, or states, as soon as possible. As Hobbes warned us in his earlier book Leviathan, life without the state is nasty, brutish, and short.
On the mental level, the Oregon protestors failed to connect their somewhat obscure cause to broader themes lots of Americans could relate to. They appeared to represent merely a parochial interest. That appearance resulted in their own isolation. Any cause that isolates itself, or allows itself to be isolated, loses. Success requires building connections to as many other power centers as possible.
The protestors also failed on the mental level in their planning. Their plan did not go beyond their initial action. Once they established their occupation, they had blown their wad; they had no further plan.
Morally, the occupiers made the fatal error of alienating much of the surrounding community. A commemoration of LaVoy Finicum, the protestor who was killed (a blunder by both the protestors and the Oregon State Police), in Burns drew only about 20 people. Protests (which should not be armed, much less violent) can only succeed if they rally an ever-broader circle of support. That circle must normally begin with the local community. Alienating the community again means isolation and defeat.
It is evident that the feds have learnd from past failures to handle armed protestors. At Waco and Ruby Ridge, the federal government won physically but suffered huge moral defeats. This time, they wisely expended time rather than ammunition. With the protestors having no plan beyond the first move and progressively isolating themselves, time was on the Feds’ side. Inaction, if deliberately chose, is also a form of action.
In the end, the Oregon protestors offer an almost perfect model of what not to do and how not to do it. The moral level is decisive, and to win morally a protest must almost always be unarmed. We may sympathize with the Oregon occupiers’ cause, but no conservative should follow their example.