When domestic terrorists took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in early 2016, the face of the takeover was rancher Ammon Bundy. But it turns out a good chunk of the planning going on behind the scenes was done by someone with a little more power: Washington State Representative Matt Shea.
A new report commissioned by the Washington House of Representatives dove into Shea’s background and found he “participated in an act of domestic terrorism against the United States.” Shea also took part in Nevada standoff with right-wing extremists who refused to pay fees for grazing on federal lands. If you’re a Washingtonian, these are your tax dollars hard at work. If you’re an American, this is a view of the environmental fringe creeping closer to the heart of the Republican party.
The report is a damning indictment of Shea’s connection with right-wing extremists who want to dissolve the federal government’s land management agencies and turn the West back into the Wild West. It shows Shea actively planned the takeover of the refuge, communicated with extremist groups using encrypted messaging, and offered to use his powers to run background checks on political rivals.
Shea called the Malheur takeover “Operation Cold Reality,” and provided what he described as a “military style planning brief” to the domestic terrorists who took over the refuge, the report found. It also shows he shuttled information to militia members about actions law enforcement was planning and referred to the Bureau of Land Management as “terrorists” even as he engaged in what the report characterized as terrorist activity. His communications were authored under his code name “verumbellator,” which is Latin for “true warrior.”
The whole standoff designed by the true warrior ended up not going so great. People sent a bunch of dildos and there was some beef between militia members. More seriously, the standoff ended with dozens of arrests and law enforcement killing one of the participants after a high-speed chase.
Shea’s close involvement in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge confrontation is only a fraction of the 108-page report. In addition to facility a terrorist takeover of federal land, it found, Shea also outlined the “Biblical Basis for War that advocated for the replacement of US democracy with a theocracy and killing of all males who do not agree,” and advocating for destroying the U.S. and replacing it with a theocracy that sounds an awful lot like the Gilead in the Handmaids’ Tale. He also said in a Signal message to militia members and leaders that talk about sending Kierán Suckling, the head of the Center for Biological Diversity, a wolf tail and balls was “not something to put out electronically. We need to meet f2f [face-to-face].”
All of this is, patently, fucked up and chilling. Shea, after all, is an elected official trying to overthrow the government. Washington’s Republican leaders have said Shea should resign, stripped him of his assignments, and scrubbed him from their website. It’s easy to write off Shea as an outlier since extremists are by definition extreme.
But to write him off as a lone wolf or total weirdo is to ignore the reality the Republican Party is turning into in 2019. The idea of “taking back” land has been alive and well in the Republican Party at the federal level for years and had proponents like Rob Bishop, the chair of the freaking House Natural Resources Committee, until Republicans lost in the 2018 midterms (he’s still the ranking member). It’s basically just a politer, less violent version of Shea’s views.
And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the violence of Republican climate denial and the pain it inflicts on vulnerable populations. Republican state senators in Oregon went on the lam earlier this year to stave off a vote on cap-and-trade legislation, a market-based solution that was Republican-based orthodoxy in the 1990s. The Trump administration’s deregulatory push has done damage to science, communities of color, and the global climate. Ditto for Republicans’ bad faith responses to the Green New Deal. This is violence by inaction and delay. It may not come with a side of AK-toting, flag-wielding cosplay, but it’s just as—and in some ways—more destructive.