When the United States Bureau of Land Management sent Cliven Bundy a letter in March telling him they planned to confiscate any "trespass cattle" found on protected public lands, the 67-year-old rancher responded with typical defiance, informing the county sheriff of a "Range War Emergency".
It was the climax of a two-decade dispute in which Bundy had illegally grazed public lands - deemed off-limits to stock to protect an endangered desert tortoise species - without paying grazing fees. The blunt-talking man in a Stetson began giving interviews and, as word seeped out, Bundy became the latest champion for armed militia groups and conservatives who fume about big government. By mid-April a protest camp had hunkered down near Bundy's ranch outside Bunkerville, Nevada.
When bureau rangers tried to seize some 500 of Bundy's cattle on April 12, they were confronted by several hundred people.
As tensions rose, reports surfaced of militia men aiming scoped sniper rifles at the heads of law enforcement officials.
Wisely, the BLM backed off, opting to act "administratively and judiciously" to collect US$1.1 million ($1.27 million) in back fees. Bundy's supporters saw this as a victory. "We don't want violence," a camouflaged Jared Miller told Reno's News 4, "but if that's the language they want to speak, well, we'll learn it."
It seems unlikely the Government will cede authority to armed men. "It's not over," said Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader and Nevada Democrat who branded protesters "domestic terrorists" on News 4. "And we can't have an American people that violate the law and just walk away from it."
Domestic terrorism is a loaded phrase in the Mountain West where the federal Government's authority - it owns 87 per cent of Nevada - has been challenged by the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, the 1990s militia movement that spawned Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh. It is also a stronghold of the wise use philosophy, which champions private property, opposes environmentalists and acts as a magnet for extractive industries keen to exploit public land.
The past six years has seen a huge resurgence in militias - or "patriotic organisations" as they prefer to be called - climbing from 109 in 2008 to 1360 in 2012, says Mark Potok, a militia expert with the Southern Poverty Law Centre in Birmingham, Alabama. "The main drivers are the collapse of the economy and the election of Barack Obama and what he represents in the country at large, that is the demographic browning of the population."
At the encampment outside Bundy's ranch there was talk about US schemes to disarm citizens and turn cities into concentration camps, while the effort to confiscate Bundy's herd was seen as a "land grab".
The alternative view, voiced by the Nevada Cattleman's Association among others, was that Bundy had welshed on his debt for grazing.
"At end of the day this man is simply a thief. He is a person who has stolen more than US$1 million from the American people," says Potok. "To portray him as a noble defender of the constitution is outrageous and indefensible."
Which is exactly what several Republican politicians did, embracing Bundy as a fellow traveller in their jihad against big government. Nevada's Senator Dean Heller praised the "patriots". Senator Ted Cruz from Texas lamented "the unfortunate and tragic culmination of the path that President Obama has set the federal Government on". Texas Governor Rick Perry "had a problem with the federal Government putting citizens in the position of having to feel like they have to use force to deal with their own Government". Americans for Prosperity, funded by mining magnates Charles and David Koch, extended support. And Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, author of Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans Are Being Harassed, Abused and Imprisoned by the Feds, framed it as "a legitimate constitutional question" about the balance of state and federal power.
But that all changed on April 19 when Bundy, speaking to supporters and a New York Times scribe, shared his thoughts on race. "I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro ... 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 more freedom. They got less freedom."
In a nation where the Oscar-winning movie 12 Years a Slave has touched a nerve, Bundy's remarks were toxic. Republicans stampeded for the hills. Democrats, their ears cocked for any issue that might play well in the November midterm elections relished their opponents' confusion. "Every Republican elected official who risked inciting violence to gain political capital out of Cliven Bundy now owes the people of Nevada an apology for their irresponsible behaviour of putting their own political future ahead of the safety of Nevadans," thundered the Nevada State Democratic Party.
Ironically, as the Atlantic pointed out, Nevada was pro-union in the Civil War, voting against slavery in 1863 and 1864. Thereafter, Jim Crow laws held sway, so that after Sammy Davis jnr took a swim in a whites-only pool at a Las Vegas casino in the 1950s, management drained the water.
Bundy, meanwhile, compared himself to Rosa Parks, the black civil rights icon, insisting this week that he, too, was enslaved, but refused to sit in the back of the bus in his fight against the tyrannical US Government's "bad and unconstitutional laws" that "dehumanise us and destroy our freedom".
His self-serving remarks fell on largely deaf ears in a week when the National Basketball Association executed a life ban on LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, following racist comments the octogenarian made to his girlfriend.
Anyone looking at television images of the Bundy protest would quickly note his support base is white. It is a conservative group that coalesces around enduring obsessions: the right to bear arms, more state power and - overwhelmingly - a visceral rejection of federal government.
Therein lies a big problem for Republicans, as their white support base haemorrhages. The US Census Bureau predicts whites, 72 per cent of Americans in 2010, will slip below 50 per cent for the first time by 2043. And while some whites dislike big government, many minorities don't.