Maybe it's the gun-making kits that are being raffled off as door prizes. Or maybe it's the fact that nearly everyone inside this hall at the Ravalli County Fairground is packing heat. But most of all, it's the copy of Mein Kampf sitting there on the book table, with its black-and-white swastika, sandwiched between a survivalist book on food storage and a copy of Saul Alinsky'sRules for Radicals.
It is obvious: This is not your ordinary Tea Party gathering.
Mind you, they don't explicitly call themselves Tea Partiers. Their official name is Celebrating Conservatism. But their mission statement is classic Tea Party — “to restore our country, counties, and cities back to the Republic and the Constitution of the United States” — and Celebrating Conservatism is listed as a member of the national Tea Party Patriots organization. Everyone in Hamilton, Montana — the whole of Montana's Bitterroot Valley, for that matter — knows them as the Tea Party's main presence in town. Once a month or so, the group holds a potluck dinner at the county fairgrounds that typically attracts a couple hundred people, which in a place like the Bitterroot is a sizeable presence.
This night — a September 14, 2010, potluck in the oversized metal shed that is the fairground's main hall — is special because there is a high-profile guest: Larry Pratt, leader of Gun Owners of America.
Pratt, like a lot of Celebrating Conservatism's speakers, has a long history with the far right. He is considered a godfather of the militia movement, a network of conspiracy-minded, armed paramilitary groups that exploded in the 1990s. Pratt addressed a pivotal three-day meeting of neo-Nazis and Christian Identity adherents in Estes Park, Colorado, in October 1992, convened in the wake of a shoot-out by federal agents in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, that had sent shock waves through the extreme right. That gathering is widely credited with birthing the movement's strategy of organizing citizen militias as a form of “leaderless resistance” to a looming “New World Order.” Joining Pratt on the stage at Estes Park were Aryan Nations leaders Richard Butler and Louis Beam. (A few years later, Pratt became co-chair of Patrick Buchanan's 1996 GOP presidential campaign, but was dismissed once these Neo-Nazi ties surfaced in the national press.)
Pratt is hardly the only controversial figure to address the group. In May 2010, at its convention on the University of Montana's Missoula campus, Celebrating Conservatism hosted tax protester Red Beckman, notorious for his open anti-Semitism and the author of a 1984 book that argues the Holocaust was a judgment upon Jews for worshiping Satan. At a Hamilton gathering in July 2009, a onetime Arizona sheriff named Richard Mack addressed the crowd; he'd made a career in the 1990s out of organizing militias and speaking on the national circuit of the anti-government Patriot movement. Mack's longtime Patriot movement confederate, Jack McLamb, spoke at the group's Hamilton gathering the following month. McLamb, a former police officer, recruits “soldiers and lawmen” to the Patriot cause through a group called Police & Military Against a New World Order.
Those events served notice that Celebrating Conservatism had embraced the Patriot movement cause.
Celebrating Conservatism formed in December 2008 in reaction to the presidential election and slowly gained members that spring by associating itself with a variety of Tea Party events in Bitterroot. But locals only took real notice in September 2009, when the group held a gun rights rally in downtown Hamilton at which participants brandished firearms. Organizers followed up with a Celebration of Right to Bear Arms in March 2010, which featured a march of several hundred people along Hamilton's main drag. Anyone driving through town that day was greeted by a gauntlet of people packing weapons ranging from muzzle-loading muskets to a high-powered sniper-style .308 caliber rifle.
Their display felt like a threat to some locals. Bill LaCroix, a Montana human rights activist,wrote an anxious op-ed in the Bitterroot Star after the September rally: “You have to wonder: If these teabaggers' views are so extreme that they have to carry guns to emphasize how much they can't tolerate your beliefs, what do they suggest be done with everyone who disagrees with them if they actually gained the power they demand?”
The obsession with all things gun is evident at tonight's potluck, from Larry Pratt's presence to a fundraising raffle for registration-free gun kits. At one point Mona Docteur — Celebrating Conservatism's founder and the evening's emcee — invites to the stage the owner of the Dillon-based company that sells the kits. He has a kit-made pistol strapped to his waist.
At the back of the room, alongside the bookseller and the gun-kit merchant, are booths for a handful of local Tea Party political candidates — one running for sheriff, another for county commissioner — as well as a booth promoting two Patriot organizations: the Oath Keepers, a new organization that recruits military and police to refuse any orders to disarm American citizens or put them concentration camps, threats they view as imminent; and the Fully Informed Jury Association, a veteran far-right group dedicated to persuading juries to “nullify” federal tax and civil-rights laws. The latter group was closely associated for years with theMontana Freemen, which engaged in an armed standoff with FBI agents in the mid-1990s.
What becomes manifestly clear, even before the speakers take the stage, is that this is a gathering of old-style Patriot movement believers very similar to those who made a splash in Montana back in the 1990s: militias, “Constitutionalists,” Freemen, and assorted anti-government extremists. But this time around they are riding the coattails of the Tea Party movement. References to “Tea Party principles” throughout the evening are almost as common as references to the Constitution.
The Patriots began organizing on a mass scale in 1994, largely in response to the violent federal raids at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, reaching their organizational peak in 1996, when there were over 800 groups on the scene. The movement gradually declined as the 1990s wore on, collapsing to a couple hundred groups once the Y2K Apocalypse, which many of them had warned of as the millennium approached, failed to materialize.
By 2007, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights organization, counted only 131 Patriot groups left in the entire country. Suddenly, in 2009, it counted 512. The numbers continue to climb, and nearly all of this activity, according to Mark Potok, the director of the SPLC's intelligence project, is closely associated with the rise of the Tea Party. “The 'tea parties' and similar groups that have sprung up in recent months cannot fairly be considered extremist groups,” the group's March 2010 report states, “but they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism.”
Mark Pitcavage, intelligence director for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), has also tracked “a general growth of anti-government rage and associated conspiracy theories.” Its most mainstream expression is the Tea Party, he says, “but it has also manifested itself on the extremes by a resurgence of the militia movement, the sovereign citizen movement, [and] other Patriot-type groups like the Oath Keepers.”
In his view, the rise of the Tea Party and the resurgence of the Patriot movement are “two sides of the same coin.”
David Barstow referenced the overlap between Tea Parties and Patriots in a widely read February 2010 New York Times article, writing that “a significant undercurrent” within the Tea Party has more in common with the Patriot movement than the Republican Party. But he failed to note a disturbing side-effect: the Patriot movement's affiliation with the Tea Party has offered it a measure of mainstream validation. That validation has energized the movement and enabled it to recruit a new generation to “constitutionalist” Patriot-movement beliefs.
In some cases, the Tea Party has helped create a local organizing focus for newborn Patriot organizations such as Celebrating Conservatism, which has effectively become the main Tea Party group in Ravalli County, even though it is clearly a Patriot group. In other instances, Patriot groups have spun off of Tea Party organizing, spreading their own conspiracist and constitutionalist ideas while maintaining close Tea Party alliances. Often the most active and vocal Tea Party organizers are simultaneously leaders of local Patriot groups. This is especially true in rural areas.
In the process, leaders of the two movements have developed strong ties. Potok points out that Richard Mack, a major national militia-movement figure in the 1990s, has given scores of speeches to Tea Party groups around the country over the past year. Meanwhile, new Patriot organizations like the Oath Keepers have built their new followings largely through their heavy involvement in the Tea Parties.
Travis McAdam, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network, has seen this political hardening at play here in Montana. Celebrating Conservatism's tone and message, he notes, have changed sharply over time. “Early on, they were portraying themselves very much as just this benign group that was educating the public about the Constitution and American history,” he says. “Then months down the road, a year down the road, they're taking out an ad in the local paper where they're basically saying that if the government tries to restrict our access to firearms, it is our obligation to rise up and overthrow such a government. And then Mona starts to say things like, 'You know, we're not violent. But we could be.'”
Back in the '90s, he recalls, the Militia of Montana paid lip service to voting, but always followed with a grim punch line: 'When the ballot box doesn't work, we'll switch to the cartridge box.'“
That certainly seemed to be the sentiment this September in Hamilton.
Mona Docteur, a fortyish brunette dressed in a stylish black sweater and jeans, is running the show tonight. She kicks things off with a prayer, then launches into the story of her recent trip to Missoula to watch Sarah Palin speak. She says she was skeptical of Palin, but came away changed. ”You know what I felt from that woman? She really is all about God and family and country.“
Docteur spoke with Palin about Celebrating Conservatism, she says, and ”the thing I got from Sarah Palin was this…. We have got to get together. The divisions are exactly what the enemy wants. And maybe we don't agree on a whole lot of things, but maybe we can agree on one or two things. How about limited government? Does everybody agree about that?“ There were cheers. ”OK, that's one thing. At least we can agree on that. Can we agree on the fact that we still maybe might have our Constitution? Maybe?“ More applause.
That's when Docteur introduces Richard Celata, of KT Ordnance in Dillon, Montana, to talk about his gun kits. ”How many of you like having the government know what firearms you have?“ he asks rhetorically, to a sea of rolled eyes and disgusted snorts. ”Well, these firearms do not have serial numbers on it, nobody knows you've bought it but you and I. What you do is you build it yourself.“ Buyers get a valuable lesson in the inner workings of their gun, he explains, ”plus, nobody knows you have it.“
If you buy one of the winning raffle tickets, you get to walk away that evening with the makings of either a 1911 .45-caliber handgun, or one of two semiautomatic assault rifles, an AR-10 or an AR-15.
Sitting next to me is an eager, fresh-faced family man named Mark French. French, who hails from Sanders County, a couple hours' drive away, is something of a known figure in these circles, having run as the Tea Party challenger to Republican Congressman Dennis Rehberg in the Montana primary. He only garnered 20 percent of the vote — a deep disappointment that led him to feel pessimistic about the nation's future. The Constitution, he says, is under serious assault.
Really? I ask. What parts of the Constitution are being attacked?
The question makes him think for a moment; after all, this claim has become a truism among Tea Partiers. ”The first one that comes to mind,“ he says after a long pause, ”is being secure in your papers and your personal effects. The Patriot Act, for example — the Patriot Act walks all over the Constitution.“
Then he gets philosophical. ”The biggest problem that we have, though, in America is — and I said this out loud at every speech I gave — Romans Chapter 1, Verse 28: 'As we did not want to retain God in our knowledge, God gave us over to a debased mind to do those things that are unfitting.'“ He mentions Judge Roy Moore's battle to defend a Ten Commandments monument he installed at a public courthouse in Alabama and the national debate over same sex marriage. ”We've tried to remove God from our society the best we can,“ he says. ”There's no foundation for anything.“
I wonder how all this constitutes an attack on the Constitution, since the First Amendment separates church and state. But before I can ask, the evening's first guest speaker takes the stage: Missoula's own Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association and a longtime fixture on Montana's far-right political scene.
Marbut enjoys an almost legendary status among Patriot groups and Tea Parties, one seriously burnished by his May 2009 appearance on Glenn Beck's show to discuss efforts by legislators in a number of conservative states to declare their sovereignty vis-a-vis the federal government. The month before, Montana had passed legislation declaring that all guns manufactured in the state were exempt from federal law. Marbut had drafted the bill.
Though he has run numerous times, Marbut has never actually been elected to any office, largely because he resides in liberal Missoula, where residents are aware of his alliances with figures on the extremist right.
In 1994, disgusted with the passage of the Brady Act (which established federal background checks on firearms purchases) and that year's federal assault-weapons ban, Marbut suggested Montana secede from the Union, and his shooting sports group promoted a resolution legalizing the formation of ”unorganized militias.“ Marbut also penned columns for a white-supremacist Christian Identity newspaper, The Jubilee, and for an Identity-oriented militia magazine, theSierra Times. And he's actively promoted jury nullification through the Fully Informed Jury Association (which has a booth at the Hamilton event), calling it ”the last peaceable barrier between innocent gun owners and a tyrannous government.“
He has some previous experience in the mainstreaming of radical ideas: in the mid-'90s, Marbut advised Militia of Montana members not to call themselves ”militias“ but rather Patriot ”neighborhood watches.“
Tonight Marbut wants to talk about a new piece of sovereignty legislation he plans to promote in the state legislature, something he calls Sheriffs First. The bill would make it a crime in Montana for a federal officer to arrest, search or seize without advance written permission from the county sheriff, Marbut explains, to enthusiastic applause.
”How that will work is, the federal officers might come to your local sheriff and say, 'OK, here's our probable cause, we believe there's people at this location in your county who have a meth lab …and we wanna bust 'em,'“ Marbut says. ”The sheriff might look it over and say, 'Gosh, I'm glad you brought this to me, here's your advance written permission, and I will send a couple deputies to help you.'
“Or the federal officers might come to the sheriff and say, 'Here's our probable cause, it leads us to believe there's somebody in your county at this location who's manufacturing firearms without a federal license. And we want to go bust them.' The sheriff might say, 'Sorry, we have a state law in Montana that authorizes that activity, it's perfectly legal here, you may not go bust them, you do not have permission, and if you do, we can put you in Deer Lodge. We can put you behind bars in Montana for doing that.'” That brings out whoops alongside the applause.
When Marbut wraps up, it's time for Larry Pratt, the head of Gun Owners of America. Pratt, who lives in Virginia, cultivates an avuncular grandpa image these days, and it works well with this crowd, which besides being pure white is also largely on the sundown side of fifty.
He opens by celebrating the primary victory of Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell that night in Delaware and the promising poll numbers of New Hampshire Tea Party candidate Ovide Lamontagne: “The Tea Party's having a pretty good night tonight,” he declares. “Even before we get to November, it looks like we've taken care of a good deal of business.” (Lamontagne went on to narrowly lose the Republican primary; O'Donnell lost by a wide margin in the general election.)
Pratt then channels Glenn Beck, explaining that the root of our political problems are the “socialist” public schools, which he describes as “propaganda centers for the hard left.” And it goes even deeper. “We are in a war,” he says. “It is a culture war. We're in a war, and the other side knows it, because they started it.”
“We are facing socialism, pure and simple,” he continues. “They want our guns, of course — that's what every socialist regime has ever wanted to do. They want our kids, they want our money, they want our land.”
Pratt wraps up with a simple exhortation: “Montana, on November 2, don't forget to take out the trash.”
Pratt fields several questions from audience members who have doubts about the Ravalli County Sheriff, Chris Hoffman. One middle-aged man with a walrus mustache, wearing a rumpled cowboy hat and a sidearm, has some particularly dark fears. “I walked up to Sheriff Hoffman,” he says, “and asked him to his face, I said: 'Here's the scenario, Sheriff. There's the mountains over there, and there comes the enemy. And the enemy is the Federal Government.' I said, 'The enemy is the Federal Government. And they're coming down, I can see them coming over the hills, and my wife is here, and my little child is there, and you're standing there and we all got guns. Here's my question, Sheriff: What you gonna do?'
”You know what Hoffman said to me? He said, 'I dunno. I'd have to call the D.A. to find out the correct interpretation of the Constitution.' That's what he told me. So that's the kind of sheriff that we're running here. Sheriff Hoffman is obviously not one of us. He's gonna call the D.A. when the feds are coming down the hill to maybe kill my daughter or kill my wife.“
Pratt nods and says, with a taut smile, ”Then he needs to feel the heat.“
Sheriff Hoffmann felt little heat in on November 2: A Republican, he was reelected with 81 percent of the vote. But a wave of ultraconservatism fed by the Tea Parties swept Ravalli County, washing away Democratic commissioners and longtime county attorney George Corn, who had a notable history of standing up to Patriot extremists dating back to the '90s. This was also true of Montana more generally, where several Tea Party candidates were elected to the state legislature, and one of Gary Marbut's key allies — Rep. Krayton Kerns of Laurel, a Tea Party favorite — is now well positioned to become Speaker of the Montana House.
For people like Travis McAdam, who has monitored the activities of right-wing extremists here for two decades, the talk being heard in places like Hamilton is the kind heard in the '90s from local Patriot groups. Only now their paranoia has the Tea Party's imprimatur.
He sees a tremendous symbiosis between Patriot groups and the Tea Party in Montana, especially in small communities like Hamilton. He mentions Celebrating Conservatism, as well as another local Patriot group, Lincoln County Watch, that had its origins in a 2008 Ron Paul for President meet-up group spearheaded by an activist named Paul Stramer. (Stramer, like Paul, identifies as a libertarian, but Stramer also has a long history of activism with the Militia of Montana and the Montana Freemen.) Both are Patriot groups — and both are solidly in the Tea Party fold.
”A lot of times you'll find there is the Tea Party group and Tea Party organizing and Tea Party rallies that are happening in communities,“ McAdam says. ”But oftentimes connected up to that is another, separate organization where there is quite a bit of crossover of membership and activists, and the secondary organization has a much harder and really more self-evident streak of Patriot movement theory.“
In the case of Celebrating Conservatism, that streak was visible early on, when the group brought in figures such as Patriot movement icon Richard Mack and known anti-Semite Red Beckman. Tea Party groups elsewhere around the state have followed the same course, he says, featuring speakers who have ”very colorful“ histories with antigovernment groups, white supremacists and hardcore anti-Semites.
Gun-rights extremists like Pratt get a hearing from both Patriots and Tea Partiers, helping to whip up a climate of fear. ”Pratt's whole thing,“ Mark Potok says, is ”the government is coming for your guns.“ In Patriot conspiracy theory, he explains, that's how it starts: ”First, gun confiscation, then martial law, imposed probably with the aid of foreign governments. Then concentration camps that either have been built or are being built by FEMA. And then, finally, the country is forced into a socialistic One World Government, a New World Order.“ By sounding the alarm about the first element in the conspiracy, Pratt and his ilk sow anxiety about the rest.
Many in the Tea Party movement appear oblivious to the presence of Patriots in their midst, Pitcavage says, but the Patriot movement is ”painfully aware“ of the Tea Party. ”They're fascinated and attracted to it, because they see this great mass of angry, agitated people out there who clearly share some of their concerns and fears,“ he says. ”They look at them as a potential pool of people who could be brought along a little further.“
Some Patriot activists get involved in Tea Parties simply to express their anger, he says. Others are more deliberate, attending Tea Party events to spread the word about their own Patriot movement beliefs. White supremacists have attempted this as well — perhaps most aggressively during Tea Party events on the Fourth of July in 2009 — though they had limited success, asthe ADL documented at the time. While recruiters from places as disparate as Tallahassee, Florida, and Bellingham, Washington, reported that they were able to interest Tea Partiers in their material, many others found the events inhospitable.
Patriot organizations have found the Tea Party to be far more fertile ground, for both recruitment and organizational alliances. The Oath Keepers, for example, have carved out a prominent place as organizers, participants, and speakers on the national Tea Party scene. At the same time, local Patriot groups like Celebrating Conservatism have lodged themselves inside the Tea Party network, deepening the influence of Patriot ideology there.
A recent report for the NAACP, ”Tea Party Nationalism,“ authored by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, details how a variety of far-right extremists, including Patriot groups, have come to hold positions of influence inside the movement.
”It's true no matter where you are,“ says Devin Burghart, one of the study's authors. ”In Montana, people will be upset about guns and wolves. In Arizona, it will be undocumented immigrants. In Jackson [Mississippi], they'll talk about black people, immigrants, and Islam.“ But regardless of how they frame the issues, he says, Patriot Groups have found in the Tea Party ”an audience which they never could have gotten on their own. It gives them a mass appeal for which they've been longing forever.“
”It gives them traction for their agenda,“ he adds. ”It gives them a stamp of legitimacy. It washes away their previous sins and allows them to recreate themselves under this fresh new party banner.“
Here in Montana, gun advocates such as Larry Pratt and Gary Marbut play a decisive role in making these groups appear more mainstream. ”Marbut is very firmly in the Patriot camp,“ says McAdam. ”But because of the dynamics around Second Amendment issues in Montana politics, he has been able to portray himself and is looked at by legislators as this gun-rights enthusiast who knows everything there is to know about gun-rights law in Montana. And he is treated both with respect and fear.“ Even Democrats believe that they can't get elected if Marbut doesn't warm up to them, he says.
Where Patriot activists have entered Montana politics, their effect has largely been toxic. In the south-central town of Big Timber, a Patriot faction led by an Oath Keeper took control of the city council, triggering massive dysfunction, with even local parks projects tied up in bizarre fears of a New World Order conspiracy. ”When these Patriots engage local political institutions, take over local city councils and local county commissions, local school boards, what we've found is they have no interest in governing,“ McAdam says. ”They have only an interest in dismantling.“
Their main political tools, he says, are intimidation and harassment — a dynamic visible here in Hamilton. ”All of a sudden it's the people with the loudest voices and the biggest stockpile of weapons who start totally dictating public discourse,“ he says, ”and anyone who doesn't agree with them is scared out of the process.“
Those involved with Celebrating Conservatism, organizers and participants alike, insist that they only bring weapons to public meetings to assert their rights as gun owners, never acknowledging that a political opponent might reasonably view their weapons as a threat. Some of them, McAdam notes, are honestly shocked at the suggestion.
”Not all of them, though,“ he says. ”A lot of them know perfectly well that guns intimidate people, and they bring them anyway. For exactly that reason.“
After the speeches are over and the gun kits handed off to the raffle winners, everyone is milling around. I stop by the Oath Keepers booth and buy a khaki-green T-shirt with the Oath Keepers logo on it (”Guardians of the Republic — Not on Our Watch“), then wander by the book table where Mein Kampf is for sale. The last time I saw it being sold publicly like this was back in the early 1980s, at a World Congress of Aryan Nations in Hayden Lake, three hours' drive away on the other side of Lookout Pass.
The guy behind the table is Reuben Walker, who runs a small local bookstore. ”Can you tell me exactly why you're selling Mein Kampf?“ I ask. ”Have you read it?“
”Yes,“ he answers, seeming startled.
”So you know that it's nothing but an extended screed about how the Jews are plotting to destroy the white race,“ I say, pulling out my video camera.
”Well — “
”So, do you believe what he wrote in the — ?“ I begin to ask.
”No,“ he answers. ”You'll notice we have other books out we don't believe in.“
He points to the book next to it: Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky, a favorite target of Glenn Beck. It's clear he thinks the two books have something in common. ”This is my 'broken books' section,“ he says. ”It's there so you can know what we're up against.“
A couple of weeks later I call Walker up at the bookstore, because I realize where this may be coming from: Jonah Goldberg's right-wing treatise, Liberal Fascism, which posits that fascism has always been a left-wing phenomenon. I ask whether he's read Goldberg's book.
”Yes, I have,“ he says.
”So is that kind of where you coming from on this? So people could be educated on fascism?“
”So where do you see fascism in our current scene?“
”You don't see fascism in our current government?“ he asks. ”I believe there is some.“
”And so you want people to be able to see and identify fascism by going back to the original sources, right?“ I ask.
”Definitely. Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.“
Walker assures me that, among the several hundred people at the gathering that night, I was the only one who objected to seeing Mein Kampf for sale. Somehow, that doesn't surprise me.
Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.