"We Are at War": How Militias, Racists and Anti-Semites Found a Home in the Tea Party
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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?"
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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 the Montana 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, 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, 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.