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