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