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

In places like rural Montana, the Tea Party is working hand-in-glove with Patriot movement radicals -- including some with close ties to white supremacists and armed militias.

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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.