"We Are at War": How Militias, Racists and Anti-Semites Found a Home in the Tea Party
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Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
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 how-to book on food storage and a copy of Saul Alinsky's Rules 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 "soldier 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.