Pam Stout has not always lived in fear of her government. She remembers her years working in federal housing programs in California, when...
SANDPOINT, Idaho — Pam Stout has not always lived in fear of her government. She remembers her years working in federal housing programs in California, when she saw government, however imperfect, lift struggling families with job training and educational assistance. She beams at the memory of helping a Vietnamese woman get into junior college.
But all that was before the Great Recession and the bank bailouts, before Barack Obama took the White House by promising sweeping change on multiple fronts, before her son lost his job and his house. Stout said she awoke to see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated — even manufactured — by both parties to grab power.
She was new to protest politics — happily retired, she had never made a political donation in her life. Last April, she went to her first Tea Party rally, then to a meeting of the Sandpoint Tea Party Patriots. She did not know a soul, yet when they began electing board members, she stood up, swallowed hard and nominated herself for president. “I was like, ‘Did I really just do that?’ ” she recalled.
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Then she went even further.
Worried that the country might be on the brink of hyperinflation, social unrest or even martial law, she and her Tea Party members joined a coalition, Friends for Liberty, that includes local representatives from Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project, the John Birch Society, Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty, and Oath Keepers, a new player in the nation’s resurgent militia movement.
When Friends for Liberty held its first public event, Stout listened raptly as Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff, brought 1,400 people to their feet with a speech about confronting a despotic federal government. Stout said she felt as if she had been handed a road map to rebellion. Members of her family, she said, think she has disappeared down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. But Stout said she has never felt so alive and engaged.
“I can’t go on being the shy, quiet me,” she said. “I need to stand up and be heard.”
The Tea Party movement has become a platform for conservative populist discontent, a force in Republican politics for revival, as it was in the Massachusetts Senate election, or for division. But it is also about the profound private transformation of people like Stout, people who not long ago were not especially interested in politics, yet now say they are bracing for tyranny.
These people are part of a significant undercurrent within the Tea Party movement that has less in common with the Republican Party than with the Patriot movement, a brand of politics historically associated with libertarians, militia groups, anti-immigration advocates and those who argue for the abolition of the Federal Reserve.
Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show. In this view, Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.
Loose alliances like Friends for Liberty are popping up in many cities, forming hybrid entities of Tea Parties and groups rooted in the Patriot ethos. These coalitions are not content with simply making the Republican Party more conservative. They have a larger goal — a political reordering that would drastically shrink the federal government and sweep away not just Obama, but much of the Republican establishment.
In many regions, including here in the Inland Northwest, tense struggles have erupted over whether the Republican apparatus will co-opt these new coalitions or vice versa.
The new grass-roots leaders of the Inland Northwest had grown weary of fending off what they jokingly called “hijack attempts” by the state and county Republican parties. Whether the issue was picking speakers or scheduling events, they suspected party leaders of trying to choke off their revolution with Chamber of Commerce incrementalism.
“We had to stand our ground, I’ll be blunt,” said Dann Selle, president of the Official Tea Party of Spokane.
In October, Stout and about 20 others from across the region met in Liberty Lake, a small Spokane County town on the Idaho border, to discuss how to achieve broad political change without sacrificing independence. The local Republican Party was excluded.
Not everyone flocking to the Tea Party movement is worried about dictatorship. Some have a basic aversion to big government, or Obama, or progressives in general. Moreover, some Tea Party groups are essentially appendages of the local Republican Party.
But most are not. They are frequently led by political neophytes who prize independence and tell strikingly similar stories of having been awakened by the recession. Their families upended by lost jobs, foreclosed homes and depleted retirement funds, they said they wanted to know why it happened and whom to blame.
That is often the point when Tea Party supporters say they began listening to Glenn Beck. With his guidance, they explored the Federalist Papers, exposés on the Federal Reserve, the work of Ayn Rand and George Orwell. Some went to constitutional seminars. Online, they discovered radical critiques of Washington on Web sites like ResistNet.com (“Home of the Patriotic Resistance”) and Infowars.com (“Because there is a war on for your mind.”).
Some have gone so far as to stock up on ammunition, gold and survival food in anticipation of the worst.
Tea Party gatherings are full of people who say they would do away with the Federal Reserve, the federal income tax and countless agencies, not to mention bailouts and stimulus packages.
Nor is it unusual to hear calls to eliminate Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. A remarkable number say this despite having recently lost jobs or health coverage. Some of the prescriptions they are debating — secession, tax boycotts, states “nullifying” federal laws, forming citizen militias — are outside the mainstream, too.
At the grass-roots level, the movement consists of hundreds of autonomous Tea Party groups. In the Inland Northwest, the Tea Party movement has been shaped by the growing popularity in Eastern Washington of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a libertarian, and by a legacy of anti-government activism in northern Idaho.
Outside Sandpoint, federal agents laid siege to Randy Weaver’s compound on Ruby Ridge in 1992, resulting in the deaths of a marshal and Weaver’s wife and son. To the south, Richard Butler, leader of the Aryan Nations, preached white separatism from a compound near Coeur d’Alene until he was shut down.
Local Tea Party groups are often loosely affiliated with one of several competing national Tea Party organizations. In the background, offering advice and organizational muscle, is an array of conservative lobbying groups, most notably FreedomWorks. Further complicating matters, Tea Party events have become a magnet for other groups and causes — including gun-rights activists, anti-tax crusaders, libertarians, militia organizers, the “birthers” who doubt Obama’s citizenship, Lyndon LaRouche supporters and proponents of the sovereign states movement.
It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters — from a concern that the community organization ACORN is stealing elections to a belief that Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership.
WorldNetDaily.com trumpets “exclusives” reporting that the Army is seeking “Internment/Resettlement” specialists. On ResistNet.com, bloggers warn that Obama is trying to convert Interpol, the international police organization, into his personal police force. They call on “fellow Patriots” to “grab their guns.”
Beck frequently echoes Patriot rhetoric, discussing the possible arrival of a “New World Order” and arguing that Obama is using a strategy of manufactured crisis to destroy the economy and pave the way for dictatorship.
Fear of Washington and the disgust for both parties is producing new coalitions of Tea Party supporters and groups affiliated with the Patriot movement. In Indiana, for example, a group called the Defenders of Liberty is helping organize “meet-ups” with Tea Party groups and more than 50 Patriot organizations. The Ohio Freedom Alliance, meanwhile, is bringing together Tea Party supporters, Ohio sovereignty advocates and members of the Constitution and Libertarian parties. The alliance is also helping to organize five “liberty conferences” in March, each featuring Richard Mack, the same speaker invited to address Friends for Liberty.
Leah Southwell’s turning point came when she stumbled on Paul’s speeches on YouTube. (“He blew me away.”) Until recently, Southwell was in the top 1 percent of all Mary Kay sales representatives, with a company car and a frenetic corporate life. “I knew zero about the Constitution,” Southwell confessed. Today, when asked about her commitment to the uprising, she recites a line from the Declaration of Independence, a Tea Party favorite: “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Last spring, Southwell quit her job and became a national development officer for the John Birch Society, recruiting and raising money across the West, often at Tea Party events. She has been stunned by the number of Tea Party supporters gravitating toward Patriot ideology. “Most of these people are just waking up,” she said.
Almost 30 years ago, Tony Stewart, a civil-rights activist, co-founded the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations in Coeur d’Alene. The task force has campaigned to rid north Idaho of its reputation as a haven for anti-government extremists. Its tactics brought many successes, including a $6.3 million civil judgment that effectively bankrupted Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations.
When the Tea Party uprising gathered force last spring, Stewart saw painfully familiar cultural and rhetorical overtones. Stewart viewed the questions about Obama’s birthplace as a proxy for racism, and he was bothered by the “common message of intolerance for the opposition.”
Branding Obama a tyrant, Stewart said, constructs a logic that could be used to rationalize violence. “When people start wearing guns to rallies, what’s the next thing that happens?” Stewart asked.