ST. REGIS — Pastor Matt Shea, a former Washington state lawmaker ousted from the Republican caucus after a legislative investigation found he’d helped plan the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, among other conflicts, held the crowd in the shade structure at St. Regis Community Park enrapt. Smoke from nearby wildfires devastating the West sat heavy in the air.
“What is the truth?”
“What is the truth? Truth is reality as God sees it,” he said. “Today, there is an attempt to redefine the truth. To redefine things that are very clearly set not only in science but in biology – to redefine these things away from something that they’re not.”
He posed a rhetorical question to the audience: Why is this redefinition occurring? The answer, he said, is that manipulating language is a tactic of communism, a weapon used by supposed communists in their effort to take over the country and to destroy its institutions.
It was a message that found a welcome audience at the Red Pill Festival in Mineral County last weekend, where a series of speakers with ties or direct involvement in the country’s far-right movement — including to figures like Ammon Bundy, who led the Malheur occupation and is now mounting a run for governor of Idaho — delivered rapturous addresses to a rotating crowd of a couple hundred people, stoking fears of a communist coup, a United Nations-led New World Order, pedophilia and indoctrination in public schools and more. Several speakers targeted transgender people, others focused more on the Black Lives Matter movement or COVID-19 restrictions. The West was no longer recognizable, some contended; the U.S., in the words of one speaker, Idaho state Rep. Heather Scott, was on the verge of being lost.
The solution, the speakers offered, is to take the “Red Pill” (as in the “Matrix,” meaning to wake up to the truth of the world), spread its message, reject mainstream media, schools and culture, to run for local elected office, and in doing so oust the so-called Republicans In Name Only who stand in the way.
Randy Mitchell, a local Republican activist and the organizer of the event, used the opportunity to announce his run for state House in District 14, challenging incumbent Rep. Denley Loge, a Republican with a comparatively more conciliatory approach to the other side.
The messaging was formed around an encompassing narrative of grievance, loss and nostalgia for something between Mayberry and the Revolutionary War, and it’s manifesting in a political strategy that’s mainstreaming far-right ideas in state legislatures and school boards, observers say.
“We need to reclaim the language of liberty again,” Shea said in his address. “What does the language of liberty sound like? ‘If you will continue in my word, and you are truly my disciples, then you will know the truth’…”
He paused, and gestured for the crowd to complete his thought. They obliged, cheering in near unison: “And the truth will set you free.”
The festival was a who’s who of the Christian conservative movement in the northwestern U.S. In addition to Shea and Scott, there was Joey Gibson of the group Patriot Prayer, from of Vancouver, Wash.; Ben Garrison, the right-wing political cartoonist; Caleb Collier, a regional field director with the John Birch Society; one former and three current Montana state lawmakers, a former Idaho state senate candidate and anti-abortion activist, a pastor from Spokane and others. Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, acted as the master of ceremonies.
“My conviction is that the two foundational principles our country was founded on have been forgotten or at least misunderstood,” said former state Rep. Rick Jore, a member of the Constitution Party. He followed state Sen. Bob Brown, a Republican from Thompson Falls, who kicked off the festival. “Number one is self-government, and the other is the rule of law. Derek and Bob both talked about the notion of restoring our freedom, and I think it’s important we understand that’s the proper word — restore — because it acknowledges that we’ve lost our freedom in many ways.”
Speakers told the crowd to stop supporting companies like Netflix and Starbucks while surrounded by a micro-economy of politically aligned businesses. Vendors sold concealed carry insurance, various paraphernalia adorned with the Gadsden Flag, violin cases meant for guns and coffee blends with names like “Liberal Tears.” And there was a raffle for a variety of prizes: a statue of a bald eagle, “The Creature of Jekyll Island,” a book by conspiracy theorist G. Edward Griffin about the Federal Reserve, another book entitled the “Trojan Horse of Interfaith Dialogue” and more.
The audience was mostly older, having heard about the festival on Facebook or through church groups. They came from the Bitterroot and the Flathead, even Missoula, as well as from Idaho and eastern Washington.
Mike Starmer of Missoula was there representing the Western Montana Liberty Coalition, a small group of conservatives he leads dedicated to preserving “the heritage, culture and history” of Montana. He said Missoula had bought into U.N. Agenda 21, a non-binding plan for sustainable development that’s center to a right-wing conspiracy theory warning that the global government wants to abolish private property, farming and logging.
“The pandemic gave liberal America an advantage,” he said.
The event had caused a small stir locally. St. Regis, Superior and Alberton are three small, closely linked towns, known and marketed for their proximity to world-class fly fishing. A week earlier, a group called Treasure State Values based in Mineral County hosted around 40 people in the same park as part of an event coordinated with the Montana Human Rights Network, which monitors white nationalism in the state.
“The Red Pill event just serves to divide people more,” said Diane Magone, a former Democratic candidate for state legislature in the area who organized the event. “We want to send a different message, that we’re inclusive.”
Magone said the parallel events caused considerable consternation in the local Mineral County Facebook page, with some accusing Treasure State Values of trying to upstage the festival.
The far-right movement has targeted this region for decades, said Travis McAdam, program director with the Montana Human Rights Network. Its significance stems from the American Redoubt, a proposed migration of Christian conservatives to Montana, Idaho and eastern Oregon and Washington. It’s an idea that first gained popularity among libertarian preppers and survivalists that’s since spread to “become part of the myth and lore of the far right,” McAdam said. This helps explain the regularity of events like the Red Pill Festival in the region, including the similarly named Red Pill Expo in Bozeman in 2017.
Garrison, the cartoonist, who lives near Kalispell, said so many people have “bugged out” to the Flathead that he can hardly afford it anymore.
The speakers at the Red Pill festival came primed to deflect what they expected to be the obvious criticism: That they’re militant, anti-government white nationalists. When a presentation wrapped up, master of ceremonies Derek Skees — a Republican state legislator from Kalispell and the treasurer of the state GOP — would often call out to the gathered reporters and then ask the crowd if they felt incited to violence. Each time, they’d respond with a no.
“We’re going to fight within the law,” he said. “None of us want to see this turn to violence.”
The focus instead was on political organizing and mobilization, borne out of a thesis that the country and state was on the verge of being lost to a many-faced enemy: Joe Biden and the Democrats, critical race theory and Black Lives Matter, the Montana Human Rights Network, Islam, the left, the end of truth, socialists (in both political parties, Skees noted at one point), and of course, the tyrannical lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions.
Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, the victor in a bitterly contested primary with one of the chief moderates of the Republican caucus, Sen. Nancy Ballance, gave a speech entitled “Why fight city hall when you can be city hall?”
She encouraged the audience to run for legislative office, saying she learned how to be a legislator in part from a series of lessons on the Constitution from the John Birch Society and that others should do the same. If you’re not willing to run for legislative office, she said, run for school board.
“I believe that’s the most important position in our country today — we have got to take back our schools,” Manzella said. “This critical race theory is downright scary.”
She then said she believes the Jews in the Holocaust “were victims” of critical race theory, a field of legal and academic study on race and systems of power.
“What I’m really concerned about is some of these people are going into our schools and trying to influence curriculum,” said Magone.
McAdam said this is an example of a phenomenon called “margins to the mainstream.”
“How do these ideas that start out at militia meetings end up as policy that’s introduced and debated at the state Legislature?” he said.
Elected officials add credibility to the underlying concepts, he said.
“(Manzella’s) core message is that we have to get off our butts and go start serving and school boards and state legislatures everywhere we can, instead of just letting things happen to us, we got to go in there and effect change actively like she did,” said Garrison, who watched the speech. He said there’s certainly more energy for conservatives in local politics — “there has to be, because we’re all under attack.”
And despite the repeated affirmations that talk of battle was purely political and spiritual, some on the billing had direct ties to violent movements.
“We promote the Constitution and the rule of law,” said Casey Whalen, who runs a right-wing YouTube channel called North Idaho Exposed and documented the Red Pill Festival. “Some people just don’t like Matt Shea and things he’s said in the past — they just lump everyone together.”
Shea is an attorney by trade who was first elected to the Washington legislature in 2008, where he made a name opposing same-sex marriage and calling for eastern Washington to split off from its more progressive half. He also helped found the Coalition of Western States, an organization consisting of conservative western lawmakers that desires a large-scale transfer of federal land to the states.
In 2019, an investigation commissioned by the Washington State House accused Shea of domestic terrorism and threatening political violence, saying he collaborated with Ammon Bundy to help plan the standoff at the Malheur refuge and “engaged in and promoted a total of three armed conflicts of political violence against the United States Government in three states outside the state of Washington over a three-year period.”
Mitchell, the event organizer, defended Shea and said the report was a hit job that the Montana Human Rights Network — which, along with the media, got quite a few callouts — “read like gospel.”
Shea “stands up against abortion and gay marriage so that makes him a racist apparently,” he said. “Some organization came together and spent over $100,000 to put together this fraudulent report to paint him as some militant racist kind of guy. They didn’t like him talking about God and family, and traditional American values. They wanted him to swallow all of that progressivism that’s out there today.”
For as much as the Red Pill was about local political activism, it was also about resisting a perceived cultural shift away from conservative Christianity — about “values.” And rhetoric about the need to prevent America from becoming unmoored from these “Judeo-Christian values” often took a violent turn.
“Stop with the white guilt, CRT, BLM racist crap,” began the speech of Pastor Afshin Yaghtin, who lives in Spokane. He was arrested in 2019 for obstructing an officer at a protest of a Drag Queen Story Hour at a Spokane public library, a fact that was advertised on the Red Pill Festival bill.
“You should be up in arms about this — figuratively, OK, just for the guys out there,” he said. “BLM is a racist organization. I put them on par with the KKK – maybe worse, because at least the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t Marxist.”
Then he turned his attention to his arrest.
“There’s a time in America when if a grown man dressed up as a woman and read any kind of story to little kids, he would not only have been forcibly detained by other men, he would have been arrested and thrown in prison,” Yaghtin said to applause. “Now, you’re a bigot if you disagree. I don’t care if you think this is hate speech, you don’t even know what gender you are.”
Twenty-two years ago, local pastors assembled around 60 people in Superior for a Day of Harmony. They gathered in response to the planned meeting of a white supremacist group called the World Church of the Creator at the cabin of a man named Slim Deardorff — whom Magone recalled being nicknamed “two gun,” for the obvious reason.
Doug Austin, an attorney and lay pastor in Superior, was one of those clergy. He relayed to the small gathering at the Better Together event in July the story about the Day of Harmony, headlined by a Black pastor from Spokane named the Rev. Happy Watkins.
“It drew quite a bit of attention, so a group of local pastors in Superior got together and put together a petition, a declaration that was published in the local paper declaring our commitment to equality and equal rights,” Austin said. “There were 450 signatures, which was pretty good for a small community. I think Mineral County has a history of standing up for equality.”
Much like speakers at the Red Pill Festival, Austin elevated the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as foundational documents to the country’s values. But he emphasized that the documents and men who wrote them had their flaws, and that the betterment of human nature is an ongoing process. Thomas Jefferson, of course, owned and profited from slaves. The Declaration refers to indigenous people as “merciless…savages.”
“These are imperfect documents, but they did promote these ideals of freedom, equality and justice,” he told the crowd.
Austin said that he himself leans conservative, but that it was important to participate in the Better Together event to speak about “having communication with respect” as a long time resident of the community.
“It’s an ongoing process — human nature is such that every generation is flawed, every generation needs to work to meet these ideals of equality and freedom,” he told the Daily Montanan.
Magone said she’s worried the theories espoused in the Red Pill Festival have already seeped into local politics. One member of a local conservative group called Free Americans was sworn in to the Plains town council in neighboring Sanders County last year, where she was the only applicant to fill a vacancy in the First Ward, according to the Sanders County Ledger. The councilwoman, Connie Foust, said she had already began her council term when she formed the group “to address mail-in voting and work on legislation from a conservative point of view.” She and a few other group members protested the Better Together event, where they told North Idaho Exposed that the group has 50-60 members that regularly attend town council, school board and county commission meetings. Foust said she has no association with the John Birch Society movement, and that she protested Better Together because Magone “put all conservatives in the same basket.”
Already, the second Red Pill Festival is on the calendar for next July, according to its website. The headliner will be Alex Newman, a conservative blogger who writes about supposed Marxist indoctrination in public schools.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on August 2 at 12:00 p.m. to clarify the timeline of the Free Americans’ founding and to include comment from Connie Foust
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