Here’s a suggestion for assignment editors at the large national media outlets who have provided us with an endless stream of stories about Trump voters in rural diners over the past half-decade: Try instead reporting on what it’s become like for non-Trump voters in these rural red areas where the politics of menace and thuggery have taken over—sort of an inverted version of the cliché; the rural Biden voter who can barely show his face at the local café. The reality.
All around the Trump-loving rural sectors of the nation, daily life has become filled with foreboding, intimidation, threats, and ugliness, all emanating from authoritarian right-wingers directing their aggression at anyone who fails to follow their dictates—and the intensity has been increasing. In the past month, Proud Boys and militia “Patriots” have turned up to harass LGBTQ-friendly teens at libraries, mask-promoting school board members, and mall shops that require masks. White supremacists now openly march in rural capitals, threatening bystanders.
Yet the nation’s mainstream media remain utterly clueless—or at least, resolutely silent—in the face of this growing menace directed at anyone who dissents from the Trumpian right-wing program in rural America. The New York Times actually reported on this phenomenon last month—but only as a kind of meta overview. It’s rare if not impossible to find any major-media attempt to report in detail on how ugly the cultural scene has become for non-conservatives in these red areas.
Over the past weekend, though, members of the racist group White Lives Matter held a rally in Helena, Montana, near the state Capitol; Proud Boys turned up at a mall in suburban Oregon City, Oregon, to harass customers and shop clerks about requirements to wear masks; other Proud Boys turned up for a school board meeting in Washougal, Washington, to harass and threaten both school board members and other citizens; and in Post Falls, Idaho, militia “Patriots” recently showed up at the city library to harass students who turned out for an LGBTQ-friendly program. Notably, only the latter incident attracted any coverage at all from local media; the others all were reported only on social media.
We have known for some time that violent street groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers have shifted their post-Jan. 6 strategy from a focus on large national events to small, mostly local opportunities to attach themselves to various right-wing causes. These events are generally organized as right-wing protests related to COVID-19 restrictions, or the supposed infiltration of critical race theory (CRT) into school curricula, or abortion rights—generally any cause will suffice. Once attached, the thuggish elements bring threats, intimidation, and actual violence.
In some cases, such as this weekend’s White Lives Matter rally in Helena, no local pretense was even deemed necessary; the white-supremacist hate group’s Montana chapter originally planned their march to occur on the grounds of the state Capitol as part of a nationwide WLM campaign for that day. It’s unclear whether the marchers ever appeared at the Capitol, but their demonstration, replete with a couple of large banners, appeared a short distance down one of the city’s busiest boulevards for a while.
While there, a local resident approached them with a cell phone and was aggressively confronted by masked neo-Nazis wearing skull masks; one of them carried a hammer. The men were flashing Nazi salutes and the white-nationalist “OK” sign, and demanded of the person with the cell phone: “You’re white too! You should be standing with us! Why are you a traitor to your race?” Another one says: “You’re not a white man!”
More often, however, the tactic has involved using threatening speech at organized civic events or public spaces that for various reasons—usually involving pandemic-related restrictions or the nonsensical “CRT” bogeyman—attract right-wing activists. Proud Boys and “Three Percenter” militiamen in particular have been flexing their muscles in rural communities, particularly since law enforcement in those precincts is generally sympathetic to them.
One of them showed up at a recent school board meeting in Washougal, a Portland-area exurb, and threatened both members of the school board as well as fellow audience members with retribution for their “cowardice” on CRT, sex education, and “the masks”—while himself hiding his identity behind one—as part of a threatening defense of the Proud Boys, which he called “the greatest brotherhood in the world”:
Okay, first thing I’m gonna do is I’m gonna address every man sitting on this board, looking at me right now. Every single one of you is a coward. You have failed your duty, your birthright given to you being born a male, respect of your kids and your community. And you know how I’m qualified to say that? Because I’m a father, I’m a husband, and I’m also a combat veteran. And now I’m also part of the greatest brotherhood in the world.
So all you men have been put on notice that you are cowards. And you have the power to stand up, and end the CRT, to end the sex ed, to get rid of the masks, to quit all this bullshit. You can end it. But you won’t, because you’re cowards. It’s all lies. Got it?
The other person I’m here to address is you [points finger at person in audience]. I don’t know what you—Donna Sinclair. So everybody with a group with the name Proud or Patriot in their name is the white supremacists, right? So explain to me, I’m an Asian man, but I’m a Proud Boy. You called us out. So I’d like to know what position you’re in, besides being white, to say that we’re white supremacists. Because that is not the case.
You know nothing about our brotherhood. In fact, you’re scared of it, but all you can do is hide behind your masks and hide behind your laws, and hide behind your rules. And guess what? One day, all that power’s gonna be gone. Because the people are gonna take it back. And every person in this room won’t forget each and every one of you, especially the men.
The man’s speech was greeted with enthusiastic applause by the audience.
A few days later, a group of “Patriots” organizing under the name Free Oregon, led by a Proud Boy named Dan Tooze, organized an anti-masking protest at the Clackamas Town Center mall in unincorporated Happy Valley, an exurban area east of Portland. The group parked their flag-festooned pickups in the parking lot of a sporting goods store and proceeded to stroll through the mall, harassing store clerks and mall security personnel who attempted to enforce the mall’s mask requirements.
The same extremists announced that they intend to organize a repeat performance at the Clackamas mall Tuesday.
Last month, a coalition of evangelical Christians and “Patriot” militiamen organized a protest in Post Falls outside the city library on the night it was hosting a program called the “Rainbow Squad,” an LGBTQ-friendly reading-discussion program.
Among the signs they carried, police body-camera footage shows, were slogans like “Flee From Sexual Immorality,” “Obey God Not Men,” “Sexual Immorality is an Abomination to God,” and “The Solution is Jesus Christ.”
On Facebook, a local “Panhandle Patriots” group closely associated with the far-right “American Redoubt” movement organizing in the region shared a post with its members calling out the library network’s upcoming meeting and urging others to attend:
The perversion that is becoming so pervasive in these libraries needs to be called out and CAST OUT.
We need people to show up and speak out, demand the removal of pro-LGBT books like the following:
[Links to such books as Auntie Uncle: Drag Queen Hero and Be Amazing : A History of Pride.]
A Post Falls native named Michelle White told the Coeur d’Alene Press that she and her two children had been participating for several months in Rainbow Squad events, saying she had always thought of the library as a “safe space” without judgment.
“These people are making it not a safe place for kids to gather by picketing and yelling at them as they go inside,” she told the Press. “Creating an environment that is not safe is not OK.”
Jessica Mahuron, the North Idaho Pride Alliance outreach coordinator, attended the November Rainbow Squad event and observed how the protesters’ intentions were to eliminate that safe space—and they succeeded.
“There were some people who felt intimidated from entering the building, others left because they were feeling so terrible, and for some, this is nothing new to them, so they stood strong,” Mahuron said. “The program is supposed to provide a safe, inclusive space for fun and friendship. What they experienced coming into that meeting was the exact opposite.”
That was clearly the intent. The pastor of the Family Worship Center in Hayden, Steven Hemming, claimed responsibility for the protest and responded to the coverage of their protest by defending it ardently, saying that “a lot of people present at the library that night are part of my congregation.”
“In other parts of our country the exploitation and sexualization of our children has come to a place where it is a losing battle with things like ‘drag queen story hour’ and other agendas to make immorality a fashion campaign for our future generations and completely destroy the family unit that God intended to thrive and prosper with His blessing,” he wrote.
He continued: “I, myself, and many, many others in our community are now aware of who we have on the library network board and who makes these decisions for our community. If the community does not want these things taking place in our libraries, then why are they happening?”
Katie Blank, chair of the Community Library Network board in Kootenai County, worries that the library will cease to be a safe space for all citizens.
“I think we have a very radical, conservative element in our community, and there’s an element that wants people to live one certain way and not allow people free choice,” she said. “That’s of concern to me.”
This is the same phenomenon the NYT observed last month, describing menace as an essential component of modern Republican politics—and how living under that cloud has exactly the powerful anti-democratic effect its users intend.
Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell described how, after Tucker Carlson denounced her last year on his Fox News show, she was threatened by men with assault weapons outside her home. She shared a small sample of what she said were hundreds of profanity-laden threats she has received.
“They ought to try you for treason,” one caller screamed in a lengthy, graphic voice mail message. “I hope your family dies in front of you. I pray to God that if you’ve got any children, they die in your face.”
“You don’t understand how awful it is and how scary it is until you’re in it,” Dingell told the Times. “But not telling people that this violence isn’t OK makes people think it is OK.”
The threats are especially effective in shutting down democratic institutions and traditions. The Times described how Bradford Fitch, president of a firm that advises lawmakers on managing their offices, now recommends that none of them from either party conduct open public meetings because politics have become “too raw and radioactive.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea right now,” Fitch said. “I hope we can get to a point where we can advise members of Congress that it’s safe to have a town-hall meeting.”
Republished with permission from Daily Kos.