Commentary

After Patriot Front arrests in North Idaho, meet the new ‘Conflict Entrepreneurs’

It would be a mistake to dismiss these dangerous men as anything less than what they are: domestic terrorists, writes guest columnist Marc Johnson.

June 30, 2022 4:00 am
Jason Kessler

Jason Kessler (center) speaks as white supremacists, neo-Nazis, members of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups gather for the Unite the Right rally in Lafayette Park across from the White House Aug. 12, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Kessler helped organize the rally. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s not every day you see a Pacific Northwest law enforcement official make such a statement. Get used to it. You’ll see something similar again soon, likely many similar things.

The 31 members of the white supremacist group calling itself Patriot Front who were arrested last week at a northern Idaho Pride Day celebration may seem, at least at first blush, to be little more than a handful of neo-Nazi losers and cranks, White men who hate the idea that the United States is a nation of ethnic and religious diversity. But it would be a mistake to dismiss these dangerous men as anything less than what they are, domestic terrorists.

Patriot Front’s “manifesto” states the group’s aspirations in language that would please the old Aryan Nation’s bigot, Richard Butler. “A nation within a nation is our goal. Our people face complete annihilation as our culture and heritage are attacked from all sides.”

The leader of the group – its membership is estimated at a few hundred young men spread across the country – is a Texan named Thomas Ryan Rousseau. Rousseau first came to prominence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 when some of his followers participated in the infamous “Unite the Right” rally.

Not long after that shameful racist gathering – then-President Donald Trump excused the violence as a protest against removal of Confederate monuments even as one life was lost as torch bearing marchers chanted anti-Semitic slogans – Rousseau said: “America our nation stands before an existential threat. The lives of your children, and your children’s children, and your prosperity beyond that, dangle above a den of vipers. A corrupt, rootless, global, and tyrannical elite has usurped your democracy and turned it into a weapon, first to enslave and then to replace you.”

Trump’s comment that at Charlottesville there were “some very bad people … but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides” was widely condemned, but also entirely excused by most Republican politicians. Since Charlottesville, Patriot Front and similar groups – the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, for example, who led the January 6 attack on the Capitol – have grown more aggressive and more violent.

These radical, rightwing groups have become, as political scientist Barbara F. Walters has written, “conflict entrepreneurs,” who exist to create the kind of confrontation, provocative and potentially violent, that was barely avoided in Coeur d’Alene.

Walters, in her recent book “How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them,” writes alarmingly of the United States nearing the point where radical right groups engage in sustained violence, often marked by assassination attempts, ambushes and attacks on police or the military. They seek chaos, Walters believes, to destabilize a fractious and already troubled democratic system.

Walters and other scholars have documented the rise of such groups and their tactics around the world and contend the U.S. is entering a period of sustained rightwing violence, something the FBI has issued warnings about for years. Think of the sectarian “troubles” in Northern Ireland that fractured that divided land for a generation, or the tribal violence in Rwanda, or the still raging civil war in Syria.

Only a failure of imagination based on a clear-eyed understanding of what rightwing terrorism is capable of prevents most Americans from understanding the depth of this threat.

Patriot Front has demonstrated in Philadelphia, leafleted in Vermont and the campus of the University of West Virginia and led anti-immigrant protests in California. In Brooklyn a year ago, members vandalized a George Floyd statue and defaced a mural in Richmond commemorating Black tennis great Arthur Ashe. Patriot Front members have been involved in anti-abortion rallies, as well.

The group’s national reach and level or coordination is obvious given that those arrested in northern Idaho came from at least 11 states and just happened to show up packed into a rented U-Haul truck wearing hoods and carrying shields and apparently some weapons. The objective was clearly to provoke a confrontation, create chaos, grab headlines and then slink out of town.

So, what should Idaho officials be doing about these dangerous radicals? First, take them seriously – absolutely seriously. No longer ignore them. Do not fail to name what they are doing or denounce what they profess to stand for. This demands a full-on mobilization of state and local law enforcement and aggressive prosecution.

Instead, Idaho Gov. Brad Little issued a mealy-mouthed statement extolling everyone’s right to peaceful protest and praised the police response. Little did not deplore the white supremacist agenda of Patriot Pride. The governor did not link the radicals to a growing national movement to disparage members of the LGBTQ community. And Little did not summon the courage to be outraged by members of his own party cheering on white supremacists and hate spreaders.

As Rebecca Boone of the Associated Press reported, “a lawmaker from the northernmost region of the state, Republican Rep. Heather Scott, told an audience that drag queens and other LGBTQ supporters are waging ‘a war of perversion against our children.’” That is an outrageous, untrue and dangerous accusation that deserves only censure.

The non-response by Idaho conservatives is a big tell. Little and most Republicans are afraid of the radical right because they realize they constitute the growing racist and hateful wing of the GOP. They will come to rue their inaction because inaction will foster more hate.

Consider this: One of those arrested in Coeur d’Alene came all the way from Alabama. Doug Jones, a former Alabama senator and one-time prosecutor who finally brought to justice the racist Klan murderers of four little Black girls in a Birmingham church in 1963, issued a stern warning during an interview with the Idaho Capital Sun.

“There’s a reason they felt like they could do this. There’s a reason that a guy from Alabama went all the way out there,” Jones said. “There are gay pride events going on all over the country. Why did they pick Idaho? It’s because of a conservative government that they felt like they could do it and they would be part of the community as opposed to being an outlier. And … I believe all people in Alabama and Idaho are much better than that, and they believe in decency, civility and giving everybody equal opportunities.”

Maybe. We should hope so. But it’s equally possible the opposite is true. It was once said that “Idaho is too great for hate,” but hate now seems to be the state’s brand and Republican elected officials are empowering the hate.

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Marc C. Johnson
Marc C. Johnson

Marc C. Johnson was a top aide to Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. His most recent book from the University of Oklahoma Press is "Tuesday Night Massacre: Four Senate Elections and the Radicalization of the Republican Party."

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