Jennifer Ellis, photographed in her home on April 3, 2022, created Take Back Idaho to push back against the right-wing, extremist views and tactics that have dominated the state's politics. (Photo: Kim Raff for HuffPost)
IDAHO — White nationalist Vincent James Foxx had a new video for his nearly 70,000 subscribers on BitChute, one of the few tech platforms that hasn’t banned him. On Feb. 16, he appeared wearing a baseball hat emblazoned with the state’s outline tilted on its side so that it resembled a pistol.
“We are going to take over this state,” Foxx declared. “We have a great large group of people, and that group is growing. A true, actual right-wing takeover is happening right now in the state of Idaho. And there’s nothing that these people can do about it. So if you’re a legislator here, either get in line, or get out of the way.”
Foxx, 36, isn’t from Idaho. He only recently moved from California to Post Falls. But in the video, he showed off photos of himself posing with a string of prominent Republican politicians in the state as he explained who he’s supporting in the upcoming primaries, slated for May 17.
He was especially excited about a selfie he’d taken a week prior: It showed him and fellow white nationalist Dave Reilly, a recent Pennsylvania transplant also living in Post Falls, standing alongside Idaho’s lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin. All three were smiling.
“We’re supporting her,” Foxx said, bragging of his movement’s “deep connections” to McGeachin, whom former President Donald Trump endorsed in the GOP primary race for governor. Foxx then explained how his particular brand of Christian white nationalism is poised to conquer Idaho, then the country.
“The solution is local politics: Amassing power in these pockets of the country until it’s time to unify,” he said. “I’ve only been here for a couple of months and I’m tapped in the way that I am. You can do it too.”
Fascists like Foxx are famous fabulists, experts at exaggerating their influence and success. But Foxx wasn’t just talking shit.
He is one of many far-right activists who have flocked to Idaho in recent years, where a large and growing radical MAGA faction in the state’s Republican Party has openly allied itself with extremists to a shocking extent, even for the Trump era. This faction is accruing more and more power in Boise, the state capital: Imagine a statehouse full of Marjorie Taylor Greenes and Steve Kings. At the local level, they have seized seats on school boards and county commissions at a fast clip.
They’ve accomplished this, in part, by targeting their opponents with frightening cruelty and harassment, embracing a strategy called “confrontational politics,” which has helped drive more moderate officials across the state to resign or retire.
Left, white nationalists Vincent James Foxx and Dave Reilly pose with Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who is running for governor. On the right, a screenshot from one of Foxx's livestreams shows his hat featuring Idaho tilted like a gun. (Photo: Vincent James Foxx/Daily Veracity)
A lot has been written about both the radicalization of the Republican Party and the decline of democracy in the U.S. — about the country being at a precipice. It’s maybe easy for those warnings to become background noise, or to dismiss them as doom-mongering pieces of clickbait. But in Idaho, the nightmare scenario is crossing into reality, as an authoritarian GOP sets about to create a whiter, Christian nation.
These MAGA radicals have gestured at the future they want: no rape and incest exceptions to Idaho’s abortion ban; no emergency contraception; no gender-affirming health care for minors; the banning of books; the jailing of librarians; and maybe no public education altogether.
I recently spent a week traveling across the state, from Sandpoint in the northern panhandle down through the green slopes and whitewater of Hells Canyon to the plains of Ada County, and then across lava rock and sagebrush to Blackfoot. In all these places, Democrats and more moderate Republicans viewed Tuesday’s primaries as an existential affair. Some are considering leaving the state if MAGA extremists consolidate more power. Others are digging in their heels.
The people I talked to were not all that accustomed to alarmism, which made it striking to hear some of their voices tremble when they talked about what’s happening to their home. Their message for the rest of the country? It’s gonna get bad. The GOP really will go that far.
A Very Extreme Republican County Committee
TOP LEFT: Aryan Nations demonstrators march through the streets of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, with a Nazi flag. TOP RIGHT: Portrait of an unidentified man at the Aryan Nations compound, Hayden Lake, Idaho, April 1992. The sign reads "Whites Only." BOTTOM LEFT: A masked guard armed with a semi-automatic rifle patrols outside a news conference as Aryan Nations convenes in Hayden Lake, Idaho, on July 12, 1986. BOTTOM RIGHT: The former Aryan Nations compound. (Photo: Getty/AP/Reuters)
Right-wing extremists have long been attracted to Idaho, drawn to its abundant land, lack of racial diversity (the state is now 93% white) and libertarian brand of conservative politics. But according to longtime residents like Shawn Keenan, a local Democratic activist, the degree to which extremists are not only flocking here today but finding a home in the GOP feels different.
I talked to Keenan in Coeur d’Alene — a fast-growing city of 50,000 nestled in the Rockies — at a lakeside park downtown, the same place he remembers neo-Nazis in the 1990s marching around trying “to recruit blue-eyed blond-haired boys like me to join their Aryan cult.”
Keenan was referring to the Aryan Nations, the white supremacist group that had a large, sprawling compound near here, up by Hayden Lake. In 1998, members of the group opened fire on and then viciously beat Keenan’s aunt and cousin, Victoria and Jason Keenan, both of whom are Native American, after they stopped their car near the compound. (A Southern Poverty Law Center-funded lawsuit stemming from the attack eventually bankrupted the Aryan Nations. Keenan’s aunt, fearing reprisal, fled the area.)
Back then, Keenan says, he remembers there being some bipartisan opposition to the Aryan Nations, which had terrorized the community for years.
“It was really easy for the community to organize against that, and you had a lot of buy-in from just about every single business owner downtown, all of the city council, you know, were locked arm in arm on this,” he said. “And it was fairly unified.”
Not so much anymore, Keenan said. Sure, the Aryan Nations is gone, its 20-acre compound in ruins, but what does that matter when the local GOP is endorsing white supremacists?
Democratic activist Shawn Keenan, pictured in McEuen Park in Coeur d'Alene, says "a big purge" is taking place among Republicans in Idaho. (Photo: Margaret Albaugh for HuffPost)
On Nov. 2, 2021, Foxx told his 44,000 followers on Telegram that “If school board races go well in north Idaho, I will be running for something local there soon. And I will win easily.”
Foxx’s dream of public office has already been pursued by his friend Dave Reilly, a fellow white nationalist who, despite saying “all Jews are dangerous” and having attended the deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, was endorsed last year by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee for a school board seat in Post Falls, a town neighboring the larger Coeur d’Alene in north Idaho.
Even after the endorsement drew negative media coverage, the KCRCC didn’t back down. “I believe Dave is a good man who will make an excellent Trustee and will resist the Progressive/Marxist indoctrination of our children,” Brent Regan, the committee’s chairman, wrote in a statement. (Reilly didn’t win the school board seat in Post Falls — but he performed pretty well for a guy who was in Charlottesville in 2017, winning 47% of nearly 2,000 votes.)
Regan has been at the center of the Idaho GOP’s radicalization. At his perch atop KCRCC and as chair of the board of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, an influential statewide group, both organizations have staked out far-right positions they then demand that conservatives embrace or else be labeled a RINO (Republican In Name Only).
Regan has also repeatedly embraced noxious extremist groups and figures, like in 2019, when he led the KCRCC in passing a resolution asking the federal government to allow Austrian white nationalist Martin Sellner, who had close ties to the man who massacred 50 Muslims in New Zealand, to enter the country so that he could marry his fiance, a north Idaho-based alt-right influencer.
Last summer, the KCRCC unanimously passed another resolution, affirming its total support for the John Birch Society, the conspiratorial anti-communist organization that is, in many ways, the antecedent to QAnon and whose founder once declared that “democracy is a fraud.”
Foxx — who was at the Jan. 6, 2021 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C. — has been a big name in white supremacist circles for years now. He was the founder of the alt-right media collective known as Red Elephants, worked as a chief propagandist for a violent fascist fight club and is a prominent figure in the America First “groyper” movement.
He’s rubbed shoulders with a who’s-who of prominent racists, appearing on podcasts to talk about Jewish control of the media, deny the Holocaust, or riff about the low IQ scores of non-whites. “The Buffalo shooter did something crazy and immoral but was right about white replacement,” Foxx wrote on Sunday after an 18-year-old white supremacist — who cited the racist “great replacement” conspiracy in an apparent manifesto — massacred 10 people in a predominantly Black neighborhood.
They have completely rebranded what it is to be a conservative here in north Idaho, and they have literally excommunicated and cleaned house of any rational, regular conservative from their ranks.Shawn Keenan, local Democratic activist
In a statement to HuffPost, Regan claimed to have never met Foxx. “I do not recall him attending any of the KCRCC meetings,” he said. In February, however, Foxx and Reilly posted photos of themselves smiling at KCRCC’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner with guest speaker Dinesh D’Souza. (Regan was also a speaker at the event.)
In almost any place in the country, Foxx would have no chance of being elected to anything. But here, the party infrastructure could not only allow it, but encourage it.
“They have completely rebranded what it is to be a conservative here in north Idaho,” Keenan said of the KCRCC. “And they have literally excommunicated and cleaned house of any rational, regular conservative from their ranks, telling them, ‘You don’t belong here. You have not passed the purity test.’ It’s a bit of a purge. A big purge.”
This radicalization accelerated in the last five years, Keenan said, pointing to a series of events — Trump’s election, the pandemic and the nationwide anti-racist uprisings of 2020 — as mobilizing the far right here to such a scary extent that he wonders whether it’s time get out of Idaho. Some of his friends already have.
There was a week when armed militias patrolled the streets with assault rifles in search of Black Lives Matter and antifa activists. Anti-maskers shut down a school board meeting, COVID-19 denialists harassed hospital workers, and bigots — some of them armed — harangued children at “Rainbow Squad” LGBTQ events at a local library.
“Every single day, I wake up and I do this debate in my head: ‘Do I move or do I stay?’” Keenan said, briefly breaking down in tears. “Every day. So I guess maybe that’s an indication of how hopeful I am.”
‘A Deep Desire To Dominate Without Mercy’
On Feb. 25, white nationalists stopped me from entering the third annual America First Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida. No reporters allowed, they said. “Hey, the homosexual conference is that way,” quipped one attendee, a YouTuber arrested last year for attacking media during the insurrection.
Back at my hotel, I watched the AFPAC livestream, waiting to find out which GOP politicians would appear, lending the imprimatur of their office to this gathering of young “America First” fascists, who call themselves “groypers.”
Among the five Republican officials who spoke was McGeachin (pronounced “Ma-GEE-hin”), Idaho’s lieutenant governor. “Keep up the good work fighting for our country,” she told the crowd in a pre-recorded video. Other speakers at AFPAC then praised Adolf Hitler and called for Dr. Anthony Fauci to be hanged.
Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin has routinely allied herself with some of the most extreme right-wing figures in America. (Photo: Idaho Freedom TV/YouTube)
Foxx gave a fiery speech, too. “We must have a deep desire to dominate without mercy,” he howled. “And if you refuse to dominate, then America First will dominate you!”
Responding to backlash over her AFPAC appearance back in Boise, McGeachin admitted in an interview with KTVB that she’d “heard” of Foxx, and yes, had taken a photo with him. She then quickly pivoted to accusing the media of playing a game of “guilt by association.”
But she was less defensive three weeks later when she appeared on a far-right podcast, telling the hosts she was well aware of what AFPAC was all about, adding defiantly: “I’m not going to back off from the opportunity to talk to other conservatives across the country.”
This never-punch-right attitude has defined McGeachin’s chaotic tenure as Idaho’s lieutenant governor. Since her election in 2019, McGeachin — a former state representative who owns an Irish pub in Idaho Falls — has routinely allied herself with some of the most extreme right-wing figures in America and then, when pressed about those associations, has refused to apologize. (When I requested McGeachin comment for this story, she responded by posting a screenshot of my email on Twitter. “Sounds like unbiased journalism to me,” she wrote, adding a crying-laughing emoji.)
Her extremism has endeared her to the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a powerful dark money organization receiving bundles of donations from out-of-state billionaires. The group’s stated mission is “exposing, defeating, and replacing the state’s socialist public policies,” which in practice has meant pushing a vision of government so limited as to make Idaho the Wild West again.
Since 2009, the IFF has amassed influence largely by a tool it calls “The Freedom Index,” a system of scoring and ranking lawmakers according to how they vote on different bills. If a GOP legislator’s score falls too low for IFF’s liking, that legislator can expect the foundation to wield its considerable resources to back a primary opponent.
A barn near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on March 30, 2022, covered in signs for far-right candidates in the upcoming Republican primary. (Photo: Margaret Albaugh for HuffPost)
This has led to a caucus of IFF sycophants in the capital who fall over themselves to do the group’s bidding, chasing after high Freedom Index scores like a 4th grader working toward their next shiny gold star.
There are 24 state representatives and senators in Idaho with Freedom Index scores of 75% and above. The current top-rated legislator is state Rep. Heather Scott, with an FI score of 100%.
Scott was part of an anti-government group involved in two armed conflicts with the federal government, including the 2016 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff in Oregon (where she went by the codename “greenbean”). She has posed with a Confederate flag and defended white nationalism. A rabid COVID denialist, she once organized a mask-burning event and has said stay-at-home measures were “no different” than Nazis sending Jews to extermination camps.
Further down is Republican state Rep. Ben Adams (FI score: 78%). Last year, after a viral video showed an Idaho man at a conservative rally asking when he could start killing Democrats — “When do we get to use the guns? How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?” — Adams wrote on Twitter that it was a “fair” question.
There are only 14 Democrats in the Idaho state House out of 70 members,and Rep. Chris Mathias (FI Score: 27%) is one of them.
Mathias is also the only Black state legislator in Idaho. I met him at a restaurant in Boise where he was celebrating the last day of the legislative session with what seemed like a long-awaited cocktail. After we joked around for a few minutes about having the same name, I asked Mathias about IFF’s Freedom Index.
Idaho state Rep. Chris Mathias on the last day of the legislative session on March 31, 2022, in Boise. Mathias is one of 14 Democrats in the state House. (Photo: Kim Raff for HuffPost)
“As much as I want to point to examples of their adverse impact on the legislative process — and there’s many things to point to — part of me, the social scientist in me, the military veteran in me, wants to, you know, not just hate the player, but hate the game,” said Mathias, who served in the Coast Guard and has a Ph.D. in public policy.
A grading system like the Freedom Index makes the often inscrutable process of legislating more accessible to voters, Mathias said, and the IFF is an outrageous arbiter.
Mathias is intimately familiar with the group. Last spring, he watched state Rep. Ron Nate (FI Score: 97%) and other far-right legislators manufacture a racist moral panic about Boise State University indoctrinating students with “critical race theory.” (It was not.) Nate, using talking points lifted from an IFF white paper, argued for cutting part of the school’s budget.
Mathias says he typically likes to “keep his powder dry” in the statehouse — Democrats are such a minority there, it’s not worth the fuss to debate every proposal — but in this case, both as the only Black man in the legislature and as a Boise State alumnus, he felt compelled to speak.
Going to Boise State on the GI Bill, he told his colleagues in a speech on the House floor, pausing to fight back his emotions, “provided opportunities I’d never seen in my life. It changed my life.”
Critical race theory, he continued, simply recognizes that there are institutional biases — in “housing, health, education, wealth, income,” Mathias said — that have existed since our country was founded. “People of color always come out on the losing end,” he added, his voice breaking. “Always. And I don’t think it’s unfair to acknowledge it.”
The legislature then voted to cut $1.5 million in funding from Boise State in order to “remove state support for social justice programming.”
A whole new slate of IFF-backed candidates will be on the ballot for Tuesday’s primary, which, in a conservative state like Idaho, essentially serves as the general election. Mathias said his biggest concern is that if the far right, including McGeachin in her bid for governor, wins more power in Boise, it won’t bother with the nuts and bolts of actual governance.
“I think if you dedicate too much of your time to moral panics, just as a matter of displacement effect, you are not talking about other things that you absolutely need to happen,” Mathias said. Like plowing the roads in winter, or figuring out how the fastest-growing state in the nation can relieve enough stress on its electrical grid to literally keep the lights on.
“Summer is coming, and we’re in a real drought right now, and there’s a lot of planning and preparedness that needs to go into getting ready for wildfire season,” Mathias said, “but if you’re only worried about 3-year-olds going into libraries in Idaho without parental supervision and getting their hands on a book that happens to have a picture of women’s breasts on page 38, if that’s what you spend your time worrying about, well, then fire season is going to come bite you in the ass, and it’s probably going to get people killed.”
Dr. Ted Epperly, 68, was a physician in the Army for 21 years, serving in the Gulf War and reaching the rank of colonel. He served in the White House as the personal doctor to two U.S. presidents, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and later was named a president himself, of The American Academy of Family Physicians, overseeing its 150,000 members. He has testified before Congress 18 times and has contributed articles to respected medical journals.
But he is also a Democrat who believes that the coronavirus, which has now killed 1 million Americans, is a public health emergency. For these transgressions, Epperly received notice last June from the Ada County Commission that his role as the physician member of the Central District Health board in Boise — a position he’d held for 15 years — would not be renewed.
Dr. Ted Epperly served on the Central District Health Board in Ada County for 15 years. He was replaced by a COVID denialist. (Photo: Kim Raff for HuffPost)
Republican County Commissioner Ryan Davidson made it clear to local press that he’d ousted Epperly over his support of lockdown measures like mask requirements, which he argued were tantamount to “the suspension of individual liberties.” Two months later, Davidson appointed Epperly’s replacement: Dr. Ryan Cole, an anti-vaccine influencer who had called the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine “needle rape,” and a “poisonous attack on our population.”
“Cole was an absolute COVID-denying, ivermectin-prescribing, hydroxychloroquine-prescribing, right-wing pathologist,” Epperly told me over beers near his home in Eagle, Idaho. “I mean, public health is a body of knowledge that really is in the realm of a generalist physician … never a pathologist. I mean, a pathologist deals with microscopes, slides and body tissue. I mean, they don’t even deal with living human beings!”
Epperly had actually been appointed to the health board by Republican county commissioners in 2006, back when “public health was bigger than politics,” he said. By all accounts, he did a good job overseeing the area’s approach to food inspection, the opioid epidemic and a host of other public health matters.
Then the coronavirus came to town, and Epperly, a born-and-bred Idahoan, saw his community ripped apart at the seams, regressing from the “collectivism” and esprit de corps of the pandemic’s early days — when he and the local medical community were revered as “heroes” — to the ugly “individualism” of COVID denial in which they were suddenly cast as “villains.”
By Dec. 8, 2020, a far-right group called People’s Rights, founded by anti-democracy extremist Ammon Bundy, coordinated a large armed protest outside the Central District Health building as the board was poised to pass a mask mandate to ease the strain on local hospitals, where ICUs were nearing capacity.
The protesters turned up outside the homes of health board members, including Epperly’s. They blared audio from a violent scene in the movie “Scarface” outside the home of another board member, Diana Lachiondo, while her two children cowered inside. Lachiondo left the vote in tears to return home, and the meeting was eventually canceled.
“I am sad,” Lachiondo tweeted the next day. “I am tired. I fear that, in my choosing to hold public office, my family has too-often paid the price. Though I was born and raised in Idaho, I increasingly don’t recognize this place.” She resigned the following month.
Boise police were forced to create a barrier to keep anti-mask protesters from entering a meeting at the Central District Health offices on Dec. 8, 2020. (Photo: Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/TNS via ZUMAPRESS)
Epperly knew his time on the board was likely coming to an end, too. Two Republicans had gained control of the three-person county commission — including Ryan Davidson, a far-right darling. The other Republican, Rod Beck, was “more of a centrist,” Epperly said, but was likely under immense pressure.
“We have a particularly strong group here in Idaho called the Idaho Freedom Foundation,” Epperly said. “They’re this very far-right-leaning activist group. They’ve got Republican legislators and county commissioners like puppets on strings. … You toe the line with them, or else they’re looking to replace you with a further right person.”
Cole, Epperly’s far-right replacement, has spent his tenure on the health board suggesting — including in a viral video produced by the anti-vaccine group Health Freedom Idaho — that the COVID vaccine was causing gynecological cancers, without sharing evidence of his claim. A bombshell investigation this month by the Idaho Capital Sun found he had misdiagnosed two people with cancer, including a woman who then underwent a major surgery removing her reproductive organs, all for an illness she didn’t have.
Across Idaho, the far right has laid siege to nonpartisan positions, some of which require specific expertise, and made them partisan, installing loyalists with sometimes disastrous results.
In Kootenai County, activists endorsed by the KCRCC won a majority of the nonpartisan seats on the board of North Idaho College. These new trustees quickly torpedoed the school, firing its president without cause — a move that cost the school half a million dollars — and mismanaged the place so severely that it was at risk of losing its accreditation.
The board’s chairman, Todd Banducci, has said he’s battling a “deep state” at the school, where liberals are “quite deeply entrenched.” Banducci is echoing language from a robocall last year from the Idaho Freedom Foundation calling for the state’s colleges to be defunded over “leftist indoctrination” and “teaching young people to hate America.”
Laura Tenneson, a local progressive activist and North Idaho College graduate, has watched Banducci’s reign with despair. “They’ve taken over our beloved institution because they think the college was infecting the community with liberalism,” she told me. “And that’s their sole reason for essentially destroying our college.”
Laura Tenneson, a progressive activist in Coeur d'Alene, has faced death threats and intimidation. (Photo: Margaret Albaugh for HuffPost)
It is not a secret that many on the hard right want to seize public and democratic institutions in order to dismantle them. Some of the movement’s shining stars are very clear on this point.
A recent Vanity Fair piece, for example, profiled members of the national neoreactionary movement, acolytes of a philosopher named Curtis Yarvin, who is a close ally of billionaire Peter Thiel. This movement, which has buy-in from powerful GOP figures, is explicit about wanting to usher in the end of democracy by purging the current government of its enemies and establishing one-party control — or, put another way, authoritarianism.
J.D. Vance — the venture capitalist and “Hillbilly Elegy” author who recently won the Ohio Republican primary for U.S. Senate — is a follower of Yarvin’s. He positively likened this prospective purge to the deadly “de-Baathification of Iraq.”
“I think Trump is going to run again in 2024,” Vance told Vanity Fair. “I think that what Trump should do, if I was giving him one piece of advice: Fire every single mid-level bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, replace them with our people.”
Vance and Trump might look to north Idaho for inspiration.
In March of this year, the Coeur D’Alene/Post Falls Press obtained a shocking recording of a phone call between KCRCC Youth Chair Dan Bell and a local resident in which Bell spelled out a plan to “bum rush” the Kootenai Democrats by recruiting conservatives to pose as liberals and then run for Democratic precinct captain positions. Once elected, they would install Dave Reilly, the white nationalist who attended the Charlottesville rally, as the local Democratic Party chair.
“Long story short, we want to take over the Democrat Party,” Bell said.
Rob Barrans, vice chair of the KCRCC, has claimed neither he nor Regan, the group’s chair, were aware of the plan.
HuffPost has obtained another recording from an August 2021 KCRCC meeting in which Barrans laid out a plan to take over each and every — by his count, 217 — nonpartisan position in the county. Barrans can be heard listing off targets: fire districts, sewer districts, school boards, town councils, water commissions.
“So here’s what I need from you,” Barrans told the group. “If you know a conservative and — I don’t say this in some places, but I’m gonna say it here — if you know of a conservative Christian candidate or someone that has never thought about running for office, they can go to the KootenaiGOP.org website.”
Barrans then explained how the KCRCC would interview prospective candidates and that if they were suitable, it would put their names on a sample ballot sent out to local Republicans.
I met Deborah Rose, who used to attend KCRCC meetings before becoming disillusioned with the group (she calls it “cultish”), at a deli inside a Super 1 grocery store near her home in Athol, Idaho. She told me it’s hard to persuade more moderate Republicans to run for office here.
“I’ve tried to get some good candidates to run but they didn’t want to go up against the central committee, against their ugliness, hatefulness and bullying, and their attacks,” she said.
Rose has voted Republican for 50 years, she said, including for Trump in 2020. She still has some questions about how the votes were counted, but nevertheless says she’s been called a “communist” by KCRCC members over her criticism of the group. “I am actually a conservative Republican,” she said. “But not that kind of conservative Republican.”
Our conversation drifted to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. “I stop short of calling it an insurrection … I think they were being really stupid,” Rose began before someone interrupted.
“Are you talking about the Capitol?” asked a man who had been eating a sandwich a few tables over. “I was there. It was not an insurrection.”
He introduced himself. “My name’s Michael Flynn, believe it or not,” he said, chuckling; not that Michael Flynn. He then showed us videos from his trip to the Capitol.
“It was a setup, but we had no way of knowing that,” he said, echoing the many conspiracy theories about that day. The “troublemaking people” at the rally, he claimed, “looked like antifa.”
But Flynn mostly wanted to clear up any misconceptions I might have about Jan. 6. He wanted me to know it was actually a beautiful, beautiful day. A mostly peaceful event with grandpas and grandmas and kids waving flags, and dogs, and good people just “doing the right thing.”
“It was the most amazing day of my life,” he said.
Confrontational Politics And A ‘Cry For Help’
LEFT: Idaho state Rep. Greg Chaney at the Idaho State Capitol on the last day of the legislative session on March 31, 2022, in Boise. RIGHT: The gun Chaney carries with him to work every day. (Photo: Kim Raff for HuffPost)
“I never come into this building without a gun,” Republican state Rep. Greg Chaney (FI Score: 38%) told me in his statehouse office in late March, where he was packing up his things on the last day of the legislative session. Chaney is a conservative Republican — NRA-endorsed, backs the blue, wants to ban sanctuary cities — who is in a state Senate primary against an IFF-backed candidate.
He showed me the 9mm pistol tucked into a belt holster underneath his suit jacket. It’s not uncommon for Idaho state legislators to show up to work armed, and it’s legal, but Chaney said he didn’t start strapping up every morning until some tense moments with the far right these last couple of years.
He was in the statehouse on Aug. 24, 2020, when Ammon Bundy led an armed and unmasked mob past police officers to disrupt a COVID-related legislative session. Bundy, best known for leading the Malheur standoff in Oregon, was arrested and later banned from the statehouse.
A few months later, dozens of Bundy’s followers targeted Idaho officials — a county commissioner, the Boise mayor, Ted Epperly — at their homes over coronavirus measures. “I considered it to be a gross violation of the unspoken rules of disagreement,” Chaney said of the protests. “You don’t show up to somebody’s house without it being an intimidation tactic.”
And so, on Feb. 15, 2021, he announced a bipartisan bill that would prohibit targeted picketing near a person’s place of residence with the “intent to harass, annoy or alarm.” A few nights later, about a dozen far-right protesters turned up outside Chaney’s house in Caldwell carrying tiki torches.
One protester brought a stuffed animal dressed in a “CHANEY” T-shirt hanging from a noose tied to a pitchfork. “My now-10-year-old stepdaughter asked my wife in the morning, ‘Why do they want to kill Daddy?’” Chaney remembered. “The message wasn’t lost on them.”
Chaney, who has three children, says he mostly felt anger that the protesters made his family feel unsafe. These days, when his wife hears a car door slam out front, her heart rate still spikes.
We’re losing here. We’re losing our state. We’re losing our town. ... It’s just becoming overwhelming.Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad
Chaney said his wife, wanting to better understand the people threatening her family, picked up a copy of “Confrontational Politics” and read it from cover to cover. Multiple people in Idaho told me that if I really wanted to understand the far right in the state, I needed to read this book.
Authored by a former California state senator and gun rights fundamentalist named H.L. Richardson, “Confrontational Politics” is essentially a how-to guide for a Christian nationalist insurgency in the United States. “There can be no compromises with the Left,” Richardson writes. “We are ideologically at opposite ends of the spectrum with no arbitration possible. Either they win or we do. They will run the government or we will. That’s the only choice open to either of us. They know it — shouldn’t we?”
Richardson prescribes an aggressive style of politics that’s always, always on the offensive, that is constantly attacking its opponents, provoking them, screaming over them, and wearing them down. Never apologize. Exploit “hot button issues” that inspire “deep emotion” and “moral righteousness” to gain followers.
Richardson pays special attention to primaries, which he sees as an opportunity for a dedicated radical minority, marching in lockstep, to take advantage of low voter turnout to win power: democratic means for anti-democratic ends.
It is, as summarized in an excellent episode of the NPR podcast “No Compromise,” a strategy of “leveraging voter apathy to impose your will on society.”
To execute this counter-majoritarian insurgency, GOP officials across Idaho have sometimes partnered with extremist groups to bully and intimidate their opponents.
LEFT: Ammon Bundy waits, moments before Idaho State Police came into the Lincoln Auditorium and asked everyone to leave, on Aug. 25, 2020, in Boise. Bundy, who refused to leave, was arrested, along with two others. RIGHT: Bundy is dragged from the Idaho Senate Chambers gallery by Idaho State Troopers. (Photo: Katherine Jones/Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman via AP)
Last year, after a 19-year-old legislative intern accused state Rep. Aaron Von Ehrlinger (FI Score: 93%) of rape, his far-right allies went on the attack. State Rep. Priscilla Giddings (FI Score: 92%) sent a letter to her constituents calling the intern a “honey trap” and the rape allegations a “liberal smear job.” Giddings also shared a link to an article on a far-right website revealing the intern’s name and photo.
“You know that photo everyone is posting? I’m 12 years old in that photo,” the intern later recalled in an Associated Press interview about the “overwhelming” harassment she endured. “I’m not even a teenager in that photo, and they’re sharing it, calling me nasty.”
The intern was made to testify at a House ethics hearing about the rape, where she told her story from behind a screen to protect her identity. As she left the House chamber, she was accosted by activists from Bundy’s People’s Rights network, along with a CBS2 reporter named Emri Moore, all of whom started to film her.
The intern screamed and fell to the ground, curling up into a ball and crying as her lawyers scrambled to protect her. (Moore could be seen hugging the People’s Rights activists after the confrontation. She was stripped of her statehouse press credentials and now works for TPUSA, the college conservative group.)
The racist, offensive postcards sent to Laura Tenneson in Coeur d'Alene. (Photo: Margaret Albaugh for HuffPost)
In the summer of 2019, Tenneson, the progressive activist in Coeur d’Alene, says she left work downtown and walked back to her car where she found an unspent shotgun shell standing up on her car’s hood. She knew it was a threat.
In the weeks prior, someone had mailed postcards around the city with an illustration of Tenneson and two local officials depicted as clowns, alongside racist caricatures of minorities and hateful depictions of a homeless person and a transgender person. “ALL ARE WELCOME,” it read. “CLOWN WORLD.” On the back of the postcard was text saying diversity in Coeur d’Alene would mean “crime,” “homelessness,” “street feces” and “perversity.”
The postcards were a response to an innocuous local campaign Tenneson helped launch called Love Lives Here CDA, an anti-hate effort to promote the city as a welcoming place. Tenneson showed me her copy of the postcard. “The fact that that postcard was mailed to my address at my house means they knew where I lived,” she said.
The following year, Tenneson organized a National Women’s March rally in Coeur d’Alene, and a short time later received a menacing Facebook message from a local man she didn’t know. “You’re a dead woman walking,” it said. Tenneson filed a protective order against him.
“I never carried pepper spray before all this shit happened, because you don’t know, you don’t know if that death threat is real, you don’t know if that person knows where you work and knows where you live and is going to actually come after you,” Tenneson told me.
She’s since taken a “huge step back” in her activism, she said.
Any mobilization by liberals in north Idaho, or even a rumor of mobilization, provokes an outsized response from the right, including the armed militia occupations in 2020, when heavily armed extremists patrolled the streets for days.
Shelby Rognstad is the Democratic mayor of Sandpoint, about an hour’s drive north of Coeur d’Alene and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Driving from the south, you enter by going across a long, low bridge over the blue waters of Lake Pend Oreille, surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
“There’s kind of a local saying, that once you cross the Long Bridge, you never go back because it’s just so captivating,” Rognstad said.
But in the summer of 2020, when some local high school students staged a small racial justice protest on the bridge, they had an unwanted escort: about 40 men in camo gear carrying AR-15s.
A 17-year-old girl later testified that one of the armed men told her she deserved to be raped for protesting. Other students also reported harassment. “Go live in Compton,” one of the men said. One student was called the n-word, another a “n****r-lover.”
Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad by Lake Pend Oreille in Sandpoint. (Photo: Margaret Albaugh for HuffPost)
The armed men came to Sandpoint after fake rumors on social media — one shared by a local county commissioner with militia ties — that busloads of antifa and other radical leftists were coming to Idaho from more liberal cities like Spokane and Seattle to loot and riot. The men, as right-wing extremists so often do, claimed to be there to protect businesses, a thinly veiled pretext for intimidation and a show of force.
“It was like we were a country at war,” Rognstad recalled.
We spoke not long after Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R), Lt. Gov. McGeachin’s more moderate primary opponent, gave his blessing to a bill that would lift an old Idaho law banning private militias.
“You know, private militias are gangs, right?” Rognstad told me in his office at City Hall. “If we were in an urban area, we would call them gangs, but we’re in rural Idaho; we call them militias. They have no accountability to the public, no accountability to law enforcement. They’re not professionally trained officers. They don’t swear an oath of office. They’re just renegades with guns. And that’s what they want to turn this back into: the Wild, Wild West. Is that where we’re going here? That’s where it appears we’re headed.”
Rognstad moved to Sandpoint 23 years ago and built a house in the woods when he said the town felt like a little secret “paradise.” It was more of a political melting pot too, he said, something he cherished, with “rednecks and hippies” living together in some harmony.
But right-wing migration to the state, which accelerated during the pandemic — real estate companies here now advertise to California conservatives — has transformed the place, he said.
I asked him whether reporters like me were part of the problem, parachuting into town from the East Coast to go on extremism safaris, essentially advertising the place as a fascist fantasyland. No, no, he said. Five years ago, he explained, he would’ve downplayed the extremism in the area to me and worked to repair the town’s image.
“But we’re losing here,” he said. “We’re losing our state. We’re losing our town. ... It’s just becoming overwhelming, and so now I’m — this is a cry for help.”
It’s also a warning, he said.
“If these groups can get a win, if they can put a stake in the ground and say, ‘We own north Idaho,’ or ‘We own Idaho, we have our own state,’ then in my view, the potential there is that the floodwaters are about to break.”
“Once you knock over that first domino, then it’s not just going to happen in Idaho; it’s going to happen in Texas or Arizona, or Nevada or Wyoming or Montana.”
A Narrow Place
LEFT: Jennifer Ellis' ranch in Blackfoot, Idaho, with Mt. Putnam in the background on April 3, 2022. RIGHT: Ellis at her ranch. (Photo: Kim Raff for HuffPost)
When I arrived at Jennifer Ellis’ ranch in Blackfoot in the eastern part of the state, it was calving season, so she drove me around in her pickup pointing out the dozens of calves born hours earlier, walking around on wobbly legs. She doesn’t understand how a rancher, like Ammon Bundy claims to be, could be a COVID denialist. Ranchers have to manage pandemics in the herd all the time. “He’s all hat, no cattle,” Ellis quipped. “Never been a rancher in his life.”
Ellis is a conservative and a Republican who’s been involved in politics most of her adult life. She’s a fourth-generation Idahoan and a former president of the Idaho Cattle Association. Now, with a group of former GOP electeds, Ellis has formed a PAC called Take Back Idaho that’s trying to unseat far-right legislators, part of a growing coalition of moderate Republican groups across the state trying to rein in the radical faction represented by McGeachin.
Her daughter is a police officer and was in the statehouse when Bundy’s mob forced its way into the legislative chamber. Ellis has studied “Confrontational Politics,” too, and keeps a copy in her barn. Watching Idaho politics these last few years, she knew it in her bones that Trump supporters were going to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. She still cried when she watched it on TV.
“I went from bawling to pissed,” Ellis said.
Ellis is a woman of faith and has angrily watched how the far right has used Christianity as a battering ram. “What’s a Republican legislator more afraid of than being called a RINO? it’s being called not Christian enough,” she said. “And they lowered the boom with that on the library bill, the transgender bill the abortion bills, all of that.”
“These religious folks need to have a look-in-the-mirror moment,” she added. “Maybe decide who it is that’s pulling their strings, because if it’s anything to do with the New Testament that I’ve ever read and believed in, it did not come through the Idaho legislature this year.”
Christian nationalists across the country were thrilled last week after news that Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned by the Supreme Court, setting the stage for banning abortion in places like Idaho.
Foxx was especially worked up, posting a livestream in which he listed off his hopes for the wave of policies the decision could unleash. “They’re gonna ban sodomy!” he said. “They’re gonna ban gay marriage! They’re gonna throw gays off roofs! Women lose, God wins. Christ wins,” he said, smiling, before adding: “We shall have our theocracy soon.”
Earlier this month, in an interview with Stew Peters — a conspiracist who has called for Dr. Fauci to be executed — McGeachin shared a similar sentiment. “God calls us to pick up the sword and fight,” she said, “and Christ will reign in the state of Idaho.”
Rabbi Daniel Fink, in the sanctuary of Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel on March 31, 2022, said far-right gubernatorial candidate Janice McGeachin "doesn’t give a damn about Jews. She’s trying to win over evangelicals.” (Photo: Kim Raff for HuffPost)
The same day in February that McGeachin appeared via video at the white nationalist conference in Orlando amid apologias for Hitler, she also asked Rabbi Dan Fink if he’d join a task force she was forming to fight anti-Semitism.
“Her definition of anti-Semitism is ‘not supporting the State of Israel on everything that it does,’ and she’s trying to get evangelicals, that’s her base,” Fink told me. “When Janice McGeachin talks about anti-Semitism, she doesn’t give a damn about Jews. She’s trying to win over evangelicals.”
McGeachin lost Tuesday’s race, but observers say her candidacy helped push the incumbent, Little, to the right on a host of issues. It was Little, after all, who signed the state’s abortion ban. It was Little who signed two anti-transgender bills.
I went with Fink to the statehouse on the International Trans Day Of Visibility, where he joined about seven trans protesters idling on the steps, having not attracted much attention from the press. Fink thanked a protester from Oregon, saying he was glad the state would be willing to accept Idahoans looking for abortions.
Fink is pretty sure he’s one of only two full-time rabbis in the entire state of Idaho. He came here in 1994 to lead Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise, 10 years after neo-Nazis in a group called the Order bombed one of the congregation’s buildings. (Thankfully, no one was inside.)
He’s a liberal Democrat who’s been active in Idaho politics for a long time and is mortified by the Christofascist insurgency here. When I met him at his synagogue, he was thinking about the approaching Passover, one of the most sacred holidays on the Jewish calendar, celebrating Jews’ exodus from Egypt. He said it felt like a fitting story for Idaho in 2022.
“The message at the heart of the Seder is ‘don’t oppress the stranger because you know the heart of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt,‘” he said. “So if you want to talk about the core message of the holiday, it would be naive to not look around you. The Hebrew word for Egypt, used in the Torah, is Mitzrayim, and it means a ‘narrow place,’ a place that’s narrow-minded, narrow and small in spirits, and dangerous, narrow and pressing, and that’s what these folks would have this state be.”
“We’re in real danger of that here,” he said. “Serious danger of it.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.