A year ago, Pam Stout, a soft-spoken 67 year-old retiree from Bonners Ferry, Idaho was featured in the New York Times and asked to appear on the David Letterman show. She performed swimmingly, and portrayed the Tea Party as a wholesome movement of Middle Americans concerned about issues like TARP and health care reform.
An inside look at a recent Tea Party event organized by Stout shows a very different side of the Tea Parties, and highlights a disturbing direction taken by many local groups.
Little talk of repealing “Obamacare” or of modifying objectionable provisions of healthcare legislation took place at Stout’s “Patriots Unite” event, held March 26. The impending possibility of a government shutdown due to an impasse over the budget was hardly mentioned. Nary a word was spoken about bailouts or taxes. Instead, speakers at this Tea Party event gave the crowd a heavy dose of racist “birther” attacks on President Obama, discussions of the conspiracy behind the problem facing America (complete with anti-Semitic illustration), Christian nationalism, anti-environmentalism, and serious calls for legislation promoting states’ rights and “nullification.”
Stout, the Idaho state coordinator for Tea Party Patriots attracted around seventy Tea Party activists from Idaho, Montana, and Washington to the Coeur D’Alene Inn for the conference. The goal: to bring isolated Tea Party groups together. Originally scheduled as a two-day conference, Stout noted that the event was shortened because, “our workshop presenters are still in Wisconsin” presumably engaged in Tea Party anti-union organizing efforts.
The morning’s first speaker was Matt Shea, a state representative from nearby Spokane Valley, Washington. Stout introduced Shea by thanking him and mentioning how she’s been trying to convince him to move to Idaho to run for Attorney General. And Shea opened with a crack about how he had his birth certificate if anyone wanted to see. He returned to the birther issue later in his speech when he commented, “one of my favorite bills is, if you are running for elected office, you need to have a copy of your birth certificate on file – all elected offices – which I think would be good for 2012.”
Much of Shea’s talk was dedicated to demonizing his opponents, saying that progressives “want to seize every piece of property that you have at the local level, and they want to give it back to you as they see fit because they know better than you do how to use property,” and that “the ones on the other side really are motivated by hate.”
“We need to go on the attack and not be defending and reacting all the time. Make them react to us. If we continue to go on the attack, we win,” he encouraged. “And a lot of people have asked me, Matt, what can we do? Here’s my point today, if you take anything away, and it’s this: the Achilles heel of government, particularly the federal government, they don’t have enough manpower to enforce these things at the local level. They have to rely on us to comply, and if we don’t comply, they can’t push their agenda forward.”
States’ Rights and Nullification
What Shea proposed is called the doctrine of nullification, part of the secessionist states-rights position which argues that individual states can unilaterally refuse to follow or enforce federal law they don’t agree with, or even abandon their relationship with the federal government completely if they’d like. These beliefs underlay the Confederates states’ rationale for seceding during the Civil War era, and also undergirded the defense of “legalized” Jim Crow segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, thanks to the Tea Party surge, this set of ideas has moved back into the mainstream.
Dozens of states have introduced nullification legislation in the last two years. In February, the Iowa House of Representatives passed a law allowing the state to exempt residents from the federal health care reform law. According to the website ALECfail.com, which tracks health care nullification efforts, bills or proposed constitutional amendments have been introduced but failed in twenty eight states. A similar effort just died in in the Idaho legislature. Last year, Missouri voters passed a ballot initiative to block the individual mandate portion of the federal health care law.
Conservatives in Congress even created a “Tenth Amendment task force” last year, to “disperse power from Washington and restore the Constitutional balance of power through liberty-enhancing federalism.” Ten Congressional representatives have joined the task force.
Shea highlighted the work of one of the key groups helping to popularize these bogus legal theories – the Tenth Amendment Center (TAC). In addition to promoting nullification legislation, the TAC website also holds out secession as viable option should nullification not work as a strategy. The organization is working alongside the John Birch Society, the Oath Keepers, and other far-right groups in sponsoring an ongoing “Nullify Now!” tour.
When asked to point to a Constitutional justification for nullification, Shea instead pointed to the doctrine in the Articles of Confederation of the 1780s. What he did not say, however, is that the Articles of Confederation failed to unify and hold our new country together, and led to the drafting of the Constitution with a more fully unifying form of federalism.
Shea was brutal when it came to attacking successful and popular federal programs. “How many of you are willing to give up Social Security and Medicare?,” he said. “That’s the question we have to ask. The federal government shouldn’t be doing it.”
In addition to the “state sovereignty” approach of nullification, Shea also pitched a “local sovereignty” effort, based on a Posse Comitatus-like theory of the county sheriff. According to Shea:
We wanted to do something and put some teeth in these nullification bills, and this is what we’ve done, and what we’re advocating around the rest of the country — A Sheriff First clause in every piece of legislation. That simply says sheriff you will not enforce these unconstitutional federal laws, and federal agent if you want to come down and enforce these unconstitutional laws, you’ve got to come through the county sheriff first. And if you don’t, you’re the one that gonna be thrown in jail. What does that mean? That means if they try to come down and impose fines upon you for not buying nationalized healthcare, that means that you’ve got to come through the county sheriff first federal agent and if you don’t, you’re the one that’s going to end up in jail. People say, ‘that’s kinda radical, Matt.’ Well, no, it’s not. Sheriff is what’s called the chief law enforcement officer in the country. He is more powerful than any federal agent.
The notion that the county sheriff was the highest law enforcement officer in the land was a constant part of Posse Comitatus ideology in the 1970s and 1980s. The Posse grew by recruiting tax protestors in one decade, bankrupt farmers in a second, and would have lasted longer as an organization. After Posse member Gordon Kahl shot and killed two federal marshals in 1983, however, the organization–but not its ideas–took a dive. Today, this ideology lives on in the persons of militiameisters, some Birchers and others inside the Tea Party movement.
Shea summed it up: “Why are we here?” he asked rhetorically, “To Restore a God honoring Constitutional republic.”
Shea encouraged the Tea Partiers in attendance to visit their local county sheriff and give them a copy of militia darling Sheriff Richard Mack’s book. Shea also lauded praise on controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio for his “resurrection of the posse.”
As untenable as his views on nullification and the Posse, Shea also expounded some equally shaky views on the monetary system. He pushed for a “Sound Money” resolution to abolish the Federal Reserve, a “Legal Tender” Act that would require the federal government to make all payments in gold and silver. He even claimed to be hard at work on a replacement “private monetary exchange” based on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.
In his conclusion, Shea went so far as to say that those who disagree with him “don’t deserve to be our countrymen.”
After Shea was finished, he introduced Jeff Baxter, recently appointed to fill the Spokane Valley’s 4th District Senate seat. Baxter told the crowd he was on the same page that they were and that it was time to “quit worrying about your differences.” (The joint appearance was, in part, to show that there was no bad blood between the Shea and Baxter after the two men battled for the state Senate appointment).
The John Birch Society and Anti-Semitism
After a short break, Leah Southwell, the national development officer for the John Birch Society (JBS) took the stage. She made sure to point out one of the Birch organizers in the house, Dale Pearce, from Nampa. Southwell also introduced her colleague Robert Brown, the Birch Society organizer for the region.
The John Birch Society has been part of the far-right since its founding in 1958. It has promoted a number of anti-communist conspiracy theories over the years, but its members occasionally veer off to advance more directly racist or anti-Semitic ideas. As a result of the Tea Party upsurge, the Birchers have found a more ready audience willing to buy what they are selling. That was the case in Idaho during this conference.
Brown’s did a PowerPoint presentation with a collection of slides entitled “The Power of 500.” It attempted to convey a diagnosis of “the root of the problem” facing America. But in actuality, his speech was like a far-right version of the on-line game Mad Libs – a fill-in-the-blank conspiracy with culprits left to the audience members imaginations.
Some in the crowd took it upon themselves to start shouting out answers. “The Trilateral Commission,” yelled one man. “The Council on Foreign Relations,” blurted another. “The Bilderburgers,” declared a third. Brown didn’t dissuade any of their suggestions; instead he just kept hinting that the real root of the problem was bigger and more ominous.
His first slide (pictured) held a few clues, however. This image of Obama wearing a Star of David on his tie, was created by David Dees, a graphic artist who used to do work for the entertainment industry (even doing artwork for Sesame Street Magazine). In 2006. according to his website, Dees veered into “political art commentary inspired by the 9/11 truth movement and a passion to fight the New World Order agenda.” His current online portfolio includes numerous other anti-Semitic pieces, including several dedicated to Holocaust denial.
While Brown cautioned the audience to stay away from “speculative conspiracy stuff,” he encouraged people to read a Birch Society book called, The Illuminati – Proof of the Conspiracy. Later in the presentation, in a section entitled “understanding the enemy” Brown warned that the enemy was the “globalists.”
The last half of Brown’s presentation was a multi-level marketing program for the John Birch Society. He outlined its 100/10/6 Program: adopt 100 voting households to regularly hand deliver them Birch literature; befriend ten “opinion molders” – businessmen, pastors, etc. that have sway over a large group of people; and actively recruit six “prospective activists” to become part of the local Birch Society. These local groups would then be coordinated at the state, regional, and national levels.
Brown credited the John Birch Society strategy with “real change,” citing policies in Oklahoma such as a law prohibiting a NAFTA superhighway passing through the state, and a statute prohibiting use of Sharia law.
“The only thing that works is the John Birch Society approach,” Brown told the audience. While admitting the big Tea Party rallies of 2009 were a “big shot in the arm to the freedom movement,” Brown calculated that the money spent to get people to those rallies would be better spent hiring organizers (presumably Birch organizers) in every congressional district.
During the question session, a radio host from Sandpoint said, “The Birch Society used to be the whipping boys and laughing stocks of the movement. How do we get beyond getting blackballed?”
Brown said that “repeat exposure” to John Birch Society ideas was the key. It took him a while to get comfortable with the Birch Society, too, he confessed. He then went on to try to again link the Birchers and the Tea Parties, claiming that the way they attack the JBS is similar to the way they try to smear the Tea Party. “When you’re getting flack, you know you’re over target,” he exclaimed, to the delight of the audience.
Over lunch, many of the attendees expressed their pleasant surprise at the at Brown’s presentation and his approach. “I thought… “ahh, those Birchers…,’” noted one attendee, “but now I have a different opinion.”
When Stout appeared on Letterman last year, she was asked about President Obama’s birth certificate. Stout sidestepped the issue, claiming, on the one hand, that it was “irrelevant” but also adding that Obama had “spent millions concealing his documentation” and that she’d like to see the birth certificate.
When the national spotlight is off, she isn’t nearly as coy about the birther issue. Quite the contrary. Stout has circulated many different birther emails to her Tea Party group, and she included in this conference program one of the birthers’ loudest voices in the inland Northwest, Laurie Roth.
Roth is a talk show host from Elk, Washington – a small unincorporated rural community about fifty miles northwest of Coeur d’Alene. Roth’s show is broadcast locally on Radio KSBN AM 1230 in Spokane (syndicated on the IRN-USA Radio Network). She’s been active in Tea Party activity since speaking at the first rally in Spokane in early 2009. Her show has served as a popular vehicle for birthers and other bigots.
For instance, last February a year ago, during a regular feature on her program known as the Tea Party Radio hour (co-hosted with 1776 Tea Party leader Dale Robertson), Roth’s show featured Martin “Red” Beckman as the special guest. Beckman has been known for more than twenty-five years for his anti-Semitic writings and his defense of militias. In 1994, Beckman was evicted from his property in Montana by the IRS for refusing to pay taxes.
Roth has given a microphone to leading birthers like Jerome Corsi and Philip Berg, and has written numerous articles promoting birther conspiracies. Roth also drew some attention when she went on a birther rant, on-stage at the 2010 CPAC convention (the same year the John Birch Society was allowed back into this important conservative event).
During her presentation for the sympathetic crowd at “Patriots Unite,” Roth went full birther, “This was not a shift to the Left like Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. This is a worldview clash. We are seeing a worldview clash in our White House. A man who is a closet, he’s more of a secular-type Muslim, but he’s a Muslim. He’s no Christian. We’re seeing a man who’s a socialist communist in the White House, pretending to be an American. I don’t believe, looking at all the evidence that I’ve looked at and interviewing Phillip Berg and Donofrio and Alan Keyes and all the people that have sued him, he wasn’t even born here.”
Expressing a palpable hatred of the president, Roth repeatedly referred to president Obama as a “socialist communist,” a “globalist,” a “Muslim,” and a “Manchurian Candidate,” who wants to establish a Caliphate as a stepping stone to becoming an “international president.” She predicted that the birther case would be “one of the big issues of 2012.”
Drawing the connection between birther concerns and the Ten Amendment states’ rights solutions Shea referenced earlier in the day, Roth declared, “I am encouraged, and I find hope in the fact that up to twelve states now are pursuing bills, and trying to get them passed, to require in the 2012 election that proof of birth certificate and eligibility happens before you can even get on the ballot. That could solve the whole thing, back to the old fashioned states’ rights Tenth Amendment could save our bacon. They’re not all going to pass, because there are liberal legislatures here and there. But if three or four pass, even two or three pass, he’s in trouble. Can you imagine not getting on the docket in two or three or four states? That might solve the problem.”
She also expressed the urgency of the birther fight, stopping in the middle of her talk to engage an audience member in a discussion about whether impeachment, arresting president Obama, or a military coup would be the best solution.
Roth: “We have to, we can’t try, we have to get him out in 2012”
Audience member: “why wait? …He’s an illegal president now.”
Roth: “he should be impeached.” The audience member replied, he can’t be impeached, he’s not a citizen.”
Roth: “how would you get him out?”
Audience member: “By having the authority of five governors, five senators, march on the Supreme Court, who have abdicated their power and authority to simply render that he is not a legal president. And send the US Marshals to arrest him.”
Roth: I couldn’t agree more. What we need is a move like Zelaya in Honduras. We need the military, we need somebody to do that, or impeachment, or something like you said. We need something more than we’ve had.
Roth also fused her birther racism with Islamophobia. Given that just a week before this event, Stout’s Sandpoint Tea Party Patriots promoted an event on “Sharia Law and the radical Muslim agenda in America,” it wasn’t surprising to hear Islamophobia onstage at the event. Roth even declaimed that although she’s been a Republican all her life, she was ashamed of President Bush when he called Islam a religion of peace.
Tying together the popular revolts current in the Middle East to her Islamophobic conspiracy about president Obama, Roth confided to the crowd, “I have a suspicion, I sound like a conspiracy nut, but I have a suspicion since Obama so quickly has put Muslim people into high posts in this land and he backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and we see Syria now going through intensifying problems, I mean Tunesia, now Libya, we’re at war with Libya, I wonder if he has some sort of backdoor deal with the Muslim Brotherhood , and I’m wondering of that’s part of the global elite plan to control the world and have a Caliphate and just take country out, after country, after country. Because don’t you find it odd that so many countries are having this happen in the Middle East right now, at the same time? I find it more than odd, I find it alarming.”
As if to add an exclamation point to the controversial nature of Roth’s talk, Danielle Ahrens, a Sandpoint Tea Partier active in the local Republican Party, declared, “it’s nice to have someone talk and not worry about being politically correct.”
The Federal Reserve Isn’t Federal At All (or so the song goes)
Following Roth was Idaho state representative Phil Hart (R-Athol), recently elected to a fourth term from Idaho’s third legislative district. A longtime tax protestor, he’s the author of anti-tax tracts including Constitutional Income: Do You Have Any? which argues that the persons who ratified the Sixteenth Amendment did not really mean it when they authorized an income tax. Hart stopped filing income tax returns in 1996 and filed an unsuccessful lawsuit claiming that the federal income tax was unconstitutional. His failure to file placed him in a protracted battle with the Idaho Tax Commission and Internal Revenue Service. Currently he, and the various trusts that control his businesses, owe more than $53,000 in back state income taxes and penalties and $644,000 in federal tax liens. Last September a special Idaho House ethics panel voted unanimously to recommend stripping him of membership on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.
When Hart headed to the dais at this meeting, he seemed like a bumbling character with his suit jacket tucked into the back of his pants while he tried to get his computer started. He did not miss a beat, however, and took the crowd through a lengthy recitation of the arguments familiar to groups like the Posse Comitatus: that the Federal Reserve was unconstitutional, and that Federal Reserve notes (dollar bills) aren’t legal tender.
Spinning a tale of monetary usurpation and impending financial apocalypse, Hart promoted his “Sound Money” bill and recommended the creation of a parallel gold monetary system to the Federal Reserve based on gold and silver.
Following Hart was Sandpoint High School senior Brady Smith, who had attended something called “the patriot academy” in Texas. A lanky redhead in a dark suit, Smith read from his notes about how the root cause of the country’s sickness was that we’ve forsaken our Godly heritage as a Christian nation. He listed several problems: the attack on “traditional marriage,” abortion, and our public education system not teaching Christianity, as symptoms of the larger sickness. The cure to all that ails the country, according to Smith, was a return to our Godly heritage. His remarks were warmly received. But to the outside observer, Brady Smith’s youth foretold a tragedy in the making.
The last presenter before the no-host bar and the banquet dinner was Dr. Ed Berry, an atmospheric physicist who recently moved from California to Montana.
Since moving to the Flathead Valley, he’s hooked up with other far-right activists like another new Montana resident, Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party.
He told the crowd that global climate change is used as an excuse for the federal government to take over the states, and that the goal of “green” campaigns was to “reduce our mobility, reduce our standard of living, censor freedom of speech.” He even argued that the goal of environmental programs like Agenda 21 is to “make us slaves to the New World Order.”
The prolific climate change denier mixed one part misapplied scientific data with two parts conspiracy theory to deluge the audience in anti-environmental charts and graphs.
Like Glenn Beck without the chalkboard or the tears, Berry spent much of his talk pinning the conspiracy on George Soros. Berry claimed that Soros is an “atheist with skewed morals,” that he “owns Obama,” that he “owns the media” which he uses to brainwash people, and that he controls the Republicans.
In the end, Berry brought the day full circle, linking his anti-environmentalism to the nullification doctrine when he told the group, “We’ll have a hard time stopping the federal government, so we must do what we can with state sovereignty… states have the power.”
This “Patriots Unite” event serves as a vivid reminder that fiscal issues are only part of the Tea Party package. It is just as much part of the Tea Party story as any Tax Day protest rally – perhaps even more so, as it was an unvarnished presentation of actual beliefs, not a recitation of distilled talking points.
Tea Party national factions such as Tea Party Patriots derive their power from the nearly three thousand local groups they claim as member organizations. With power comes responsibility. Tea Party Patriots, has repeatedly promised that birther racism, anti-Semitism, and the like are not what the Tea Parties are all about. And they have the power to do something about the combination of Posse Comitatus and John Brich Society bigotry that infected this Idaho meeting.
As such, IREHR contacted Tea Party Patriots leaders to see if they would live up to their promises, and to see if any action would be taken against their Idaho coordinator, Pam Stout, for organizing an event at odds with their mission statement. Neither Jenny Beth Martin nor Mark Meckler responded to repeated requests for comment. Their silence is loud and clear.
It is time for those of us opposed to this combination of racism, anti-Semitism and conspiracy mongering to stand up in our own communities and say no! We need to be heard even more than the Tea Partiers.
Devin Burghart is vice president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights. He is a co-author of Tea Party Nationalism: a Critical Examination of the Size, Scope, and Focus of the Tea Party Movement and Its National Factions.