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    QAnon and on: why the fight against extremist conspiracies is far from over

    On 7 January this year, a day after the mob stormed the Capitol in Washington DC, a curious exchange occurred in the netherworld of global conspiracy. Alex Jones, the rasp-voiced mouthpiece of fake news for the past decade, was in conversation with the most visible leader of the previous day’s shocking events: Jacob Chansley, the self-styled “Q Shaman” who featured on the world’s front pages, in buffalo horns, animal skins and face paint.Jones, on his fake-news platform Infowars, with its million-plus viewers and sharers, had for years been the loudhailer of unhinged stories that included the belief that Hillary Clinton was the antichrist, that Michelle Obama was a man, that the Pentagon and George Soros had detonated a “homosexual bomb” that turned even frogs gay, that 9/11 had been a “false flag” operation and, most viciously, that the Sandy Hook school murders, in which 20 children and six teachers died, were staged by “crisis actors” to promote gun control. Jones had inevitably been among those who addressed the restive crowd at Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” march (having donated $50,000 for the staging of the rally) and calling for supporters to “get on a war footing” to defend the president. Two days later, however, when faced with the rhetoric of Chansley, whom he had invited on to his show to explain the insurrection, it seemed even he, America’s conspirator in chief, finally couldn’t take the lies any more.As the Q Shaman launched into his justification of the mob violence that had left five people dead, a diatribe involving reference to the supposed QAnon revelations that the Democratic party was a front for a satanic paedophile ring that Trump was destined to expose and destroy, Jones repeatedly interrupted him. When Chansley asked plaintively why he wouldn’t listen (“you’re a hero to me, man”), Jones cut him off: “Because you’re full of crap!” he yelled. “That’s why! Because every goddamned thing out of you people’s mouths doesn’t come true. I knew what you were on day one and I know what you are now and I’m sick of it! I’m sick of all these witches and warlocks… I can’t talk to you any more. Jesus Christ! Lord help me. Aaargh!”This apparent volte face, disowning a web of untruths that he himself had enthusiastically propagated, was a surprise even to the most dedicated of Jones-watchers. During the Trump era, Dan Friesen and Jordan Holmes, a pair of standup comedians from Chicago, had performed the invaluable public service of debunking some of Jones’s wilder theories in a conversational podcast, Knowledge Fight. The events of January, however, gave them the sense that Jones “just felt less and less in control of what he was doing”. They had long been reluctant connoisseurs of the Texan’s rants but from that moment in January onwards, they felt they were witnessing a man flailing in the tide of his own untruths.One reading of this abrupt change suggested that Jones, who had made millions of dollars selling “potency pills” to his cultish followers, finally understood that the game was up. For the past year or more, he has been losing a series of legal appeals against the right of the Sandy Hook parents to sue him for defamation and end the unpardonable harassment that had seen them hounded by trolls who believed Infowars’ lies (the channel sent “investigators” to Sandy Hook to try to disinter the bodies of their murdered children and posted pictures that purported to show them alive and well; one parent, Leonard Pozner, who has led the case against Jones, has had to go into hiding to protect himself from reprisals). That legal process threatens to ruin Jones financially; later this summer it should see him face a fuller judicial reckoning. Having exhausted all other defences, his last line of argument appears to be that he – and his millions of followers – had known it was simply a joke all along.Another, more widely optimistic, reading of Jones’s meltdown is the proposition that the destructive forces of alt right conspiracy are finally in retreat. It is hard to imagine the rise of Trump without the environment of outlandish falsehood that preceded him. If Fox News offered mainstream support to that war on reality, then Jones was a big part of its militia wing. When Trump first announced that he was running for the presidency he appeared on Infowars to tell Jones: “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down”, endorsing the host’s message that there was a secret liberal deep state cabal that controlled the world. In the months of campaigning that followed, when Trump shouted “Lock her up” of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, he knew he was preaching to the Infowars converted. On the morning after his inauguration, in 2017, Jones was among the first people Trump contacted to thank him for the help he had given.The optimism that sees the events in the Capitol as the last chapter of that story, however, must be heavily tempered with the fear that rather than representing an endgame, it instead highlighted a first dramatic skirmish in a new kind of warfare. That contention is at the heart of a compelling book, The Storm Is Upon Us, to be published this week, by the California-based journalist Mike Rothschild. The book examines the internet-based conspiracies that led to the assault on the Capitol in forensic detail, in particular the story of QAnon, the obscure series of anonymous “prophecies” that became the declared philosophy of many of those who travelled from across the country intent on overturning Joe Biden’s election victory, the philosophy that even Jones thought was a conspiracy too far.Rothschild’s book is a profoundly sobering read for anyone who retains faith in the inevitable progress of human reason, or a belief that in a free-speech environment where all opinions are given equal weight, Enlightenment views will necessarily prevail over violent untruths. It traces how a series of “data drops” from an anonymous poster QAnon – claiming to be a senior Pentagon insider – on the renegade internet platform 4chan came to be taken as prophetic gospels by thousands of disgruntled middle Americans staring at their screens.There had been precedents for such cultish frenzies of course, particularly in the US, but none has received the kind of official amplification and sanction as QAnon. What began as a development of the wilder culture and antisemitic tropes of so-called Pizzagate, quickly became a catch-all “philosophy” to politicise and explain the many “evils” of the world. That code was amplified by Trump supporters ranging from Jones to former national security adviser Michael Flynn and presidential confidant Roger Stone, who identified with QAnon’s theories about the way the deep state had “stolen” the election and urged Trump to declare martial law – another QAnon prophecy – in advance of the 2020 election. Trump’s sons Donald Jr and Eric both played to a QAnon audience, while nearly 100 Republican candidates declared themselves to be QAnon believers, with several winning their elections, including House representative Marjorie Taylor Greene.As Rothschild details, the bulk of Q followers had little history of extremism but they came to see themselves as “patriotic researchers”, uniquely able to distil fragments of truth from the “drops” of fictional coded information. Some proudly described themselves as “autists,” insinuating patterns unavailable to the unenlightened, patterns that allowed them to understand, for example, “that when [CIA chief] James Comey tweeted about the death of his dog Benji in early November 2018, he was really signalling to the world that George HW Bush would be executed two weeks later – because autists know that pictures of dogs sent by prominent deep-state members are actually secret messages announcing an execution”.So seductive were the internet rabbit holes into which they descended, a process of radicalisation familiar to cult-watchers, that in some cases families were abandoned and plots were hatched, including bomb threats, kidnap attempts and plans to destroy a coronavirus hospital ship. By 6 January 2021, QAnon devotees had for so long promised that a “storm” of mass arrests and executions would sweep “child molesters” and liberals out of government for ever that some were triggered to carry out that long-promised purge themselves.In detailing this radicalisation, Rothschild’s book emphasises the truth that among all the complex crises of our times the fundamental one is that of information, its quality and its reach. I remember at the time of the arrival of social media, 20 years ago, sitting through various presentations from a series of highly paid “internet gurus” who talked in messianic terms about a coming age of “citizen journalism”. Once the “gatekeepers” of the “legacy media” were removed, they argued – all those dogged hacks on local newspapers who have subsequently lost their livelihoods – there would be a wondrous revolution in transparency. This utopian vision could apparently see no potential issues with a mass system of anonymous communication in which there was no accountability for inaccuracy and no barriers to entry. I sat in those presentations thinking: have these people never read a history book?Speaking to Rothschild at his home in last week, he suggested that one of the lessons of the QAnon story is how that naivety worked both ways. “Even now,” he suggests, “there is still something in most people’s mind that believes things that happen on the internet don’t really matter. That it’s not real life.” What the QAnon story shows is that “online communities are more real to a lot of these people than their actual lives”.When Rothschild first started reporting on QAnon, a couple of months after the first drops, most reporters, if they looked at the story at all, viewed it “as just the next version of whatever crazy thing the Trump people were pushing that week”. He detected in its profile something a little different – it had very similar makeup, he thought, to these “affinity frauds” that have been running now for 20 years, which exploit the trust of peer recommendations in certain tight communities to fleece people of their life savings. But here, he says, you were selling not financial investments but “the powerful feelings that you would have when your enemies were brought to justice”.His book examines all the theories about QAnon’s original identity, without needing to come to a conclusion. Among the most plausible is that this was a kind of wicked experiment in human credulity. QAnon understood the power of story and parable. “I think, those early Q drops, the first maybe 130 drops [out of 4,592] were very skilfully written,” he says, “almost like the first chapters of a Tom Clancy novel… and it was a story that a lot of people bought into very quickly, because they wanted it to be true.” The first disciples were more than ready to believe that there was a judgment day approaching for these people at the heart of what Trump, Fox News and Jones had already spent a couple of years calling the deep state: Obama, George Soros, the Clintons. “I mean, there’s a reason why the first post was ‘Hillary Clinton will be arrested’,” Rothschild says. “This represented 30 years of wish-fulfilment. It was a Clinton, but it was almost more about Hillary than Bill. She was the one they really, really hated.”The story quickly found fertile ground among an audience spending many hours looking for the next excitement online, something to shock their followers with, a magnet for likes. Rothschild suggests that in the past some of this repressed anger might have been directed at neighbourhood issues, but in the vacuum of local newspapers a whole class of people who might have stood up in a PTA meeting and vented at the school board now believed they knew more about what was going on at a deputy assistant undersecretary’s office at the White House than at the end of their street. Social media algorithms offered no hierarchy to information and fed them more of what they liked. There was, in this conservative audience, Rothschild suggests, still a vestige of that feeling: “If I’m seeing a piece of media, it’s probably true. Nobody would lie in a news story…”Anybody can get sucked into cults. The moment you feel you are better than everybody else, you might be more vulnerableIn some ways, his book suggests, the only thing that prevented a deeper catastrophe in January was the demographic of those QAnon believers. A 2019 study by researchers at Princeton and New York University showed that Facebook users over the age of 65 were as much as seven times more likely to share fake-news stories and that held true with QAnon. Fortunately, Rothschild says: “This wasn’t Weimar Republic era paramilitaries. These were people who were 40, 50, 60. Many travelled a long distance and had a lot of disposable income to spend on tactical gear and flights and hotels. QAnon brought out something in these people who felt like their way of life was being destroyed by the relentless onslaught of progressivism. Donald Trump became their champion standing in the breach against the rising tide of liberalism.”The vision of that bizarre insurrection served to conclude the ongoing argument with social media platforms about their responsibility for policing extreme and deliberately false content. At the beginning of the pandemic, when it seemed that fake news might overwhelm public health messaging, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and the rest were finally moved to take down some of the more threatening content, as bodies piled up in New York’s morgues.Jones had been among those who predictably trumpeted the anti-vax lines and 5G mast conspiracy that Piers Corbyn peddles to his mask-averse cranks. “This is the plan, folks,” Jones grunted at his viewers, early on. “They plan – now they’ve fluoridated you and vaccinated you and stunned you and mesmerised you with the TV and put you in a trance – on killing you.” The antidote to the virus, Jones claimed, lay in his own “wellness” products: SuperSilver whitening toothpaste and ABL Nano Silver Gargle that, he claimed, “kills the sars-corona family at point-blank range”. (The only proven effect of the active ingredient in these products, colloidal silver, is that it turns your skin blue.)The fact that social media giants had already cancelled Infowars accounts prevented the wider spread of this lethal nonsense; they now accepted a measure of responsibility to take down posts that claimed that 5G technology caused Covid-19, instead directing people toward accredited information.In the months since the January riots, the social media platforms have cracked down in a similar way on QAnon content, outlawing hashtags and catchphrases related to the conspiracy theory – “WWG1WGA” (“Where we go one we go all”), “the storm” and the “great awakening” – and shutting down thousands of accounts (including those of the ex-president). A report published by the Atlantic Council’s digital forensic research lab concluded that QAnon-related “chatter” surged enormously at the beginning of the pandemic and rose further in the lead-up to the Capitol riot, but had been reduced to a murmur in the months after Biden’s election.It is hard to read Rothschild’s book, however, without coming to the conclusion that the appetite for conspiracy has hardly diminished – some diehard QAnon followers still hold that the recount of the Arizona ballot will be decisive in overturning Biden’s election and restoring Trump to power. Meanwhile, the potent combination of tribal politics and the amplifying powers of social media continues to exert a hold. Rothschild reserves his anger in the book for those “conspiracy entrepreneurs”, including Jones and the Trump inner circle, who promoted these theories for financial or political gain, rather than the “digital foot soldiers”, often looking for community or belonging, who were seduced by them. “Maybe not everybody could be QAnon, because it takes a certain mentality,” he says, “but anybody can get sucked into conspiracy movements or cultic movements. You know, the moment you feel like you are better than everybody else, you might be more vulnerable than everybody else.”The pandemic created the perfect petri dish for such radicalisation – forcing people into isolation and to spending more time online. One of the seductive qualities of QAnon in this respect is that rather than presenting converts with a raft of developed theories, it acted as an invitation for them, in that favourite internet phrase, “to do their own research”. “Autists” became active participants in conspiracy creation, piecing together and sharing and creating clues, like medieval Bible scholars. You only have to look at forums such as “QAnon Casualties” on the Reddit platforms, a de-radicalisation and self-help conversation for cultists and their broken families, to see just how deep a hold the ideas can take on individuals.And of course this is far from a US-only phenomenon. Guardian research in the UK from the end of last year, before Facebook shut down tens of thousands of accounts, revealed a sharp rise in the use of QAnon terms among “an unlikely coalition of spirituality and wellness groups, vigilante ‘paedophile hunter’ networks, pre-existing conspiracy forums, local news pages, pro-Brexit campaigners and the far right”. Meanwhile a survey for Hope Not Hate, which monitors extremism, found that 17% of people when questioned said they believed Covid-19 was intentionally released as part of a “depopulation plan” by the UN or “new world order”; a quarter (25%) agreed that “secret satanic cults exist and include influential elites” and a similar proportion (26%) subscribed to the QAnon view that “elites in Hollywood, politics, the media and other powerful positions” were secretly engaged in child trafficking and abuse. The anti-lockdown gatherings in British cities, last week targeting the BBC journalist Nicholas Watt, are one meeting point for such theories.These trends support Rothschild’s suggestion that though QAnon itself has gone silent for six months, and thousands of spreader accounts have been deleted, “you still have a very large group of very malleable people. And it doesn’t take a lot for somebody to step in, start selling those people what they want to hear.”If there is a lesson of the past five years it is the ease and efficacy with which such lies can spread. QAnon is hopefully on its last legs, Rothschild says, “but there is a danger that whatever comes next might be even more powerful. My biggest hope is that we are able to recognise it and take it seriously. Not panic about it. But understand it, try to help debunk it and take it down before it gets to the point that QAnon got to. As we have seen,” he says, “it doesn’t take that long for these movements to curdle into violence.” More

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    White House unveils first national strategy to fight domestic terrorism

    The White House has published its first ever national strategy for countering domestic terrorism five months after a violent mob stormed the US Capitol in Washington.The framework released on Tuesday by the national security council describes the threat as now more serious than potential attacks from overseas but emphasises the need to protect civil liberties.Anticipating Republican objections that Joe Biden could use counterterrorism tools to persecute supporters of Donald Trump, the strategy is also careful to state that domestic terrorism must be tackled in an “ideologically neutral” manner.It cites examples such as “an anti-authority extremist” ambushing, shooting and killing five police officers in Dallas In 2016; a lone gunman (and leftwing activist) wounding four people at a congressional baseball practice in 2017; and an “unprecedented attack” on Congress on 6 January.“They come across the political spectrum,” a senior administration said on a media conference call. “We acknowledge the shooting at the congressional baseball, the attack on police officers in Dallas, just as we acknowledge the attack in Charlottesville and the attack on the Capitol on January 6.“So it’s not motivating politics or ideology that matters for us or, more importantly for the strategy and its implementation. It’s when political grievances become acts of violence and we remain laser focused on that.”The strategy, to be formally announced by the attorney general, Merrick Garland, on Tuesday, follows an order from Biden on his first full day in office for a review of government efforts to address domestic terrorism, which is described as “the most urgent terrorism threat the United States faces today”.An expert assessment of the threat provided by intelligence and law enforcement, a summary of which was released in March, found that its two most deadly elements are white supremacists and anti-government violent extremists.A senior administration said: “Further, it found that violent extremists who promote the superiority of the white race have the most persistent transnational connections and may be in frequent contact with violent extremists abroad.“However, it’s important to underscore that the study provided to us by ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] did not find a robust nexus between domestic terrorism and foreign actors. This is largely today an inside-out problem, not an outside-in problem, although we do know that our adversaries are seeking to sow divisions in our society.”The strategy consists of four pillars: efforts to understand and share information regarding the full range of domestic terrorism threats; efforts to prevent domestic terrorists from successfully recruiting, inciting, and mobilising Americans to violence; efforts to deter and disrupt domestic terrorist activity before it yields violence; long–term issues that contribute to domestic terrorism that must be addressed to ensure that this threat diminishes over generations.The prevention aspect includes a focus on working with big tech companies such as Facebook, which has been strongly criticised for allowing rightwing hate groups to thrive and coordinate, including ahead of the 6 January insurrection.An official said: “We as the government see different things from what any particular tech company might see, Any particular tech company often knows its own platform very well but the government sees things such as threats of violence across platforms … The process has already begun between the government and the tech sector and it will continue.”Biden’s budget for fiscal year 2022 includes more than $100m in additional resources for analysts, investigators, prosecutors and other personnel and resources to thwart domestic terrorism.The government says it is improving employee screening to enhance methods for identifying domestic terrorists who might pose “insider threats”. The defence, justice and homeland security departments are pursuing efforts “to ensure domestic terrorists are not employed within our military or law enforcement ranks and improve screening and vetting processes”.The strategy does not take a position on whether there should be a new statute criminalising domestic terrorism, leaving the question to a review by the justice department.Despite its plea for neutrality, a White House fact sheet does cite key Biden legislation – the American Rescue Plan, American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan – as providing “relief and opportunity” that can help counter long term distrust in democracy and its ability to deliver.It adds: “Government will also work to find ways to counter the polarization often fueled by disinformation, misinformation, and dangerous conspiracy theories online, supporting an information environment that fosters healthy democratic discourse.” More

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    Idaho candidate for governor endorsed by rightwing militia leader, video reveals

    Idaho’s Republican lieutenant governor and gubernatorial candidate, Janice McGeachin, attended a gathering where she was endorsed in a glowing introductory speech by a rightwing militia leader, as revealed in a video obtained by the Guardian.The video shows Eric Parker, who was charged over his role in the standoff in 2014 at Bundy Ranch in New Mexico where he was pictured pointing an assault rifle at federal agents, reminding McGeachin that she told him at an earlier meeting that “if I get in, you’re going to have a friend in the governor’s office”.In the same speech, Parker tells the small audience that when he sought McGeachin’s assistance in the case of Todd Engel, another Bundy Ranch attendee who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2019, he showed her sealed evidence from the trial.He recalled saying to her: “I’m not sure this is legal” and that she replied: “I want to see it,”after which time he said she “started writing letters to the Department of Justice” and “rallying support” on behalf of the imprisoned man.Parker posted the speech video on his Telegram channel on 19 May, the same day that McGeachin publicly announced her candidacy for governor, where she may be up against the incumbent, fellow Republican Brad Little, who is yet to clarify his intentions.In his endorsement, Parker tells the audience: “We need to do everything we can to get her where she can do the most good for us … we got to get her in there for us.” A few moments later McGeachin walks into frame and the two embrace.McGeachin has encountered previous controversies involving links with extremist groups. In 2018 she refused to answer media questions as to whether she was using Three Percenter members as security during her gubernatorial run. In 2019, she was pictured with Three Percenters who were rallying in support of Engel.She has also offered support to anti-mask and anti-lockdown protesters in the state, who include Ammon Bundy’s Peoples Rights Network.In his speech in the video, Parker also recalled McGeachin signing a letter in support of him, as part of an effort led by far right Idaho representative, Dorothy Moon, during his own federal prosecution in Nevada for his own role in the standoff.Parker pleaded guilty in 2018 to a misdemeanor after two hung-jury trials on felony charges including including conspiracy, extortion, assault and obstruction, and eighteen 18 months in custody. Engel’s trial was vacated by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last August.Earlier that year, Parker founded the Real 3% of Idaho as an unincorporated nonprofit organization. In late 2020, he claimed that the organization had 2,500 members around the state, and has repeatedly denied that the group is a militia.A 1 June video on Parker’s 3% of Idaho YouTube channel shows Parker and Engel drilling with assault rifles on a rural property, and features the title “Eric and Todd, Idaho’s gunmen celebrate Memorial day”.Parker is not shy of controversy. In a 2 May photograph on Parker’s Telegram account Parker stands side by side with Nate Silvester, who was at that time still a deputy with the marshal’s office in Bellevue, Idaho, just miles away from Parker’s address in Hailey in Blaine county. Parker identifies Silvester only as “Officer Funny”, presumably a reference to the fact that the Deputy was enjoying a moment of viral fame after he posted a video to TikTok mocking the tweets of LeBron James, who had tweeted protesting at the fatal police shooting of Ohio teen Ma’Khia Bryant.Following Silvester’s 24 April video, which said among other things that the officer who shot Bryant “did the right thing”, the city of Bellevue placed him on administrative leave, and then fired him on 29 May.Lindsay Schubiner, program director at the Western States Center, a progressive non-profit whose work includes monitoring extremist groups in the region, said that Parker’s video “demonstrated his cozy relationship with McGeachin”.She described the relationship between such a senior politician and the far-right militia figure as “deeply disturbing”.Schubiner added that McGeachin “has consistently sought the support and backing of extreme, anti-democratic movements in Idaho”, and that “no public official has any business advancing the agenda of an anti-democratic paramilitary group”.Neither McGeachin nor Parker responded to repeated attempts to contact them for comment. More

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    Idaho’s Republicans in political civil war as state lurches further right

    Idaho’s rightward political lurch has immersed the state’s Republicans in a political civil war that now extends all the way from the grassroots to the executive mansion.In late May, the state’s Republican governor, Brad Little, angrily revoked an executive order banning mask mandates in the state that had been put in place by his own militia-supporting lieutenant governor during a period when she was deputizing for him. Janice McGeachin had ordered that Idaho cities and counties revoke mask orders, playing into a widespread fear among the far right that basic health measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic are a sign of an over-reaching government. Little then called McGeachin’s action “tyranny” and a “stunt” and scuppered it after it had been in place for just a day.But observers say the bizarre fight is symptomatic of a much wider problem in Idaho and the rest of America.They fear that the political dynamics in Idaho – where far-right actors have won recruits and political momentum through uncompromising refusal to comply with public health measures – may presage a worrying direction of conservative politics in the country as a whole.“Political moderates around the country need to pay more attention to what is happening here,” said Mike Satz, executive director of the Idaho97 project, which was founded last year to combat misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic.“Idaho used to follow broader trends, but now it is in the vanguard of extremist activity,” Satz added.Political moderates around the country need to pay more attention to what is happening hereThe mask ban was put in place by McGeachin, a businesswoman who previously spent 10 years as a state representative for a rural district in the state’s far east. Idaho had no statewide mask ban measures in place, but McGeachin’s move was an attempt to prevent cities and counties addressing the pandemic with emergency measures by themselves.The lieutenant governor won election in 2018 after squeaking through a crowded five-way Republican primary earlier that year. Since then she has won praise from the far right and drawn concern from more moderate Republicans over her associations with the Three Percenter militia movement.During her vice-gubernatorial run, a member of her security detail sported a Three Percenter tattoo, and McGeachin refused to answer media questions about security staffing. On another occasion in 2019, she posted to Facebook a picture of herself with members of the Real Three Percenters group, who were protesting on behalf of Todd Engel, who was sentenced in the previous year to 14 years in a federal prison over his role in a 2014 armed standoff with federal agents at Bundy Ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada.Just weeks later, McGeachin led armed protesters, including Three Percenters, through an impromptu oath which appeared to be intended to swear them in as state militia.Recently McGeachin, while appearing as a guest on the podcast of Southern Poverty Law Center-listed extremist David Horowitz, said that the federal US government did not rightfully own any public lands in Idaho, which make up about 60% of the state’s total area.“I don’t view that the federal government owns the land in Idaho, my view is that the land of Idaho belongs to the state of Idaho,” McGeachin told Horowitz, echoing the views expressed by the likes of fellow Idahoan Ammon Bundy, who led the armed occupation of the Malheur national wildlife refuge in 2016.Even in a deep red state, until recently such associations and positions may have ruled McGeachin out as a serious contender for the governorship.But Jaclyn Kettler, a political scientist at Boise State University, located in the state’s capital, said that over the last year, “battles over mask mandates have underlined divisions within the Republican party”.She says that the divisions are long-standing, and partly related to the party’s lock on statewide offices and the legislature in a state which has not elected a Democratic governor for more than 30 years, and has returned large majorities for every Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon’s run in 1968.“When you have a majority for so long, it can lead to internal divisions and factions,”, Kettler said, and adds that the recent successes of conservative Republican candidates in winning primaries, elections or re-election has “shifted the legislature and the party to the right”.Satz, the Idaho97 director, says that this rightward move means that the election of McGeachin, who has positioned herself as the hard right’s tribune, is now a possibility.“Before 2018, no one thought that there was a realistic chance of her becoming lieutenant governor, but here we are,” Satz added.In the last year, and particularly in 2021, what has boosted McGeachin’s status among conservatives has been her support of protests against mask and lockdown orders, which have included direct criticisms of Little’s efforts to rein the virus in, and mandates introduced by local governments.Satz says that a range of far right actors have exploited grassroots angst about Covid measures, including McGeachin, legislators like Heather Scott, Dorothy Moon and Chad Christensen and far-right actors like Bundy, and members of Christ Church, based in the Idaho college town of Moscow.According to Satz these increasingly “violent and aggressive” protests came about in a slow boil. While there were only sparse, fringe protests at the outset of the pandemic, racial justice protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd brought armed rightwing counter-protesters into the streets. That included in the North Idaho town of Coeur D’Alene, where dozens of heavily armed men began facing off with relatively small Black Lives Matter protest groups in June 2020.Satz said that these counter-protests began to bleed into anti-mask protests, and later ones against Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, which many Republicans and those on the far right falsely believe was stolen by the Democrats. “It’s all the same people,” he said of the composition of the various rightwing protests movements.Consistent promoters of protests include Bundy, who began early on in the pandemic to characterize mask mandates and lockdowns as affronts to liberty.As early as March 2020, Bundy was fronting meetings in his current home city of Emmett, Idaho, calling on people to reject mask orders. By April, he was rallying followers to the defense of arrested anti-vaxxers, and was a prominent participant in anti lockdown marches on the state capitol, some of which were organized in part by the dark money group the Idaho Freedom Foundation. Last August, Bundy was arrested multiple times while leading a maskless protest against Covid measures in the Idaho state house. .Despite being banned from the state house after his arrests, Bundy himself has now filed to run for governor in Idaho in 2022.Bundy also had a hand in making the tone of anti-mask protests more aggressive from December 2020 on. In that month, protesters succeeded in shutting down a meeting of public health officials who had convened to discuss a mandate in the Boise region to address then-surging cases of Covid-19.That protest included members of Bundy’s People’s Rights group. Bundy has reportedly encouraged members, who include a wide range of far-right activists in Idaho and beyond, to engage in weapons and ham radio training sessions in 10-person cells in order to defend themselves in an armed conflict with government, which Bundy has hinted is an inevitability.Now, People’s Rights-linked farmers have purchased land along the Klamath River in Oregon to protest against drought-related reductions in irrigation allowances to farmers.Amy Herzfeld-Copple monitors extremism and other threats in Idaho and beyond for progressive non-profit the Western States Center. In an email, she wrote that “both Bundy and McGeachin have exploited pandemic anxiety and instability over the last year to build political power and attract attention for disrupting democratic norms”.Herzfeld-Copple added that “they each have long histories of engaging with paramilitaries, encouraging political violence, courting bigoted groups”, and that “there’s a real danger that their campaigns will embolden extremist movements”.In March 2021, again in Coeur D’Alene, protesters, with the support of McGeachin and North Idaho Republican legislators including Scott and Moon, burned masks outside a health center. Statewide, Satz says, different elements of the far right are “working together in ways we haven’t seen before”.“They’re using Covid and becoming more aggressive and more focused. The extreme right are gaining power in Idaho, but we don’t think it will stop here,” Satz said. More

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    Four more Oath Keepers indicted for participating in Capitol attack

    Four additional members of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group that took part in the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January, have been indicted for participating in the event.Court documents unsealed on Sunday named three individuals living in Florida – Joseph Hackett, 51, of Sarasota, Jason Dolan, 44, of Wellington, and William Isaacs, 21, of Kissimmee. The three appeared last Thursday before US magistrates in Tampa, West Palm Beach and Orlando. A fourth person’s name was hidden.The four new defendants are charged with conspiring to obstruct Congress’s confirmation of the 2020 presidential election results in a joint session of Congress that was interrupted by the attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. Five deaths were ultimately linked to the attack.The four Oath Keepers are each accused of forcing entry through the Capitol’s East Rotunda doors after marching up the steps wearing combat uniforms, tactical vests, helmets and Oath Keepers insignia.The new indictment is part of a larger criminal conspiracy case that now includes 19 members of the far-right group. Members previously charged in the government’s case have pleaded not guilty.According to prosecutors, members of the group attended a 9 November meeting during which the Oath Keeper’s founder Stewart Rhodes, referred to in government documents as Person One, described the attack as an insurrection.“We’re gonna be posted outside DC, awaiting the president’s orders. … We want him to declare an insurrection,” according to documents.Prosecutors say the Oath Keepers is a loose federation of militia groups that targets law enforcement and military members for recruitment and promotes a totalitarian vision of the government that its members believes represents a threat to American citizens.Rhodes, who has not been charged, has claimed that the government is trying to build the action of a few members into an alleged organizational conspiracy. “I may go to jail soon, not for anything I actually did, but for made-up crimes,” Rhodes told Texas Republicans in March, according to the Washington Post.The new indictment alleges that Rhodes began developing plans to keep Donald Trump in office by force six days after the presidential vote. During an online meeting on 9 November, prosecutors claim, he told some of the Oath Keepers now under indictment:We want [Trump] to declare an insurrection, and to call us up as the militia,” Rhodes allegedly stated. More

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    Police records show threats to kill lawmakers in wake of Capitol attack

    Washington’s Metropolitan police department recorded threats to lawmakers and public facilities in the wake of the 6 January attack on the Capitol, according to documents made public in a ransomware hack on their systems this month.The documents also show how, in the month following the Capitol attack, police stepped up surveillance efforts, monitoring hotel bookings, protests in other jurisdictions, and social media for signs of another attack by far-right groups on targets in the capital, including events surrounding the inauguration of Joe Biden as president.The revelation of the seriousness of the threats comes amid Republican opposition to forming a 9/11-style commission to investigate the January attack, which saw the Capitol roamed by looting mobs hunting for politicians and involved the deaths of five people.The police documents were stolen and published by the ransomware attack group Babuk, and some were redistributed by the transparency organization Distributed Denial of Secrets, from whom they were obtained by the Guardian. Various outlets last week published stories based on the data showing intelligence indicating that far-right Boogaloo groups planned to attack various targets in the capital.But another collection of documents labeled “chiefs intelligence briefings” shows a broad, cross-agency effort in the days following the attack on the Capitol to identify suspects, monitor and apprehend far-right actors, and anticipate further attacks on Washington around events like the inauguration of Joe Biden and the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump.In the aftermath of the riot, the attention of police and other law enforcement agencies was focused on far-right activity on social media platforms, and especially on a group calling itself Patriot Action for America.One 13 January bulletin said that the group had been “calling for others to join them in ‘storming’ state, local, and federal government courthouses and administrative buildings in the event POTUS is removed as president prior to inauguration day”.The bulletin also noted that the agency was facing broader challenges in monitoring far-right actors on social media websites, saying that “with the shutdown of Parler it has been a challenge to track down how activities are being planned”, and that they continued to “see more users on Gab and Telegram following the de-platforming of many accounts on more conventional social media companies”.The bulletin mentions a “possible second suspect” in the placement of pipe bombs near the DNC and RNC, who was “observed on video scouting/taking photographs in advance of the placement”, who “took a metro to the East Falls church stop and took a Lyft from there”.On 12 January, a bulletin noted that a supreme court agent had noticed “two vehicles stopped beside each other” outside the court building, and that in one an older white male was “videotaping the Capitol fence line and the court”, and in the other a passenger was “hanging out the window in order to videotape the court”.A 22 January bulletin mentions that in Pennsylvania a man was arrested after “transmitting interstate threats to multiple US senators of the Democratic party”, having stated that he was “going to DC to kill people and wanted to be killed by the police”. When Pennsylvania state police apprehended him “he was in possession of a rifle, two handguns, and a large quantity of ammunition”.A later bulletin described an incident in which a man with an illegal firearm was arrested after asking for directions to the “Oval Office”, and another man’s van was searched after he was observed sitting in the vehicle while parked outside the supreme court justice Sonya Sotomayor’s house.The same day’s bulletin mentioned that Metropolitan police were cooperating with Capitol police in investigating “a number of threats aimed at members of Congress as the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump nears”.The threats continued for weeks after the attack.Almost a month later, a bulletin reported that “an identified militia group member” in Texas was claiming that if their “operation failed at the US Capitol”, there was a “back-up plan” involving the group “detonating bombs at the US Capitol during the State of the Union”.The group was not named but was described as “a large organization allegedly with members from every state, which included individuals who were former military and law enforcement”.The documents also reveal how law enforcement agencies secured the cooperation of private companies, from ride-share companies to hotels.A bulletin includes the claim that “FBI [is] working with Lyft and Uber to identify riders to and from the protest locations”.The same bulletin carries detailed figures on reservations in hotels across the capital leading up to the inauguration on 20 January, which was secured by an unprecedented mobilization of law enforcement and the national guard.Two days later, another bulletin said that “MPD’s intelligence division has conducted extensive outreach with security directors of area hotels”, who they asked to be “vigilant for evidence of suspicious activity and firearms possession by hotel guests”. 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