Idaho’s political swerve to the right has plunged Republicans across the state into a political civil war that now stretches from the grassroots to the executive mansion.
In late May, the state’s Republican Governor Brad Little angrily revoked an executive order banning mask warrants in the state that had been put in place by his own lieutenant governor supporting the militia during a time when she was in charge of him. supplied.
Janice McGeachin had ordered cities and counties in Idaho to revoke mask orders, playing on widespread fear among the far right that basic health measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic are a sign of ‘an overly ambitious government. Little then called McGeachin’s action a “tyranny” and a “stunt” and failed him after she was in place for only a day.
But observers say the bizarre fight is symptomatic of a much larger problem in Idaho and the rest of America.
They fear that the political momentum in Idaho – where far-right actors have gained recruits and political momentum through an uncompromising refusal to comply with public health measures – could portend a worrying direction of conservative politics in the whole country.
“Political moderates across the country need to pay more attention to what’s going on here,” said Mike Satz, executive director of Project Idaho97, which was founded last year to fight misinformation about the pandemic. Covid-19.
“Idaho was following larger trends, but now it is at the forefront of extremist activity,” Satz added.
The mask ban was put in place by McGeachin, a businesswoman who has already spent 10 years as the state representative for a rural district in the far eastern part of the state. Idaho had no statewide mask ban measures in place, but McGeachin’s move was an attempt to prevent cities and counties from tackling the pandemic on their own with emergency measures.
The lieutenant governor won the election in 2018 after going through an overcrowded five-a-side Republican primary earlier that year. Since then, she has received praise from the far right and raised concern among more moderate Republicans about her associations with the three percent militia movement.
During his run for vice governor, a member of his security service sported a three percent tattoo and McGeachin refused to answer media questions about security personnel. On another occasion in 2019, she posted on Facebook a photo of herself with members of the Real Three Percenters group, who were protesting on behalf of Todd Engel, who was sentenced the previous year to 14 years in federal prison for his role in a 2014 armed confrontation with federal agents at the Bundy Ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada.
Weeks later, McGeachin led armed protesters, including Three Percenters, through an impromptu oath that seemed intended to get them sworn in as a state militia.
Recently, McGeachin, while appearing as a guest on the podcast of Southern Poverty Law Center extremist David Horowitz, said that the US federal government does not legitimately own any public land in Idaho, which represents about 60% of the total area of the state.
“I don’t think the federal government owns the land in Idaho, my opinion is that the land in Idaho belongs to the state of Idaho,” McGeachin told Horowitz, echoing views expressed by fellow Idahoan Ammon Bundy, who led the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.
Even in a dark red state, until recently such associations and positions may have excluded McGeachin as a serious candidate for governor.
But Jaclyn Kettler, a political scientist at Boise State University, located in the state capital, said that over the past year, “the battles over mask mandates have highlighted divisions within the Republican Party”.
She says the divisions are long-standing and in part linked to the party’s lockdown of state and legislature-wide offices in a state that has not elected a Democratic governor for more than 30 years and which has returned a large majority for every Republican presidential candidate since The Richard Nixon Race in 1968.
“When you have a majority for so long it can lead to internal divisions and factions”, Kettler said, adding that the recent successes of conservative Republican candidates in winning primaries, elections or re-election have “shifted the legislature and the party to the right.”
Satz, the director of Idaho97, says this movement to the right means that the election of McGeachin, who has positioned himself as the platform for the hard right, is now a possibility.
“Before 2018, no one thought there was a realistic chance that she would become lieutenant governor, but here we are,” Satz added.
Over the past year, and particularly in 2021, what has bolstered McGeachin’s standing among conservatives has been his support for protests against the mask and lockdown orders, which have included direct criticism of Little’s efforts to contain the virus and warrants introduced by local governments.
Satz says an array of far-right actors have exploited grassroots angst over Covid measures, including McGeachin, lawmakers like Heather Scott, Dorothy Moon and Chad Christensen, and far-right actors as Bundy and members of Christ Church, based in the Idaho college town of Moscow.
According to Satz, these increasingly “violent and aggressive” protests have happened slowly. While there were only rare and marginal protests at the start of the pandemic, racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd have brought right-wing armed counter-protesters to the streets. This included the town of Coeur D’Alene in northern Idaho, where dozens of heavily armed men began clashing with relatively small Black Lives Matter protest groups in June 2020.
Satz said those counter-protests began to turn into anti-mask protests, and later against Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, which many Republicans and those on the far right mistakenly believe were robbed by the Democrats. “They are all the same,” he said of the makeup of the different right-wing protest movements.
Consistent promoters of the protests include Bundy, who began early in the pandemic to characterize mask warrants and blockades as slights to freedom.
As of March 2020, Bundy was leading meetings in his current hometown of Emmett, Idaho, calling on people to reject orders for masks. In April, he was rallying supporters in defense of the arrested anti-vaccines and was a leading participant in anti-containment marches on the state capital, some of which were organized in part by the black money group Idaho Freedom. Foundation. Last August, Bundy was arrested multiple times while leading an unmasked protest against Covid measures at Idaho State House. .
Despite being banned from State House after his arrests, Bundy himself has now applied for governor of Idaho in 2022.
Bundy also helped make the tone of anti-mask protests more aggressive from December 2020. During that month, protesters managed to end a meeting of public health officials who had gathered to discuss of a mandate in the Boise region to treat the then rising cases of Covid-19.
This protest included members of the Bundy’s People’s Rights group. Bundy reportedly encouraged members, who include a wide range of far-right activists in Idaho and beyond, to attend guns and ham radio training sessions in cells of 10 people in order to defend themselves in an armed conflict with the government, which Bundy has implied is inevitable.
Today, farmers linked to human rights bought land along the Klamath River in Oregon to protest drought-related cuts to irrigation allocations to farmers.
Amy Herzfeld-Copple monitors extremism and other threats in Idaho and beyond for the progressive nonprofit Western States Center. In an email, she wrote that “Bundy and McGeachin have exploited the anxiety and instability associated with the pandemic over the past year to bolster political power and draw attention to the disruption of democratic norms.” .
Herzfeld-Copple added that “they each have a long history of engagement with the paramilitaries, of encouraging political violence, of courtesy of sectarian groups,” and that “there is a real danger that their campaigns will embolden extremist movements ”.
In March 2021, still in Coeur D’Alene, protesters, with the support of McGeachin and Republican lawmakers in northern Idaho, including Scott and Moon, burned masks outside a health center. Across the state, Satz says, different elements of the far right “are working together in a way we’ve never seen before.”
“They use Covid and become more aggressive and more focused. The far right is gaining power in Idaho, but we don’t think it will end there, ”Satz said.