Idaho’s right-wing political upheaval has plunged state Republicans into a political civil war that now spreads from the grassroots to the executive mansion.
In late May, the state’s Republican governor, Brad Little, angrily reversed an executive order banning mask mandates in the state that had been implemented by his own lieutenant governor who supported the military during a period in which she replaced him. .
Janice McGeachin had ordered Idaho cities and counties to revoke the mask orders, playing on a widespread fear among the far right that basic health measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic are a sign of a large government. scope. Little then called McGeachin’s action “tyranny” and a “gimmick” and screwed it up after he was in his place for just one day.
But observers say the bizarre fight is symptomatic of a much broader problem in Idaho and the rest of the United States.
They fear that the political dynamics in Idaho, where far-right actors have gained recruits and political momentum through an adamant refusal to comply with public health measures, could herald a troubling direction of conservative politics in the country as a whole. .
“Moderate politicians across the country need to pay more attention to what is happening here,” said Mike Satz, executive director of the Idaho project97, which was founded last year to combat misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Idaho used to follow broader trends, but is now at the forefront of extremist activity,” Satz added.
The mask ban was set in motion by McGeachin, a businesswoman who previously spent 10 years as a state representative for a rural district in the far east of the state. Idaho had no statewide mask ban measures, but McGeachin’s move was an attempt to prevent cities and counties from tackling the pandemic with emergency measures on their own.
The lieutenant governor won the election in 2018 after beating earlier that year in a crowded five-candidate Republican primary. Since then, he has won praise from the far right and has raised the concern of more moderate Republicans for his associations with the Three Percent militia movement.
During his career as lieutenant governor, a member of his security team sported a Three Percenter tattoo, and McGeachin declined 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 gun battle. 2014 with federal agents at Bundy Ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada.
Just a few weeks later, McGeachin led the armed protesters, including the Three Percenters, through an impromptu oath that appeared to be intended to swear them in as a state militia.
Recently, McGeachin, while appearing as a guest on extremist David Horowitz’s podcast, featured in the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that the US federal government did not legitimately own any public land in Idaho, which represents about 60% of the area. state total.
“I don’t see the federal government owning the land in Idaho, my opinion is that the land in Idaho belongs to the state of Idaho,” McGeachin told Horowitz, echoing the views expressed by people like Ammon Bundy of Idaho, 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 written off McGeachin as a serious contender 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 for the masks’ mandates have underscored divisions within the Republican party.”
She says the divisions are long-standing, and in part related to the party’s lockdown on state offices and the legislature in a state that has not elected a Democratic governor for more than 30 years, and has won large majorities for every Republican presidential candidate since The Race of Richard Nixon in 1968.
“When you have a majority for so long, you can generate divisions and internal factions.”, Kettler said, adding that the recent successes of conservative Republican candidates in winning primaries, elections or reelections have “displaced the legislature and the party to the right.”
Satz, the director of Idaho97, says that this move to the right means that the election of McGeachin, who has positioned himself as the rostrum of 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,” added Satz.
In the past year, and particularly in 2021, what has boosted McGeachin’s status among conservatives has been his support for protests against the masking and lockdown orders, which have included direct criticism of Little’s efforts to control the virus. and mandates introduced by local governments.
Satz says a number of far-right actors have taken advantage of grassroots anguish over Covid’s measures, including McGeachin, lawmakers like Heather Scott, Dorothy Moon, and Chad Christensen, and far-right actors like Bundy, and members of Christ. Church, based in the university town of Idaho. from Moscow.
According to Satz, these increasingly “violent and aggressive” protests came slowly. While there were rare and fringe protests at the start of the pandemic, protests for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder brought armed right-wing counter-protesters to the streets. That included in the northern Idaho town of Coeur D’Alene, where dozens of heavily armed men began clashing with relatively small Black Lives Matter protest groups in June 2020.
Satz said that these counterprotests began to escalate into protests against masks, and then protests against Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, which many Republicans and far-rightists falsely believe were stolen by Democrats. “They are all the same people,” he said of the makeup of the various right-wing protest movements.
Among the constant promoters of the protests is Bundy, who began early in the pandemic to characterize the mandates of the masks and the confinements as affronts to freedom.
As early as March 2020, Bundy was leading rallies in his current hometown of Emmett, Idaho, asking people to refuse mask orders. In April, he was gathering supporters to defend the arrested anti-vaccines and was a prominent participant in anti-lockdown marches at the state capitol, some of which were organized in part by the dark money group Idaho Freedom Foundation. Last August, Bundy was arrested multiple times while leading an unmasked protest against Covid measures at the Idaho state house. .
Despite being kicked out of the state house after his arrests, Bundy himself is now running to run for governor in Idaho in 2022.
Bundy was also involved in making the tone of the anti-mask protests more aggressive beginning in December 2020. In that month, the protesters managed to close a meeting of public health officials who had gathered to discuss a mandate in the region. from Boise to Address Rising Covid-19 Cases.
That protest included members of the Bundy town rights group. Bundy has reportedly encouraged members, which include a wide range of far-right activists in Idaho and beyond, to participate in training sessions on weapons and radio amateurs in cells of 10 people to defend themselves in an armed conflict with the government, which Bundy has done. hinted is an inevitability.
Now, farmers linked to Peoples’ Rights have purchased land along Oregon’s Klamath River to protest drought-related reductions in irrigation allotments for farmers.
Amy Herzfeld-Copple monitors extremism and other threats in Idaho and beyond for the progressive nonprofit Western States Center. In an email, he wrote that “both Bundy and McGeachin have taken advantage of pandemic anxiety and instability over the past year to build political power and draw attention for altering democratic norms.”
Herzfeld-Copple added that “each of them has a long history of engaging with paramilitaries, encouraging political violence, courting intolerant groups,” and that “there is a real danger that their campaigns will embolden extremist movements.”
In March 2021, again in Coeur D’Alene, protesters, supported by McGeachin and Republican lawmakers from northern Idaho, including Scott and Moon, burned masks in front of a health center. Across the state, Satz says, different elements of the far right are “working together in ways we haven’t seen before.”
“They are using Covid and they are getting more aggressive and more focused. The far right is gaining power in Idaho, but we don’t think it will stop here, ”Satz said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism