Lawmaker Spreads Militia-Based Spiritual Warfare Across the Region
Ever since he was first elected to the Washington Legislature in 2008, Rep. Matt Shea (R-Spokane Valley) has been a favorite speaker at right-wing events. From militia meetings to anti-choice rallies and anti-Indian conferences, if a group needs an ultra-conservative ideological firebrand, Shea fits the bill. His impassioned speeches combined with his status as an elected official make him a desired addition to any lineup of right-wing speakers.
However, until the last few years, Shea was a Tier 2 speaker in the Pacific Northwest region. Right-wing activists knew who he was, but a significant piece of his draw was his “representative” title. That changed when he actively supported the armed standoffs the Bundy Family had with federal agencies in both Nevada and Oregon. This catapulted Shea into the Tier 1 category; however, this upgraded status has also resulted in more scrutiny from the media and public.
The militia movement is part of the anti-government “patriot” movement [see inset box below]. The movement’s uber-nationalism is closely tied to other conservative, rural, white, Christian survivalist movements that are often conspiratorial, anti-Semitic, and sometimes violent. The “patriot” movement has historically had a consistent presence in the American West.
Buttressed by Bundys
The armed standoffs in Nevada and Oregon sprang from the Bundy Family’s refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the federal government. Members of the family now travel the country teaching their false version of American history, their unconstitutional sovereign citizen views as fact, and encouraging communities to follow the contentious Bundy example. The legacy of the family continues to embolden anti-government “patriots,” especially since a federal judge dismissed the charges against the Bundys for the Nevada standoff and a jury acquitted the members of the family who led the armed Oregon occupation of a wildlife refuge.
Rep. Shea actively supported the Bundys during both armed standoffs. He worked with the militia-based Oath Keepers to send a delegation of state legislators to the Bundy Ranch in Nevada. Shea compared the militia supporters engaged in the armed standoff to the colonists during the American Revolution, saying the Nevada standoff was between “freedom-loving Americans” and “Constitution-ignoring socialists.” He more actively participated in the Bundy standoff in Oregon, even funneling intelligence from the FBI to the militia members. In Oregon, he also hooked up standoff members with a Three Percent Militia activist who helped anti-government occupiers flee as law enforcement closed in on the refuge. Shea later presented this militia activist with a “2016 Patriot of the Year” award.
His active role in the Bundy standoffs elevated Shea’s status with anti-government “patriots.” No longer was he just an elected official who supported militia ideology and used his elected office to spread it. Now, Shea had used his office to rally legislator support for the Bundys, pass along intel to the militia occupiers, and help standoff participants flee law enforcement. This helped catapult Shea into Tier 1 status in the Pacific Northwest.
Shea’s support of the Bundy Family was hardly his first venture into militia circles. Echoing militia conspiracists, he’s claimed the federal government was behind the Oklahoma City bombing, which was perpetrated by militia adherent Timothy McVeigh. Shea falsely believes FEMA is constructing concentration camps in which it will imprison “patriots.” He’s spoken at Oath Keepers events and encouraged people to buy copies of militia agitator Richard Mack’s book to give to their sheriffs.
Shea has embraced many extremist ideas, not just of the “patriot” variety. In June 2016, he helped form a Spokane chapter of the anti-Muslim ACT for America, which is designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and is the largest purveyor of Islamophobia in the country. ACT for America falsely equates all Muslims with terrorists and claims Islam a political ideology, not a religion, that wants to destroy Western civilization. Shea has promoted common anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, including that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the highest levels of the federal government.
Shea in Montana
Rep. Matt Shea is not a stranger to Montana. In October 2018, he was a featured speaker at an event in Whitefish that brought together the militia, anti-Indian, and anti-environmental movements. Called “A ‘New’ Code of the West,” the conference was headlined by none other than Ammon Bundy, a member of the above-mentioned pied-piping family of armed standoffs with the federal government. Shea’s presentation at the conference claimed to reveal a sinister conspiracy theory through which various leftists are trying to destroy America. As part of this, he warned that anti-fascists are communists, and that attendees should be aware of the “deep green [conservation] menace” targeting the country.
Shea reserved his most vitriolic remarks for Muslims. Echoing ACT for America’s rhetoric that all Muslims are terrorists, Shea emphasized that the Muslim Brotherhood had a plan to destroy Western civilization. Multiple times he said the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group dedicated to enhancing understanding of lslam, was the same as Hamas, a Muslim terrorist group in the Middle East. “CAIR is Hamas,” he plainly stated at one point, and Shea bashed the City of Spokane for honoring CAIR, which he repeated was the same as Hamas.
Shea also attacked American Indian Nations. He claimed that tribes in Washington had taken water rights that didn’t belong to them, a common claim made by non-tribal members that the anti-Indian movement frequently repeats in disputes over irrigation. Shea said he was glad the state legislature later stripped those water rights from the tribes. Echoing the anti-Indian movement again, he complained about treaty rights, saying they led to constant fights and struggles over water in Washington State.
Shea also told attendees why they should support American Redoubt, an idea coming directly from the “patriot” movement. Coined by a former U.S. Army intelligence officer and self-described religious separatist, “American Redoubt” refers to making Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and the eastern parts of Washington and Oregon a “safe haven” outpost for militia members and other anti-government activists. Shea claimed this area had the least communist groups in the country, the lowest taxes, and the best gun laws. Notably, various factions of the white nationalist movement have also traditionally targeted this same region for the establishment of a white homeland for many of the same reasons. Shea did lament that it’s also an area of the country where federal control of land is the highest and where many reservations exist for American Indian Nations. To deal with one of those issues, Shea said public lands needed to be transferred to the states.
Shea encouraged New Code attendees to read Confrontational Politics by HL Richardson, saying it teaches how to fight the good fight at the community level. Richardson founded Gun Owners of America, a group catering to militiamen and other “patriots” who believe the NRA is too soft on gun issues. The group’s longtime leader, Larry Pratt, avidly supports militias and was forced to leave his role as co-chairman of Pat Buchanan’s 1996 presidential campaign due to his connections to militias and white nationalists.
Alluding to the Bundy Family, Shea told attendees he was tired of “innocent Americans” going bankrupt “defending themselves” from the federal government. He also incorrectly stated that America is a “Christian Nation” and anyone denying this is a liar. He encouraged attendees to not be ashamed of the Christian culture and history of this country. Shea stated he’s never afraid to work for extreme right-wing ideas, because he has Jesus and the right to keep and bear arms on his side. “People who love freedom are only extreme to those holding the shackles,” he told the rapt audience.
The Code of the West event wasn’t Shea’s only appearance in Montana. Back in 2011, he spoke at the Preparedness Expo sponsored by a militia group, The Flathead Liberty Bell. The group’s name came from a militia strategy of forming phone and text trees that would rally militia members to intimidate law enforcement during situations like traffic stops. At the Preparedness Expo, Shea shared the podium with “patriot” preacher Chuck Baldwin, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, and militia agitator Richard Mack.
Rep. Matt Shea is experiencing the downside of his elevated profile following the Bundy standoffs. Over the last year, investigative reporting by The Guardian and The Spokesman-Review has publicized his right-wing activism and caused him to lose his leadership position in the Washington Republican Caucus. The Washington House of Representatives recently announced it hired an independent investigator to determine if Shea has promoted political violence against his perceived enemies or worked with people or entities who have.
The basis for the investigation is a 2017 online chat in which Shea participated that came to light in April 2019. Shea engaged in a discussion about carrying out surveillance, intimidation, and even violent attacks against perceived leftist enemies. The online group also talked about what they felt was an imminent civil war. Spokane County’s Republican sheriff, Ozzie Knezovich, stepped up like he has before to criticize Shea. “I think if a state representative is condoning violence against his constituents then that person needs to be removed from office,” he said regarding the online chat. “Matt Shea is a poor representative for the Republican Party.”
The online chat wasn’t the only troubling piece to recently surface about Shea. Back in October 2018, the media reported that Shea wrote and distributed a manifesto called Biblical Basis for War. It describes God as a “warrior” and outlines the strategies to create a “Holy Army” that could be used by Christians to help stop abortion and same-sex marriage. One section makes a chilling statement about how to deal with people who flout “biblical law,” saying, “If they do not yield – kill all the males.” In addition to his manifesto’s chilling content, press coverage about it also examined his relationship to followers of Christian Identity. Christian Identity, the religion of groups like Aryan Nations, teaches that Jews are the literal children of Satan and people of color are sub-human “mud people.” Shea acknowledged he wrote Biblical Basis for War but disputed the way the media characterized it.
“The document Mr. Shea wrote is not a Sunday school project or an academic study,” stated Spokane County Sheriff Knezovich. “It is a ‘how to’ manual consistent with the ideology and operating philosophy of the Christian Identity/Aryan Nations movement and the Redoubt movement of the 1990s.” The media asked Sheriff Knezovich if he thought Shea was a white nationalist. While he said he didn’t know, Knezovich pointed out that Shea “does hang out with a whole bunch of people who are in that sphere.” The sheriff reported he had turned over a copy of the manifesto to the FBI.
While Shea tried to downplay the intent of his Biblical Basis for War, a similar issue came to light in August 2019, when it was revealed that Shea supported a group called Team Rugged that trained children, teens, and men in their early 20s for religious combat. An e-mail by Team Rugged’s leader stated his group trained young men to “fight against one of the most barbaric enemies that are invading our country, Muslims terrorists.” Communication didn’t go just one way. Shea has filmed interviews with Team Rugged trainees and appeared in other videos promoting the group. He also provided money to Team Rugged from his 2018 campaign.
Criticism of Shea
As Shea’s profile has grown, so has criticism of his dangerous views. A former Shea supporter told reporters that the lawmaker and his allies are focused on deploying “the sheer use of raw power and fear” to implement their “spiritual ideology that only Christians should lead” America. He said these efforts are “dangerous.” Similarly, Sheriff Knezovich warns that Shea has been building a political machine to take over local governments. When people try to hold Shea accountable for his actions, Sheriff Knezovich said they are “immediately demonized, hounded and harassed.”
A perception problem isn’t the only drawback for Shea due to increased scrutiny. He has also lost political donors, and he is no longer the chair of the Washington Republican Caucus at the legislature. Watchdog activists have started a website to continually inform community members about Matt Shea and hold him accountable. Shea’s increased profile due to his pro-Bundy activism has resulted in a consistent effort to chip away at one of his defining characteristics – his title of “representative.”
Perfect Example of “Margins to the Mainstream”
Rep. Matt Shea is a regional example of a dynamic MHRN calls “margins to the mainstream,” which refers to how extreme right-wing beliefs that should be confined to militia and white nationalist circles find their way into, and influence, the political mainstream. Shea personifies this idea. It’s practically impossible to find a right-wing conspiracy theory that he hasn’t promoted.
Shea’s impact comes from using his status as a legislator to promote anti-democratic ideas that target certain constituencies in our communities. When it comes to Shea, these ideas aren’t just being promoted by some right-wing podcast struggling to find an audience on social media. Instead, they are coming from a legislator who has been elected multiple times and, until recently, held leadership positions in the Republican Caucus at the legislature. That provides a level of credibility to which most people spouting these ideas can only dream. It also normalizes these divisive ideas and attacks on perceived enemies.
Matt Shea is a public official targeting certain segments of the community with nasty rhetoric and allusions to violence. At the same time, the people he chooses to support and work with are engaging in armed standoffs with federal agencies and planning to purge anyone who isn’t the “right type” of Christian or “patriot” from our communities. Neither of these represent democratic values or ways to create healthy communities. Shea has no interest in governing through bringing people together to solve the real challenges that communities face. Instead, he’s about dividing and conquering in the name of an extreme agenda. He continues to spread that agenda throughout the Pacific Northwest, which mean the problems posed by Shea are not, and never really have been, confined to his district in Washington State.