“Red Pill” Rancor
Conspiracy Fest Names Enemies, Alludes to Civil War
“We’ve gone to war before,” Hamilton’s Trish Roberts told a reporter for Lee Newspapers at the Red Pill Festival. “I don’t fear a civil war, but I feel it’s a very real possibility.”
It wasn’t surprising to hear a Red Pill attendee make such a statement. Instead, it confirmed that Roberts absorbed the messages she heard from the speakers’ podium during the 10-hour conspiracy fest held in St. Regis on Saturday, July 24, 2021. Somewhere between 150-200 people and vendors came to the event, which featured right-wing extremist speakers from Montana, Idaho, and Washington. Attendees came from the same states, with many Montana license plates originating from the Bitterroot and Flathead Valleys.
Red Pill participants heard the COVID pandemic was a hoax, that the federal government is illegitimate, and that various provocateurs (socialists, communists, Democrats, etc.) are destroying the country. While references to civil war were couched as a last resort, it was clear that revolution was on the table. Montana state Rep. Derek Skees (R-Kalispell), acting as the event’s emcee, repeatedly reminded the crowd that speakers weren’t trying to incite violence. His sarcastic delivery, however, brought to mind the Shakespearian quote that Skees and attendees “doth protest too much.” Skees also repeatedly ridiculed specific mainstream media reporters in attendance.
The level of animosity and the “us versus them” mentality built throughout the day. The early speakers discussed how their conservative Christian beliefs called them to public service. By the end of the event, speakers were claiming states could overrule the federal government and replace it with what they view as a God-ordained republic of sovereign states. The speakers combined many tenets of the anti-government movement with Christian Nationalism. It’s no wonder that Trish Roberts and other attendees left with the idea that a war with their perceived enemies in God’s name was imminent.
Despite the extremist nature of the event, Republicans were more than happy to attend. In addition to Skees, the lineup of speakers included Montana state Senators Theresa Manzella (R-Hamilton) and Bob Brown (R-Thompson Falls); Idaho state Rep. Heather Scott (R-Blanchard); and former Montana state Rep. Rick Jore (R-Ronan). Republican groups and central committees from Mineral, Missoula, and Ravalli Counties had booths at the event. The GOP presence and participation demonstrates what MHRN refers to as “margins to the mainstream,” the process by which extremist ideas end up making their way into regular political discourse. Having these elected officials on the program helped legitimize and normalize the fearmongering and conspiracies promoted at the Red Pill Festival.
Keynote by Domestic Terrorist Matt Shea
The extremist speaker headlining the lineup was former Washington state Rep. Matt Shea (R-Spokane Valley). In December 2019, the Washington Legislature issued a report declaring Shea, “participated in an act of domestic terrorism against the United States” and represents a threat of political violence. His participation in armed standoffs on behalf of the notorious Bundy Family weighed heavily in the report. In response, Shea’s colleagues in the Republican Party suspended him from the House GOP Caucus. Shea didn’t resign, nor was he removed from office, but he didn’t file for re-election in 2020.
Shea is dangerous on many levels. While still in office, he discussed surveilling people he considered political enemies, going so far as to discuss violence against them in social media chats. His use of violent rhetoric is well documented. He once distributed a “Biblical Basis for War” treatise to his followers that called for the killing of all males who didn’t follow the “Holy Army” Shea hoped to unleash.
Ramping up the hostile and antagonistic rhetoric, Shea told the Red Pill crowd that the “enemy comes to kill, to steal, and to destroy,” calling out by name Democrats, abortion, socialism, and critical race theory (a graduate-level field of study on race and systems of power that is currently under attack by conservatives). He urged attendees to be part of the movement that’s “taking ground for liberty” and “advancing the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.” Shea warned attendees that “global elitists using communism and Islam” are trying to “destroy the republic.” Shea was clear what was needed and who would carry it out:
“God-fearing, self-reliant, freedom-loving Americans fighting on their own soil for their own families, for their own communities, that’s the plan! But we gotta fight. We actually have to fight [emphasis added].”
Shea also railed against public health measures during the pandemic. He called COVID a “fake crisis.” The anti-government movement has used calculated attacks against public health measures during the pandemic as a primary recruiting tool. Shea ended his remarks by leading the audience in screaming, “FREEDOM” multiple times.
Shea also specifically called out the Montana Human Rights Network, saying that it engages in “reckless hate.” MHRN wonders if the reference was in Shea’s speech all along, or if Rep. Skees asked him to include it, because Skees knew that an MHRN staffer was present and observing the event.
Rent-a-Riot Joey Gibson & Bundy Backer Heather Scott
Joey Gibson is founder of an extremist street-fighting group called Patriot Prayer, which has frequently teamed up with the Proud Boys to coordinate violent attacks in the Pacific Northwest. In 2019, Gibson faced charges of felony riot after a brawl in Portland. Gibson is also active with Ammon Bundy’s “People’s Rights” group.
Saying it was his first time in Montana, Gibson told the Red Pill crowd that their enemies only offered “fears and lies.” He urged attendees to be proud of their extremist views even when challenged by others, saying, “Persecution is an opportunity.” Gibson compared the struggles attendees’ face with those of Jesus Christ. “When the Lord is in control, that’s real liberty,” he said. “Take back this government and give it back to the people. Amen!”
Idaho state Rep. Heather Scott (R-Blanchard) was also a featured speaker. Like Matt Shea, Scott has supported the armed standoffs perpetrated by the Bundy Family. In February 2016, she traveled to the Bundy standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon at the urging of Shea. She was part of Shea’s Coalition of Western States (COWS), a group of anti-government activists and elected officials supporting Bundy. Scott is also an avid supporter of America Redoubt, a movement to make Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and the eastern parts of Oregon and Washington into a safe haven for anti-government extremists.
At Red Pill, Scott lamented that America was becoming unrecognizable and on the verge of being lost. She also railed against public health directives and framed the pandemic as part of a larger conspiracy to destroy the country. She warned of a “plan that’s been put into place to destroy our country piece by piece, transforming it into regions of a larger global world.” Conspiracy theories about powerful international cabals trying to usher in one-world government are central to anti-government ideology. She said this plan was far more “sinister” than the impact of COVID.
Montana Lawmakers Lend Credibility
Montana state Sen. Bob Brown (R-Thompson Falls) kicked off the Red Pill’s speakers. His remarks focused mainly on how he was a conservative Christian who felt called to public service. His colleague Sen. Theresa Manzella (R-Hamilton) echoed those thoughts, then dialed up the animosity, which was also directed toward moderates in her own party.
Manzella complained that RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) were the real enemy, saying these moderates had kept the Montana Legislature from passing pieces of right-wing legislation despite the GOP having majorities in both chambers. She encouraged attendees to run for office, from the legislature down to the school board. Manzella said school board positions were the “most important position in our country today,” and right-wing activists needed to be in those offices. “This critical race theory is downright scary,” she said, mentioning her belief that German Nazis used it as the basis for the Holocaust. Critical race theory was developed as a form a legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Manzella talked about how a series of videos from the extremist John Birch Society taught her how to be a legislator. Founded in 1958, the John Birch Society fought the perceived infiltration of communists in American society, even calling Dwight Eisenhower an “agent of the Communist conspiracy.” The group vigorously opposed the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, claiming it was an effort to create a “Negro Soviet Republic” in the United States. As the Cold War subsided, the Birch Society took aim at the United Nations and became a purveyor of one-world government conspiracy theories. While many think of the Birch Society as a Cold War relic, the group is active in Montana with local chapters. The Birch Society had a booth at Red Pill and one of its regional directors spoke, in addition to the group receiving shout-outs from numerous speakers who talked about working with Birch staffers on legislative efforts.
Manzella’s celebration of the Birch Society wasn’t surprising given her extremist leanings. Calling herself a “Christian Constitutionalist,” she also invoked the need for communities to have “Constitutional sheriffs.” This idea of sheriff supremacy is a hallmark of the militia movement that claims sheriffs are the highest legitimate law officers and are charged with keeping federal and state agencies from enforcing public health measures, tax collection, firearms laws, environmental regulations, and other laws. Additionally, Manzella had associates who entered the U.S. Capitol during the insurrection on January 6, 2021.
Like other speakers, Manzella has been very supportive of the Bundys, saying she has “huge respect, admiration and appreciation” for them. On social media in April 2014, she applauded Matt Shea and the Oath Keepers for attending the Bundy standoff in Nevada. Later, she circulated links to crowd-sourcing efforts to raise money for the legal defenses of Bundy Family members.
Manzella assured the Red Pill audience that “God is in control,” and their type of Christians will win in the end. However, she told attendees that God didn’t want them to just sit back. Instead, he wanted them to take action. She reminded people that staying free from “tyranny” requires participation.
Former Montana state Rep. Rick Jore also spoke at Red Pill. In the early 2000s, Jore famously left the Montana Republican Party, because it “accepted and refuses to reject socialism.” He served a term in the Montana House representing the Constitution Party of Montana, a political party that combined right-wing Christian fundamentalism and themes of the anti-government movement. It sought to base civil law on ultra-conservative biblical doctrine, while pandering to the militia movement’s hatred of established government. As a legislator, Jore worked with the anti-Indian movement against tribal sovereignty, opposed public schools, and supported anti-government causes.
At the Festival, Jore gave what has basically been his stump speech since the 1990s. He said the Constitution subjugates the government to the people, and, when the government usurps power, the sovereignty of the people must be reinforced. He discussed his hatred for the idea that the Constitution is a living document that evolves over time. “We’ve lost our freedoms in many ways,” he told attendees, saying that self-government and the rule of law needed to be restored.
Jore’s history leaving the Republican Party and Manzella attacking the members of the GOP opened the door for remarks by Randy Mitchell, local organizer of the Festival. Following the Montana group of speakers, Skees let Mitchell address the crowd. He used the opportunity to rail against the supposed betrayals by state Rep. Denley Loge (R-St. Regis) at the legislature. “Denley is a nice guy all the time,” Mitchell stated, “but he’s only a Republican some of the time.” Mitchell announced he would be running against Loge in the 2022 Republican Primary for House District 14. Manzella, Jore, and Mitchell cemented the message that only extremist Republicans pass the Red Pill’s purity test.
Another Montanan who took the stage briefly was Far-Right political cartoonist Ben Garrison. He faces criticism that his images are racist, antisemitic, homophobic, and sexist. The antisemitic nature of his cartoons resulted in Garrison’s invitation to a White House gathering of right-wing media figures in July 2019 being rescinded. While he was too extreme for the Trump White House, the Red Pill organizers received him with open arms.
Regional Speakers Talk Armed Uprising, Saving the Republic
Outside the bigger names and Montana speakers, the Red Pill Festival featured an assortment of B-list anti-government activists from Idaho and Washington. While they are not as well-known as people like Matt Shea, they reinforced and expanded on many of the same themes.
Rene Holaday, known to anti-government activists by her “Lady Liberty” moniker and connection to American Redoubt, told attendees that the country was in the midst of a “communist coup.” Holaday, like Matt Shea, is a key organizer supporting the “Liberty State” movement, which is an effort by extremists in Eastern Washington to split the state into two entities. She served as a legislative aide for Shea before being fired in 2019 for saying supporters of Liberty State would resort to violence if necessary. “It’s either going to be bloodshed or Liberty State,” Holaday said while a Shea staffer of their efforts.
Caleb Collier, a former Spokane city councilman who now is a Regional Director for the John Birch Society, warned that that America was transitioning from a republic into a democracy because of “Cultural Marxism.” Collier identified identified public schools as a main source of the problem, as they teach children the country is a democracy. Collier exclaimed America’s white founders “despised democracy” and chose a republic form of government, as it is the “freest system of government that we could ever have in this fallen world.” He warned that “there’s one way a republic dies,” and that’s it if “transitions to democracy.”
Greg Pruett, founder of the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance, started his speech by giving a shout-out to Ammon Bundy, complaining that the media portrays the orchestrator of armed standoffs with the government in an unfair light. Sounding like Rick Jore, Pruett was recently appointed Vice Chair of the Idaho Constitution Party, saying the Idaho GOP isn’t conservative enough and is run by RINOs. Mentioning that he is a combat veteran, Pruett told Red Pill attendees that armed revolution should be the last resort, while encouraging them to fight to restore what had been lost. He was one of many speakers who tried to walk the line of denouncing violence, while using language that indicated war was inevitable. Pruett has written that his time in Iraq made him realize “that our ability to fight back against our own government was the most important right we had [emphasis in original].”
Scott Herndon, a fanatical anti-choice activist with Abolish Human Abortion Idaho, rallied the crowd with claims that individual states have the ability to ignore or overrule the federal government and courts. He told the crowd that God created civil government, and America is a republic centered on God. Herndon told attendees to demand that state officials “regain the American republic” and that the Second Amendment provides some tools to do just that. Herndon said citizens are allowed to have the same armaments as the military in order to subdue an overreaching federal government.
John Robertson is known to anti-government activists by his “John Jacob Schmidt” podcast moniker and as a leader of American Redoubt. His radio program almost exclusively promotes American Redoubt and interviews with anti-government activists. Robertson started off his Red Pill remarks by claiming that Donald Trump won the 2020 Presidential Election and that nobody has gotten COVID in the last 18 months. “COVID is another scam,” he claimed as the country faces a sharp increase in infection rates due to the Delta variant.
He supported the creation of paramilitary militias, saying they were “central to founding this country” and that community members “need weaponry to fight the government.” In the past, he’s said militias are the only way to “hold the federal supremacists back.” Robertson complained to Red Pillers that the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, are being called “terrorists.” He also called MHRN the “Human Rights Gestapo” and complained that “natural rights” from God are being replaced by “human rights.”
Speakers Have a Long History Together
While organizers of the Red Pill Festival acted as if they had organized something brand new, these extremist speakers have a history of being on stage together. In June 2020, an event to stoke anger around public health directives was held in Coeur d’Alene, ID. Called “Liberate America,” it featured nine of the Red Pill’s 13 speakers.
Similarly, Shea, Scott, Collier, and Bill Jasper (of the John Birch Society’s magazine and a speaker at the Red Pill Festival) all spoke together in Boundary County, Idaho, in September 2020. The event opposed public health measures and was called “COVID-1984 Plandemic Unmasked.”
It’s not just public events where Red Pill speakers collaborate. Mentioned earlier was Matt Shea’s use of social media to discuss violence against perceived enemies. Three other Red Pill speakers were part of those discussions: Scott, Collier, and Robertson. During the social media chats, the group frequently talked about their shared belief that Civil War was coming.
Guided by Bad History and Faulty Constitutional Interpretation
The basis for many of the statements made by Red Pill speakers were based in faulty history and misinformation about the Constitution. The bad history included both recent history and information dealing with the founding of the United States. Skees and others wrongly claimed that former President Donald Trump actually won the 2020 Presidential Election. Many Red Pill vendors catered to this notion, selling T-shirts, stickers, pins, and other items promoting the false narrative that Trump won. While Trump supporters have created something akin to cottage industry around challenging election results, Trump clearly lost.
Skees, Robertson, and other speakers also went to great lengths to equate unaccountable paramilitary militia groups, like the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, to the “well regulated Militia” mentioned in the Second Amendment. Anti-government militias are not constitutional, or even legal. The power to call out the militia only exists with the executive branch of government. As the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection states:
“A group of people who consider themselves part of the able-bodied residents referred to as members of the militia under state or federal law is not legally permitted to activate itself for duty. A private militia that attempts to activate itself for duty, outside of the authority of the state or federal government, is illegal. Groups of armed individuals that engage in paramilitary activity or law enforcement functions without being called forth by a governor or the federal government and without reporting to any government authority are acting as unauthorized private militias.”
In 1886, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment doesn’t protect private paramilitary groups, and the Montana Constitution prohibits private military units from operating outside state authority. Engaging in paramilitary training is also a felony in Montana Statute.
As referenced throughout the Red Pill Festival by almost every speaker, right-wing extremists hate democracy and believe that America was founded as a republic, often framed as given by God to America’s founders. For anti-government activists, this republic form of government makes individual states supreme and immune to the federal government. This perspective harkens back to when the country was under the Articles of Confederation, where states had almost all the power and the federal government had few responsibilities. That structure was abandoned when it became apparent that the states needed a stronger federal government, and the new structure under the U.S. Constitution was created.
The U.S. Constitution requires that states must adhere to federal law. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which is commonly called the “Supremacy Clause,” clearly states that the laws of the United States “shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” Anti-government activists, and Red Pill speakers, like to demand strict adherence to a literal interpretation of the Constitution and saving their version of the republic. However, they overlook the basic historical evolution of our country. States don’t have the ability to ignore or overrule the federal government.
A Better Way Forward
Whatever the Red Pill Festival organizers claimed, the event was designed to spread misinformation to rally and direct anger at the enemies named by the extremist speakers. The references to an upcoming Civil War ranged from subtle to blatant. That’s the worldview these agitators sell.
Whether it’s chatting on social media about attacking opponents or siding with the notorious Bundy Family, it’s clear that armed confrontation and divisiveness are the prime focus and mission for speakers at the Red Pill Festival. Unfortunately, these are the people who local organizers decided to elevate and celebrate as role models for action. As Skees told the crowd, they’re not looking for the majority of Montanans to support them, just an “irate” group of people willing to swing into action, driven by the types of conspiracies peddled at the Red Pill Festival. Local organizers have already announced the Red Pill Festival will return next year.
The week before the Red Pill Festival, a caring, community-minded event took place in St. Regis. Called “Better Together,” it was organized by Treasure State Values, a group of local community members in Mineral and Sanders Counties.
“We were stunned when we heard the Red Pill Festival was happening,” said Diane Magone of Treasure State Values. “We knew there had been a steady rise in anti-government and militia activity throughout Montana, but we didn’t want another way for local people to get so wrapped up in it. Several of us got together and decided that we couldn’t let this extremist roadshow define our community. We chose to resist these threats to our community and democracy.”
Better Together featured speakers from the area who encouraged understanding, compassion, and thoughtful conversations as the best way to address the real problems our communities face. One speaker offered techniques that can be used to create dialogue with people who hold opposing views. Another discussed previous work done in the community decades ago to address extremists who were organizing in the area. Others referenced their own religious faith as the reason they wanted to find ways to build and heal relationships with their neighbors. Treasure State Values wants to bring people together to make communities stronger, instead of tearing them down with misinformation and fearmongering.
“This is our home. This is our event. Our message of peace and justice is our story, and we’re going to celebrate it,” said Magone.
If you live in Mineral or Sanders County and want to get involved with Treasure State Values, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll get you in touch.