Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. To learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column, click here.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The Capitol takover was foretold, time and again, in the patterns of Northwest extremism

The mob’s takeover of the U.S. Capitol came with a whole symphony of echoes.

Echoes of the wildlife refuge standoff in Malheur, Oregon.

Echoes of Matt Shea’s Biblical Basis for Warfare and training of child soldiers for a culture war.

Echoes of the anti-mask protests outside the home of our health officer.

Every tragic second of Wednesday’s disaster carried distinct echoes for anyone paying attention to the history of right-wing extremism in the Northwest.

Echoes of every Freedom Fest where “patriots” are encouraged to stockpile ammo for the uprising.

Echoes of Ammon Bundy and his posse storming the Idaho Capitol – and echoes of the day, in 2018, when lawmakers in those same chambers applauded a man who aimed a rifle at federal agents during the first Bundy standoff.

Echoes of Alex Barron, the self-described “Bard of the Redoubt,” telling a Sandpoint crowd to ask themselves: “What are you willing to kill for?” – and echoes of the head of the Kootenai County GOP defending the comment as a mere “incitement to contemplation.”

Echoes and echoes.

As shocking as Wednesday’s events were, there was nothing about it that was unfamiliar – in terms of ideas, rhetoric, tactics and detachment from the factual realm – except as a question of how destructive the now solemnized marriage between the far right and the conservative mainstream would become.

All of these echoes should have served as ample warning for those politicians who thought they could invite the snake of radical extremism into their tent without poisoning the nation. They should have served as ample reason for police officials – so frequently and bafflingly soft on right-wing extremism – to defend the Capitol from an event that was preceded by a gusher of violent, revolutionary talk online and obvious incitement from the White House.

Leah Sottile, the former Spokane resident who has become the indispensable journalist covering the far right, definitely heard the echoes. What she saw was a movement that has migrated, by degrees, from the conservative fringes to the mainstream.

“It’s not just 20 people at a wildlife refuge in the middle of one of the most rural counties in one of the most rural states,” she said, referring to the Malheur standoff in 2016.

“Wednesday proved it’s not such a minority anymore.”

Sottile is a Gonzaga University graduate and former staffer at The Inlander who has done ground-breaking work on the far right. Her investigations of Western extremism in Bundyville, a podcast series and Longreads story, are revelatory. She wrote the definitive piece on the Boogaloo Boys – a strange and sometimes surprising element among the menagerie of groups that make up the alt-right universe – for The New York Times Magazine.

In an excellent essay on her Substack this week, she writes about feeling like a modern-day Cassandra – having worked so hard to bring deeply reported journalism about the complexities and dangers of these movements, only to see so many people apparently unprepared for events so clearly foreshadowed.

In the piece – which you can and should read at leahsottile.substack.com/p/6-all-bets-are-off – she writes about an interview that Bundyville producer Ryan Haas had with a Utah militia leader convicted of bombing a federally owned cabin in Arizona, Bill Keebler. Haas asked him what would happen if Trump were impeached.

“All bets are off. Take that for what it’s worth,” Keebler said. “People are wanting retaliation, they want revenge, they want payback, for a lot of things. They want retribution.”

In her Substack essay, Sotille wrote, “What happened yesterday in Washington, D.C., was something I knew could happen. There in Utah, two years ago, a man said it into the microphone Ryan was holding. I tried to get the world to notice; at one point, we even pondered if we could put out the podcast sooner, given what this man had told us. It wasn’t a secret. It wasn’t being whispered in dark corners. It was happening out in the open. A seeping, open wound.”

And yet she has been continually disappointed that more people don’t take it seriously or take concrete action to try and stop it. She reported on the bizarre spectacle last year of police officials around our region becoming convinced that busloads of antifa rioters were being sent to their communities – all while taking an incredibly blasé, and sometimes supportive, attitude toward armed vigilantes that turned up ready for battle in Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint and Spokane and many other communities.

Not everyone who parades around with a gun is going to take things further, of course. And not everyone who spouts violent, end-times rhetoric does anything more than bloviate and peacock around for attention. But more and more, the talk turns to action.

The abject failure of Capitol police this week fits a pattern. The coddling of radicals by supposedly mainstream politicians fits a pattern.

The echoes have been sounding. The deal the GOP made with this devil of a president came packaged with the deal the president made with the devil of the far right, and it bloomed into full, disgraceful, predictable expression last week – the QAnon conspiracists, the people who talk about “The Day of the Rope” for race traitors, the hoodlums hollering “our house” as they desecrated it, the furiously gullible “Stop the Steal” gang, the criminals who view themselves as patriots … on and on.

The president said he loved them.

Wednesday’s events were truly, deeply shocking – a low point in our nation’s history. But they were only surprising to those who refused to hear to the echoes.

More from this author