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Shawn Vestal: Even as the community denounces them, Idaho’s wingnuts create a quiet welcome for racists

FILE - Republican Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin addresses a rally on the Statehouse steps in Boise, Idaho on Sept. 15, 2021. Idaho Republican Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin and Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene were among the speakers at a white nationalist gathering in Florida. McGeachin delivered a taped speech to the America First Political Action Conference on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022, while Greene appeared in person.  (Keith Ridler)

A group of neo-Nazis is planning a gathering in Hayden Lake this weekend.

Members of the community have been quick to denounce it, and we can hope for a robust demonstration against it from decent, good-hearted people.

But that will not be the only message received by the racists about their state of welcome.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Idaho’s lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, participated in a white nationalist event sponsored by a Holocaust denier who praised Putin and compared him admiringly to Hitler.

The muted reaction to McGeachin’s decision to lie down with flea-ridden dogs – even as the wingnut wing of her party is in full roar at the Statehouse – sends signals to the racist picnic planners that are every bit as clear as the formal denunciations.

Nazis are accustomed to official disapproval, after all. They expect, and probably even enjoy, the spectacle of liberals, mainstream conservatives, the business community and human-rights organizations letting them know they aren’t welcome.

But what about the hints that they are? What message do they receive when they read between the lines of Idaho legislative politics – the efforts to mandate simplistically pro-white education or criminalize librarians?

Or when they note that the Kootenai County GOP endorsed and continues to support an antisemitic blowhard for the Post Falls school board? Or when they hear the news – as reported in the Coeur d’Alene Press – of the nutty plan by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee to infiltrate the local Democratic Party and install that antisemitic blowhard, David Reilly, as the faux party leader?

Or when they hear the following words from Idaho’s second-highest elected official delivered to an event organized by Nick Fuentes, the former podcasting partner of James Allsup and a sneering bigot who called Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “the coolest thing since 1/6”?

“Congratulations on your third annual event, and keep up the good work fighting for our country,” McGeachin said in her recorded remarks for the conference. “I thank you all for your efforts, I thank you for joining our efforts, and together we will fight to make Idaho great again.”

What do they think she means, exactly, by “great”?

I’ll make what seems like a safe guess: They think, correctly or not, that McGeachin’s idea of what would make Idaho great is very similar to their own.

And they want to “Keep Idaho White.”

McGeachin’s dumb, bizarre tenure as lieutenant governor has been one embarrassment after another. From her efforts to ban vaccine mandates when Gov. Brad Little left town for a few days to her circus of an education “indoctrination” task force, she has been an albatross around the necks of those public servants who actually want to help the citizens of their state.

But as she prepares her Trump-endorsed run for governor, the leaders of her party have found themselves unable, or unwilling, to unhitch themselves from her wagon. And after she embarrassed the state with her remarks at the America First Political Action Conference, GOP leaders were slow to say anything at all and tepid in what they did say.

Three days after the event drew national attention over the participation of Marjorie Taylor Green and Paul Gosar, Gov. Brad Little issued an anodyne statement decrying racism. It read like something he might issue on Martin Luther King Day; McGeachin’s name was not in it.

“It is extremely unfortunate anyone in elected office in Idaho must make statements like these,” Little posted on social media. “But let me be clear – I fully reject racism in all its forms.”

Idaho’s GOP Chairman Tom Luna made a similar comment: “White supremacy, antisemitism, bigotry, and neo-Nazism are reprehensible and have no place in the Idaho Republican Party.”

Nationally, on the other hand, there were many more forceful, direct disavowals of Green and Gosar from GOP leaders, including the sharpest, most accurate one from Mitt Romney, quoting “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid:” “Morons. I’ve got morons on my team.”

No such clarity or force was forthcoming from Idaho’s conservative leaders. Naturally, human-rights organizations and progressives spoke up with full voices, and good for them. A roster of faith leaders from around the state – including, I was overjoyed to see, a pastor from my hometown of Gooding – called for McGeachin to step down, saying she is not fit for office.

McGeachin, like any good extremist, doubled down and whined about “guilt by association” – a strange claim to make in the world of politics, which is built upon associations.

Idaho is not the only place where racists show up and make trouble. It happens in Spokane and around Washington, too, though our Legislature is not engaged, thankfully, in the white-grievance backlash against schools and libraries.

But these guys did not draw names from a hat when they planned an event called “Keep Idaho White.” And it’s no mystery which party that strategic racists look to for cracks in the foundation where they can invade and infest.

Even as the decent, good-hearted people of Kootenai County do what they can to make them feel unwanted, the actions of the lieutenant governor and her party’s wingnut caucus are quietly, subtly rolling out the welcome mat.

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