The New York Times recently took a stab at explaining the tea party movement to those of us not bleeding out the ears with rage over the past year of Democratic leadership. It's an interesting read, if not entirely satisfying: the writer, David Barstow, concedes: "The ebbs and flows of the Tea Party ferment are hardly uniform. It is an amorphous, factionalized uprising with no clear leadership and no centralized structure."

Barstow makes much of the individuals — many of them new to political activism — who are providing the foot soliders and, in some cases, leadership for these factions. Understandably, he only scratches the surface of the tea party ideology and its origins: "[T]he Tea Party movement that has less in common with the Republican Party than with the Patriot movement, a brand of politics historically associated with libertarians, militia groups, anti-immigration advocates and those who argue for the abolition of the Federal Reserve."

But real understanding of the tea-partiers must begin with the much older and even more fractious Patriot movement, and perhaps no one better exemplifies the connection between past and present than the Arizona man making several appearances in Ohio next month, Sherriff Richard Mack. From the NYT article:

By inviting Richard Mack to speak at their first event, leaders of Friends for Liberty were trying to attract militia support. They knew Mr. Mack had many militia fans, and not simply because he had helped Randy Weaver write a book about Ruby Ridge. As a sheriff in Arizona, Mr. Mack had sued the Clinton administration over the Brady gun control law, which resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that the law violated state sovereignty by requiring local officials to conduct background checks on gun buyers.

Mr. Mack was selling Cadillacs in Arizona, his political career seemingly over, when Mr. Obama was elected. Disheartened by the results, he wrote a 50-page booklet branding the federal government “the greatest threat we face.” The booklet argued that only local sheriffs supported by citizen militias could save the nation from “utter despotism.” He titled his booklet “The County Sheriff: America’s Last Hope,” offered it for sale on his Web site and returned to selling cars.

But then some prominent online radio hosts interviewed him, leading to so many tea party speaking requests that he is once again a full-time agitator. His "No Sheriff Left Behind" Tour swings through Ohio (including Akron) in March, courtesy of the Ohio Freedom Alliance, whose site touts the appearances by asking, "What is the role of the sheriff in preserving that liberty from an encroaching federal government? What do YOU need to know to support your local sheriff?"

Theses questions are not academic, though even the tea party neo-Patriots may not fully understand their significance.

The sheriff figured prominently in the ideology of Posse Comitatus, the granddaddy of many groups of the 1970s through the ’90s, some religious, some racist and/or anti-Semitic, some obsessed with conspiracy theories, but all sharing the conviction that federal government is at least a potential enemy. According to the extremism watchers at the Anti-Defamation League:

Members of the Posse Comitatus believed that the county was the true seat of government in the United States. They did not deny the legal existence of federal or state governments, but rather claimed that the county level was the "highest authority of government in our Republic as it is closest to the people." The basic Posse manual stated that there had been "subtle subversion" of the Constitution by various arms and levels of government, especially the judiciary. There was, in fact, a "criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice, disfranchise citizens and liquidate the Constitutional Republic of these United States."

The Posse wanted to reverse this subversion and "restore" the Republic through (1) unilateral actions by the people (i.e., the Posse) and (2) actions by the county sheriff. The sheriff, they argued, was the only constitutional law enforcement officer. Moreover, his most important role was to protect the people from the unlawful acts of officials of governments like judges and government agents.

So it was fitting that would-be revolutionary Mack lent his Patriot-circles credibility to the Oath Keepers, founded last year by 44-year-old Constitutional lawyer and former Congressman Ron Paul aide Stewart Rhodes, whose politics shatter the myth that Ivy League schools (Rhodes attended Yale) produce pointy-headed liberals. From Mother Jones:

As an undergrad, he had been fascinated by the notion that if German soldiers and police had refused to follow orders, Hitler could have been stopped. Then, in early 2008, SWAT [magazine, for which Rhodes wrote a gun-rights column] received a letter from a retired colonel declaring that "the Constitution and our Bill of Rights are gravely endangered" and that service members, veterans, and police "is where they will be saved, if they are to be saved at all!"

Rhodes responded with a breathless column starring a despotic president, "Hitlery" Clinton, in her "Chairman Mao signature pantsuit." Would readers, he asked, obey orders from this "dominatrix-in-chief" to hold militia members as enemy combatants, disarm citizens, and shoot all resisters? If "a police state comes to America, it will ultimately be by your hands," he warned. You had better "resolve to not let it happen on your watch." He set up an Oath Keepers blog, asking soldiers and veterans to post testimonials. Word spread. Military officers offered assistance. A Marine Corps veteran invited Rhodes to speak at a local Tea Party event. Paul campaigners provided strategic advice. And by the time Rhodes arrived in Lexington to speak at a rally staged by a pro-militia group, a movement was afoot.

Mack was in the crowd that day, probably because Rhodes' "movement" keeps alive the fever dreams of Mack's old friends the militia men who trained in the woods during the Clinton administration. Thanks to Glenn Beck and others, many tea party members and sympathizers are convinced that President Obama plans to ship political opponents to concentration camps. When that or some other abuse of power occurs, the Oath Keepers will be ready:

[Private First Class Lee] Pray (who asked me to use his middle name rather than his first) and five fellow soldiers based at Fort Drum take this directive very seriously. In the belief that the government is already turning on its citizens, they are recruiting military buddies, stashing weapons, running drills, and outlining a plan of action. For years, they say, police and military have trained side by side in local anti-terrorism exercises around the nation. In September 2008, the Army began training the 3rd Infantry's 1st Brigade Combat Team to provide humanitarian aid following a domestic disaster or terror attack—and to help with crowd control and civil unrest if need be. (The ACLU has expressed concern about this deployment.) And some of Pray's comrades were guinea pigs for military-grade sonic weapons, only to see them used by Pittsburgh police against protesters last fall.

… In Pray's estimate, it might not be long (months, perhaps a year) before President Obama finds some pretext—a pandemic, a natural disaster, a terror attack—to impose martial law, ban interstate travel, and begin detaining citizens en masse. One of his fellow Oath Keepers, a former infantryman, advised me to prepare a "bug out" bag with 39 items including gas masks, ammo, and water purification tablets, so that I'd be ready to go "when the shit hits the fan."

When it does, Pray and his buddies plan to go AWOL and make their way to their "fortified bunker"—the home of one comrade's parents in rural Idaho—where they've stocked survival gear, generators, food, and weapons. If it becomes necessary, they say, they will turn those guns against their fellow soldiers.

Rhodes insists that Oath Keepers does not advocate violence. But it's not clear how much control Rhodes really has over his year-old creation. (Read the entire Mother Jones article, it's fascinating.) The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups, took note of Mack's and Oath Keepers' heated and confrontational rhetoric in a fall 2009 report titled "The Second Wave: Evidence Grows of Far-Right Militia Resurgence":

"The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists; it is our federal government," Mack says on his website. "One of the best and easiest solutions is to depend on local officials, especially the sheriff, to stand against federal intervention and federal criminality. … I pray for the day that a sheriff in this country will arrest an IRS agent for trespassing or attempting to victimize citizens in that particular sheriff's county," Mack said in a video he made for Oath Keepers.

To put this into perspective, try to imagine the outrage and fury on the right if prominent liberals had spoken openly of defying government authority, with force if necessary, during the Bush years.

Phoenix New Times was there at the start of Mack's rise from local sheriff (once a Democrat) to influential dissenter. ("Mack was one of six sheriffs across the country to legally challenge the Brady Bill. But his suit was the first to lead to a decision—and that ruling propelled Mack to national fame.") In 1995, New Times examined a case that Mack seemed to bungle as he transitioned to bigger things:

When he learned of her disappearance, Mack had plenty of reasons to wonder whether Stephanie [Proffitt] had fallen victim to foul play. He chose to ignore them. He treated her abandonment in the desert as a low-priority missing-person case. …

Instead of investing time and money in a diligent ground and air search, Mack relied primarily on an Ohio psychic as a way of locating Stephanie Proffitt. On August 27, nine days after Stephanie disappeared, Graham County sheriff's investigator Charlie Morris called Gale St. John, a Toledo psychic who has a reputation for finding missing persons. … Psychics can be useful in police investigations, but they aren't typically called in until after all standard evidentiary leads are exhausted. In Stephanie's case, the psychic became the controlling factor in the investigation. …

The sheriff's department didn't subject [ex-husband Andreas] Goodrum, the last person to see Stephanie alive, to a formal interrogation for nearly seven weeks. Interrogation might be too strong a word to describe the relaxed, sympathetic interview Mack conducted with Goodrum in early October. During the interview, which Goodrum insisted be held in his trailer, Mack asked Goodrum how he "could keep taking Stephanie back after all the affairs she's had."

The woman's family learned all of this after hiring a private investigator, a former police captain, who reported that "the sheriff's department had conducted virtually no investigation." Mack's response: "He's nothing but a liar."

It's a shockingly childish response for someone who expects to be taken seriously on the national political stage. But it's also sadly typical. The video below is instructive: Mack refuses to be pinned down on anything remotely specific, retreating again and again to sweeping generalizations and paper-thin libertarian pablum. He also cynically tries to appear to distance himself (without actually doing so) from the unsubstantiated and divisive claims of his fellow travelers, like the Truthers who believe 9-11 was an inside job; the Birthers who insist Obama is not a legitimate president; and the secessionists who use these and other manufactured outrages as the pretense for gleefully threatening to plunge the nation into another civil war. Watch the interview — throughout which Mack is split-screened with footage of tea partiers carrying protest signs decorated with swastikas and the Soviet hammer and sickle and the president painted up like the Joker — and see them all for what they are: deranged, dangerous, spoiled children with no regard for the consequences of their words or actions. — Frank Lewis

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