The cavernous exhibition hall at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds displays more red, white and blue than a Fourth of July rodeo in central Montana. A crowd of roughly 300 lingers near a spread of empty crockpots and cake pans, meeting new acquaintances or catching up with friends and neighbors. Most of the men sport shortly cropped hair, heavy boots and fabrics ranging from fleece to camouflage khaki. At least 20 carry well-polished handguns on their hips like a fashion statement.
Rev. Hollis Poe opens the latest meeting of the Hamilton-based group Celebrating Conservatism with a prayer, asking God to give them the strength of their forefathers so they might "preserve, save and in some cases take back those very special things you gave way back when." Poe then poses a question to those gathered: Should a pastor carry a weapon? In his view, yes–the double-edged weapon of the Holy Bible. The comment triggers scattered applause.
The stage is ringed with pots of geraniums and backed by flags from nearly every state west of the Mississippi; the Israeli flag is positioned close to the center. A large banner of a cross set over an American flag boasts "In God We Trust, In Jesus Christ We Are Saved." Racks of conservative bumper stickers—"I hate fake Republicans," "America First," "Your politician sold you out," etc.—hem the arena along with a T-shirt booth and a 6-by-10 poster of the Ten Commandments. Opposite the stage, a giant red, white and blue banner shouts "Freedom" in bold font.
Poe yields the floor to group organizer Mona Docteur, an enthusiastic southern California transplant with an obvious passion for debating American politics. The lights dim, and Docteur screens a film—The American Form of Government—reminiscent of the educational ones favored by high school history teachers. American history, government and political science converge in a 10-minute civics lesson that finishes with an ultimatum: The country can continue down its present path toward oligarchy, or return to "the Republic our Founding Fathers intended."
Docteur follows the film by leading the group in a boisterous Pledge of Allegiance and then offers a special treat. Before introducing the evening's speaker, she has some answers for the group on the ongoing troubles with the American Police Force in Hardin.
"You hear a lot of things," Docteur starts, "you see a lot of things on the Internet, you see it in the newspaper, you hear it on the radio, you hear the rumors and you get the rumors running through the e-mails, and what do you believe? Who do you trust? What information can you truly trust?"
Docteur and fellow organizers Mike Rodda and Dan Cox share their experience of traveling to central Montana in early October to question Hardin officials. They drove on their own dime and their own time, a citizen's initiative that drives home the gist of Docteur's lesson: go to the source.
"If we don't get on board," Docteur says, "if we don't start getting the facts, if we don't start using the facts against the enemy, we'll get nowhere.
"It's time for us to get out of our diapers," she continues, paraphrasing conservative talk radio host Alex Jones and drawing emphatic cheers. "I'm going to be serious with you here—we've got to grow up and get the real news. I'm sorry, but Fox News doesn't give you all the real news. It's good, but it's not the best. They give you the surface stuff. They don't give you what's really, truly happening out there."
Over the next two hours, guest speaker John McManus, president of the John Birch Society, lectures the crowd on restoring state sovereignty. He points out the flaws in the Federal Reserve System, rails against the United Nations, calls for an end to foreign aid and bashes mainstream Republicans for being too moderate. Like the video, which McManus narrated, McManus paints a bleak picture of the United States sinking into rule by an elite few.
Heads nod, voices shout from the crowd. They seem accustomed to the rhetoric, almost eager to feed off it.
Those at the core of Celebrating Conservation believe a general frustration over our country's political system is the reason hundreds flock to their monthly informational meetings. The organizers felt their friends and neighbors needed a better outlet to air grievances and learn from outside speakers how to pull the country further to the right. Indeed, Docteur was driven to local activism out of uncertainty about her own knowledge of government.
"Just a couple years ago, I felt really ignorant about politics," Docteur tells the Independent a few days later in Missoula. "I was voting as a Republican but didn't know why. So I got involved with the Republican Women's Club in Ravalli County, became president of it this year, and then decided that we needed to have a new venue because more people need to be educated on the issues and knowing why they were Republicans—actually, conservatives.
"A lot of people felt disenfranchised," she adds. "They didn't feel like they were being listened to by the politicians that are Republicans."
Docteur says Celebrating Conservatism's intent is merely to educate the public on what it means to be conservative, and to hold accountable the politicians that represent them. She says the group's inspired like-minded citizens in small pockets across the state, including Missoula, to branch out and form groups of their own. She says a growing number of people simply yearn for better answers when it comes to how our country works, and addressing those concerns is her focus.
But not everyone sees Celebrating Conservatism as an innocent gathering of like-minded, curious neighbors. Critics—including both Democrats and Republicans—openly wonder whether this new group is up to something more dangerous, or possibly laying the groundwork for Montana's next militia movement.
Docteur insists Celebrating Conservatism welcomes members from across the political spectrum. She says the group has no radical agenda, works to educate locals on state's rights and their constitutional liberties, and strives for a bipartisan atmosphere at its monthly meetings. During the Oct. 6 gathering in Hamilton, a woman approached an Independent reporter to announce her progressive leanings with a subtle, "You're not alone here."
"We're trying to erase the party line," Docteur says. "We have all parties come to our group—it's not just Republicans. We also really talk about erasing those religious lines because we want to be a group of Americans that are concerned and want to do something about moving our country forward and preserving the Constitution."
Docteur considers the U.S. Constitution to be Celebrating Conservatism's guiding document. It's what our nation was founded on, she says, and what she hopes the nation can turn back to through mass educational initiatives like the one in the Bitterroot.
"I guess I was just fed up with the government, the way they try and push the people around, over-taxing them," says core group member Rodda. "When I heard that Mona was having a celebration of conservatism meeting, she was getting started with that, it sounded like something I wanted to do. There was nothing else out there that was really doing anything other than going along with the regular program, the elected officials."
The group's goal to breakdown party lines seems to contradict the partisan viewpoint implied by the name "Celebrating Conservatism." It's a discrepancy none of the members seem quite able to explain.
"I think there's a lot of people who consider themselves to be a conservative," says Dan Cox, a well-known Bitterroot activist and core member of Celebrating Conservatism. "To tell you the truth, I'm not the type of person that really cares for labels. I think one of the reasons we used the word 'conservative' is because it's opposite of the word 'liberal,' and we're just trying to get some sort of base of people we can start educating ourselves with. A lot of people obviously don't even understand what the word conservative means. George Bush called himself a conservative."
Cox, who moved to Hamilton from Utah in 2002, is a household name in Ravalli County when it comes to challenging local government. He spearheaded an initiative to repeal the county's new growth policy last year. The initiative succeeded, much to the distress of local officials from both sides of the aisle who hoped to use enforced planning and zoning in the increasingly crowded valley.
More recently, Cox made news when he resigned as chair of the Republican Central Committee in Ravalli County over an internal dispute. He had requested that precinct committeewoman Cathy Kulonis step down after she appeared in a Hamilton parade with what he believed to be a racially charged sign against President Barack Obama that read "No Mo Bro." Kulonis refused and Docteur and Jim Thayer, state committee chairs at the time, resigned alongside Cox.
"As officers of the Republican Party we are embarrassed to have been associated with this in any way," the trio said in a statement released prior to their resignations. "We are also upset and concerned for the blemish this has created for the Republican Party as a whole."
They later stated their resignations were also due to concerns that the central committee was infested with "fake" Republicans and did not support the values they promote.
Leaving the controversy behind, Cox, Docteur and Thayer found a ready outlet for their staunch political beliefs in Celebrating Conservatism. Docteur started the group last December as an informal gathering place for anyone interested in furthering their understanding of conservative politics. She explains the idea grew from her involvement with the Republican Women's Club, where she noted a need for a wider forum.
Attendance at Celebrating Conservatism events skyrocketed from 85 at the start to 185 in late spring, Docteur says, when Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman agreed to speak. She formed 10 separate committees on topics ranging from property rights to Constitution studies, which members can attend in addition to the monthly meetings. Former state Rep. Rick Jore of Ronan followed Hoffman's speech last spring, and Docteur considers his appearance an example of how the group welcomes speakers from all political backgrounds.
"He's local," Docteur says of Jore, who's best known for advocating the addition of a "personhood amendment" in the Montana Constitution. "Someone in the group knew him personally, and he's with the Constitution Party. I thought, 'This is a good thing. Let's bring somebody in from another party to really screw up the minds of the Republicans,' which it did. It created a lot of stir, because there's a lot of party loyalists that can't quite get off of that no matter what."
The crowds at Celebrating Conservatism gradually grew to nearly 500 by the end of the summer. Docteur says the increased attendance means increased donations to help compensate speakers and pay rent at the fairgrounds, as well as expand the group throughout the state. Docteur most recently helped launch a group in Kalispell.
Missoula's version of the group, Conservative Patriots, cropped up in late spring. The latest meeting on Oct. 13 seemed more subdued than Celebrating Conservatism's more rah-rah gatherings. A modest crowd of 40 or so listened calmly to Carter Beck, a local neurosurgeon who offered a PowerPoint lecture on the ins and outs of the health care debate.
Gloria Roark, the Missoula group's head organizer, says she attended Docteur's meetings in Hamilton starting in January and felt inspired.
"There is a real need across the country," Roark says. "People are afraid of losing their freedom. We want to preserve the Constitution. I think something that's bothered me for a long time is the division. It's always an issue of race, of religion, of political parties fighting with one another. What's suffering in the end is our freedom. We've got some very, very big issues to deal with— national security, health care. And I think we're losing our freedoms, slowly, and the government is getting too large.
"It's all on the backs of ordinary working people like you and I," she continues. "I've had to come out of retirement to get a little part-time job. My husband is sick; our income is down. So it's a lot of people like you and me getting out there, rolling up our sleeves and saying, 'Enough is enough.'"
Roark grew up in Pennsylvania, where she says she and her family long considered themselves to be loyal Democrats. But over the last 40 years, both parties have evolved into something they no longer supported, she says. Now she believes the only hope is protecting constitutional freedoms and reaching across party lines. And that starts with education.
"I think when they know what we're about then they won't be threatened," Roark says of concerns about the group. "We're not out to hurt anybody. This isn't a covert operation. We want the best for our children and grandchildren, for our country. We want to get along and work together. I hope we're not a threat, because I don't intend to be in any way."
Celebrating Conservatism remains the largest and most developed of Montana's new conservative groups. When Docteur managed to land Chuck Baldwin, the Constitution Party's 2008 presidential candidate, for a speech in June and ex-Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack for July, other state organizations started to take notice—and raise serious concerns.
Mack made a name for himself in the 1990s promoting a hard-line view of the county sheriff as the highest authority in the nation. He served in Graham County, Ariz., for nearly a decade and proudly boasts he "never issued a seatbelt citation." Federal laws that infringe on an individual's personal liberties have no place in America, Mack believes, and he hardly draws the line at seatbelts. He's a strong proponent of the Second Amendment and successfully challenged the constitutionality of the Brady Handgun Control Act in 1995. He also rails against taxes and the Republican Party, and supports the constitutional right to form militias.
Mack's views connect with the ideology of extremist groups linked to the militia movement, such as the activity of radicals like the former Montana Freemen. Human rights organizations across the country also tie Mack to the white-supremacist Christian Identity movement.
Mack's Hamilton appearance confirmed the suspicions of the Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN) that Celebrating Conservatism was more than just an informal group of frustrated Republicans.
"They're not what you'd think of when you think of your mainstream Republican, pro-business, chamber-of-commerce conservative," says Travis McAdam, a 10-year veteran and executive director of MHRN. "I think they know the more exposure that's out there of the people they're bringing in, the harder it is for them to play this game of, 'Oh, we're just conservatives.' I've actually started calling them, instead of Celebrating Conservatism, 'Celebrating Right-Wing Extremism' because that's the kind of speakers they're bringing in."
McAdam says his concerns over Celebrating Conservatism stem directly from the type of conservative the group has turned to for enlightenment. He heard whispers of a new organization in the Bitterroot earlier this year, but didn't focus his attention until Mack's name came up.
"One of our members down there who went to Richard Mack's thing said that right at the beginning of his speech he made some comment about there being a lot of issues out there that people are concerned about," McAdam says. "He rattled off a list that included black helicopters, which is kind of a catchphrase of New World Order conspiracy theories. And he said, 'But tonight what I'm here to talk about is the county sheriff.' So he's definitely well versed in [conspiracy theories], and depending on the audience he'll talk a little more openly about it."
Docteur and Rodda are quick to leap to Mack's defense, saying he's been unfairly linked to extremist groups. They whole-heartedly support his views on state sovereignty. As for McAdam's concerns? Bogus attacks on Mack's reputation, says Docteur.
"He has nothing to do with the militia, and if someone reads the Constitution, the militia is in the Constitution," she says. "It's been demonized as something negative. Now I'm not saying that there aren't groups that have used it negatively, but it is something that is real and it is part of the Constitution...If people understood and weren't ignorant about words and what they mean, they wouldn't respond emotionally to that."
As Celebrating Conservatism continued its line of speakers, McAdam felt increasingly justified in his criticism. One name in particular—Jack McLamb, another former sheriff—caught McAdam's attention and prompted MHRN to issue a second, more critical media alert about the group in July.
McLamb's most notable contribution to the annals of right-wing extremism was a book published in 1992, Operation Vampire Killer 2000. In it, McLamb calls on peace officers to take a stand against an immense global conspiracy he refers to as the "New World Order." He predicted a hostile takeover of the United States would occur in 2000. When that year passed without incident, he began toning down his rhetoric.
Last year, McLamb spoke to crowds gathered at a Ron Paul rally in Minneapolis, Minn., about taking the nation back "for God and the Constitution." He called on average Americans to rise up and protect their civil liberties.
The speech—available on YouTube—quickly spiraled into wild conspiracy theories. McLamb called the 9/11 terrorist attacks an "inside job" and began talking about "red and blue lists" compiled by New World Order officials.
"If you have a red dot on your mailbox, they take you out immediately and shoot you right in the head," McLamb said in Minneapolis. "But if you have a blue dot, they take you to the FEMA camps being built by Halliburton right now to house 50 million Americans."
"Some of the little details change," McAdam says of McLamb's political philosophy. "But the overall story really has remained the same as it was back in the early 1990s."
McLamb arrived in Hamilton as scheduled in July, but Docteur says she and other facilitators had no idea "how deep the rabbit hole went" until they spoke with him in person.
"When he came, we had a two-hour conversation over breakfast," she says. "In the second hour of the conversation, things were coming out and I thought, 'Whoa, this is going to be a little too heavy for this group.' I didn't even know at that point."
Docteur says McLamb politely opted out of that night's speech, agreeing that perhaps portions of his political philosophy didn't line up with the group's beliefs. Docteur was relieved to avoid a controversial situation.
But the cancellation alleviated none of McAdam's concerns. He admits he hasn't personally attended a Celebrating Conservatism meeting, but questions anyone so willing to associate with the radical right and so quick to defend men like Mack.
"Really, it's an interesting dance that they do," McAdam says, "because on one hand I think they recognize that in order to be seen as legitimate and kind of mainstream conservative, they need to somehow be identified in public with a political party. On the other hand, most of these folks believe that there's no difference between Democrats and Republicans, that they're one and the same...You see them try to balance this public image of, 'We need to engage in the political process,' while at the same time condemning that process as being inherently corrupt, not worthy, structures that need to be destroyed because they can't be saved. So you really find what I would call their public persona, versus what they say when they're not at a community meeting with 500 people."
Since Celebrating Conservatism's meetings attracted statewide attention this summer, members of both political parties have expressed strong reservations about the group. Montana Republican Party Chair Will Deschamps says assemblies like those in Hamilton are symptomatic of the divide that's emerged within his party, both locally and nationally, over the last few years. The group's stubbornness to negotiate its positions leads to the formation of third parties, and can split votes enough to put leftist candidates in office.
"I think their fervor is good and I'd like to harness their passion, but you have a group of people that apparently I represent as the Republican Party," Deschamps says. "These people don't believe we're the Republican Party, they are. They want us to move from our position to their position, and yet we'd like them to moderate and support us. So we're at loggerheads, is the way I see it."
The handicap groups like Celebrating Conservatism place on Republican candidates is a very real threat, Deschamps says. Take former presidential candidate and current Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a man revered by members of Celebrating Conservatism for promoting smaller government and lower taxes. Ron Stoker, R-Darby, says he sees Paul as a contributing factor to party division and the rise in far-right thinking across the country.
"I don't necessarily categorize them as 'regular Republicans,'" Stoker says of the speakers at Celebrating Conservatism. "Because until Ron Paul ran in the last cycle of politics, they really didn't have a spokesperson or a leader, someone that was championing the causes that they embrace."
Several of Celebrating Conservatism's speakers have openly criticized the Republican Party as being too moderate. Docteur, Cox and Rodda argue their state legislators refuse to follow the Montana Constitution or the state's Republican Party platform. They believe the party is crumbling.
"I would say it's not conservative at all," Cox says. "To me, some of the things I've seen about the Republican Party right now, if I were to frame it up it kind of looks to me like the Democratic Party has turned into the Communist Party and the Republican Party has turned into the Socialist Party. And there isn't a lot of difference between those two forms of government."
The desire for candidates and elected officials to follow platforms and constitutional documents to the letter troubles Deschamps. Politicians have to serve the broad scope of their constituencies, he says, not just those disillusioned few.
"I think they're looking for someone that's just absolutely this perfect white knight that will ride to their rescue and never deviate," Deschamps says. "That would be fine, but that isn't the way the world is right now, nor has it been. I think there are times when you have to make allowances without giving up your core issues."
Stoker agrees that those with Celebrating Conservatism hold politicians to a stringent standard, one based entirely on their own interpretations of state and federal governing documents. They're unwavering in their expectations, he says, and for some reason view the Republican Party as their only hope, provided they can pull it "quite a bit more to the right."
"I don't see these folks going into a militia-style activity of any kind," Stoker says. "They want to hold politicians like myself and others to a constitutional interpretation that they have. The words of both the U.S Constitution and the Montana Constitution sometimes are open to a little interpretation, and if the ultra-right folks don't see that in a politician's answer, then they immediately attack."
Despite their complaints, Stoker and Deschamps see the group as a benefit to Montana politics in many ways.
"I don't have a negative concern, per se, because they are attracting people who have written off the political systems in the country and now they're taking an active interest," Stoker says. "That's good. More people that participate in the whole process, the better off the whole country and we all are."
Progressive groups paint a far darker picture of Celebrating Conservatism than just third parties and split votes. Fear and intimidation are mainstays of far-right strategy in the Bitterroot, and some believe this group is just the latest example.
To Bill LaCroix, coordinator for the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance (BHRA) and McAdam's liaison in Ravalli County, Celebrating Conservatism represents a resurrection of former radical militia thinking in the area. LaCroix has lived in the Bitterroot for 30 years and considers himself pretty middle-of-the-road in matters of politics. But he's witnessed firsthand the Bitterroot's past brushes with radicalism and doesn't want to see history repeat itself.
"It's been around for quite a while," LaCroix says. "It's evolved for sure into a more virulent form, because it never gets called for what it is. We're not having a real discussion about what's going on."
LaCroix attended Mack's speech with Celebrating Conservatism and visited the group again when McLamb was scheduled to speak. He says each time he's experienced a troubling level of intimidation, and he now favors attending with fellow BHRA member Pam Erickson. Safety in numbers is his thinking, especially when a large number of attendees are packing heat.
"Carrying guns downtown is a hostile act," LaCroix says. "I don't see how they can say they're trying to bring in all kinds of people when they're carrying guns to show what they would do to people that disagree with them...If you want to have a public discussion, maybe we should discuss what planet we should have it on first. That's kind of where it's at. They're not speaking what they mean."
Docteur says she would happily arrange a debate between McAdam and Mack if both parties were willing. But those on the left find it difficult to debate or even approach members of Celebrating Conservatism. McAdam has yet to hear Docteur's offer, but believes it isn't as easy as just having a chat.
"We went through this back in the '90s," McAdam says. "Initially we'd get into these situations back in 1990-91 where people would say, 'Will someone from the Human Rights Network come and debate John Trochmann of the Militia Montana?' In order to have a debate, there has to be some sort of agreement on what the facts are. When the world views are so different—in this case they're very conspiracy oriented and definitely have this view of the world of this imminent invasion and all our freedoms being taken away—there's just not common ground for us to sit down and say what can we agree on."
From what LaCroix has witnessed at meetings of Celebrating Conservatism, he isn't optimistic about reasonable discourse either. And that factors into his very definition of the word "conservative."
"If I can't talk and reason with someone who disagrees with me, they're not a conservative," LaCroix says. "They are, in this context, the extremists that we're worried about. They're fearful, they're uninformed, they're opinionated, they're aggressive, looking for a fight. It would be like talking to a drunk in a bar. Why do that? A conservative is somebody who's sober when you're talking to them, in a political sense.
"What's disconcerting to me is not what these people do," LaCroix continues. "It's that they get away with it...Where's the consciousness that that's not okay? They're talking insurrection."
Those with a skeptical or critical view of Celebrating Conservatism don't intend to tromp individual rights. They simply question any activity that seems on the surface to oppose civilized discourse.
"Everybody's entitled to their own opinion, I suppose, but we as a country...despite disagreements, differing opinions and differing philosophies, we've ultimately grown by people talking about their differences, arriving at a solution or direction, and willing to do what I would call public discourse with some amount of respect," says John Meakin, chair of the Ravalli County Democratic Central Committee. "My problem with the group, as an example [of right-wing thinking], is that they aren't willing to engage in any discourse. They're against change, they're against regulations, they're against government. That fringe attitude, as far as I'm concerned, is not something that's going to help this country or this county go anywhere."
Back in Hamilton, around 10 p.m. on Oct. 6, the meeting breaks with a short artistic film on the origins of the "Star Spangled Banner." The lights come up, revealing more than a few tear-streaked faces. The crockpots and cake pans slowly disappear as people head to their vehicles.
The evening's featured speaker, John McManus, greets attendees next to a table near the door, striking up the occasional conversation. Celebrating Conservatism is just one of many such groups he's seeing spring up across the country, and he applauds Docteur's efforts
"The enthusiasm and the passion is matched wherever I go," McManus says. "There were a few more [people] here. But I spoke to 10,000 people in Minnesota last year at the Ron Paul rally."
There's been little discussion of specific issues in national politics at tonight's meeting, other than some of McManus' critiques. Docteur says instead of getting weighed down in discussions that could drive a wedge between members of the group, they're sticking to common ground. That means supporting the Second Amendment, upholding the Constitution and empowering unknowledgeable locals. In other words, a whole lot of rhetoric from men like Mack and McManus.
"We're trying to dispel the ignorance, because the fear comes from ignorance," Docteur says. "If someone knows their rights and they're actually in the Constitution, why not exercise it?"
Celebrating Conservatism may be drawing negative attention, but Docteur subtly suggests that the questions surrounding the group's activities aren't all bad. First, she says the group doesn't want to stir up trouble in promoting a shift to the right, then she implies it does.
"All we're trying to do is not to be rebellious, although in order to make a stand you have to be rebellious or be perceived as being rebellious because people won't notice, they just won't," Docteur says. "So we're not going to be quiet about that anymore."
The local members of Celebrating Conservatism don't seem to care what progressive groups or Republican politicians think about their meetings. Instead, the attendees appear focused on the issues at hand. The federal government? Tone it down. State sovereignty? Build it up. The rhetoric is thick, but their worries over the direction America is headed are genuine.
"Liberty," says Cathy Hackett, when asked what issue she considers the most important in national debate. "When we have our liberty back, we can concentrate on the little stuff."