ST. REGIS, Montana—The gathering of 200 or so people Saturday at this small timber town’s community park spent the day reveling in a familiar array of far-right conspiracy theories and disinformation: America is now under the control of a “communist coup,” Donald Trump was cheated out of the presidency, the COVID-19 pandemic is a “Deep State” operation intended to enslave the world, vaccines are “poison,” public schools indoctrinate children into Marxist beliefs, and the U.S. is not a democracy, but simply a republic.
But the Red Pill Festival, as its organizers dubbed the event, intended to draw likeminded conspiracists from around the region—including Idaho, Washington, and Oregon—wasn’t merely the usual gathering of dubious fringe characters. Mainstream Republican officials—including several currently serving lawmakers, as well as former Washington state legislator Matt Shea—were featured speakers, while the Mineral County GOP had a booth at the front of the event. It had the look and feel of a mainstream conservative Christian gathering—and given the radicalized state of the post-Trump Republican Party as an antidemocratic entity, that may have been the reality.
The festival, which ran all day under smoke-filled skies and 90-degree heat, offered a window into the alternative universe of far-right conspiracy theories. But these theories weren’t merely being peddled by speakers and groups such as the John Birch Society from their festival booths—rather, it was clear that for the audience drawn to the gathering, they were already articles of faith among them.
“Do all of you believe or recognize that we are in a communist coup right now?” asked speaker Rene Holaday of the far-right secessionist group American Redoubt, one of the festival’s primary organizers and promoters.
“Yes!” the audience replied unanimously.
Shea, the featured speaker, recognized that he was speaking to an audience that had already swallowed the far-right “red pill” the gathering was meant to promote.
“The technocrat global elitists are using communism and Islam to destroy the republic, okay?” Shea said. “You guys have heard all that. I don’t need to talk to you about that today. What I want to talk to you about today is they are trying to destroy the republic. That operative word is trying, because they will not succeed.
“I don’t care if the tyranny comes from London!” he continued. “We beat that tyranny twice. I don’t care if the tyranny comes from Washington, D.C. Americans will not lose the fight for liberty. That’s what makes us Americans!”
The spread-out, leisurely feel to the gathering helped emphasize the sense of normalcy. About 20 booths set up around the lawn hawked conspiracy theories, let you take a photo with a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump (“Our leader in exile” and “The real president”), or buy T-shirts from the far-right street-brawling group Patriot Prayer, whose founder, Joey Gibson, was one of the day’s featured speakers.
Another booth hawked an array of pro-Trump banners and flags (including the yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” Gadsden flag), stickers (“2020 Was Rigged”) and ballcaps (including an array of Trump 2020 ballcaps stamped “Fraud,” “Stolen,” and “Rigged”). One Patriot entrepreneur from Yakima, Washington, brought a mobile kitchen trailer for his business, Minuteman Coffee, from which he sold iced drinks that proved popular over the course of the long hot day.
There was also a raffle. One of the more coveted prizes was a signed copy of G. Edward Griffin’s conspiracy-theory tome, The Creature from Jekyll Island.
In addition to the long list of speakers, the day’s entertainment included a couple of musical acts: an evangelical Christian rock band that favored songs about biblical characters, and “Patriot” songwriter Jordan Page, who performed songs about the Constitution and patriotism, as well as one dedicated to far-right martyr Robert “Lavoy” Finicum.
The speakers all emphasized the widespread sense among the gathering that they collectively represent the “real” America, and that their beliefs were shared by the majority of their communities. Accompanying that was a shared visceral contempt for their critics and the news media, who were regularly denounced as “propagandists” for the “communists.”
Montana legislator Derek Skees of Kalispell, who acted as the day’s master of ceremonies, seemed particularly obsessed with the presence of a crew from Vice News led by reporter Vegas Tenold. Referring sneeringly to them as a pack of hapless New Yorkers, he told the audience that they planned to go back to their offices and paint a portrait of the festival as a gathering of violent racists—and then repeatedly asked the audience if a previous speaker had encouraged them to be violent or racist.
Skees also coached the audience: “So when they pull you aside and they interview you and they talk to, have one of your friends take their phone and film them. Because they have a guy that works for them called an editor, and that guy’s gonna weed out everything you said that was truthful, and include things like “battle” and “freedom” and thing that they think is against freedom.”
Then he added: “Hey, we love them here. Because we might actually make them think about what we’re saying, and they can walk away freedom-loving Americans instead of card-carrying Marxists.”
Later on, Shea made a point of encouraging people to confront journalists. “We need to ask these reporters. I want everybody, when we’re done here, I want everybody to go up to those reporters, turn your phone on, and I want you to ask them that question,” he said. “I want you to ask them, do you denounce antifa? Will they denounce critical race theory? I want you to go down the list. Ask them. I’ve gotta tell you something, they’re not reporters. They’re propagandists. And they need to be held accountable for it.”
Among the conspiracy theories indulged by the speakers, to broad approval, were those involving the COVID-19 pandemic that have been durably popular with far-right extremists. Republican Idaho legislator Heather Scott’s speech revolved around it.
“The tyranny and oppression that I have witnessed over the past 16 months is unbelievable,” Scott said. “The West just doesn’t even look like the West anymore. America doesn’t look like America anymore. And we seem to be losing on every single front.
“Was this all brought on by a virus with a 99.7% recovery rate?” she asked, to which the emphatically responded: “No!” Scott shook her head and continued: “There’s definitely something more going on. And you know, it appears that there’s a plan that’s been put into place to destroy our country piece by piece, transforming it into regions of a larger global world. We witness it daily.
“We’re not fighting the COVID virus, but something way more sinister. And if we don’t start diagnosing the right disease affecting our country, we’re going to waste our time and energy with the wrong treatment.”
[Fact check: In reality, the global recovery rate from COVID-19 is 90.85%, which has resulted in 4.15 million deaths around the world.]
Shea called the pandemic a “fake crisis,” claiming: “We don’t need face diapers and guidelines. We are Americans.” He then took a deep breath and said: “I love breathing the free air, don’t you?”
Joey Gibson—who mostly spoke about engaging in “spiritual battle”—continued in the same vein. “We’ve got people afraid of a virus that just barely doesn’t even kill anybody, okay? That they’re willing to give up everything. All their freedom. All their liberty,” he said.
“You guys know that barely any children die from COVID under 18, right? You guys understand that? That’s the science, okay? It’s true. But yet we have people so afraid of this virus that they’re going to inject their children with a vaccine that’s never even been tested. Right, right? Because people are so afraid.”
[Fact check: The COVID-19 vaccines all have undergone rigorous three-phases testing.]
Gibson concluded: “So what I’m saying is if we as a nation—you guys in Montana, us where we’re from—if we as communities begin to truly put our faith in God, then we can truly do liberty or death. Which means we’re going to stand on principle. We’re not going to give up for anything. We’re not going to allow fear to run our lives anymore. We’re going to take back this government to give it back to the people. Amen?”
Other speakers were clear about in whose hands they believe the government now rests: “communists,” “Marxists,” “globalists,” and “socialists.” Some referenced discredited conspiracy theories promoted by Trump after the election about Dominion software being used to commit voter fraud in 2020.
“I mean, we are fully aware as to the history of communism and communist takeovers. Look at Venezuela, as far as what happened there,” said Holaday. “They even used Dominion voting systems to unseat all, everything down there. And so we are looking at nearly an exact duplicate happening in the United States right now.
“So what do you do when your president can no longer communicate with the nation? What do you do when he’s been unseated? And what do you do when the communists basically have a fence around our Capitol?”
Montana legislator Theresa Manzella warned the audience that children were being indoctrinated in critical race theory by educators, adding that “the Jews in the Holocaust were the victims of CRT, which wants to divide us all into these subgroups.”
Scott similarly raged about the education system: “The government-run schools continue to come for our children. How many people know someone who has kids in government-run schools? [nods] They continually indoctrinate our kids with Marxism, pedophilia, and other perversions in our libraries, and we are silent because it’s convenient,” she said.
“No child should be in government schools anymore,” Shea told the audience, to loud applause. “If they depart from God, we depart from the government schools.”
Caleb Collier, a former Spokane city councilman who now heads up the regional John Birch Society, explained to the audience, amid eager nods, that a fundamental thing public schools teach children is wrong: America isn’t a democracy but simply a republic.
“We’re not a democracy! We’ve never been a democracy! Our Founding Fathers despised democracy! They had a clean slate. They could have given us any form of government—monarchy, democracy! But they chose a republic for a very specific reason, and it’s because republic is the freest system of government that we could ever have in this fallen world,” he said.
[Note: This will probably come as news to people in the People’s Republic of China or various Islamic republics around the world, not to mention former citizens of the various Soviet Socialist Republics.]
“We have got to educate the masses on the difference between these two political ideologies,” he continued. “Because it makes all the difference in the world. Because, do you know how a republic dies? Throughout history, there’s one way a republic dies. A republic transitions to democracy. Democracy transitions to anarchy. And anarchy always results in some type of totalitarian government.
“Portland is a great example. They’ve convinced the people that we live in a democracy, and now they have injected anarchy. BLM, antifa, cities like where Joey Gibson’s at, are burning. They’re being looted. Anarchy is reigning in certain areas—Detroit, D.C., I can go on and on. And from there, they will transform into socialism. Are you all ready to live under socialism?” The audience shouted in chorus: “No!!!”
Collier told the audience that the attack on the republic is predicated on “cultural Marxism,” which he said is “designed to divide us. It’s designed to divide Americans so that we’re not facing the real enemy. But it’s also an attack on natural law.”
While most of the speakers reveled in QAnon-cult-style conspiracist rhetoric—several referenced a “Great Reset” now taking place—Shea also departed from the cult’s insistence on depending on Trumpian forces behind the scenes.
“There is a psychological operation going on right now that some patriots are buying into, and I want to crush it right now,” he said. “It’s the idea again that we just need to ‘trust the plan.’ I’m gonna let you in on a secret, you guys ready? We are the plan! We are the plan! WE ARE THE PLAN!!!”
The real plan, according to Shea: “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.”
And while Shea claimed that he and his fellow “Patriots” are all about tolerance and free speech (“If somebody censors opposing speech, you should reject that,” he said, apparently overlooking other speakers who demanded that schools ban critical race theory), he launched into a tirade against his critics, particularly the Montana Human Rights Network, claiming they engage in “reckless hate.”
He wrapped things up with a red-faced rant worthy of Braveheart:
When you leave here tonight, answer the question yourself: What will you do for liberty? What will you sacrifice for liberty? What will you give for liberty? I’ve heard too many people say, “I can’t do that because my business might go under.” “I can’t do that because I might lose my position.” You won’t have a position, you won’t have a business, you won’t have a family or a church or a community, until we stand up right now!
And so my question to you right now is: Who will stand with me? Who will stand with me tonight? Stand on your feet right now, and I want you to shout one thing with me—one thing, because I want this to echo through the cameras and make them vibrate, all right? FREEDOM! FREEDOM! FREEDOM!”
He then smiled and finished: “And that’s what it feels like to be an American.”