‘They scare the politicians’: How the Patriot movement’s extreme views found a home in the GOP
Rob O’Dell, and Richard Ruelas, Arizona Republic
The Patriot movement was once at the very fringe of the Republican Party.
Its initial ambition appeared to be publicly taunting its enemies while streaming video of those encounters to fellow members via social media. Influencing the Republican Party wasn’t on the agenda. In fact, party leaders like Gov. Doug Ducey initially denounced the group.
But as President Donald Trump has reshaped the GOP in his image, that dynamic has changed.
People who call themselves Patriots were aiming for positions up and down the ballot in this year’s election cycle, running for Congress, state legislative seats and school boards.
Patriots have been behind policy debates, including battles against sex education, protecting gun rights and reopening the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That rise has alarmed some old-school Republicans who see the party abandoning its traditional conservative roots as it embraces a more conspiracy-minded and divisive politics.
The Arizona Republic reviewed thousands of posts and comments from a members-only Patriots Facebook page and found some Patriot ideas spring from an uglier mindset. For more than two years, hundreds of Patriot Movement AZ members used the social media platform to discuss their activities and share racist, Islamophobic and conspiracy-minded content.
Jennifer Harrison, a co-founder of that group before starting a splinter group, AZ Patriots, said the Republican Party is dependent on the energy of the Patriots.
“Republicans need to acknowledge the fact that the Patriots are the ones that are on the front lines,” Harrison said in an interview. “We’re the ones that can rally the people together. We’re not the stuffy establishment type that votes once every election and that’s the end of it.”
One video on the group’s members-only Facebook page showed how the Patriots have elbowed their way to relevance in the Republican Party.
After attending a Steve Bannon rally in Tucson in November 2017, Patriot leaders Harrison, Lesa Antone, and RJ Jaffe talked after the event about how they were able to take a picture with the former top Trump adviser.
Antone said she wanted a photo with Bannon so bad that she “pushed about 15 people out of the way” to reach him, alarming Bannon’s security. But Bannon’s security calmed down when Kelli Ward, chairwoman of the state GOP, said the Patriots were with her.
“When Kelli knew who we were, then Steve Bannon’s security kind of laxed up a little bit,” Antone said.
Harrison said she, Antone and Jaffe posed with Bannon. Ward took the picture.
Ward, through a spokesman, declined a request to discuss the Patriot movement.
The Republican Party has always had a right flank pushing the party in that direction, just as the Democratic Party has had a progressive wing pushing to the left.
But the Patriot movement has an urgency and energy distinct from those movements. The group’s conspiratorial thinking frames political issues in a life-or-death narrative.
A debate over sex education curriculum devolves into accusations that Democrats will use the plan to groom children for pedophiles. A trade policy is treated as evidence of liberals wanting to sell out the country to foreign interests, harming the nation’s sovereignty. Some embrace thefalse QAnon conspiracy theory that casts Democrats as doing the bidding of globalists in order to shield their perversions, including — literally — eating babies.
Some Patriots in the Facebook group reviewed by The Republic talked romantically about the possibly of defending the country through violence and how they are preparing for a coming civil war.
“This movement you see happening, it’s fighting for the very fabric of what America is,” said Marko Trickovic, a member of the closed Patriot Facebook group.
Trickovic said at precinct meetings he grew frustrated when fellow Republicans brought up pedestrian issues such as the reach of homeowners associations.
“Our country’s dying and you’re talking about HOAs,” Trickovic said.
Jeff Flake, the former U.S. senator who opted out of running for reelection in 2018 after sparring repeatedly with Trump, said the Republican president has elevated fringe groups like the Patriot movement.
“This is a problem: fringe elements having greater sway within the party,” Flake said.
There have always been extremists, Flake noted, but earlier leaders excommunicated such elements from the GOP, as Sen. Barry Goldwater and William Buckley did with the John Birch Society in the 1960s.
Under Trump, those types of movements are embraced, Flake said.
“That means when you have movements like QAnon and others, they are more significant because they have people in high office who will use them or agree with them,” Flake said. “Instead of being divorced from the party, they are welcomed.”
Paul Bentz, senior vice president at the political consulting firm HighGround, said the Republican Party has accommodated Patriots out of necessity. Bentz said the party has invested in voter registration efforts in rural Arizona in an effort to replace suburban Phoenix women who voted Democratic in the last election.
“They’re forced to feel out and react to that base,” Bentz said. The Republican Party is “not a big group of people anymore,” he said.
Bob Worsley, the millionaire founder of SkyMall, entered politics as a Republican state lawmaker and clashed with the far-right wing of his party. He ousted hard-right former state Senate President Russell Pearce in the 2012 primary. Pearce had authored Senate Bill 1070, the “show me your papers” immigration law.
Worsley said party leaders like former Sens. John McCain and Flake and U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney pulled the party toward the center after Republicans lurched to the right on immigration.
They were able to beat back an “extreme” takeover of the GOP, he said.
“But Flake’s gone. McCain’s dead. I’ve retired. Mitt is in Utah,” Worsley said. “I think it’s very difficult to hold the party from going further right, especially with Trump in … the White House.”
Patriots said they have embraced a rigid politics that allows little compromise, given the dire consequences should the opposition get the upper hand.
“What motivates me is I see the Constitution being shredded daily,” said Steve Daniels of north Phoenix, who prefers the label Constitutional Conservative to Patriot, a term he said has been tarnished by some actions done under that name.
Daniels was a disgruntled Republican who registered Libertarian before switching back to vote for Trump in the 2016 Republican primary.
Since then, he has run for the Paradise Valley Unified School District board, served as a Republican precinct committeeman and was chief strategist for Daniel McCarthy, who ran in the GOP primary against U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, whom many Patriots viewed as the establishment candidate.
Daniels, who was not a member of the Facebook group but said he considers himself a member of the Patriot movement, said the Patriots are disenchanted with old-guard Republican politics.
No less than 13 members of the closed group have held or ran for elected office, including at least six 2020 candidates. One was running for mayor of Phoenix.
More than 30 members of the closed Patriot Movement AZ Facebook group have become Republican precinct committeemen, hoping to shape the party from within.
At least nine have held official leadership positions within the Arizona Republican Party. One co-founded a statewide college Republican group. Another was awarded activist of the year by the Pima County Republican Party.
Officials from the Arizona Republican Party declined requests to comment.
Patriots have also shaped policy.
Members of the closed Facebook group formed Purple for Parents, a group intended to counter the influential Red for Ed movement that supported teacher pay raises. The group organized conservatives to oppose comprehensive sex education in public schools.
Others were key in pressing six Arizona counties to pass resolutions declaring support for the Second Amendment.
And Patriots were key organizers of protests that pushed Ducey to reopen the state in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Daniels helped organize rallies at the Capitol to reopen the state. Daniels, on an internet talk show, suggested mandates requiring masks during the pandemic were a trial run by the government to gauge how compliant citizens would be to other rules restricting their freedoms.
“When we see a Republican governor and Republican mayors acting the way they have been, it really makes people wonder: What is a Republican?” Daniels said. “And are they aligned with our ideals?”
Ken Crow, a Texas political consultant who was influential in formation of the Tea Party movement more than a decade ago, said the Patriot movement subsumed the Tea Party in 2016 when Sen. Ted Cruz, the Tea Party’s favored candidate, lost to Trump in the Republican presidential primaries.
Crow said Patriot members, like members of the Tea Party before them, “operate emotionally, not out of political logic.”
That means they back candidates who pass the movement’s purity tests but have no real chance of winning elections, he said. A candidate has to tone down the Patriot rhetoric to have appeal outside the movement’s rigid mindset, Crow acknowledged.
This year, Crow guided the campaign of a right-wing congressional candidate in Michigan who once wrote a paper comparing Democrats to Satan worshipers. Crow coached the candidate on ditching that language in favor of talking about values.
Point out, he said, that Democrats favor abortion, hiking taxes and kneeling during the national anthem. “We’re not calling them Satan worshipers,” he said. “We’re just pointing out what’s in their platform.”
Crow’s candidate, Alfred Lemmo, lost his Republican primary in August.
Robert Graham, who was head of the Arizona Republican Party from 2013 to 2017, said COVID-19 shutdowns and stay-at-home orders have sent growing numbers of newly minted activists flocking to the Patriot movement.
“They may not know exactly what to say or how to address what they’re feeling,” Graham said. But they say they are “here to put up my dukes to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
Graham said he has witnessed Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment from some Patriots, both in-person and online. But, he said, it’s a small share of group members. Most, he said, just want to preserve liberty.
Worsley was more critical, calling the Patriots and similar groups “the radical, racist right.”
“We kind of pushed it down (in 2012), and then it got traction nationally. And it’s going to have to be put down the same way,” Worsley said.
One longtime Republican who joined the Patriots, Eric Smaltz of Surprise, said he grew tired of the conspiracy-minded and hate-filled comments on the group’s social media pages. Smaltz was a member of both the members-only Patriot Facebook page and the public page.
“I know a lot of those people,” he said of members who post such comments. “They’re good people. But they tend to be easily swayed and have unrealistic fears.”
He would sometimes talk in person with people who had posted offensive comments and leave believing the conversation had been fruitful. But similar comments would pop up online again, he said.
The final straw came when someone criticized the faith work Smaltz did in the heavily Latino community of El Mirage. The comments that followed, Smaltz said, devolved into a discussion of how great white people are.
“Before you know it, it was white supremacy and it was one big happy family,” he said of the comments.
On Dec. 31, Smaltz posted on his Facebook page that he was leaving the Republican Party. He wrote about a small wing of the party that fills its supporters with “constitutional conspiracy theories and fan them into attack mode then have to unring the bell when enraged voices bring hidden cancers to the surface.”
He said that extreme wing of the party is made up of racists and bigots, and promotes sexism, intolerance, xenophobia, homophobia and Islamophobia.
“I’ll have no part of that,” he wrote, “(for) what is tolerated today becomes commonplace tomorrow.”
Smaltz said he doesn’t see the Patriot movement doing the political groundwork needed to make substantive policy changes. Most, he said, just want to yell.
Felecia Rotellini, chairwoman of the Arizona Democratic Party, said one of the jobs of a party’s leadership is to set a tone and make it clear some ideas are too toxic to be part of the political discussion, the type of talk that appeals to the baser parts of human nature.
Worsley said Republican elected officials have been forced to do a “delicate dance” to represent traditional GOP values “while the more extreme elements have the microphone.” That’s why you see a lot of quiet senators in Washington, D.C., he said.
“It’s hard if you are in office, that’s why I retired,” Worsley said. “How do you wear the party label of Republican when you don’t agree with that stuff?”
Ducey has tried to not be extreme, Worsley said, but he faced tremendous pressure to lift COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.
“He can’t just play to the far right, but he can’t ignore them either,” Worsley said of Ducey. “And with Kelli Ward as the state Republican Party chair, you get a very friendly voice there towards this extreme group. It’s tough.”
In April 2018, Harrison, Antone and other Patriots posed in a photo with Ducey at a Mohave County gathering that drew criticism after it was posted online. A Ducey aide initially brushed aside the issue as silly, but a day later Ducey released a statement denouncing the group.
Ducey also denied knowing anything about the group when the photo was taken.
But Antone said that was nonsense. The governor and everyone at the gathering, she said, knew exactly who they were.
Abril Gallardo, a spokeswoman for the Latino political group, LUCHA, said Arizona Republicans had to know what the Patriots were about. After all, for a time they seemed to be at every event that LUCHA held at the state Capitol, loudly shouting their anti-immigrant feelings. Gallardo knew they also frequented Republican political events. She saw the photo the Patriots took with Ducey.
Gallardo quoted a Spanish phrase: Dime con quién andas, y te diré quién eres. Translation: Tell me with whom you associate and I’ll tell you who you are.
“For me, it’s very naive to think (Republicans) didn’t know,” she said. “They know who these people are and they use them to advance their personal agenda.”
Ward took over as state party chairwoman in 2017 in a move that appeared to usurp traditional Republican leadership. Ward was a darling of the Patriot movement in her primary campaign against Martha McSally for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2016. But the Patriots have since soured on her for not giving more party support to McCarthy’s insurgent campaign.
Crow, the former Tea Party leader, said that as the general election approaches, the Patriot movement should not get in the way of mainstream Republicans’ appeals to the middle ground favored by most voters.
The Patriot movement’s power comes from politicians fearing their wrath, Crow said, making them take positions that hurt them in a general election.
“The difference they’re making is they scare the politicians,” Crow said. “Politicians end up doing or saying things in an effort to appease the Patriots and then they get beat.”
Deedra Abboud, a Muslim and former U.S. Senate candidate who was confronted and demeaned by members of the Patriot movement, said the Patriots’ power isn’t in numbers, but in their aggression.
“They are so powerful because they are so loud and they’re so aggressive and they can turn on you in an instant,” Abboud said.
That makes Republican politicians fear angering them, she said.
“Because if you upset them, they are like a dog with a bone,” Abboud said. “It will be painful and it will be long-term.”
At a February meeting, the chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors introduced a resolution to declare the state’s most populous county a sanctuary for the Second Amendment.
Clint Hickman, who introduced the resolution, thought the proposal was fairly innocuous, as most resolutions are. Hickman, in a recent interview, said he believed it would declare the current board would not pass ordinances that stripped away gun rights.
What he didn’t know was that the constituent who brought the idea to him had a more expansive agenda.
It came from Randy Miller, an officer in the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. That group believes the powers of every county’s elected sheriff to protect citizens’ rights supersede the authority of all other officials within a county’s borders, including the U.S. president. Although that stance is made plain on the group’s website, Miller, who did not return calls from The Republic, doesn’t often speak about that in public or in interviews.
Seen in that context, the proposed resolution would declare that the Maricopa County sheriff would not enforce federal laws seen as infringing on gun rights. The board, under the resolution, would “defend” its residents against those laws, standing in seeming opposition to the federal government.
The Constitutional Sheriffs group also concerns itself with transferring control of public lands from the federal government to counties and states. The group was involved in an armed standoff with law enforcement officials at an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016.
In addition to gun rights, Miller, who ran for the state Legislature this year, has also been billed as an expert on the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of Sharia law. He believes forces are at work to enshrine Islamic-based laws into state or federal statutes.
None of that came up during the meeting of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which passed the resolution by a vote of 4–1, after amending it to declare the county would simply work to preserve the amendment.
Miller, after the vote, told supervisors he was upset that they took the teeth out of his proposal. He lamented he did not have enough time to correct the “ignorance” he heard from supervisors.
A growing number of Patriots, like Miller, have decided to go beyond trying to influence policy from the outside. They have become precinct committeemen, a job that traditionally does the party’s on-the-ground work.
In August, Miller was elected to represent his Olive precinct in the Sun City area.
In April 2019, Jennifer Harrison became a committeeman, the term the party uses regardless of gender.
Jeremy Bronaugh, another member of that Patriot group, joined the ranks in July 2019. Harrison’s boyfriend, Michael Pavlock, won election to be a committeeman in August.
All three were defendants in a June 2019 lawsuit filed by a group of churches that claimed Patriot groups posted videos on social media that accused church members of harboring refugee children as part of a sex-trafficking scheme. The lawsuit was settled with the Patriots agreeing to remove the videos from social media.
Several members of Purple for Parents, including Karen Wood, Jinhui Chen, Angi Stamm, Rich Osiol and Forest Moriarty, also became committeemen. Moriarty also made an unsuccessful bid for the Legislature this year. Moriarty and Chen hung up when called for comment. Wood, Stamm and Osiol did not respond to requests for comment.
Trickovic, who was active in the movement to reopen businesses following the COVID-19 shutdown and filed a petition to recall Ducey over the issue, became a committeeman in April 2019.
In all, more than 30 members of the Patriot group have become committeemen. The function of the precinct committeeman is typically to serve the party’s ground game. Though they can be barometers of dissent within its ranks.
In 2014, there were enough unhappy party insiders to force a censure vote by Maricopa County Republicans against longtime U.S. Sen. John McCain. The censure passed, serving as a rebuke against what some saw as McCain’s liberal record.
At a May 3 rally at the Arizona Capitol that helped pressure the governor to end pandemic-related restrictions on business activities, then-U.S. Senate candidate McCarthy urged attendees to fill vacant precinct committeemen slots.
“Our party, the Republican Party, has been hijacked by infiltrators,” he told the crowd. “You guys have to become PCs,” he said, using the abbreviation for precinct committeeman. “We have to take back the Republican Party.”
But the Patriots might have difficulty enacting radical change, according to Helen Purcell, a former Maricopa County recorder who has been a Republican precinct committeeman for 45 years.
The role, Purcell said, is to drum up party support in neighborhoods by circulating petitions for down-ballot candidates or handing out campaign signs.
But some have been attracted to the role for the opportunity to pass nonbinding resolutions at state party meetings.
“I think these factions come in and they see this as a way to control the party,” she said.
Some Patriots were finding it was a bad fit after attending their first meetings.
Vince Ansel, a member of the Patriot Movement AZ Facebook group and the constitutional motorcycle club Riders U.S.A., became a precinct committeeman in November, according to a county listing. In December, he attended his first meeting and quickly became disillusioned.
Ansel did not return a phone message left at his Scottsdale home. But he wrote about his experience on the website republicanbriefs.org.
He was looking forward to voting for a slew of resolutions put forward by former state Senate President Pearce, whom Worsley ousted in the 2012 primary after passage of SB 1070. Among them, according to Ansel’s post, were resolutions to decree there are only two sexes, condemn the Arizona Board of Regents for giving discounted tuition to “Illegal Aliens,” and affirm parental approval before vaccinations are given as part of any school policy, measures he didn’t think were controversial.
The resolutions were not voted on.
“I was dismayed, disappointed and utterly angered at the political shenanigans displayed,” he wrote.
In May, the Arizona Republican Party held its convention virtually. Among the chief orders of business was electing the person who leads the state delegation at the national convention.
The battle for that position was largely between some GOP stalwarts. But also running were members of the Patriot movement and believers in fringe conspiracy theories.
Aaron James Butler ended his campaign speech saying, “Where we go one, we go all.” It is a catchphrase signifying adherence to the false QAnon conspiracy theory, whose followers believe a group of Satan-worshiping liberal pedophiles rule the world — controlling Hollywood, politicians and the news media — and only President Donald Trump can stop them.
Butler said he included the QAnon reference to see if it would provoke a backlash. It didn’t.
Butler says the same QAnon slogan during Republican Party meetings in Cochise County, where he was appointed as a precinct committeeman. In those meetings, Butler said, he receives little pushback for his conspiratorial beliefs.
The only questions he gets center around the size of the global network involved in the conspiracy. “Some people believe in a vast conspiracy,” he said. “Some people believe in a tighter cabal.”
At the virtual state convention, Butler received only 13 votes out of nearly 1,110 cast. But he garnered one more vote than Daniels, the Patriot who helped organize the reopen rallies, who also had run for the national committeeman seat.
Daniels used his speech to denounce the tyrannical actions of Gov. Ducey in closing down the state during the pandemic. He mentioned how he and others were working to recall the Republican governor.
Daniels, who won election to his Mummy Mountain precinct committee seat in August, said he was hoping to use that post to “change the architecture, the landscape of the party.”
Daniels said he did not practice the GOP politics of McCain, who, during his 2008 presidential run, told a crowd that questioned Barack Obama’s heritage and allegiances that they had nothing to fear should he win.
For Daniels, there is a lot to fear should the progressive wing of the Democratic Party gain power.
“We wouldn’t have a civil disagreement. It would get ugly,” he said. “By putting constitutional representatives back in office, we’re hoping to avoid a violent conflict. Nobody wants that.”