Movin’ On Up: The Year The Fringe Went From The Outhouse to the Penthouse

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TPM’s writers have long tracked the moves of certain characters that compose America’s conspiracy-courting radical fringe and extremist right-wing. The 2016 election turned that coverage model on its head, as these previously little-known or under-the-radar personalities repeatedly cropped up in cable news interviews or allied with GOP presidential candidates.

President-elect Donald Trump’s fondness for conspiracy theories and harsh anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric made individuals like Infowars’ Alex Jones and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach recurring figures in mainstream political news coverage. They’re just two of several longtime subjects of interest at TPM who really broke through to a national stage this year.

Ammon and Ryan Bundy

The Nevada ranching family known for their hostility towards the Bureau of Land Management first drew coverage in 2014, after patriarch Cliven Bundy invited self-described militia members to join a standoff against the BLM over cattle grazing rights. The grizzled clan became heroes to conservative media outlets, and even some Republican politicians, until the New York Times published an interview in which Bundy mused that black Americans might be “better off as slaves” and his supporters went quiet. For a while—even as Bundy’s son Ammon took up the cause of some Oregon gold miners tussling with the BLM over land use rights—little was heard from the family.

Then, in January 2016, Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan, lead the 41-day armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The botched crusade, which hit its climax when FBI agents fatally shot one occupier who defied their orders, culminated in the arrest of 26 people, including both Bundy brothers. Cliven Bundy was also arrested on charges related to the 2014 standoff at the family’s Bunkerville, Nevada ranch when he flew to Portland to visit his jailed sons. After some “difficultmonths in prison, the Bundy brothers were acquitted by an Oregon jury in a stunning October decision. They remain in jail while awaiting trial in the pending case against their father, in which they were also charged.

Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore

Outgoing Nevada assemblywoman Michele Fiore’s (R) tenure in the Silver State’s legislature was marked by her habit of making jaw-dropping statements. Fiore first crossed TPM’s radar as a vocal defender of the Bundys during the 2014 standoff at the Bunkerville ranch, warning that the feds should expect Americans to “fire back” at them. The libertarian-leaning lawmaker was most outspoken when it came to guns, with which she posed for a series of racy Second Amendment calendars. Last fall, she said she wanted to “fly to Paris” to shoot Syrian refugees “in the head myself.” Fiore also made waves when she sent out a 2015 family Christmas card in which each relative, down to her 5-year-old grandson, was outfitted with a firearm.

Fiore fully broke onto the national scene in February, when she helped broker a peaceful end to the Bundy brother-led armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. As some 50,000 people listened in on a live stream, Fiore called the remaining occupiers holed up at the federal refuge and successfully cajoled them into turning themselves over to authorities. This moment of national recognition did little to boost her bid to join the U.S. House of Representatives, however: in June, Fiore came in a distant third in the GOP primary race to represent Nevada’s third Congressional district.

White nationalist Matthew Heimbach

In 2013, TPM recounted how a Conservative Political Action Conference session on racial tolerance was derailed by interruptions from a-Confederate-flag-adorned attendee named Matthew Heimbach. He and another attendee took to the mics to claim that they were “being systematically disenfranchised” as young white Southern males. That year, Heimbach co-founded the Traditionalist Youth Network, a white nationalist group aimed at recruiting high school and college students. Through the TYN and its political wing, the Traditionalist Workers Party, which he co-founded in 2015, Heimbach stoked the white nationalist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant sentiment against mainstream conservatism that fuels the so-called “alt-right” movement that gained prominence in 2016.

Heimbach made headlines this year after he was charged with harassment and misdemeanor physical contact for shoving a black female protester at a March Trump rally in Kentucky. Heimbach steered clear of future Trump events to make sure he didn’t “become a distraction” for the candidate, but his plans to turn the town of Paoli, Indiana into an all-white community were covered in The New York Times and other outlets.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach

Kris Kobach is the mastermind of some of the nation’s most draconian immigration laws and voter ID requirements. As a law professor, he helped draft Arizona’s SB-1070 and Alabama’s HB-56 laws, which allowed police to detain people they suspected of being undocumented immigrants and ask for their papers. Once elected as secretary of state, Kobach went to work antagonizing the top federal prosecutor in Kansas about rampant voter fraud, even though he and other local prosecutors said Kobach did not refer cases they felt justified prosecution. Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed legislation allowing the secretary of state the authority to prosecute such cases himself in Oct. 2015, and so Kobach set about filing lawsuits against residents he accused of “double voting.”

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Kobach leveraged Trump’s lack of interest in policy to push through an arch-conservative GOP platform calling for a wall on “the entirety of the Southern Border” and an amendment opposing any restrictions on the sale of high-capacity-magazine weapons. Now a self-proclaimed member of Trump’s immigration policy transition team, Kobach has pressed the President-elect to reinstate a post-9/11 registry of immigrants from a number of countries, most of which are majority-Muslim, that he’d helped devise for George W. Bush’s administration. Those goals were revealed when Kobach was photographed at Trump Tower carrying a visible “strategic plan” for the next administration under his arm.

Infowars Editor Alex Jones

The Infowars editor, known for spontaneously ripping off his shirt off and claiming that tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting are “false flags,” has periodically popped up in TPM coverage. Last year, he notably championed the conspiracy theory that the “Jade Helm 15” military exercise that took place in several southern states was a “psy ops” cover for the implementation of martial law.

Trump and Jones’ symbiotic relationship gave his conspiracy theories a wider audience during the 2016 election. As a Republican primary candidate, Trump appeared on Jones’ show for a thirty-minute love-fest of an interview in which he praised the shock jock’s “amazing” reputation. Jones’ show also became a breeding ground for some of the most outlandish—and popular—conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, from her allegedly ailing health to speculation about her use of hidden earpieces during debates to the supposed sulfurous odor she emitted as a “demon.” The President-elect enthusiastically channeled many of those charges to his supporters and the press.

Jones also heavily pushed the so-called “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which held that Clinton and other Democratic operatives were operating a child sex ring from the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant. One man heard Jones’ call and took up the cause, visiting Comet Ping Pong in person with an assault rifle with the goal of liberating the supposed victims. Edgar Maddison Welch was hit with federal charges for the incident—the most concrete example yet of the paranoid, fake-news-consuming fringe becoming a force in everyday life in the era of Trump.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.
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