Right-Wing Extremism Has Been Taking Root in Rural Kansas for Decades
By Jim McLean, Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service
Anti-government passions that fueled the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol have been building for decades. As Kansas Public Radio's Jim McLean reports, some are rooted in the grievances of people in rural states like Kansas. People who feel abandoned – even victimized – by their government.
GARDEN CITY, Kansas — Patrick Stein was bitter. Battles with drugs and the failure of his business in the 2008 recession had derailed his life.
He fumed at the federal government for not doing more to help people like him while immigrants flooded in around him in Garden City.
He went to Washington, D.C., seeking a bailout like the banks and auto companies were getting but left humiliated when members of Congress from Kansas ignored him.
“I saw how disgustingly corrupt, how wasteful our system is,” Stein told New York Times reporter Jessica Pressler.
His story of frustration and anger — at Washington, at big business, at a perceived threat to white culture — echoes long-festering grievances in the rural Midwest that fueled sometimes-violent actions against the government. Episodes that make the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol less a surprise and more of an evolution of far-right dissent.
After his business failed, Stein moved into a trailer on his parent’s property where he spent a lot of time on right-wing news sites growing angrier.
He directed that anger at then-President Barack Obama. Falsely claiming that Obama was the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Stein told members of a militia group he joined that “we are literally being run by a terrorist organization at the highest level.”
Then along came Donald Trump, a presidential candidate whose anti-immigrant rhetoric was music to Stein’s ears.
Emboldened by Trump’s election in 2016, Stein and a small band of co-conspirators hatched a plot to strike a blow against the government and the “cockroaches” they believed were overrunning their town.
They decided to blow up an apartment complex where Somali immigrants lived and worshipped in a make-shift mosque. Those immigrants had come to Garden City to toil in the town’s meatpacking plants.
On a scouting mission to the complex with a man he had recruited, Stein said he planned to detonate the bomb when the Somalis were gathered for one of their daily prayer sessions.
“I’d give anything to have a f...king camera set up to, you know, wi-fi that sh...t so I could watch it live,” he said before breaking into laughter with the man who was videotaping the conversation for the FBI.
Stein hoped others would follow his lead.
“If things go like we want them to,” he said, “it will inspire others in a huge way.”
Things didn’t go as planned. Alerted by undercover informants, the FBI arrested Stein and his accomplices before they could trigger the bomb.
After a two-week trial in the spring of 2018, a jury took only seven hours to convict Stein, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen.
Gavin Wright, Curtis Allen and Patrick Stein (left to right) (Photos by Sedgwick County Sheriff's Department)
Federal Judge Eric Melgren sentenced each of them to more than 25 years in prison despite pleas for leniency from their lawyers, who argued the men had been inspired by Trump.
Harsh punishment, Wright’s lawyers wrote, won’t deter people from resorting to violence “if they believe they are protecting their countries from enemies identified by their own Commander-in-Chief.”
Rise of right-wing populism
Small groups harboring beliefs like those that inspired the Garden City bomb plot have come and gone for decades. They’ve prospered, as much as anywhere, in rural parts of states like Kansas.
The belief that government — particularly the federal government — has turned its back on average Americans sells more easily to people who live in places that are getting smaller and often poorer, said Kansas historian Jim Leiker.
“When you live in the Heartland,” he said, “it’s easy to get the sense that the rest of the country has forgotten you.”
That feeling of abandonment sits at the core of a long-fermenting form of populism gaining currency in red-state politics. It holds that government elites, not the corporate robber barons targeted by agrarian populists in the 1890s, hollowed out rural America. The ire turns to politicians seen as catering to minorities, immigrants, and liberals in big cities.
“They feel threatened,” said Robert Wuthnow, a native Kansan and author of “The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America.”
Wuthnow, a Princeton sociology professor, traveled across rural America for years interviewing people for the book. He argues that the antipathy that many rural people feel toward the federal government stems from the belief that Washington is both ignoring them and driving cultural changes that threaten their values.
“To be honest, a lot of it is just scapegoating,” Wuthnow said in a 2018 Vox interview.
“That’s why you see more xenophobia and racism in these communities,” he said. “There’s a sense that things are going badly, and the impulse is to blame others.”
In 1960, 75% of Americans trusted the federal government, according to a long-running survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. That trust plummeted in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal in the 1970s and never really recovered. It hasn’t topped 30% since 2005.
The discontent created fertile ground for anti-government activists seeking to expand their influence when the farm crisis hit middle America in the early 1980s.
Squeezed by soaring inflation and low crop prices — caused in part by an embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union — debt-strapped farmers lost their land at a pace not seen since the Great Depression and were looking for someone, or something, to blame.
In stepped people like William Potter Gale, the leader of an anti-government group called the Posse Comitatus with a ready answer. In taped sermons circulated through a loose network of anti-government groups and broadcast on some rural radio stations, Gale said Jewish bankers and corrupt federal officials conspired to oppress white Christians.
“We’re gonna cleanse our land … and we’re gonna do it with a sword,” Gale said in a January 1983 broadcast on KTTL, a powerful Dodge City radio station that reached listeners in several states.
A retired Army officer and self-styled minister in the racist Christian Identity movement, Gale urged his followers to “arise and fight.”
“You’re damn right I’m teaching violence,” he said. “It’s about time somebody is telling you to get violent, whitey.”
Danny Levitas writes about Gale’s appeal to farmers in “The Terrorist Next Door,” a book that chronicles the rise of anti-government groups over the last 50 years.
“(Gale) was speaking to rural people about what was directly going on in their lives,” Levitas said in an interview. “He told them that an international Jewish conspiracy was intent on taking their land. So they should arm themselves and be prepared to ‘slaughter’ Jews and corrupt bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.”
Gale traveled the country with James Wickstrom, the Posse’s director of counterinsurgency, conducting para-military training exercises. In March 1982, they set up shop on a farm near Weskan, a small town in northwest Kansas. There, over three days, they schooled about 50 heavily armed volunteers in guerilla warfare tactics.
Staging ground for domestic terrorism
A fictional version of the battle that Gale called for plays out in The Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel by William Pierce, founder of the neo-Nazi National Alliance.
Often described as “the bible of the racist right,” the book tells the story of Earl Turner, a “patriot” fighting to take the country back from a government controlled by Jews, African Americans and other non-whites.
It was adopted by right-wing extremists because it answered an important question, said Kathleen Belew, a University of Chicago historian and author of several books on the white-power movement.
“That question is, how could a small fringe movement hope to achieve what it set out to do in the 1980s and has been trying to do ever since, which is to violently overthrow the United States,” Belew said on the NPR podcast Throughline.
The Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel by neo-Nazi leader William Pierce, has been described as the "the bible of the racist right." (Image via The Nation Alliance)
One of the missions that Turner carries out in the book is to blow up the FBI building in Washington, D.C. That fictional attack on a government stronghold is widely believed to have inspired Timothy McVeigh to carry out the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history — the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
“McVeigh followed the Turner Diaries almost to the letter,” Belew said.
McVeigh was a former soldier who had served with the 1 st Infantry Division based at Fort Riley, Kansas. He won a Bronze Star for bravery in the Persian Gulf War, but he left the Army after washing out of special forces training.
By the time of his discharge in 1991, McVeigh despised the federal government. He traveled the gun show circuit selling survivalist gear and copies of The Turner Diaries.
In March 1993, he showed up in Waco, Texas, to protest the siege of a compound occupied by members of the Branch Davidian religious sect, whom federal agents believed were heavily armed.
After the standoff ended in the fiery deaths of 76 members of the sect, McVeigh began planning what he would later call his “counter attack” against the government for waging “open warfare” against American citizens.
“I was only fighting by the rules of engagement that were introduced by the aggressor,” McVeigh said in prison interview. “Waco started this war.”
Two years to the day after Waco, McVeigh triggered a massive truck bomb in Oklahoma City. The blast reduced the Murrah Federal Building to rubble, killing 168 people and injuring another 450.
The remains of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building after Timothy McVeigh triggered as massive truck bomb on April 19, 1995. (Photo by Arthur G. Brown, Metropolitan Library System Of Oklahoma City)
McVeigh made final preparations for the attack — including building the bomb — in Junction City, Kansas, just a few miles from the base where he and co-conspirator and fellow Army veteran Terry Nichols were once stationed.
More than 500 people — including at least seven from Kansas — have been charged with federal crimes for invading the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Attorneys defending some of them are making a familiar argument: Their clients shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions because they believed they were acting on Trump’s orders.
“They were betrayed by somebody in whom they placed their faith,” Al Watkins, told The New York Times. “They’re like the followers of (suicide cult leader) Jim Jones. The only thing missing is the Kool-Aid.”
Watkins represents Jacob Chansley, the so-called QAnon Shaman who stormed the Capitol in a Viking-like costume.
Many of the rioters belong to modern-day white supremacist groups whose core beliefs mirror those of the Posse Comitatus and others once in the vanguard of the Christian Identify movement.
“It’s impossible to disconnect the insurrectionists of Jan. 6 from the ravings of William Potter Gale almost 50 years before when he encouraged his followers to hang traitors to the Constitution,” said Levitas, the author who’s written about domestic terrorism.
Charges filed against William Chrestman and Christopher Kuehn, both of Olathe, identify them as members of the Proud Boys, a white nationalist group that gained notoriety for carrying torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” at a 2017 protest against the removal of confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Va.
Video footage from Jan. 6 shows Chrestman turning to the mob as it surged toward the entrance to the Capitol and shouting: “Whose House is this?”
When several in the crowd responded, “Our house,” Chrestman shouted back, “take it.”
Will Pope, a former Topeka City Council candidate, was also in that mob. After the riot he defended its actions on Facebook.
“The people wanted their house back, so they took it,” he wrote in a post that has since been deleted, according to the Kansas Reflector.
A photo captured from surveillance cameras show Will Pope, circled in blue, and his brother, Michael Pope, circled in red, in the mob that invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The anger loosed on Jan. 6 illustrates a disturbing political trend, said Leiker, the Kansas historian. Anti-government rhetoric that once was relegated to the fringes of American politics has now migrated to the mainstream.
“It’s been softened a little bit to make it more appealing to wider groups of people,” he said. “But the core idea that your government can’t be trusted, that’s still there. And I think it’s a driving force behind what you saw in January.”
Levitas goes further. He contends that a growing number of Americans appear ready to abandon democracy, Levitas said.
“When you have political leaders encouraging armed resistance based on a set of fears of racial purity being diluted or cultural superiority being lost,” he said, “that’s a perfect definition of fascism.”
Jim Mclean is the Statehouse Bureau Chief for Kansas Public Radio and a political contributor to the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @jmcleanks. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.