A rural school board election manifests far-right strategy to spread their politics of intimidation



The Eatonville school board already had one notorious “Patriot” as a member: Matt Marshall, the founder of Washington State Three Percenters, which in 2019 claimed it had broken off affiliation with any national Three Percent organization. Marshall’s group, nonetheless, openly affiliated itself with Joey Gibson of the far-right street brawlers Patriot Prayer, and staunchly defended extremist ex-legislator Matt Shea at a January 2020 protest in Seattle. Marshall later ran in the 2020 GOP primary against the state Republican House Minority Leader, Justin Wilcox, over Shea’s expulsion from the Legislature, but lost badly.

Matt Marshall at Jan 2020 Seattle rally
Matt Marshall at the January 2020 protest in Seattle.

Marshall also has been a staunch advocate of the far-right “Boogaloo” movement, appearing at anti-COVID-measure protests in Olympia wearing their trademark Hawaiian shirt and claiming on social media that the movement is nonviolent, despite its extensive track record of actual and planned murderous terrorism. (In a comical event, Marshall’s group was hoodwinked by prankster Sacha Baron Cohen into joining in on a racist singalong in Olympia.) Its politics of intimidation came into play when Marshall publicized the names and private information of people who had reported businesses for COVID measure violations, resulting in a flood of threats and abuse.

Most of all, Marshall’s organization has been quietly spreading its brand of right-wing conspiracism around the region, turning up in communities like Whidbey Island and elsewhere. This is part of Marshall’s explicit strategy of organizing likeminded “Patriots” into local politics and community organizing, and his endorsement of far-right anti-vaccination activist Ashley Sova for the Eatonville school board in its 2021 election ended up propelling her into office alongside him.

As Allam’s report notes: “Today, the Washington Three Percent claims members in dozens of official posts throughout the state, including a mayor, a county commissioner and at least five school board seats. Sova, an officer with the group, was among four female members who ran in local races this cycle. Three won.”

A central feature of the spread of far-right politics is the intimidation directed at mainstream liberals and even Republicans who refuse to participate in their incoherent conspiracism: As with all authoritarian movements, aggression directed at anyone who fails to submit to their rule is a foundational component of their real-world behavior. And in the rural areas where their politics already dominate, they often have free rein to threaten their neighbors with impunity.

Allam’s story [which also cites this Kos post] describes the situation of just such people living in Eatonville: A couple of longtime residents, mainstream Democrats who had raised their family there, who found their community had transformed into something they no longer recognized:

During the Trump era, the couple said, they observed local views drifting further to the right, taking on militant overtones. The woods around their house now crackle with gunfire, sometimes thousands of rounds on the weekends, seemingly more than just casual target practice. They noticed when a neighbor put up a Trump sign the day after the Jan. 6 attack. Another neighbor spotted their Biden sign and asked when they’d become “leftists.”

The couple consider themselves “run-of-the-mill” Democrats, the husband said, but suddenly they’d been cast as a radical enemy.

“We are the minority. We clearly understand that we’re the minority,” he said. “But there was a space.”

Now, they said, that space is shrinking. One fall evening before the 2020 election, a car rolled by as they were sitting on their front porch. The driver saw their Biden sign, backed up and rolled down the window to yell, “Get the f— out of here!”

“I was like, are you kidding me? At my home?” the husband said. “I brought the .38 and sat it out there and then I thought, ‘No, don’t do that.’”

“We felt so threatened because we’ve lived here for so long,” the wife said, tearing up. “We built our own house our own selves here. We raised our kids here.”

The wife, as the story explains, began researching not just Sova’s far-right connections, but the spread of extremism in their community generally, and came to realize “just how many Three Percenters we have around us.” In the end, she chose not to publicize her research on Sova because she had concluded that it would end up actually bolstering her candidacy: “We think it would’ve helped her,” she said. “That’s what the concern was.”

Their fresh understanding of not just of the breadth of “Patriot” beliefs in their rural community now, but its underlying menace, had induced them to try to keep low profiles: “Someone looking at it would think, ‘Idiots, stand up for something. For Chrissake, democracy is on fire, kick some ass,’” the husband said. “But it’s those little social, nuanced things where you see Matt Marshall with a crown of bullets, in his boogaloo boys shirt, stomping around Olympia. And it does make you stop and think.”

“The race was basically sabotaged by the national narrative,” said the “PTA mom” who Sova defeated, Sarah Cole, adding her incredulity that parents would vote for a “Patriot” extremist whose children aren’t even enrolled in public school: “I don’t even know how to explain it except to say, in the face of the facts, they still chose to run with fears.”

This national narrative is largely a creature of Republicans’ post-Jan. 6 politics, which rather than recoil from the extremism has rushed to embrace it. This became especially apparent at the time of the Capitol insurrection, and it is continuing through the spread of “Patriot” movement beliefs across the right-wing mainstream, acutely so in rural areas where conservative politics dominate.

“Many Republicans do not accept Democratic governance as a legitimate outcome” of elections, Thomas Zimmer, a Georgetown University history professor, told FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. “America is nearing a crisis of democratic legitimacy because one side is trying to erect one-party minority rule.”

Joanne Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, compared the state of America today to the 1850s, right before the U.S. Civil War, in a New York Times piece shortly after the insurrection:

Mass violence in Congress seemed possible in 1850. Now, 171 years later, it’s in the national mindscape once again. And for good reason. The echoes of 1850 are striking. We’re at a moment of extreme polarization when outcomes matter, sometimes profoundly.

The Republicans, whose ironclad grip on the Senate has dominated the federal government, feel entitled to that power and increasingly threatened; they know they’re swimming against the demographic tide in a diversifying nation. They have proven themselves ready and eager for minority rule; voter suppression — centered on people of color — is on the rise and has been for some time. And some of them are willing to protect what they deem right with threats of violence.

These antidemocratic politics made headlines when they hit the national level. But their quiet spread on the local level may in fact be the far more serious threat to democratic institutions and democracy itself.


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