In Montana, An Unease Over Extremist Views Moving Out Of The Woods Into The Mainstream The remote woods of the Northwest have long been a haven for far-right extremists. After Donald Trump's election, some in communities here worry about extremists entering the mainstream.
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In Montana, An Unease Over Extremist Views Moving Out Of The Woods

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In Montana, An Unease Over Extremist Views Moving Out Of The Woods

In Montana, An Unease Over Extremist Views Moving Out Of The Woods

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

White nationalists and other far-right groups are having a big year. They're feeling emboldened after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. They were energized by his talk about Muslims and illegal immigration. In recent years, some of these groups have relocated to or started up in parts of the rural northwest. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, their apparent arrival in the mainstream of American politics is causing unease.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Hi.

JEN STEBBINS-HAN: They're all on screen time right now.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The day after the election, Jen Stebbins-Han's kids came home from school, posed a question that before this year, she says, she might have laughed off.

STEBBINS-HAN: My kids came home and asked us if their dad was going to be deported. And I don't know where they heard that because it wasn't from us. You know, they asked if their grandma and grandpa were going to be deported.

SIEGLER: Stebbins-Han's husband is Korean-American, Jen is white, and the couple has three biracial kids.

STEBBINS-HAN: There is a part of me that's afraid because I don't know what somebody is going to do because they feel emboldened to be able to. You know, even if it's just saying something to my kids.

SIEGLER: Jen grew up here in Montana's pristine Flathead Valley, which is wedged between the snow-capped mountains of Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake. Like a lot of people with means, she moved away as a young adult. Five years ago, she returned, and her husband took over her dad's orthodontist practice. Her kids go to the same little country school she went to. But she says this valley she grew up in seems different now.

STEBBINS-HAN: I think what I've noticed is what everybody's noticed is I didn't realize how OK with blatant racism so many people are.

SIEGLER: Now, long before the 2016 election, rural northwest Montana had a reputation as a haven for anti-government extremists and white supremacists. This used to get shrugged off. These were fringe types, locals would say, holing up in remote cabins in the woods. But lately, things started bubbling up to the surface. Controversy erupted when a group of neo-Nazis began screening Holocaust denial films at the library in Kalispell, the valley's largest city. Then the white nationalist leader Richard Spencer moved to the lakeside resort town of Whitefish. Jen says it's an ugly reality her community has to confront.

STEBBINS-HAN: The impression that I get from the people that I talk to is that nobody wants them here. Everybody would rather not be known for this, but at the same time, they're put up with and maybe even listened to a lot more than I would like.

SIEGLER: And that is the tension. Local conservatives distance themselves from these outside extremist groups moving in, but northwest Montana has been trending more to the far right in recent elections, especially as several of this area's timber mills and manufacturing plants closed down. On rural highways, bumper stickers mocking President Obama are common; so are the billboards listing the Ten Commandments. Instead of the usual classic rock or country, the radio is now dominated by Christian and conservative stations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Your network of praise in Montana KALS.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: This is Fresh Life Radio for the Flathead Valley.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The Flathead's home for Fox News radio. News...

SIEGLER: This trend toward the far right in politics has some locals like Taylor Rose excited.

TAYLOR ROSE: I describe it as a re-emergence of populist nationalism.

SIEGLER: One frigid morning, I met Rose for coffee at a local chain called City Brew.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Morning.

SIEGLER: The place is bustling. It's along a busy highway lined with shiny new big-box stores that cater to thrifty Canadians who drive down to shop. Rose says Donald Trump's victory is a stand against globalist trade policies and mass immigration.

ROSE: We have our heritage. We have our values and we should take pride in that. And if you come to this country and want to be a citizen of this republic, you have to assimilate.

SIEGLER: Rose is 29. He works as a bartender. His longish blond hair is parted down the middle. He's wearing a North Face T-shirt. He ran as a Republican for the state legislature this year and lost but not by much. And he's quick to say his views are not xenophobic, rather just protectionist.

ROSE: We should reject things that are antithetical to our way of life that are enshrined in our ancient Anglosphere heritage that we have inherited from the British and that we share with the Canadians and the Australians and the New Zealanders.

SIEGLER: Rose's parents divorced when he was little, so he grew up splitting time between the Flathead and Oregon. Locally, he's eager to see whether Trump will get the loggers back in the forests.

ROSE: To help this valley out, the best thing that Donald Trump could do is get the federal government out of our way so that we can allow our industries to thrive.

SIEGLER: Now, this valley with its resorts and its famous National Park is pretty prosperous compared to a lot of Montana. It's not like there aren't jobs, but people like Rose who are tapping a populist streak want to see the area go back to an economy that had less regulations and relied more on natural resources. And that message does resonate in the Flathead, which has a fierce libertarian streak. But groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Montana Human Rights Network warn that live and let live mentality is one of the reasons why far-right extremist groups are drawn here and thrive. Another reason is demographics.

WILL RANDALL: Well, it's overwhelmingly white.

SIEGLER: Flathead County is 96 percent white, a fact not lost on Will Randall. He grew up and raised his family here. He's a carpenter and builds resort homes today.

RANDALL: You know, we are not a very diverse community. Montana has a sizable Native American population, and they don't feel welcome here for the most part. People of color don't feel welcome here. Hispanics don't generally feel comfortable here. Many of our young people that are LGBT move out of the area.

SIEGLER: When the white nationalist Richard Spencer relocated to Whitefish, Randall and his neighbors pressed the city council to ban him from doing business here. They ended up getting an anti-discrimination ordinance passed. Now, since the election, Randall has tracked an increase in hate speech incidents in local schools. A group of teenagers who paraded through Kalispell with Confederate flags on their pickups also ignited controversy online. Still, some here think things are getting overblown in the wake of a divisive election.

REBECCA MORENO: Before we got our large equipment put in, we were working on small pot stills.

SIEGLER: Rebecca Moreno is getting ready for her shift as a bartender at a local distillery. It's the latest hip hangout to open an upscale Whitefish.

MORENO: I work in this bar. I see a lot of people, you know, a lot of locals, and I've never once been bothered, you know, or threatened. I mean, I'm clearly Mexican (laughter).

SIEGLER: Moreno moved to Whitefish two years ago from Southern California. She also voted for Trump. She says she's not afraid even if the more extreme elements of the far right are becoming mainstream.

MORENO: I know that we are going to be OK, you know, if they were to come out and be more violent. But that's why I want to encourage more people to take action and learn how to protect themselves, you know, teach your children.

SIEGLER: Teach them, she says, about their Second Amendment rights. It's the main reason she voted for the president-elect. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Whitefish, Mont.

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