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Politics

Violent rhetoric and conspiracy theories have gained traction in Maine since the Capitol riot

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Jose Luis Magana
/
AP
Rioters scale a wall at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

Nick Blanchard was one of thousands of people from across the U.S. who traveled to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, to attend the “Save America” rally on the National Mall, where then-President Donald Trump was speaking.

The Waterville resident attended the rally and left at 2:12 p.m., he later told FBI agents. Minutes later, a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, intending to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election.

“I was there because the 2020 election was stolen and [I] wanted to support our president,” Blanchard said Wednesday, citing “countless evidence” he’s found via “news stations and internet sources” that confirmed his belief that Joe Biden had won in a rigged election.

He’s since turned his attention to local politics. He leads an anti-vaccine group that until recently protested outside the homes of school board members who voted for mandatory masking in schools. Blanchard believes that if Trump were still in office, there wouldn’t be any vaccine or mask mandates.

Blanchard’s shift in focus to local politics is emblematic of what’s happened with many who traveled to Washington, D.C., a year ago. That shift has been changing the tenor of local politics in Maine and elsewhere, and has made the acceptance of violence toward political opponents more of a mainstream viewpoint.

“What made me focus on the school board was all the mask mandates that started coming out again and the vaccine and all that,” Blanchard said. “It’s unconstitutional for you to tell me that I have to take a vaccine to protect you. I mean, it’s my body.”

An Atlantic Council report examining the aftermath of Jan. 6 found that many groups involved have now turned their attention to school boards and municipal bodies, where they’re more likely to succeed and have fewer barriers to entry.

The attacks have also “empowered some local officials in various places to mainstream this idea that the world is being driven by conspiracies, that our political enemies are changing the rules,” said Kenneth Stern, who directs the Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College. “It’s patriotic for us to fight back, to demonize our political opponents.”

Two other Mainers and a third man with Maine connections participated in and were arrested for their roles in the attack on the U.S. Capitol that left five people dead and injured 140 law enforcement officers. More than 700 people have been arrested.

Before Jan. 6, Maine saw some examples of the ideologies that inspired the attack on the Capitol. And they’ve gained more traction since.

While Maine certified the results of the 2020 presidential election, a number of Republican leaders declined to renounce baseless claims that Biden had “stolen” the election.

Maine Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, was condemned last summer for comparing Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, to Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, citing Mills’ requirement that health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19. She also spoke at a Belfast event hosted by a Holocaust denier that united anti-vaccine and anti-government activists and advocated for an election audit.

This kind of thinking has its roots in a number of anti-government, far-right groups and movements, like the anti-government militia movement of the 1990s and the John Birch Society, which capitalized on anti-communist attitudes that later melded into fears about federal encroachment upon civil liberties, Stern said.

“It was a belief that there was basically a conspiracy to take away people’s rights, that the institutions weren’t representing people anymore,” Stern said.

“You started seeing people that were animated to the point of not only, ‘Okay, this is something that I have to address in my concerns, by voting or by political organizing,’ but also suggesting that violence was an appropriate response to people on the other side, who were trying to take away our freedoms.”

Karyn Sporer, a University of Maine criminologist and investigator with the Department of Homeland Security’s National Counterterrorism, Innovation, Technology and Education Center, said the Jan. 6 attack reflected political polarization that often starts small.

“It really doesn’t take much for someone to feel disengaged from their families or deviant or mildly stigmatized by family members for not being vaccinated,” Sporer said.

“They’ll go online to find folks who support them and their choices, and then, drip, drip, drip, slowly they’re reading QAnon adjacent literature and next thing you know, they’re fully radicalized.”

Stern used a funnel analogy to describe how people with mainstream values could be drawn to more extreme viewpoints.

“People at the wide end of the funnel would be sucked in by all sorts of mainstream issues like gun control and so forth,” Stern said. “As they got further into the funnel, they were exposed to conspiratorial thinking and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and out of the small end of the funnel pop out people like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.”

At the center of this kind of thinking is a general “us-versus-them” mentality that makes it easier to demonize those with opposing views, Stern said.

Even though it is a majority-white state, Maine has become more ethnically and racially diverse in the past decade, fueling a sense that people’s “way of life is somehow being threatened,” said Andy O’Brien, a researcher who tracks far-right groups in Maine.

A Lebanon man arrested for his role in the Capitol attack, Kyle Fitzsimons, held this view, telling state legislators in 2018 that he moved to Maine to escape “multicultural hellholes.”

In response, people are turning to local avenues such as running for public office and protesting outside of officials’ homes to air their grievances, O’Brien said.

A handful of school boards across Maine have seen a lower-stakes version of this phenomenon, as debates about mask mandates and academic curricula have made meetings more heated. One parent last fall called Poland-area school board members “human traffickers” for their mandatory masking policy.

Fitzsimons and Nicholas Hendrix of Gorham were arrested last year for their roles in the Capitol riot. A third man, Glen Mitchell Simon, who is originally from Minot but now lives in Georgia, was also arrested.

Fitzsimons has been in D.C. Jail since his February 2021 arrest. He will stand trial in April on 10 charges including assaulting a federal officer, disorderly conduct and committing violence in the Capitol, according to court documents. Prior to his arrest, he had previous encounters with political opponents that one Maine lawmaker described as unnerving.

Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, said she had two tense interactions with Fitzsimons in 2019, when he blocked her in a parking lot and asked how she would vote on an impending gun bill and later yelled out to her by name as she walked through the State House in Augusta.

Fitzsimons also called U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s office in December 2020 to tell her that if she voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump, he would “give it to her hard” and that he “would come for her.”

Fitzsimons trumpeted his belief in the Great Replacement during a 2018 legislative hearing. The Great Replacement is a white nationalist conspiracy theory that posits that non-white immigrants are “colonizing” European-Americans. Several mass shooters, like the man who killed 23 people at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart in 2019, have attributed their actions to their belief in the theory.

“We are being replaced,” Fitzsimons told lawmakers, accusing immigrants of “killing off yankee New England culture.”

Hendrix pleaded not guilty in August to misdemeanor charges of demonstrating in a Capitol building; disorderly conduct in a Capitol building; disorderly conduct in a restricted building; and entering and remaining in a restricted building. He is free on his own recognizance pending further court proceedings, according to court records.

Simon pleaded guilty in October to demonstrating inside the Capitol building and is set to be sentenced later this month. The charge carries a penalty of up to 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $5,000, according to his plea agreement.

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.