Today
Thu 29 July 2021

Caroline Orr reports on the evidence linking the ‘Three Percenters’ militia with right-wing mega-donors including the billionaire Mercer family

An alleged insurrectionist affiliated with the far-right ‘Three Percenters’ militia group who was indicted Thursday in connection with the 6 January riot at the Capitol in Washington DC is also actively involved in organising anti-lockdown protests as the founder of a group boosted by the billionaire Mercer family.

Alan Hostetter, an ex-police chief who in November called for the execution of top Government officials, was one of six men charged Thursday with conspiring to obstruct the certification of the 2020 election. Four of the men cited in the indictment identify as members of the Three Percenters, while two are considered associates.

This is the first set of conspiracy charges against rioters affiliated with the Three Percenters, an often violent anti-government militia group that formed in 2008 when Barack Obama won the presidency. 

It’s also the first indictment that brings charges against people involved in planning organised political protests ahead of the Capitol riot. According to the charges, Hostetter’s anti-lockdown group, called the American Phoenix Project, co-sponsored a rally on 5 January on the steps of the Supreme Court with Virginia Women for Trump. Also present at that rally were long-time Trump ally Roger Stone and conspiracy theorist ‘Stop The Steal’ organiser Ali Alexander.

Hostetter founded the American Phoenix Project in Spring 2020 to oppose lockdowns and other restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. This came amid a surge of anti-lockdown protests across the country organised by a network of seemingly grassroots conservative groups.

But there’s big money and even bigger influence behind the push to re-open states, which is really an orchestrated movement styled after the Tea Party.


Radical Right Donors

As detailed by the New York Times and The Washington Post, the nationwide anti-lockdown movement is actually bankrolled by some of the country’s richest conservative donors including the Mercer family, the DeVos family, and the dark money conduit DonorsTrust. 

Michigan was the pilot for the national movement. Over several weeks in April and May 2020, anti-government extremists and other far-right agitators gathered at the state Capitol to protest against COVID-19 restrictions.

The Michigan protest was organized through a Facebook group called ‘Operation Gridlock’, which itself was a creation of the Michigan Freedom Fund and the Michigan Conservative Coalition. The Michigan Freedom Fund is bankrolled by the billionaire family of Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and the Michigan Conservative Coalition is a far-right group that “doubles as a front for Michigan Trump Republicans,” according to Mother Jones. One of the prominent figures in Women for Trump also played a major role in planning Operation Gridlock.

Other groups like Michigan United For Liberty also took part in organising protests throughout the several week period in April 2020 during which armed demonstrators, some wearing camouflage and bulletproof vests, crowded into the state Capitol where lawmakers were trying to debate an emergency bill. The Three Percenters were allegedly involved in these demonstrations and two members were charged in connection with a kidnapping plot against Michigan’s governor.

While this was going on, other right-wing groups were organising their own protests elsewhere in the country. A spokesman for the Michigan Conservative Coalition encouraged groups in other states to hold their own protests and even told them to use the Coalition’s wording and templates. He said at least a dozen other states had organised protests based on the “Operation Gridlock” model.

Around the same time, FreedomWorks, a right-wing advocacy group associated with the Tea Party movement, published a ‘#ReopenAmerica Rally Planning Guide’ to help right-wing groups around the country organise their own anti-lockdown protests. 


Social Manipulation, Bankrolled By the Mercers

Behind the scenes, the radical right-wing Convention of States — another group that grew out of the Tea Party movement and is currently led by Mark Meckler, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots Group — propped up smaller, local organisations and provided materials (like signs) for anti-lockdown protests. 

The conservative group, which has received funding from the Mercer family and the dark money conduit DonorsTrust, bought dozens of URLs for sites that were later used for protests in key states, including opencalifornianow.com, openfloridanow.com, and openarizonanow.com. 

The Convention of States also launched a ‘sock-puppet’ organisation and website called Open The States, seemingly in an effort to conceal its role in the anti-lockdown campaign. The website linked to Facebook groups around the country that were involved in organising protests targeting states with Democratic governors, some of which had hundreds of thousands of members. The group also reportedly purchased Facebook adverts and quietly helped boost the profiles of smaller protests, but did so through sock-puppets. 

Using social media and access to friendly media platforms, the Convention of States, along with other deep-pocketed conservative groups, spread inflammatory content aimed at evoking anger towards scientists and public health officials, as well as stoking fear of an imminent loss of freedom and liberty.

“We are witnessing a large-scale exercise in social manipulation, led by Convention of States, a Republican operation funded by the billionaire Robert Mercer, with support from the far-right groups FreedomWorks, Tea Party Patriots, and others,” says Boston University professor Jeremy Menchik, a comparative studies scholar who researches anti-democratic movements.

Menchik says the protests don’t reflect actual grassroots opinion, but rather “manufactured outrage, ginned up by right-wing interest groups.”

“The evidence of the top-down nature of the protests is their coordination, timing, messaging, and overt links. Their group names are similar. The content is similar. Their history is similar. Their calls to action are similar,” he said. “It’s once you see the coordination at a macro level that you recognise this is not a grassroots movement. This is being orchestrated by political operatives…”

Sure enough, the American Phoenix Project resembles countless other anti-lockdown groups, with a strong emphasis on liberty and small government, and common propaganda themes such as calling masks on children “child abuse,” fear-mongering about antifa and Black Lives Matter, warning that masks and lockdowns are the first step towards tyranny, and attacking local and national Democratic politicians.   

Beyond those similarities, there’s a pretty big clue right on the website of the American Phoenix Project, which directly links to the Mercer-funded Convention of States. The website also includes verbatim snippets of text from the Convention of States’ website.


American Phoenix Project

There’s very little publicly available information on the American Phoenix Project. Hostetter registered the organisation in California in May 2020 as a non-profit focused on “human and civil rights advocacy, and public health education.” The group’s secretary is listed as Robert Ramsey, a former police chief in Fontana, CA. 

In social media posts and videos, Hostetter makes several references to Morton Irvine Smith, a wealthy Orange County resident described by the LA Times as a right-wing “radical” and fixture of the affluent county’s growing extremist movement. Although he’s not listed on any official documentation, Irvine Smith has been identified as a member of American Phoenix Project’s board. On 6 January, Hostetter posted a picture of himself with co-defendant Taylor, but also referred to Irvine Smith in the caption, reassuring viewers that all three were safe and adding, “We did our part.”

Alan Hostetter and Russell Taylor, both are whom are associated with the right-wing Three Percenters militia and the American Phoenix Project, boast about their involvement in the Capitol riot. The Instagram post also mentions a third person, Morton Irvine Smith, who is on the board of the American Phoenix Project.

Pictures on Hostetter’s Facebook page throughout the Spring and Summer of 2020 show him promoting, attending, and speaking at dozens of anti-lockdown and pro-Trump rallies in California. The American Phoenix Project’s social media pages paint a similar picture. Hostetter has organised a number of anti-lockdown events in the California area, and was arrested at one of them in May 2020. 

Importantly, in a 15 April 2020 Facebook post, Hostetter mentions that he is also a member of a private Facebook group called ‘Reopen California’ and another called ‘SC For Freedom’ – a clue that strongly hints at the astroturfed nature of the movement. 

The American Phoenix Project’s website gives a nod to QAnon, referring to a “great awakening” happening as a result of the pandemic. Hostetter is described as a QAnon devotee and was even invited to speak at a QAnon conference in Arizona in October.

But by the time the November election wrapped up, Hostetter and several of his alleged co-conspirators had turned the group into a platform to spread lies about the election outcome and advocate violence against Government officials.

On Dec.12, 2020, The American Phoenix Project hosted a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally in Huntington Beach, California, where Hostetter gave a speech in which he called for the “execution” of top Government officials. Also in attendance at the Stop the Steal rally and pictured near Hostetter was former GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, also known as “Putin’s favourite congressman.”

The transition from anti-lockdown to ‘stop the steal’ is part of a broader pattern that seems to be by intentional design in many cases. The Intercept reported that anti-mask and anti-lockdown groups were a “crucial recruiting ground” for Stop the Steal, the main organisational vehicle for Trump’s election lies and a major contributor to the disinformation campaign that fuelled the insurrection. Both movements share common ideological underpinnings, appealing to people with conspiratorial beliefs who feel that their personal liberties are being threatened by a corrupt government that needs to be stopped by any means necessary. 


More Big-Donor Links

In addition to the Mercer-funded Convention of States, the American Phoenix Project also has close ties to the movement seeking to recall California Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. 

Social media posts reveal that Hostetter and Taylor were both involved in organising protests to recall Newsom. The campaign to recall Newsom was sparked in large part by the restrictions he imposed on the state during the pandemic, but it soon became a proxy for a much larger battle being waged by the extreme right wing of the Republican Party. 

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the recall effort is funded primarily by “mega-donors writing six-figure checks.”

“Of the nearly $4 million that recall organizers say they have raised, more than half has come from two dozen contributors — wealthy individuals, deep-pocketed companies and Republican groups,” the Chronicle reported in March. “Large contributions poured in over the past three months as the recall effort became a statewide and national Republican cause celebre, boosted by regular segments on Fox News and other conservative outlets.”


Extremism at the Capitol

Inspired by Trump’s lies about the election being stolen from him, Hostetter, Taylor, and the other four defendants started planning their January 2020 trip to Washington, D.C. just weeks after the presidential election. By the end of December, the group was already discussing plans to storm the Capitol building. 

In a Telegram message on 29 December, Taylor told the group, “I personally want to be on the front steps and be one of the first ones to breach the doors!” 

On 1 January, Taylor created a Telegram group called “The California Patriots-DC Brigade.” All six defendants, along with more than 30 other people, joined the group. The defendants used the group to discuss travel plans and weaponry, and establish radio channels for communication. 

Hostetter, Taylor, and the other Three Percenters arrived in D.C. ahead of 6 January, where they participated in events with other Trump supporters and allies who had traveled to the Capitol. 

On 5 January, Hostetter and Taylor – representing the American Phoenix Project – spoke at a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court. The American Phoenix Project was introduced as a “financial sponsor” of the rally. 

Standing in front of a crowd of MAGA hat-wearing protesters, Hostetter gave an incendiary speech in which he declared, “We are at war in this country. We are at war tomorrow.” 

“Our voices tomorrow are going to put the fear of God in the cowards and the traitors, the RINOs [Republicans in name only], the communists of the Democrat Party, they need to know we as a people, a hundred million strong, are coming for them If they do the wrong thing,” Hostetter said. 

“I will see you all tomorrow at the frontlines. We are taking our country back,” he yelled as he finished his speech.

His co-defendant Taylor, who also spoke at the rally, pledged, “We will not return to our peaceful way of life until this election is made right.”

Other speakers at the rally co-hosted by the American Phoenix Project included far-right conspiracy theorist and Stop the Steal organiser Ali Alexander, as well as long-time Trump ally Roger Stone. In pictures from the event, Hostetter and Taylor were seen standing with Stone.

Fellow Orange County resident Leigh Dundas, a lawyer and anti-vaccine activist, also spoke at the rally and appeared to call for fatal violence against Americans.

The next day, that violence played out in an unprecedented attack on the U.S. Capitol. Hostetter and Taylor, wearing body armour and carrying a knife, allegedly pushed through the law enforcement barricade in front of the Capitol and stormed the building with hundreds of other Trump supporters. In addition to the Three Percenters, several other groups involved in the anti-lockdown protests over the past year – including the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, the Patriot movement, the Stop the Steal movement, and the Boogaloo movement – participated in the attack on the Capitol. 

Five people, including a Capitol Police Officer, died that day, and more than 140 were injured.

Later that evening, Taylor boasted about his involvement on Telegram, writing: “I was pushing through traitors all day today. WE STORMED THE CAPITOL!”


Democracy in Peril

The Capitol riot was not a spontaneous outburst of violence, but rather a carefully orchestrated, well-funded attempt to violently overthrow the election and bring an end to democracy in America. 

The involvement of people like Hostetter and Taylor, and the American Phoenix Project, reveals the close alliance between violent extremists and mainstream factions of the Republican Party, including wealthy donors and elected officials. Before and during the events of the 6 January, militia members and other extremists moved seamlessly from official events like the Women for Trump rally to discussions about weapons and staging a violent insurrection. 

Throughout it all, Trump and his Republican allies repeatedly poured fuel on the raging fire by making false and incendiary claims about COVID lockdowns being an attack on Americans and about the election being stolen. 

Republican elected officials promoted and participated in anti-lockdown protests, and later, Stop the Steal rallies, all while calling the election a “coup” and suggesting that without “illegal” votes, Trump would still be president. In order to support the auditing of state election results, they engineered a disinformation campaign to make people believe that the election outcome was in doubt. And now, in an effort to consolidate power for the future, they’re using the disinformation they manufactured as propaganda to advocate for voter suppression laws in the name of “election security.” 

Financial support for these activities comes from a combination of Washington insiders and a new class of extreme-right mega-donors that emerged during the Trump presidency and who are now steering the party in an increasingly radical, un-democratic direction. We are watching a rapid, nearly complete convergence of mainstream conservatism with the most extreme factions of the far-right, leading to a precarious reality in which violent extremists are being bankrolled by some of the nation’s richest political donors. 

The Three Percenters and the American Phoenix Project are just one example of how conservative mega-donors hide behind shell companies and conduits to avoid accountability for using their riches to fund extremism, disinformation, and at times violence. Countless more examples exist, many of which were revealed on Jan. 6 and many more of which will be revealed in the months and years to come. 

After all, this is far from over. The same people and groups involved in the lockdown protests, Stop the Steal rallies, and the attack on the Capitol have not gone away, nor has Trump’s incendiary rhetoric. With Trump pledging to be reinstalled as President and Republicans continuing to peddle election-related disinformation, there’s an endless stream of outrage fodder to fuel future protest movements and, potentially, more attempts to overthrow the government. And there’s no shortage of money to fund it. 

There are indications that far-right activists may be planning some sort of civil unrest or violence this summer, possibly around the Fourth of July, or in August, when conspiracy theorists say Trump will be reinstated. Promotional materials are circulating for events featuring speakers who were in D.C. during the Capitol riot, including the Arise Freedom Tour, a 3-month-long event that advertises itself as a “resurrection tour” culminating in the “return of Donald Trump.” Among the tour leaders is Leigh Dundas, the anti-vaccine lawyer who spoke alongside Hostetter, Taylor, Stone, and Alexander on 5 January. 

As the pandemic fades away and we start returning to life as we know it, we should prepare to face a new normal in which “politics as usual” is anything but. Donald Trump may be out of office, but the forces that put him there are going strong. The Republican Party, controlled by an increasingly extreme base and a newly empowered class of radical donors, is spiralling towards a violent, uncertain future, and dragging the rest of the country down with it.

The last time anything like this happened was during the rise of the Tea Party, which ultimately shaped the modern face of American extremism and paved the way for a Trump presidency. We’re on a similar path now, except the centre has shifted further toward the extreme right and the extreme right has shifted further towards violence — and an entirely new class of donors has emerged to fund it. 

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