The Takeover of Shasta County

The Takeover of Shasta County

In the quiet California region, extremists have infiltrated local government. Is it a new blueprint for the right?

Facebook
Twitter
Email
Flipboard
Pocket

Mary Rickert opens her iPad, clicks on her hate-mail folder, and shows me some of the screeds she has received over the past three years. One begins: “I’d like to fuck Mary Rickert in the face with a brick.” Another has the subject line “Going, going, gone, dead woman walking.” She closes the folder, shudders, and says, “I have PTSD because of this, just from the insanity of it all. I have nightmares all the time. Watching the county just crumble is absolutely devastating for me… watching it being taken over by a far-right group.”

Rickert is a member of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors. Last year, she narrowly survived a recall effort, as did a colleague, Joe Chimenti. But another supervisor, board chair Leonard Moty—a former police chief of Redding, Calif., and, like Rickert, a reliable Reagan Republican—wasn’t so lucky, losing by a considerable margin to an extremist candidate. The three supervisors targeted for recall, who had formed a stable majority on the five-person board, were blamed by many residents for not going to war with the state over the emergency pandemic mandates Governor Gavin Newsom put in place in the spring of 2020—even though, compared with most other counties in California, Shasta went light on its lockdown enforcement. For the past three years, Rickert has been derided as a RINO (or “Republican in name only”), routinely subjected to death threats and other harassment, and frequently denounced as a “communist” during overheated meetings.

It’s hard to imagine someone less likely to be a revolutionary Marxist. Rickert is 70 years old and has a long and colorful history in Redding, a city situated at the northern tip of California’s Central Valley. A prize-winning rancher, she has served on the state Board of Forestry Fire Protection and on the local Mental Health, Alcohol & Drug Advisory Board. Until recently, Rickert’s colleagues considered her a rock-solid conservative, a woman who had cut her political teeth in the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, voted for Donald Trump twice, and was a proud gun owner. With her curly mouse-brown hair, colorful plaid jacket, and almost theatrically large spectacles, everything about Rickert seems over-the-top. Yet these days, she sees herself as the sober personality in the room, a voice of reason in a county that has gone crazy.

Shasta County, home of the small Gold Rush–era city of Redding, links the picturesque orchards and farmlands of the 450-mile-long Central Valley to the wild mountains in the northern part of the state, exclamation-pointed by the vastness of Mount Shasta. The county has become ultraconservative, its Democratic and trade union heritage buried, in recent decades, by a blizzard of God-and-guns politics. Often, “God” and “guns” overlap, with Second Amendment absolutists defending their “God-given” right to carry any weapon they damn well please—and arguing that the rights delineated in the country’s founding documents originate, quite literally, from God himself. One can almost picture St. Peter, AK-47 strapped over his shoulder, patrolling the Pearly Gates to make sure that only the armed faithful get admitted.

The center of Redding is undergoing something of a renaissance, with hip new cafes and galleries opening up, new condos being built, and new health care facilities in the works. But the modernizing impulse has its limits: Redding remains at a great distance from California’s big cities, both in terms of miles and worldviews—a place where conservatives cluster to avoid the interference of big-city bureaucrats. Libertarians, back-to-the-landers, gun freaks, and Bible thumpers (many belonging to the hyper-conservative Bethel mega-church) all settle in to live their vision of the “State of Jefferson,” a right-wing promised land far removed from the hippie-liberal-communist wing nuts down in Sacramento and the Bay Area. For decades, they, along with the residents of many other rural counties in Northern California and eastern Oregon, have embraced a utopian dream of seceding and forming a rural idyll of a state more to their liking, to be named Jefferson—a mythical place that seems suspiciously like a larger version of Idaho.

These days, the secessionists are running the show in Shasta County. In addition to capturing the Board of Supervisors, the hard right has taken over a number of local school boards, driven out public health workers who crafted the region’s response to Covid, and pushed to make the county what they call a “Second Amendment sanctuary,” where no gun control measures they view as unconstitutional would be enforced and where county employees would be required to swear allegiance to the Second Amendment. Some locals are still struggling to understand how it happened. Others believe it’s a “blueprint” for the rest of the nation to follow.

At the corner of Olive and Main in Cottonwood, about 16 miles from Redding, is a tiny wooden barbershop owned by Woody Clendenen, a 56-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair and a gray goatee. Originally from the little Central Valley town of Turlock, about 240 miles to the south, the businessman-cum-activist is the cofounder of the Cottonwood Militia, established in 2010, early in Barack Obama’s presidency. Clendenen offers his services across the street from the headquarters of the California State Militia, the door of which is adorned with a poster declaring: “Socialism has no home here.” When I visit, the barbershop’s floor is covered with a carpet of what appears to be weeks’ worth of shorn hair. On the wall to the left of the entrance hangs a large rifle, and behind the two barber chairs is a price list reading:

men/boys haircut: $20

seniors: $15

veterans: $2 discount

family rate: $18

buzz: $10

liberals: $100

vaccinated: additional $5

Clendenen makes no bones about his worldview. America has swung too far left, he says, empowering faux-conservatives like former county supervisor Moty—a man who “really needed a butt-stomping most of his life”—to treat ordinary Joes with grievous disrespect and push a “woke” agenda down Americans’ throats. “We’re not going to put up with that here,” Clendenen says. “Critical race theory, talking about 70 genders. We’re not going to lie to our kids. The middle ground up here is probably between conservatives and RINOs. The far left really has no say up here.”

In the era of a rising far right and the echo chambers of social media, Shasta County has embraced vitriol with at least as much gusto as any other place in the country. In 2016, Donald Trump won Shasta County with 63.9 percent of the vote. In 2020, after months of protests against Covid lockdowns, he upped his share of the vote to 65.4 percent.

The schisms exposed by Trump and Trumpism laid the groundwork. But without Covid, the county wouldn’t have erupted in the way that it did. Three years after Governor Newsom’s somewhat heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all lockdown kicked in across California, the long political tail of the pandemic is still unfurling. The state’s improvised rules—its color-coded grading system for county infection rates and for risk factors in the further spread of the disease, as well as its sweeping, at times myopic precautionary measures—created confusion and triggered anger, particularly regarding the school closures. Had Newsom been more flexible, and had the public health mandates been more differentiated between large, densely populated cities and smaller, more rural counties, it’s possible that Shasta County’s crisis would never have come to a head.

“Covid, when it came out, was a very distant thing,” Moty tells me. “We were like six months behind. So a lot of people round here saw it as Sacramento and the Democratic governor trying to tell us what to do, big government trying to take over, the New World Order. We’re a hotbed for the ‘State of Jefferson’ thing. It became an easy rallying point. There was a lot of resistance to taking preventative steps: masking, social distancing, shutting businesses down.”

Dr. Karen Ramstrom, who had become the county’s public health officer in October 2018, found herself between a rock and a hard place. “Like everywhere else in the world, at the beginning of 2020 we were watching to see what would happen, having our own internal conversations about what that means for us,” she recalls. By early March, it was clear that California was heading into a lockdown. When locals demanded to know how long the disruptions would last—how long their businesses would be closed, their children out of school, their friends and relatives separated from them by social-distancing requirements—she had to tell them that no one knew.

“They were pissed with the governor and his executive orders. But we were in an unprecedented event, and his priority was to keep people safe,” Ramstrom says. “There was this whole evolution of lack of trust in government. It made it very difficult. These groups with their issues kind of coalesced: State of Jefferson people, constitutionalists, anti-vaxxers.”

Moty says that at first he supported “voluntary compliance” with the mandates, favoring such measures as outdoor dining at restaurants, and when businesses refused to shut down, the county generally didn’t issue citations. Eventually, when infection rates spiked in late 2020 and hospitals were overwhelmed, Moty and his colleagues embraced the state restrictions, including taking board meetings online. Still, he wasn’t comfortable with many of the lockdown requirements. He was at times angered by the shifting goalposts on whether businesses could stay open—thinking it unfair, for example, that restaurants had invested a huge amount of money in plexiglass dividers, outdoor seating, and outdoor heating equipment, only to run into a blanket shutdown order when infection rates went up several months into that first pandemic year. But even the measures Moty reluctantly agreed to were poorly received.

When the lockdowns happened, we expected our supervisors to interpose themselves between the state government, to not obey them,” says Woody Clendenen. “There were a bunch of idiotic mandates. The shop across the street with drug paraphernalia was an ‘essential business,’ but mine wasn’t. The nudie bars were left open, but churches had to close.”

As Covid spread, and as county health officials desperately tried to craft regulations to keep the populace safe, local talk-radio hosts began telling their audiences that it was time for blood to flow in the streets. “Communists only recognize the limits of their power when their necks are stretched,” said Matt Nimmo, who rented time on KCNR for his biweekly rants. A post on a Facebook group called RE-OPEN Shasta declared an intention to “take out Dr. Ramstrom.” A flood of other online threats soon followed. Anti-vaxxers and anti-lockdown activists picketed the public health offices. Fearing violence, the Redding Police Department ramped up patrols of Ramstrom’s neighborhood. For a few days, she had a private security team stationed outside her house.

“I needed to keep the community safe,” Ramstrom remembers thinking. “I didn’t have time to feel scared or threatened or fearful.” But things were becoming so dysfunctional nationally, with so much disinformation being thrown into the ether, from Washington, D.C., down to the local level, that it was getting ever harder to navigate the crosscurrents. There were far-right “citizen journalists” such as the provocateur Rich Gallardo, who attempted to carry out citizen’s arrests of the moderate supervisors during the lockdowns. (When I contacted Gallardo for an interview, he wrote back: “Your writings show as an extreme leftist, almost statist, and facistic [sic]. I don’t think anything I would have to say would be fairly reported by someone of your mindset.”) There were anti-vax activists too, such as the nurse Authur Gorman, a John Birch Society supporter who argued that the state’s vaccine requirements for medical personnel represented an intolerable intrusion of big government into private lives.

The scariest part of it all was that Shasta County was awash in weaponry. It reportedly had more concealed-weapons permits per capita than any other county in the state. It had an active militia, Clendenen’s Cottonwood Militia—though its members and supporters claim it is simply a chapter of the California State Militia. Its members, with help from heavily armed local bikers, cowboys, and miscellaneous self-described “patriots,” patrolled the region’s towns and hamlets during the protests that erupted after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. On podcasts, militia members joked about doling out “Cottonwood Justice” to vagrants, criminals, and other undesirables.

In the summer of 2020, a local agitator named Carlos Zapata, an ex-Marine with a street-fighting swagger, stood up at a Board of Supervisors meeting and vowed there would be blood in the streets if the lockdowns and other restrictions weren’t immediately lifted. His screed went viral, with millions of people watching as he promised a second American revolution unless things opened up again, and fast. Since most of those who supported the mask mandates and other public health measures had stopped going to these meetings, unwilling to be exposed to the unmasked attendees, Zapata and his crowd were able to take center stage. When Moty, as the board’s chair, refused to listen to the extremists’ demands that the county flout state public health requirements, Zapata called his reasons “bullshit.” Later, when the meetings moved online, Zapata and his fellow right-wing activists used Zoom to continue their vocal, at times inflammatory opposition. Discontent mounted in Redding as well as in many out-of-the-way rural communities with names like Happy Valley, Igo, and French Gulch, where residents wanted nothing so much as to be left alone by big government. From then on, the attacks against Moty, Rickert, and Chimenti came fast and furious.

Carlos Zapata claims to be generally progressive on economic issues. In public, he likes to distance himself from the “crazy fuckers” who, he says, want to destroy everything. He didn’t seem shocked, however, when the Proud Boys demonstrated on his behalf outside the courtroom where he was being charged with battery and disturbing the peace last year, after he and two friends got into a fracas with a liberal YouTuber and TikToker named Nathan Pinkney, who had mocked some of Zapata’s public speeches.

Pinkney had created a parody character of Zapata named Buford White, who wore plaid shirts and a big floppy hat, talked like a Southern yokel, and explained why it was a good thing not to wear masks during a respiratory disease pandemic. Days after the first Buford White videos hit Facebook, Zapata and two friends visited Pinkney at the downtown restaurant where he worked as a sous-chef and proceeded to beat him up. None of the three attackers went to jail—Zapata was convicted of disturbing the peace by fighting, but acquitted on the battery and simple assault charges. They were, however, put on probation and, Pinkney says, required to attend anger management classes.

For Zapata, the Pinkney episode is merely a footnote. What he wants to focus on, in his many interviews with the media, is how Covid triggered a reawakening about the way government overreach is endangering the constitutional order. “Covid’s what kicked off the entire movement,” he says. “Nobody was very political or interested till the shutdown came.” But when businesses had to close, schools were shuttered, and the public was barred from public meetings, he continues, “there was just a boiling point. Everybody was fed up with being lied to, not being able to run your business, not being able to see your friends.”

Once Covid lit the fuse, other issues began to fall into place in Zapata’s mind: Black Lives Matter, the purported presence of antifa, abortion, gender fluidity. “Our kids started coming home and saying what was happening in the schools: boys in girls’ bathrooms and vice versa,” he says. “Our kids were being taught things we didn’t think were appropriate.” They were also being pressured to get vaccinated—a red line for Zapata. At one point, during an interview for a Vice documentary, Zapata threatened to shoot in the face anyone who would dare to vaccinate his children. It was time, a growing number of people in Zapata’s camp had decided, “to elect people who would represent us and be constitutionalists. Uphold the Constitution and leave us alone.”

After his star turn at the Board of Supervisors meeting, Zapata cofounded a YouTube channel called Red, White and Blueprint. He generated several hours’ worth of a slickly produced local “docuseries,” later made available on Amazon Prime, as well as an ongoing series of podcasts. In the channel’s video podcasts, talking heads sit around a table and shoot the shit, preaching right-wing revolution and badmouthing their enemies. They hawk T-shirts and baseball caps. And they claim to have found a secret sauce: a set of political priorities and campaign methods that will enable them to take over the county, electoral office by electoral office, and that will inspire viewers elsewhere to set up copycat movements and wrest control of their local governments from the liberals and the public health “experts,” the wokesters and the gender-benders.

Zapata’s nemesis in the local media was Doni Chamberlain, the publisher of a liberal online magazine called A News Cafe. Chamberlain agrees that while Trump and Trumpism had gotten this circus going, it was Covid that served as the fuse for a broader upheaval. “It’s changed everything,” Chamberlain says. But unlike Zapata, she does feel that the lunatics are now running the asylum. “I wish I had another word besides ‘crazy’ or ‘insane,’” she says. “This place has been taken over. Right now I feel like the building is on fire.”

Because A News Cafe was sympathetic to the public health officials and the members of the Board of Supervisors who were upholding state law, Chamberlain was routinely targeted by alt-right media barkers. A group called Thought You Should Know–Shasta County, which was monitoring the uptick of local right-wing extremism, recorded a rant broadcast on KCNR by a man that station owner Carl Bott identified as Matt Nimmo. Nimmo called on his listeners to try the publisher of “the communist cockroach paper” under “the Nuremberg trials” and “publicly execute her.” Then he escalated. “When our country collapses and you force armed conflict, you get absolutely what you deserve,” Nimmo screamed, his voice crescendoing. “If that’s hooked up to a car and you get dragged down the road…then you get what you deserve. You truly have to understand our government has been seized by communist trash. Propped up by trash.” He punched the table in the broadcast booth. “They don’t care why everyone’s dying, because they support population control. These little Nazis within government, and communist trash…. They’re going to continue to shove that mask and the vaccine down your throat. That’s why she should be tried under the Nuremberg Code and hung in the end, because it’s for the greater good.”

With the airwaves saturated with calls to violence and noncooperation, Shasta County’s residents resisted the vaccinations, just as they had the lockdowns. Only 48 percent got the first two doses, and only 55 percent of those went on to get booster shots; the number of children in the county who were fully vaccinated was vanishingly small. As the spikes in the pandemic hit the county, in the late autumn of 2020, the summer and early autumn of 2021, and the winter of 2022, the deaths there mounted. By the autumn of 2022—which was when the county website stopped posting updates on the pandemic—the little county of 185,000 residents had recorded nearly 700 deaths. That made for a death rate of 0.37 percent of the population. By contrast, the death rate in California as a whole, which had a much higher vaccination rate, was just over 0.25 percent by early 2023. While that difference might not look large, another way to understand these numbers is that three Shasta County residents were dying for every two Californians out of a comparable population sample.

In November 2020, the mood produced a seismic political shift. Patrick Jones, a gun store manager and onetime Redding mayor who is as hard right as hard right can get, won a seat on the Board of Supervisors and began using his newfound position to rally the right against his moderate colleagues. A domino effect would soon follow: first the recall of Moty; then the resignation of two other moderates and their replacement by right-wing candidates; and, finally, Jones’s ascent to the position of board chair.

Patrick Jones sits in his family-owned gun store under a huge buffalo head and an almost equally impressive stag’s head mounted beside a cardboard cutout of a man pocked with target-practice bullet holes. He speaks with pride about how he hews to a Southern Baptist “fire and brimstone” worldview, one that won’t let him accept homosexuality, for example, as anything other than sinful, and one that believes in the corrective power of the rod. He speaks nostalgically of how his father “whooped” him with a leather strap when he was a boy, engendering in him a respect for law and order that, since the 1960s, has been in increasingly short supply. For Jones, the world is black and white, the gray zones of ambiguity places to shy away from. “There’s right and wrong. When you do wrong, you will be punished. I believe in a very simple world: You try to be honest, be fair, be respectful. And you gotta believe in Jesus Christ.”

Deep into our conversation, Jones proudly stated that he never reads newspapers, that they “aren’t worth new piss,” and that he gets his news mainly from the “search engines I do use—won’t name any names.” Then he started talking about LGBTQ rights, which the previous board had, on a yearly basis, passed a symbolic resolution supporting. Jones said that under his chairmanship, that would stop. “Their lifestyle, I don’t believe in that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s acceptable.” Then he pivoted to Black Lives Matter—no surprise, he wasn’t a fan—and more generally to civil rights. “BLM is a form of racism,” he said. “Everybody should be treated equal and the same.” He expanded his critique to eminently moderate and mainstream civil rights organizations: “I don’t believe in the NAACP. Most people here didn’t appreciate any of that.”

In the wake of Jones’s election, the recall effort against Moty, Rickert, and Chimenti picked up steam in 2021, boosted by a huge infusion of cash from Reverge Anselmo, an eccentric, Connecticut-based, right-wing heir to a billionaire’s fortune who was nursing a grudge against the Board of Supervisors after the county sued him for constructing several buildings, without zoning permission, on a local vineyard that he owned. (Anselmo did not return repeated phone calls for this article.) The hundreds of thousands of dollars that he donated to local activists and political action committees—and, according to the Los Angeles Times, to Red, White and Blueprint—turned what could have been a sleepy local race into a spectacle that, for the alt-right, assumed global implications. In the spring and summer of 2021, as the pandemic death toll mounted and as forest fires blanketed the region in thick smoke, events were held in local churches, gun stores, and restaurants to gather the required number of signatures to qualify the recall for the ballot. There were increasingly acrimonious confrontations at board meetings, as well as ugly Internet campaigns designed to intimidate Moty, Rickert, and Chimenti and to galvanize their opponents.

Once the recall made the ballot, the moderate supervisors faced months of relentless attacks. Moty was vilified for having acted in his official capacity to go behind firefighting lines during the horrifying Carr Fire of 2018 to refill his evacuated home’s generator. Online trolls threatened to tar and feather him, accused him of being a pedophile, called for him to be guillotined, and urged the formation of lynch mobs against him.

On February 1, 2022, Moty was booted from the Board of Supervisors, with 56 percent voting to recall him. After an election so mean-spirited, so filled with bile and fantasies of death and destruction, he and his wife started to think about leaving the county for more tolerant climes. To Jones, however, the threats were simply people letting off steam. “I think they’re inflating their death threats,” he says. “Moty’s an ex–police chief. He can take care of himself. They overplayed the death threats to try to make their point that recall people were violent.”

Moty’s replacement, Tim Garman, a MAGA loyalist and anti-vaxxer, was more to Jones’s taste. The two then worked to move their colleague Les Baugh, who had been a swing vote on many issues in recent months, into their camp after the recall vote. In early May 2022, with a new right-wing majority, the board voted, by a 3-to-2 margin, to fire Dr. Ramstrom, without cause. Jones and his hard-right colleagues—none of whom had ever accepted the need for mask mandates, social distancing, or business closures—had repeatedly refused to meet with her.

Nine months after the recall, the rightward shift accelerated: Chimenti and Baugh decided that running for reelection in such an environment was more trouble than it was worth, and in the wake of their retirements, two more supervisors aligned with Jones and Garman won seats in last November’s elections. What had been a 4-to-1 moderate conservative majority on the Board of Supervisors in 2020 was now a 4-to-1 hard-right majority. At the first meeting of the new board, in January 2023, Jones was elected chair. To celebrate their power, several of the new members would often come to work carrying firearms.

Fifty-four-year-old Chris Kelstrom is one of the two newly elected supervisors. Like most conservatives in town, he carries weapons. He worked as a grocery store manager for many years, then as a bread delivery driver for more than a decade. Over those years, he became increasingly disenchanted with the local and state governments. He doesn’t trust the integrity of the voter rolls and, notwithstanding his own electoral victory, is convinced that fraud has run rampant. Kelstrom particularly disliked the lockdowns and virtual meetings that accompanied Covid. He feels that Covid relief money was “laundered,” via the Redding Chamber of Commerce, to fund Moty’s efforts to beat back the recall. He also objects to the direction California’s schools are heading in. “The boys’ and girls’ bathrooms thing is not very popular here. They recently put tampon machines in the boys’ bathrooms,” he says. He believes critical race theory is spreading insidiously into classrooms.

The same year Kelstrom won a seat on the Board of Supervisors, many of the county’s school boards were also seized by men and women that Kelstrom describes as “conservative patriots”—people willing, at long last, to go toe-to-toe with the woke crowd that Kelstrom sees as having taken over the education system in recent years. People like local fundamentalist preacher Patty Plumb and her husband, Ronald, who believe that Karl Marx successfully took over the education system in 1848, along with many other pillars of American society, and that school boards in America have been dominated by Marxists ever since.

To make matters worse, more than a year after Trump’s November 2020 defeat in the presidential election, many residents were now in thrall to election denialism. The hysteria surrounding the purported endemic fraud committed by Democrats, RINOs, and other ne’er-do-wells intensified when one of the country’s leading election conspiracists, the Ohio math teacher Doug Frank, was invited to Redding to whip up the crowds. He appeared at a Board of Supervisors meeting and then gave a sold-out lecture at a local church, claiming that election officials and other bureaucrats around the country had manipulated voter rolls and altered vote counts to ensure the defeat of conservative candidates.

Frank’s ideas, says Stanford political science professor and Hoover Institute fellow Justin Grimmer, who studies conspiracy theorists in the United States, revolve around the idea of “a network of unnamed elites” manipulating vote totals around the country. “It’s all totally ridiculous bunk,” Grimmer says. “But he’s an incredible organizer. He gives these talks, then recruits people to knock on doors.” Grimmer’s group contacted the Board of Supervisors in an effort to advise them against giving Frank a platform. They had no success.

Sure enough, around the same time, right-wing vigilantes wearing orange vests and “Voter Taskforce” badges could be seen banging on doors in Shasta County and asking residents about their voting history, in a menacing effort to root out the supposedly rampant electoral fraud—presumably among the one-third of the electorate who didn’t cast ballots for Donald Trump when presented with the opportunity to do so. In the June 7 primaries last year—the first local elections held after the recall—men and women in the heavily armed county forced their way into the electoral count as “observers,” setting off a flurry of concern among elections officials and ordinary citizens in the county.

By early 2023, Jones was attempting to declare Shasta County a Second Amendment sanctuary and to make county employees swear an oath specifically to defend the Second Amendment. He was also pushing to expand local open-carry ordinances and to raise money for a lawsuit challenging the state’s open-carry restrictions. The new board was committing the county to a multi-hundred-million-dollar project to build a huge new county jail, even though it was struggling to staff its existing jail and, in consequence, at least one of the jail’s four floors had been closed in recent months. The board had also set about banning Dominion Voting Systems’ machines—an effort that garnered praise, in February 2023, from pillow merchant Mike Lindell, who promised to help defray legal expenses should the county be sued by the state. The board went on to push out the county CEO and attorney and to fire, without cause, the director of the Department of Housing and Community Action Programs. The majority was, it seemed, looking to remake the entire county in the image of Zapata’s Red, White and Blueprint.

Doni Chamberlain had spent years speaking truth to power, frequently criticizing the militias and other right-wing groups. But by early 2023, even she was scared. She largely retreated behind the security systems in her house, holding meetings in private. When she walked to her car, she looked around nervously, doing a quick security calculus to see if anything looked out of the ordinary.

For Carl Bott, a 74-year-old libertarian-leaning military veteran who ran the KCNR radio station, and whose airwaves had provided space for Nimmo, the cascading coarseness had been nothing to cheer about. Sure, it created a ready audience for his firebrand hosts, but Bott’s heart was no longer in the game. He seemed, instead, almost nostalgic for a calmer, quieter past. Once Nimmo’s rant was pointed out to him, Bott sent him packing and deleted his old shows from the station’s website. “I didn’t want to give him any more publicity. What he said was wrong. We pulled him off the air,” Bott says. An old-school gentleman who took pride in his community and sought out consensus when he could find it, Bott seemed genuinely upset that Chamberlain wouldn’t accept his apologies.

The saving grace, in Bott’s understanding, is that none of this, looked at historically, is that abnormal; hotheads have always come and gone in American politics. Covid and Trump had magnified all of the community’s divides, had made people angrier, coarser, and cruder, but soon things would quiet down again. It was just part of the push and pull, the flamboyant spectacle of American politics, he says: “Like anything, if the waters roil up, it settles. In the long run, things will settle down again. Like they always do.”

That may be too pat. Shasta County’s slide into political chaos was anything but typical, and the consequences are likely to reverberate there for years to come. There remains an omnipresent background hum of extremism, disinformation, and paranoia in everyday life. Most residents aren’t political fanatics, but too many have chosen to sit this fight out. And with too few people voting in local elections to counter the militias, the QAnoners, the Christian nationalists, and the Second Amendment absolutists, the far right is steering the ship.

“It’s a constant barrage of intimidation,” Mary Rickert says. “It’s wearing. It’s hard on staff. We’ve lost a lot of employees. Our county counsel is leaving in April. For three years, it’s just been nothing but insanity. I’ve had people standing in our driveway, stalking our place. They’ve intimidated and bullied enough that people are afraid that they can do anything they want.”

Not surprisingly, Chairman Jones disagrees. “You have to understand real Northern California,” he says. “These are smaller, conservative counties. People are conservative, self-reliant. We believe in strict constitutional government. Over the last two years, a lot of people rose up and said they’re tired of what’s happening in local government. That’s what’s happening in Shasta County today. It’s a course correction. It’s long overdue.” In other words, move along, nothing to see here.

In the end, however, no matter how much they attempt to sanitize their beliefs and accuse the media of distorting their positions, the Joneses and Zapatas of the county keep undermining their own efforts at appearing moderate. During the week when I was in touch with him, Zapata texted me messages about how we would agree on an array of economic issues, such as the scandal of poverty in the United States or of people being denied health care because they lacked resources. He stressed how these issues transcended ideology and were a symptom of a deeper societal malaise. Then, late one night, apropos of nothing, a series of anti-Semitic messages popped up on my phone from the number he had been using. Those messages informed me that “many Latinos complain that the Jews are horrible people,” adding that “they don’t tip worth a shit.” The messages concluded, “I was raised not to trust a Jew but I’m open to hear what you have to say since you’re one of them.”

That “you’re one of them” sums it all up. In the minds of the people who orchestrated a political revolution in Shasta County and who, now that they are in power, are pushing to limit the role of public health officers, to freeze out discussions of diversity in school classrooms, to roll back social services, and, perhaps above all, to make it easier to own guns, you are either with them or against them. You are either one of them or forever an untrusted, unwanted outsider. The word “Jews,” it seemed to me, was almost an afterthought.

With the political pendulum swinging rightward in many counties and states around the country—from the sweeping culture wars of Ron DeSantis’s Florida to Jones’s Second Amendment sanctuary campaign in Shasta County—it could just as well have been “gays” or “public health officers,” “transgender people” or “liberals.” It could have been anyone, in short, who didn’t agree with the Red, White and Blueprint, anyone who, in 2023, isn’t entirely on board with the efforts to reshape picturesque Shasta County in its my-way-or-the-highway image.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Mike Lindell attended a Shasta County board meeting in person. An e-mail he sent was read out by a board member during the meeting.

Ad Policy
x