Attendees of the Arise USA event at the Crosby Center Tuesday night collected signatures for a proposed audit of the 2020 election in Maine. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

A Tuesday night event in Belfast showed how a union of COVID-19 denialism and far-right extremism has been growing in Maine and gaining legitimacy, with politicians embracing those ideologies.

The “Arise USA! Resurrection Tour” that stopped at the Crosby Center was billed as promoting “faith, family and freedom” to its 150 attendees. Speakers included conspiracist Robert David Steele, retired Yarmouth gynecologist Christiane Northrup — who has become one of the nation’s leading spreaders of COVID-19 conspiracy theories — and Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association founder Richard Mack, who appeared via Zoom.

Mack is a former Arizona sheriff who believes that county sheriffs’ authority overrides federal law. Steele has spoken about his admiration for Holocaust deniers and embraced false theories, such as one stating that NASA runs a child slavery colony on Mars.

In addition, Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, spoke about the need for a “forensic audit” of Maine election results, feeding into unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential race. Witnesses noticed at least two other Republican state representatives in attendance. One did not respond to a message Wednesday and the other declined to comment.

Karyn Sporer, a University of Maine sociologist and principal investigator for the Department of Homeland Security’s National Counterterrorism, Innovation, Technology and Education Center, said that the fact that politicians now lend credence to such extremist views is “alarming”.

“Extremists have always had a foothold in Maine, period,” Sporer said, citing the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in the state in the 1920s. The major difference between 10 years ago and now is that people feel emboldened to share racist or extremist thoughts.

“People are now out there cheering for politicians who’re saying incredibly violent and hate-fueled things,” she said. “The difference is people’s willingness to state their extremist and hateful ideologies.”

In Bangor, Congregation Beth Israel President Brian Kresge said Sampson’s presence at the Belfast event legitimized a group of people he called “unequivocally violent.” The synagogue had called for her to withdraw ahead of the event, saying Steele is antisemitic.

A review of Steele’s blog shows his affinity for QAnon, anti-vaccine misinformation and canards about “globalists” and the World Health Organization. Steele also said he’s a former CIA spy, a claim the intelligence agency declined to confirm.

“Who is the company Heidi Sampson is keeping?” Kresge said. “It’s coded antisemitism. They use weasel words, but it’s there and it’s growing.”

Andy O’Brien, a freelance writer who tracks extremist groups in Maine, echoed Kresge and Sporer. While the Tuesday event had no avowed white supremacist speakers, he said, it was aimed at uniting groups of people who may have different interests but a similar distrust of vaccines and government authority.

“Anti-vaccination influencers like Christiane Northrup have been promoting the idea that you can somehow get a sheriff to refuse to enforce COVID protection and vaccine mandates,” O’Brien said. “That’s how the anti-vaccine movement has started to unite with the patriotic sheriffs movement and get them to try and protect everyone from ‘unconstitutional’ laws like gun control.”

While ideologies can be extremist and hateful, Sporer said, they aren’t illegal.

“You can be radical all you want in your free speech and ideals and perspective on life, and there’s nothing illegal about it,” Sporer said. “Once you turn to violence and advocate for it, though, it’s against the law and you’re not constitutionally protected.”

The mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 showed how “radicalization was transforming into violent [behavior] before our very eyes,” Sporer said.

The fact that two people with Maine ties so far have been arrested for their alleged roles in the insurrection shows it is possible for radical ideologies to translate into violence in Maine, she said.

One of the two men with Maine connections arrested, Kyle Fitzsimons, was open about his white supremacist views well before he allegedly charged twice at a line of police officers at the Capitol. He testified before lawmakers in Augusta in April 2018, saying he had moved to Maine to escape “multicultural hellholes” and that the legislators were doing nothing as immigrants to the region were “killing off yankee New England culture,” according to a press report from the time.

White supremacist groups have eyed Maine in the past as a potentially fertile recruiting ground due to its status as the whitest state and and loose gun laws.

One of them, the former town manager of Jackman, had founded a white separatist group called New Albion and espoused anti-Muslim and racist ideas. Tom Kawczynski said in 2018 that he had moved to northern New England in part to preserve the region’s white majority.

New Albion is one of three hate groups the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified in Maine.

And last month, a Texas neo-Nazi said he and his followers were looking to move to Greater Bangor or northern Maine to set up an all-white ethnostate.

The Proud Boys also appear to have a presence in Maine. The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled that group a hate group for its anti-Muslim, misogynistic and white nationalist views. The group has been responsible for a number of violent street fights, and two of its national leaders led the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol in January. The Canadian government designated it as a terrorist organization the following month.

Earlier this month, the magazine Mainer reported that a Portland chapter of the Proud Boys claimed local dive bar Mathew’s Pub as a meeting place. A former Mathew’s bartender said the group had portrayed itself as a fraternal drinking club.

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Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.