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Pod Corner: 'If All Else Fails'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

A year and a half ago, in the summer of 2022, a sheriff from upstate New York shared a photo of himself online. He was holding an award from the Oath Keepers, the far-right militia group at the center of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. That photo caught the attention of two reporters who cover upstate New York, and it kicked off a months-long investigation into the far-right landscape there. That reporting is now the subject of a new podcast called If All Else Fails from North Country Public Radio. And the hosts of that podcast are Emily Russell and Zach Hirsch, who join us now. Hey there.

ZACH HIRSCH, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: Thanks for being here. And before we dive into the story here and the and the far-right's presence, just set the broader scene for us. The podcast is about upstate New York, specifically a part of the region called the North Country. Tell us about that area, Emily.

RUSSELL: It's a massive part of northern New York, and it's really similar to other parts of rural America. It's pretty remote. Not that many people live here. The population has actually been dwindling. It's very white working class. And we've seen the region get more conservative in recent years, with some people embracing far-right ideas and groups.

DETROW: And like you said, these are trends we're seeing in so many parts of the country right now. Let's talk about that sheriff that I mentioned that kicked off the series. Zach, what did you find when you started to investigate Lewis County Sheriff Mike Carpinelli?

HIRSCH: Yeah. So, Sheriff Carpinelli, we found he does have real connections to the Oath Keepers militia. He had contact with that group's founder, Stewart Rhodes. The summer after January 6, Carpinelli emailed Rhodes, saying he'd been to a rally to support people arrested for the Capitol attack. We also found that Carpinelli has ties to a group called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Experts say that group is radicalizing sheriffs across the country, teaching them they don't have to follow laws they think are unconstitutional.

DETROW: Interesting.

HIRSCH: And by the way, we - I just want to say we reached out to Carpinelli a lot of times, and he declined our interview request.

DETROW: OK. Well, that's a good thing to flag up top as we keep going. But, I mean, you're talking about kind of this broad push, you know, not following laws that you personally think are unconstitutional. Emily, how does this far-right mentality impact people in the area?

RUSSELL: Yeah. In the last decade, some sheriffs from upstate New York, including Mike Carpinelli, have refused to enforce some state gun laws that impacts people. We also saw that mentality play out during the pandemic. Sheriffs refused to enforce some health mandates. Here's part of our - one of our episodes, which starts with Sheriff Carpinelli at a county meeting during the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE CARPINELLI: For all of us to be such sheep and be in such fear is absolutely ridiculous. And now you're going to use a law enforcement official to try to get people to stay in their house? Not a chance from this guy.

RUSSELL: Then last summer, he waded into the culture war battle over gender identity in schools. In a Facebook Live interview, Carpinelli referred to gender policies as, quote, "mind control."

(SOUNDBITE OF FACEBOOK LIVE VIDEO)

CARPINELLI: If any parent goes to school, they find out that the administration is pushing this pedophile, this anti-gender crap about who they are and what they are, and a parent feels that their child has been endangered by the school system, we'll send down a deputy or an investigator and we will arrest that school teacher.

HIRSCH: Carpinelli is suggesting he could arrest someone for teaching something he doesn't agree with, not for something that's against the law.

JOE HENDERSON: I mean, to me, as a scholar who studies these things, it smacks of authoritarianism, right?

RUSSELL: That's Joe Henderson. He's a professor at Paul Smith's College in the Adirondacks.

HENDERSON: It's this kind of belief that, like, you should be deferential to certain kinds of authority and, like, anybody who deviates from that authority, like, needs to be punished.

RUSSELL: Henderson and others who study extremism say this is why this kind of rhetoric matters.

HIRSCH: He says it's a local authority picking and choosing which laws to enforce, leaving an entire population potentially at the mercy of one person's ideology.

HENDERSON: How does somebody, on the one hand, believe that the government shouldn't tread on them, while also being literally an agent of the state? And the way that's a smooth ideology - right? - is that you believe that your interpretation of the state is the correct one.

DETROW: That's one excerpt of a podcast called If All Else Fails from North Country Public Radio. And, Zach, I just want to reiterate that this isn't just about one particular person. This is about a lot of broader trends that you've found as you've looked into this. What else did you uncover on this podcast?

HIRSCH: Yeah. So zooming out, we found that all kinds of extremist groups have tried to recruit in upstate New York, from the infamous Ku Klux Klan to newer groups like Patriot Front and the Proud Boys. Some have marched in the streets and posted flyers. And top security officials and experts have taken notice. They're concerned about these groups. But we also learned that there are way more people who never join a formal group.

DETROW: Yeah. And let's talk about another episode and another person you looked at. Emily, this episode profiles a man from upstate who went to prison for January 6. Tell us about this.

RUSSELL: His name is James Bonet. He's in his early 30s, and he used to be a left-leaning Bernie bro. Those are his words. But a few years ago, he went down a rabbit hole. He started listening to some podcasts, a lot of which push far-right conspiracy theories about things like climate change and also the idea that there's a deep state. And eventually, James Bonet came to believe that the 2020 election was stolen. So he drove all the way down to D.C. from upstate New York. And on January 6, he went into the Capitol. And today he's more convinced in conspiracy theories, like the claim that anyone who was violent on January 6 was only trying to make Trump supporters look bad. Here's another excerpt from the podcast.

JAMES BONET: They don't even look like Americans. They look - they literally look like they went to the Halloween store and were like, let me just look like a patriot. They don't even look like real Americans. They look honestly like FBI.

RUSSELL: Do you have evidence for that?

BONET: No. It's just what my instinct tells me. And I trust my instinct.

HIRSCH: That's yet another viral conspiracy theory, which the head of the FBI described as ludicrous. A congressional investigation and hundreds of prosecutions found no evidence that the FBI or far-left groups orchestrated the attack.

RUSSELL: More than a thousand people were arrested for participating in January 6, including dozens of New Yorkers, people from Watertown, Buffalo, Rochester, Long Island and New York City. Hundreds of people ended up with prison time nationwide, including James Bonet.

HIRSCH: He was originally charged with a felony, but he took a deal and pleaded guilty to unlawful entry in a restricted building, a misdemeanor. Bonet says his sentence was a surprise, but he went in thinking of himself as a patriot.

BONET: During the American Revolutionary War, some of our Founding Fathers were imprisoned. And I thought, if they could survive that, then I could survive three months or 72 days in prison. So that was my mentality going through it.

RUSSELL: Do you regret being part of that day, the insurrection?

BONET: I don't even - I wouldn't even call it - I'm not going to call it an insurrection or give it power like that. But, no, I don't.

DETROW: We're listening to excerpts from a new podcast called If All Else Fails. And I just want to, like, stick on this point for a moment. This is somebody who participated in January 6, seems unapologetic about it, and yet at the same time is knee-deep in conspiracy theories about what actually happened that day, even though he was there and saw it in person for himself.

RUSSELL: Yeah. That was pretty remarkable to hear. And, you know, he really sees himself as a patriot in that moment. And it's something we heard from other folks we talked to, you know, who believe in some of these conspiracy theories and are part of some of these far-right groups and militias. You know, they believe they're the true patriots in this moment.

DETROW: I mean, for both of you, what were your big takeaways from this close look at the far right and its presence in the North Country?

HIRSCH: Well, one key takeaway and something we highlight at the end is that there are dots that connect what might seem like separate factions of the far right. So the series mentions the KKK, anti-government militias, constitutional sheriffs, anti-immigrant groups. In our reporting, we found there's kind of a common theme here. It's about not just power, but control. And it's about who this country is really for, who we the people are. And a lot of the time in these far-right movements, that vision of the country is deeply Christian and white.

RUSSELL: And another thing, physical violence from far-right extremism appears pretty rare in upstate New York. But, you know, as we've seen in the past with the racist mass shooting in Buffalo back in 2022, when 10 Black people were murdered at a supermarket, just one person who's been radicalized can do a tremendous amount of damage. And then looking at January 6, you know, just a handful of people from the North Country that we know of took part in that day. But you take just a handful of people from every region around the country, and suddenly you have a mob of thousands that can threaten the political system and democracy in the United States.

DETROW: Yeah. That was Emily Russell and Zach Hirsch. They're hosts of the podcast If All Else Fails from North Country Public Radio. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks so much to both of you.

RUSSELL: Thanks.

HIRSCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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