Riffing with a crowd of about 50 in the community room of a Colorado Springs police station, Don Rodgers takes a delighted pause when the conversation turns to President Barack Obama.
"Speaking of President Obama ... Saturday. Grand Junction. Lincoln Park," Rodgers says, eyes gleaming. "I'm not going to use the term that's coming out, because I'm military, and I don't want to say it ... it's an opportunity."
As Rodgers drags out the word "opportunity," laughter erupts from the audience, a blast of nervous excitement that makes the group seem like a gathering of kids plotting a playground prank.
But the only children at this Aug. 12 meeting have been dragged here by their parents. Others in the crowd make a diverse bunch of retirees, office workers and leather-clad motorcyclists. All seem to hang on Rodgers' words as he describes plans for those who can make the Aug. 15 trip to Grand Junction.
"Again, short notice, but it's a target — er, opportunity — to go down there," Rodgers says.
The crowd convulses again with laughter.
"This is an opportunity," he continues as they settle, "to really say 'hello' to somebody who probably needs it."
Despite his title of group facilitator, Rodgers, a compact, goateed man with shoulder-length gray hair, is the driving force behind a local group called the 9-12 Pikes Peak Patriots. It came together in March under the auspices of the so-called 9-12 Project, the brainchild of Glenn Beck, a FOX News pundit-turned-demagogue whose rants put Obama at the center of a vast conspiracy to steal freedom from hard-working Americans.
These followers, along with other 9-12ers, tea-baggers and right-wing sympathizers nationwide, have written letters, waved signs and flooded town hall meetings across the country to stop what they fear is an imminent government takeover of health care.
And though Beck casts the project as non-partisan, blogs and Twitter posts from Rodgers and other 9-12ers only fault the GOP for being too centrist. Rodgers counts dozens of local and national conservatives and "patriots" in his Twitter following, and his posts often repeat and build on storylines snatched from Beck's program. Obama aims to seize control of cable TV channels and the Internet. He's actively parceling off the government to "Marxist czars" who have a soft spot for communism, if not fascism.
Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the 9/11 attacks, is the group's focal point, representing a moment when they believe the country stood in perfect and principled unity. This Saturday, Sept. 12, Colorado 9-12ers intend to protest perceived government intrusions since then by attending a large rally in Denver, or by joining an even larger event planned for Washington, D.C.
It's all part of a "grassroots effort to restore life to the way it should be," according to Lu Ann Busse, a Larkspur grandmother and chair of the state's main 9-12 network, with about 3,000 Colorado members. And, she says, this is just the beginning: "Many of us feel like we sat on the sidelines for too long."
Civic engagement is one thing. But some observers worry about a national wave of misinformation and anger.
Chip Berlet has written extensively about right-wing movements, first as a reporter and then as an analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank in Massachusetts. The current surge in paranoia reminds him of the armed militia movement of the 1990s, which ultimately spawned the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and other acts of domestic terrorism.
The difference this time, Berlet says, is that fears are seeping further into the mainstream, carried in part by the likes of Beck — whose profile swelled last weekend with the resignation of one of his favorite subjects of scorn, Obama adviser Van Jones. He's even bigger right now than CNN's Lou Dobbs, who made headlines by inviting "birthers" onto his show to explain their theory that Obama was actually born in Kenya and is thus ineligible to be president.
"It's a very potent and powerful brew that is being stirred up," Berlet says. "Over time, it increases the likelihood of violence."
For the uninitiated, watching the Glenn Beck show is an exercise in frustration, with each episode building on previous befuddling episodes. On Aug. 27, it's no different: Beck, a boyish-looking 45-year-old, smiles briefly before donning an expression of earnestness.
"You must understand the last three episodes," he implores, "to be able to see, to come to a place where you can believe, these crazy things are happening."
With that windup, Beck delivers the day's out-of-context nugget, a clip of Obama giving a campaign speech in which he calls for the creation of a "civilian national security force" that's just as powerful, strong and well-funded as the nation's military. The clip is Beck's cue for outrage, and he starts contorting restlessly at his desk like an angry, spiky-haired bobblehead doll.
"All week we have been asking tough questions," he begins, going on to list more: "Mr. President: Why do we need a civilian national security force that is 'just as strong, just as powerful' as the military?"
Interestingly, Obama used the exact same line about a "civilian national security force" in a July 2, 2008, speech at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The idea seems to be that the nation's security relies upon expanded opportunities for volunteerism — through programs like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, for starters — as much as it does on a strong military.
But Beck, a former music deejay who catapulted from obscure talk-show host to CNN personality to FOX News sensation in just a few years, seems to see the potential for black helicopters hovering above — and hunting people like him.
Beck shows a montage of clips featuring New York Times columnist Frank Rich and others expressing concern about gun-toting activists showing up at town hall meetings, and an uptick in threats against Obama. But, Beck notes indignantly, "This man is our president" — as if the idea that someone might want to harm him is absolutely ridiculous.
The people who really are at risk, he says, are people like the average viewers of his show. These are the people who are being unfairly branded as threats to the president, or at least society at large.
"Do they think a good portion of the American people believe that? That they are the enemy?"
Welcome to Beck's logical vortex.
If you can't enter it at 3 p.m. every weekday, well, Rodgers can help solve that problem. He sends out several, if not dozens, of Twitter posts each day to close to 200 followers, including state Sen. Dave Schultheis, who often re-posts Rodgers' comments from his own Twitter account. (Schultheis declined a request from the Indy to talk about Rodgers and the 9-12 Project.) On Aug. 28, Rodgers sends a link to Beck's program with the advisory: "Beck on O's Civilian Army. 6 mnths ago this was crazy, now it's crazy to ignore."
'This protest thing'
Rodgers' persona at the Pikes Peak Patriots meeting mixes infomercial salesman and corporate trainer. He plays the group beautifully, but regularly asks it for input: What next? What should we be doing different?
On Aug. 12 at the Stetson Hills police station, the 9-12ers' agenda includes segments for planning protests, brainstorming sessions for new activities and updates from groups working on recruitment and other issues. The meeting has a therapeutic air, with members offering their first-protester stories like born-again Christians at a big-tent revival.
"It's a good opportunity for you to get out of your comfort zone," one woman says. "I was terrified the first time I did it, and every time you get a little more comfortable doing it."
"I'm already doing the viral videos," adds another woman, who appears to be in her 50s. "It's cool."
Immediate plans include an Aug. 14 rally at U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet's local office, part of a statewide effort to visit all of Bennet's Colorado offices at the same time with letters and a loud message to vote "the right way" against health reform. The next day, some members are going to Grand Junction, and a week later they're gathering near Chapel Hills Mall for an "educational opportunity," complete with signs and pamphlets. (Members seem to shy away from the word "protest," likely out of regard for a police policy that says the department's community rooms can't be used to plan them.)
"Each one of these things has to be bigger than the last," Rodgers says.
Recruitment turns out to be a big topic. One woman asks for advice on reaching out to her neighbors. Elise Van Grinsven, one of Rodgers' co-facilitators, says her tactic is to try and draw her neighbors out, possibly making a casual remark about how busy she's been: "Yeah, I've been going to these meetings. I have this protest thing I've been going to."
"Oh, what's that?" they might ask.
"I say, 'Well, have you ever heard of Glenn Beck?'" Van Grinsven says before breaking from her example with an aside that draws raucous laughter: "I've actually heard 'No,' and I'm like, 'Really?'"
Van Grinsven continues: "And then I just kind of bring it up," she says, handing out pamphlets or bumper stickers to those who are interested. Van Grinsven, an eastern El Paso County resident who wears sandy-colored hair in a long braid, sounds like a marketing director as she wraps up her remarks.
"Right now is such an opportune time for recruitment because this health care is such a unifier," she says.
What comes next, after the health reform debate ends, is on everybody's mind.
"We're in the streets now, and we're going to have to decide what we do if they vote for it or not," Rodgers says. "I have my own thoughts ..."
"Does it involve torches?" one 9-12er asks.
Rodgers waits for a burst of laughter to die down before continuing: "We have to respond. We have to. I have a feeling where this is going to go. It won't just be Colorado Springs. It will be a nationwide response."
'They are the heroes'
After a couple weeks quietly attending 9-12 meetings and events, I decided I needed to speak directly with Rodgers. Reached by telephone in late August, Rodgers hesitates after learning I write for the Independent, but he remains courteous during a short conversation.
He still seems to be grappling with what it means to be an activist. "Pretty much, politics was in the background," he says, before he became active with the 9-12 movement.
"What shocked me was TARP," he says, referring to the Troubled Asset Relief Program, pushed by the Bush administration, which passed in October 2008 to rescue banks and financial firms from the bad loans they issued and traded. "That's what got me interested."
He started watching Glenn Beck's show, and got involved after Beck unveiled the 9-12 Project in March.
"He's saying some things that are a little shocking," Rodgers says. "He's hit a note with a lot of folks."
Rodgers won't say what he does for a living, only that he works — surprise! — for some unspecified branch of the government.
He says little about his specific concerns, but his recent Twitter and blog posts show a preoccupation with Beck's outing of "czars" in the Obama administration, and with proposed Internet security legislation. On the latter subject, Rodgers sounds like a modern-day Paul Revere, despite cooler heads arguing that the legislation is less a threat than an effort to tighten Internet security and to codify the president's role in an emergency.
"What if the Internet went dark on us?" Rodgers writes on one 9-12 discussion board. "We'd drive to Denver and Broomfield and Grand Junction and Castle Rock and Farmingtom [sic] NM. ... We'd leave notes under rocks and notes on lamp posts. No one can shut down a movement that's based on ideas and a will to carry them out. No one can shut us up and no power on earth can crush our spirit."
Berlet, the policy analyst and writer who has studied right-wing movements and attended meetings with conspiracy theorists, says such worries are typical when people get wrapped up in certain narratives.
"They are otherwise normal people," Berlet says. "They've gotten caught up in this story where they are the heroes protecting America."
Beck's conspiracy theories aren't just shared by a collection of 9-12ers. Heidi Beirich, director of research for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group based in Alabama, says she's seeing a growing web of anti-government and anti-Obama groups tap into Beck's theories. One such group is americanpatrol.com, a sounding board for the anti-immigration crowd.
Darla Dawald, with the patriot site resistnet.com, credits Beck in her Aug. 20 radio broadcast for observing that conservatives and patriots truly are rising up. "Glenn Beck was right on the money on this," she says.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is now tracking a resurgence of militia and patriot groups that recalls the 1990s, when the movement flared violently during the Bill Clinton presidency.
Glenn Beck, Beirich says, is "as close as they have to a voice."
"It's really outrageous, weird stuff," she says, describing one recent episode in which Beck used a chalkboard to map out a bizarre "left-wing conspiracy" centered around the Apollo Alliance, a little-known environmental organization that advocates for green energy and green jobs. "It has a very ominous feel to me."
Beirich struggles to think of the last time a media voice held similar sway, settling on Father Charles Coughlin, an anti-Semitic Hitler sympathizer who in the 1930s reached a radio audience numbering in the tens of millions.
Beck lays out elaborate left-wing conspiracies for his viewers to mull over, but 9-12ers mock the notion that he is some kind of puppetmaster pulling the strings when health care meetings devolve into shouting.
"It just floors me that people think it's this vast right-wing conspiracy," says Busse, the chair of Colorado's 9-12 network. She chafes at suggestions that volunteers like her are "AstroTurf," paid to look like grassroots activists: "Point me to the insurance people or RNC people who want to pay me."
Like Rodgers, Busse says her involvement in the 9-12 Project is a new step for her. She used to write letters and make phone calls when she got fired up on an issue, but last fall's bailout of financial firms brought her to a new level of outrage.
"Since then, I've decided I'm going to be more active about complaining," Busse says.
Busse estimates the 9-12ers number about 3,000 statewide, including about 170 in Rodgers' group, but guesses the number of people active with local Tea Party groups pushes the total number far higher. Busse, who will only say she is in her 50s, a grandmother and church volunteer, currently is taking a break from consulting with the medical device industry. She says about two-thirds of 9-12 Project activists are women.
"We're not a bunch of militiamen and survivalists," she says.
That may be, but an online discussion on a social networking site for Colorado 9-12ers has Busse, Rodgers and others striking a near-apocalyptic tone, drawing up communications strategies if the Internet "goes dark."
A member posting under the name CatherineL writes that even that would not stop the 9-12 movement: "We are Minutemen throughout America, ready for action, ready for duty as needed."
The "minuteman" reference clearly has a militaristic ring, and it reflects Glenn Beck's casting of himself as a modern-day version of Thomas Paine. His book, Glenn Beck's Common Sense, is fashioned after Paine's revolutionary pamphlet calling for separation from England.
The book serves as a sort of bible for the 9-12 movement, laying out the nine principles and 12 values on which it's founded. (The principles lead off with "America is good," while the values are a list of virtues like honesty and charity.) Beck's production company also hosts the912project.com, which provides an overview of the project and gives links to conspiracy news and events.
Busse insists Beck is more of an "inspirational figure" than a leader in the movement. Supporters connect and make plans using social networking sites and programs like Skype, often aware they're drawing on the same tools that helped propel Obama into office.
She sounds wary responding to a question about what happens if someone associated with the 9-12 project acts out or becomes violent.
"I don't know how we control that," she says, arguing that a person living by Beck's 12 values probably wouldn't get violent.
And if they did?
"At some point, we can't control a crazy person."
Over 3 million served
Beck manufactures confusion on his show, but his antics have flipped over parts of the world he misrepresents.
In late July, Obama took heat for saying police "acted stupidly" when they arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., outside his Massachusetts home. Beck happily charged into that fray with guns blazing, opining on the FOX News morning program FOX and Friends that the president "has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people." Later, Beck came out and said, "This guy is, I believe, a racist."
Outraged by the remark, the civil rights group Color of Change convinced Wal-Mart and more than 50 other advertisers to pull away from Beck's show.
Beck supporters launched their counter-protest, starting an online petition warning advertisers pulling out of the program that they might, in turn, lose the support of the Beck crowd. (Don Rodgers, incidentally, was No. 1,292 to sign the petition before Webmasters made the list confidential, apparently annoyed by support from people named "Penis Van Lesbian" and "Whiny McWingnut.")
The controversy has actually helped Beck's program, pushing his average viewership over 3 million in late August after he returned to FOX News after a week off. That rivals the numbers for FOX News' Bill O'Reilly, who has a later time slot, and blows MSNBC's Chris Matthews, a competitor in the 5 p.m. time slot with about 500,000 nightly viewers, out of the water.
It also may have fueled a renewed attack on Obama's "czars," particularly Van Jones, one of Color of Change's founders. Beck heavily publicized Jones' history with extreme left-wing advocacy groups, and Jones resigned under fire last weekend as Obama's special adviser for green jobs. (As for the concept of "czars" — special advisers appointed to work on specific issues within the White House — it's been a fixture of modern presidencies since Richard Nixon appointed an energy czar in 1973.)
The boycotting and anti-boycotting gets even wackier when you consider what's happening at Whole Foods, often regarded an elitist refuge for sushi-eating liberals.
Also in July, progressives organized a boycott of the grocery chain after its chief executive John Mackey wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal arguing that the government should encourage a free-market solution to the nation's health care problem instead of providing public alternative to private insurance.
In response, anti-reform activists organized their own "buycott" of the chain, encouraging supporters to shop there. Rodgers re-posted a notice about the effort on Aug. 28 on Twitter: "Nationwide Tea Party Lders Announce Tea Party BUYCOTT 2 Support Whole Foods!"
Beck often courts controversy, and other times it just seems to find him. Born in a Seattle suburb, he has written several nonfiction books about politics as well as his personal life, detailing his past struggles with alcoholism and his conversion to Mormonism.
Last fall he tried his hand at fiction with the release of The Christmas Sweater, a cheesy tale modeled on It's a Wonderful Life that neatly makes a case for the values and principles Beck advocates.
Focus on the Family put an article about Beck and his book on one of its Web sites, but pulled it after some evangelical members objected because Beck is a Mormon.
Not all evangelicals are shying away. On Aug. 26, as advertisers backed away from Beck, former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin wrote some encouraging words on her Facebook page.
"FOX News' Glenn Beck is doing an extraordinary job this week walking America behind the scenes ... " she wrote. "Monday night he asked us to invite one friend to watch; tonight I invite all my friends to watch."
Battleground in our midst
The day of Beck's civilian security force show, Aug. 27, also happens to be the day U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn holds his health care town hall meeting in Colorado Springs.
Though Lamborn isn't scheduled to speak until 7 p.m., the clubhouse at Valley Hi Golf Course is already packed by 6 p.m. Local GOP stalwarts fill the tables in a large dining room, having gathered earlier for a regular monthly meeting.
Residents both for and against a government overhaul of the health system jostle for space along the room's edges, snatching up the few remaining chairs.
Though a small percentage of the attendees are members of the local 9-12 group, snippets and comments from Beck's program regularly break through the room's din.
"Did you hear all the questions Beck is asking?" one heavy-set man asks his neighbor.
A man named William sits in one of the chairs lined up on the wall, writing furiously in a notebook.
"I want to talk about some of this stuff," he says. His questions are not about health care, but about czars and worries that the government is trying to restrict U.S. citizens' basic liberties.
William, a middle-aged businessman, is neatly dressed in a gray shirt and jeans. Though he describes himself as only an occasional Beck viewer, he's eager to hear the day's program: "Today what they're talking about is this army he's building," William says.
Later, after Lamborn outlines his opposition to any kind of public option for health insurance, William manages to ask his questions. Though his remarks and concerns are off-topic, the crowd is quiet and respectful while he speaks.
The audience's reaction to Judi Ingelido and other pro-reform speakers is less courteous. Ingelido, a retired middle-school principal and first vice-chair of the county Democratic Party, acknowledges that health care in the U.S. can be great for those with good insurance, but she urges the crowd to think about the masses who lack insurance or get dropped from their policies and end up suffering.
Many try to yell over her. "What's your question?" they bark. A 20-something man with a long goatee stands on a table, trying to illustrate the illogic he sees in using tax dollars to expand health coverage: "Come on, neighbor, fix my roof!"
In a conversation the following week, Ingelido sounds stoic talking about the poor arrangements for the meeting and the crowd's hostility, saying, "It was like they didn't want to hear any questions or comments that were in favor of health care reform."
The dynamics at Lamborn's town hall may have been predictable, given the nation's political climate and the odious misinformation spewed by Beck and other pundits.
Berlet, the analyst for Political Research Associates, says the current state is regrettable, as is Beck's influence.
"He's a classic demagogue," Berlet says, "and in a civilized society, demagogues are shunned."