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September 27, 2021

News West

West Coast News Network

The resurgence of far-right extremism in Orange County

The day before a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, a band of radicals from Orange County arrived on the Washington scene, sharing a stage with the architects of the “Stop the Steal” campaign.

In short speeches at a rally held in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building, one of them invoked “biblical war,” another the “shedding of blood.” A third called on those preparing to march on the Capitol the next day to let “the vipers” in Congress hear the “rage of the American people.”

The fourth jabbed her finger toward the domed building where Congress would convene in 24 hours to certify the election of a new president. She shouted that enemies brought President Trump’s defeat, and the solution to any American traitors was to “take them out back and shoot or hang them!”

The rhetoric marked the culmination of a year of right-wing protests in Orange County that spiraled into increasingly violent language against ever larger foes, real and imagined. It began with protests and outlandish conspiracies about COVID-19 restrictions, including a harassment campaign that drove out the county’s top health officer, and rallies to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom and support Trump.

Morton Irvine Smith holds a U.S. flag in Russ Taylor's red Corvette.

Morton Irvine Smith, the scion of one of Orange County’s most famous developer dynasties, holds a U.S. flag as Russ Taylor drives his red Corvette.

(Christian Michael / LocalStoryTV)

They invoked the incendiary language and imagery of the Holocaust, appearing with banners that portrayed opponents as Hitler. They held “Curfew Breaker” street parties that became a magnet for white nationalists. And one of their members started a “Patriot” group whose efforts to patrol Black Lives Matter events became a source of worry for families wrestling with increased racism on their own streets.

These affluent suburbanites seemed unlikely revolutionaries, but they illustrate the resurgence of right-wing extremism in Orange County at a time when major demographic shifts have turned the region from a deep-red bastion into a more racially and politically diverse community.

They included Alan Hostetter, a ponytailed retired police officer who taught yoga; Russ Taylor, an entrepreneur who called his red Corvette the “Patriot Missile” and ran a graphics design business that boasted of working with Fortune 500 companies; Morton Irvine Smith, the scion of one of Orange County’s most famous developer dynasties; and Leigh Dundas, a lawyer best known for her fiery crusade against childhood immunization laws.

On Jan. 6, three of the four were part of the crowd that swarmed the U.S. Capitol.

Social media pictures showed Hostetter and Taylor grinning from one of the terraces while the Capitol was under siege, and Dundas at the door of the building during the deadly insurrection.

Three weeks later, the FBI searched the homes of Hostetter and Taylor, employing a SWAT team and flash-bangs during the raid on Taylor’s house. Neither has been arrested or charged.

But in the aftermath, the four went largely silent — declining to speak or, when they did, minimizing their roles.

In his private Telegram channel, Taylor portrayed himself as the victim. “The fbi is fully weaponized against patriots,” he said in a message reposted to Facebook. “I never went into the Capitol, no violence no damage to property. All this for waving a flag and singing the national anthem!”

Taylor’s lawyer offered a different description, conceding his client carried a knife onto Capitol grounds but saying he didn’t enter the building and was “caught up in a wave of rhetoric and excitement.”

“Russ Taylor is a normal person who got very emotionally wrapped up in his belief in those freedoms that made America the America he believes in,” Dyke Huish told The Times.

What happened, Taylor’s lawyer said, is a “cautionary tale of when there’s too much political noise that one can’t see clearly.”

::

Orange County has long been a megaphone for the extremes of conservatism, recognized by one Harvard historian as the “cutting edge” of the New Right.

Up through the 1950s, the entire county was considered a “sundown town” hostile to people of color. New suburbs of largely white defense and aerospace workers provided followings for the Communist-obsessed John Birch Society, as well as militant Walter Knott, his patriot-themed berry farm and his School of Anti-Communism.

A triptych of people with pro-Trump and red white and blue flags and gear at a nighttime protest

Saturday night Curfew Breaker parties became a stage in Huntington Beach for political theater, attracting not only Trump fans but “Groypers,” a group the FBI describes as supporting white supremacy.

(Chip Sneed)

The surf spots at Huntington Beach became a draw for skinheads, white supremacists and neo-Nazis, including a local right-wing fight club that trained for combat at political demonstrations across the state and whose members in 2017 assaulted counter-demonstrators at the deadly Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Va.

But the county has experienced a remarkable demographic shift in the last two decades with the arrival of more Asian and Latino residents, who have helped tilt the area toward Democrats. In 2016, for the first time since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, the county voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. Joe Biden beat Trump last year even as Republicans still control most local politics.

Voting maps show conservative bastions like Ladera Ranch, and coastal enclaves like San Clemente and Huntington Beach, are now islands surrounded by growing liberalism and racial diversity.

Such demographic shifts are the strongest predictors of increases in political extremism and hate crimes in neighborhoods where some fear their way of life is under threat, said Chapman University sociologist Peter Simi, who has spent two decades in the region mapping political extremism and hate. He said these pressures have pushed Orange County’s far right to even further extremes.

“When Obama was elected, it was an opportunity for these folks to start to get organized,” Simi said. “And when Trump came along, it was another opportunity for somebody on their side who was emboldening.”

The result is one of the most concentrated sources of hate speech and right-wing extremism in the United States, Simi said.

“There’s no doubt, Orange County is among the top of the list,” he said.

::

People hold U.S. flags and signs that say "We the people are sick of this lockdown" and "Make America free again"

Demonstrators protest California’s stay-at-home orders last April at Huntington Beach.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Before COVID-19 closed down yoga studios, Alan Hostetter was the epitome of California reinvention.

He spent 23 years as a lawman, most of it in Fontana before his appointment in 2010 as police chief in the quiet bedroom community of La Habra. He was on the job only five months before taking medical leave, and his departure was “sudden and unexpected,” said former Assistant City Manager Jennifer Cervantez. State online records show Hostetter, at 45, secured a state disability retirement for a psychiatric injury, though the details were not immediately available.

Hostetter later told a business magazine that his marriage crumbled and that he suffered from insomnia and a “racing mind.” Sleep required a knockout cocktail of Xanax and wine. He found refuge in yoga and took up the gong, singing bowl and didgeridoo to perform musical healing ceremonies that he called “sound baths.”

In February 2020, he added chanting to his performances, a throaty “om, shanti, shanti, shanti,” an invocation for peace.

“THIS is what is trapped inside of me looking for a way out,” he said to his YouTube followers.

A month later, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of California. Hostetter at first wore masks when he volunteered to deliver meals to seniors and sought donations of more masks for the San Clemente senior center. But the facility’s director, Beth Apodaca, learned he was going around town without a mask, promoting protests on social media using hashtags like #DontBeSheeple and #ItsTheFlu. In a confrontation she said was polite but expected, she told Hostetter he could no longer deliver meals.

“There are two different Alans,” Apodaca said. “I don’t see them as the same person.”

By May, Hostetter had stopped teaching yoga and declared himself a full-time “patriotic warrior.”

He adopted a trademark hat, a fedora with stars and stripes, and later added a Q pin on the band, a nod to QAnon, a wildly false conspiracy cult that depicts Trump as a soldier of God fighting Satan, communists and pedophile Democrats.

Hostetter’s social media accounts promoted weekly rallies and street marches against “tyrants” issuing health orders for a pandemic he claimed was not real. He formed a nonprofit, the American Phoenix Project, described on state registration papers as dedicated to the advance of constitutional liberties, and which Hostetter said during rallies sought a major restructuring of government and the American media.

Alan Hostetter speaks protesters waving U.S. flags and a large Trump 2020: Make America Great Again flag

Alan Hostetter led a series of maskless shopping protests at health food markets, including here at a Costa Mesa store.

(Raul Roa / Times Community News)

He loaned $75,000 to the nonprofit and used $50,000 to fund one of many federal lawsuits a major GOP law firm was lodging against Newsom over pandemic health orders. Hostetter’s sponsored case was short-lived; a judge refused to grant a temporary restraining order.

In May, Hostetter held a demonstration to dismantle a San Clemente parking lot fence and ignored police orders to disperse. He gripped the chain link so that sheriff’s deputies had to cut him free. Hostetter’s current wife opened a GoFundMe account seeking to raise $100,000 for the “San Clemente Eight,” an outsize sum for the misdemeanor charges against her husband and seven others arrested at the protest. On Facebook and YouTube, Hostetter said he wanted to raise $500,000. GoFundMe eventually shut down the campaign. Later, Hostetter would seek to raise money by selling $75 hat-and-shirt bundles through American Phoenix.

The fervor of Hostetter’s Orange County rallies intensified. To his growing list of public enemies, he added Black Lives Matter. He called the social movement a “Marxist domestic terror group dedicated to the killing of police officers.” And he falsely claimed that George Floyd’s death was contrived to justify “clearly orchestrated and pre-planned” protests across the nation.

Hostetter’s speeches were so thickly woven with QAnon meta-conspiracy that he was invited to speak at an October Q conference in Arizona, organized by another Orange County resident. When Trump lost the November election, Hostetter, now 56, asserted that an “evil cabal” was behind it. He said all of Trump’s problems — from the Stormy Daniels scandal to the Russia investigation — were part of this secret war Hostetter was among the few to see.

By December, chants for peace were a distant memory.

Alan Hostetter holds a U.S. flag during a protest

In protest of the state’s stay-at-home order, Alan Hostetter leads a march through downtown San Clemente on April 21.

(Shawn Raymundo / San Clemente Times)

At a “Stop the Steal” rally in Huntington Beach, Hostetter stood beside former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, an old-guard Orange County Republican unseated by a Democrat two years before. Hostetter’s ponytail dangled behind his fedora with the QAnon pin, as he called for a reckoning that would hold accountable “the enemies and traitors of America, both foreign and domestic.”

“There must be long prison terms,” he told the crowd, “while execution is the just punishment for the ringleaders of this coup.”

::

While Hostetter marshaled forces on the beach, Russ Taylor was rising in the suburbs.

Taylor lived in Ladera Ranch, an exclusive “lifestyle” community that advertised “close-knit clubs” and neighbors who gather on cul-de-sacs for evening chats. It is overwhelmingly white — the U.S. Census Bureau estimates less than 1% of Ladera Ranch’s 28,000 residents are Black.

It was the kind of place where, a resident joked, wearing the wrong brand of jogging tights got you reported as an outsider.

Taylor, 39, lived larger than most. He had a $1.8-million home behind security gates, a $60,000 Corvette in the garage and a long history of traffic tickets for speeding and not displaying plates on his sports cars. He had a massive 300-pound frame and a penchant for skinny jeans and red high tops, making him stand out in any crowd.

His printing company, which brands custom designs on cellphones and other electronics for corporate clients, continued to thrive during the pandemic, according to the company’s lawyer, and even added face shields to its product line.

In April, Taylor created a new private Facebook group: The Patriots of Ladera Ranch. After George Floyd was killed, Taylor posted an “urgent” summons on the group’s Facebook page: A small group of Ladera Ranch residents announced it would gather in the park for a candlelight vigil.

He warned the vigil might bring in “bad actors” and vowed the Patriots would “make sure there’s ZERO access to the homes, streets and families of Ladera.”

The vigil was brief and quiet, but about a dozen “Patriot dads” monitored from a distance, casting what one vigil participant called a chilling presence.

Shereen Rahming, a former teacher who moved to Ladera Ranch with her husband and children five years ago.

Shereen Rahming, a former teacher who moved to Ladera Ranch with her husband and children five years ago, said she was harassed both during Black Lives Matter marches and online when she wrote about it.

(Ahni Rahming)

Shereen Rahming, a former teacher who moved to Ladera Ranch with her husband and children five years ago, said she saw Taylor monitoring Black Lives Matter marches. Those running the Ladera Ranch neighborhood watch had ties to Taylor, including accompanying him to rallies in Washington and helping administer his Facebook groups. The neighborhood watch refused to admit the Rahmings, who are Black, and other families, sometimes without explanation. When Rahming wrote in a community blog about being harassed by white teens during a march, Taylor posted a comment calling it “fake news.”

“Coming from a man who went to Washington, D.C. … he’s scared of violent people [being] moms and dads right here? I’m telling you, the only fear that goes on around here is from people like him,” Rahming said.

Taylor’s lawyer said his client is not a racist and feared only that Black Lives Matter events would bring rioting and destruction.

Rahming and her husband said they believe the actions of Taylor and his neighborhood watch supporters created a hostile environment in a community beset by a series of racist incidents.

Swastikas were chalked on the sidewalks. Residents complained that skateboarders with U.S. and Trump flags rolled down Ladera Ranch streets shouting the N-word (they were defended as “Trump-loving boys” on the Patriot page). Men shouted the same racist slur at Rahming as she marched, she said. An Asian family was so constantly harassed by local teens that neighbors set up a nightly watch.

The Rahmings no longer allow their children to play outside unsupervised.

“I’m afraid of a Trayvon Martin situation,” said Marc Rahming, referencing the Black teen killed by a neighborhood watch captain in a Florida gated community.

A line of police in riot gear next to a man walking by gesturing with his middle finger toward them

Russ Taylor faces off with police in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6..

(Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP/Getty Images)

Over the summer, Taylor joined the board of directors of American Phoenix. He used his company’s office as a place to meet and screen videos banned on Facebook and YouTube. He posted a video of his two-car garage door with a giant U.S. flag and led Trump rallies in his Corvette, now dubbed the “C8 Patriot Missile.” And as the pandemic worsened and California imposed curfews, Taylor also helped organized “Curfew Breaker” street parties.

In September, Taylor hosted a rally on Ladera Ranch’s Town Green that he bragged on Facebook would “explode” liberal heads. Taylor and Smith stood on the gazebo stage while Hostetter declared the United States was under assault from “domestic enemies” infiltrating the nation for generations.

“You can see the blind hatred in their eyes as they incinerate bibles and American flags, as they raise their middle finger to the world and say ‘F’ your Jesus, ‘F’ America,” Hostetter said. “You can feel their loathing for our homeland.”

Hostetter told the 100 or so suburbanites spread before him in lawn chairs to prepare for war, to stock food and ammo.

The weekend Curfew Breaker parties were meant to encourage businesses to flout closures. They were promoted on Facebook pages where Taylor was listed as the administrator, beneath a “Peaky Blinders” street gang theme.

The Curfew Breaker parties spread to at least half a dozen other California towns. In Huntington Beach, they became a weekly stage for political street theater. In December, Taylor stood on a small raised platform to introduce a right-wing rapper from Florida and lead chants declaring the end of “commie” rule.

Protesters with U.S. flags, anti-Gavin Newsom signs and Trump 2020 flags

American Phoenix leaders helped organize “Curfew Breaker” rallies in Huntington Beach..

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Local political candidates worked a crowd that had the flavor of a MAGA-themed Mardi Gras: bodybuilders flexing muscles alongside the “MAGA Hulk,” a nearly naked man skating through on rollerblades, a woman in a red sequined dress with white go-go boots, and a blue-haired lady dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

The events attracted ultra-conservative nationalists, including Groypers, a group the FBI describes as supporting white supremacy. Videos obtained from multiple attendees show young men at several of the Huntington Beach Curfew Breakers chanting “America first!” and “Groyper! Groyper!,” harassing and shouting “go home, whore” to a woman in a mask, and stomping on a pride flag. Among them, videos show, was the UCLA student who founded America First Bruins, Christian Secor, now facing federal charges for his alleged participation in the Capitol riot.

The first time they showed up, Hostetter engaged in a brief megaphone war with the Groypers, calling them a “plant, sent here to make us look bad.” The Groypers called him a “coward” and insisted they represent the future of the Republican Party. They remained, and became a fixture at subsequent Curfew Breakers.

::

Hostetter had a seasoned protester at his side last spring when he began his beach rallies in San Clemente: California anti-vaccination crusader Leigh Dundas, 48. While Hostetter railed against infringements to liberty, Dundas stood on makeshift platforms — a garden wagon, the tailgate of a truck — to make false claims about medicine and science. Often someone stood behind her holding up signs advertising her website.

A banner with an image of Gavin Newsom altered with a Hitler mustache, in front of a Nazi flag next to the words End Tyranny

A banner outside Leigh Dundas’ Santa Ana home depicts Gov. Gavin Newsom as Hitler.

(Handout)

Dundas declared that the flu was deadlier than COVID-19, that children are immune to the virus, and that masks kill. She equated social distancing to CIA brainwashing.

When Orange County imposed a mask order in June, Dundas publicized the personal history and home address of the county health officer — a tactic she had used in the past against other foes. She then showed up at the doctor’s home with a large U-Haul, a banner strapped to the side depicting the doctor as Adolf Hitler. The doctor resigned days later.

A near-identical banner depicting Newsom as Hitler was pulled by an airplane earlier that month over the California Capitol while Dundas spoke at a rally outside. It was displayed at Orange County beach protests and at Capitol political rallies in support of recalling Newsom, where both she and Hostetter were speakers. It ended up in Dundas’ Santa Ana yard just before Christmas, surrounded by razor concertina wire and illuminated by floodlights.

A neighbor, who asked to not be named because of Dundas’ history of personal attacks against others, said she was appalled. She shared dozens of posts on a community website calling the Hitler banner “offensive” and “hate,” though a few defended the banner as free speech.

“How ballsy,” she said. “Hanukkah has just literally finished, and that sign went up. I felt like, where do I live? I mean, it’s not the most Jewish-welcoming county, but we have respect for our friends and neighbors here.

“Or so I thought.”

The banners were troubling enough that the Anti-Defamation League began tracking them.

Regional ADL director Rabbi Peter Levi decried what he saw as a campaign “to drive a fringe agenda” at the expense of 6 million murdered Jews.

Leigh Dundas peaks at a protest to a group of people with signs

Orange County anti-vaccine crusader Leigh Dundas, right, speaks at a protest against COVID-19 restrictions. In the crowd, crouched, is fellow lockdown activist Alan Hostetter..

(Raul Roa / Times Community News)

Dundas also took aim at businesses that complied with COVID-19 health orders. She filed lawsuits seeking $15,000 in payments from two eateries that refused to serve her without a mask. Court records show the cases were settled out of court. Neither of the defendants responded to questions from The Times.

Her lawyer in that litigation, Paul Rolf Jensen, has a long history with Roger Stone, the original architect of Trump’s Stop the Steal campaigns. The Orange County attorney has previously taken on political stunt cases, such as pressing the “birther” claim against President Obama. He declined to comment for this story.

At an anti-government conference hosted by a Northern California church in January, Dundas promoted her use of the Hitler banner and personal attacks as successful political tactics. She encouraged others to follow her “very simple formula” for social change: letters, lawsuits and, when that fails, “You ID who is behind the problem … and you investigate them and you use the data you find.”

“You’ve got to push, guys,” she said. “If you push, we win.”

::

American Phoenix’s board of directors also included Morton Irvine Smith, 55, a sixth-generation member of the Irvine development family on whose land much of the county is built.

The family wealth has long been sold off or dispersed, and Smith’s mother famously threatened him with disinheritance during a family rift in the 1990s. State business registration and court records and interviews show his main occupation is lending the Irvine name — and, he says, his expertise — to others’ ventures. His latest business venture, to help wealthy Chinese nationals immigrate, collapsed with the pandemic.

Two men in a selfie taken in front of a massive mob outside the U.S. Capitol building

Alan Hostetter and Russ Taylor at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, shown in an American Phoenix Project post on Instagram that has since been deleted.

He told The Times he is a long-term believer in “Q” (Smith rejects the “QAnon” label) but also said he subscribes to an adage from his grandmother, a land baroness who hosted Presidents Nixon and Reagan: “So goes Orange County, so goes California. So goes the nation.”

He said he does not believe current events have yet disproved either.

Smith attended the early beach protests. He told The Times he was taken by the “clear vision” of Hostetter and Dundas, their belief that deeper things than fences and masks were at stake.

With the shaggy hair of an aging surfer, a Q Patriot shirt and sometimes flip-flops, Smith followed Hostetter on the protest circuit and often onstage. He posed beside Hostetter and Taylor with matching hatchets in a photo on American Phoenix’s Facebook page that was captioned, “The time has come when good people may have to act badly… but not wrongly.” And when Dundas brought the Hitler banner to the home of the county health officer, Smith stood with her beneath the giant swastika, twirling a small U.S. flag.

Smith told The Times that social media critics “who have animus toward the Patriots” were to blame for the FBI descending on Taylor’s house with a county SWAT team following the siege at the Capitol, breaking down the door and waking the family with flash-bangs.

Smith claimed those liberal opponents had made inflammatory claims against his compatriots, falsely accusing them of crimes and subjecting them to public hate. He said he believed the criticisms from the left were worse than the inflammatory rhetoric of American Phoenix.

“One is meant to be satire, and one is not,” he said. “There was no life-or-death issue regarding the mask lockdown; there were not central authorities hunting down terrorists at that point, or suspected white supremacists.”

Smith downplayed his own role in American Phoenix and said he never listened to what his compatriots said onstage. He called Dundas’ Hitler banners “marketing” and “a prop” to grab attention. And the day Hostetter told Ladera Ranch residents to gather their ammo, Smith said, he was thinking about how hot it was.

It was the chairwoman of California Women for Trump — an Orange County resident better known for the 150 Shih Tzus the animal welfare agency pulled from her home in 2019 — who provided the introductions that landed American Phoenix on a stage behind Roger Stone.

Smith said he agreed to provide $1,500 for a microphone and stage for a Jan. 5 side rally for Trump. American Phoenix was given three speaking slots along with Stone, Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander and InfoWars conspiracist Alex Jones — themselves major promoters of what was billed as the “wild rally” of Jan. 6 to keep Trump in office.

Dundas was also on the speakers’ card both days.

The day of the Jan. 5 rally, Stone’s celebrity drew hundreds of listeners who heard Dundas call for the execution of “any alleged American who acted in a turncoat fashion and sold us out and committed treason!”

Smith was the final speaker, closing out the three-hour rally in the cold rain.

“Whether through prophecy or divine intervention,” he told the crowd, “a single man has taken the torch of freedom from the smoldering ashes of a nation damned, and raised it to a beacon of clarity.”

He was referring to Trump.

Trump supporters clash with police at the U.S. Capitol

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

(Roberto Schmidt / Getty Images)

During the riot the next afternoon, Dundas livestreamed herself in the crowd, screaming “Traitor! Traitor!” at Capitol police. In someone else’s video posted to Facebook, she is seen standing outside the Capitol door, not far from a half-dressed man in a headdress, the so-called QAnon Shaman.

While the insurrection was underway, she spoke at another nearby rally, telling listeners to “stand the hell up…. You are far better off fighting on your feet, being prepared to die on your feet, than living a life on your damned knees. Fight on!”

The next day, Dundas told a Times reporter she did not condone violence. She omitted her own role on the Capitol lawn and repeated a false claim made by right-wing supporters that the riot was staged by opponents of Trump.

“On a normal day in America, I think there is not a real place for violence,” Dundas said. “But that is functioning on the supposition that America is the America I was born into … and I am not sure those systems are currently functional.”

Taylor, Hostetter and Smith were some distance away when the Capitol barricades were breached, carrying backpacks and at least one gas mask. Smith said he became separated from his Orange County compatriots and did not enter the Capitol grounds. He said he has not been questioned by federal authorities.

Hostetter and Taylor posted an Instagram photo of themselves grinning from a mobbed terrace as Congress was under siege and a video of the crowds below them. Taylor wore a tactical vest with a large knife protruding from the pocket and a walkie-talkie. In other photos and videos, he appears in a gas mask on Capitol terrace skirmish lines, facing off with police in riot gear. Hostetter carried a megaphone and a U.S. flag on a thick wooden stick.

“We did our part,” the Instagram caption said.

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