Montana utility commissioner Randy Pinocci took the stage at a right-wing conference in Mesquite, Nevada, Nov. 9, capping a two-day event where speakers railed against sustainable development, touted alarmist theories about childhood vaccinations, and argued that Americans need to “take our country back.”
Pinocci’s message to attendees, according to a video posted by event organizers: If you want to take your ideas mainstream, run for public office.
“You come here to this event, you get fed this important information — it’s like drinking from a fire hose,” he said. “You are qualified to run, each and every one of you.”
The event was one of at least four Red Pill Expos Pinocci has attended or presented at in recent years, he said in interviews with Montana Free Press this week, including a 2017 Red Pill Expo in Bozeman and another one in Hartford, Connecticut, at which he presented this June.
While he told Montana Free Press he spoke at the Nevada event in an unofficial capacity, his attendance was listed on the Montana Public Service Commission’s official calendar and he presented wearing his PSC name badge. He also said that based on what he heard at the conference about potential health risks associated with 5G wireless technology, he has asked the PSC’s professional staff to research the issue.
“I’m doing the best I can to listen to my constituents’ concerns and try to address them,” he told MTFP.
Additionally, Pinocci promoted the June event in Hartford with a brief video filmed in the PSC meeting room. In that video, posted on Vimeo by Red Pill organizer G. Edward Griffin, he touted the Hartford expo as “one of the greatest groups of freedom-minded speakers assembled in the U.S., talking about some of the most important issues facing our country today.”
PSC spokesman Drew Zinecker said this week that Pinocci sought and received verbal permission to shoot the video from one of the agency’s staff attorneys. Montana law prohibits the use of public facilities for media advertisements involving an elected official’s name or face except in emergencies or “in the case of an announcement directly related to a program or activity under the jurisdiction of the office.”
PSC records indicate that no public money was spent on Pinocci’s travel to the two Red Pill conferences this year.
TAKING THE RED PILL
The Red Pill event series takes its title from a scene in the 1999 film “The Matrix” in which the hero is given the choice of taking a red pill that removes the veil from his artificial reality. The metaphor has been adopted in recent years by far-right activists who claim that mainstream Americans have been misled by liberal conspiracies.
Red Pill event chairman Dan Happel, a former Madison County commissioner, introduced the November event. “The reality is we live in a totally different world than what they tell us we live in. And that’s what this is all about,” he said.
“It’s time for America to wake up. We have been asleep for the last 100 years in a way that no one ever envisioned,” Happel said. “So it’s time to wake up to the reality that we need to take our country back.”
The event included presentations titled “5G and Police-State Control,” “The Political Illusion of Racism,” and “Vaccine Science is NOT Settled.” Ammon Bundy, a leader of the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, also spoke.
The Montana Human Rights Network, a left-leaning organization that tracks right-wing extremism, has criticized the Red Pill event series. In 2017, it issued a statement calling the Bozeman expo “a combination of paranoid conspiracy theorists; far-right, anti-democratic libertarians; and alternative health charlatans.”
Elected officials such as Pinocci can bring legitimacy to these types of gatherings, MHRN researcher Travis McAdam said this week, helping drive once-fringe ideas into the political mainstream.
The common thread in Red Pill material, McAdam said, is an argument that a particular group or entity is out to destroy the American way of life.
“You hear that message over and over again,” McAdam said.
Pinocci said in an interview that he attended only a portion of the Nevada conference, and that he isn’t responsible for the ideas expressed by other speakers.
“It’s time for America to wake up. We have been asleep for the last 100 years in a way that no one ever envisioned. So it’s time to wake up to the reality that we need to take our country back.”—Red Pill event chairman and former Madison County commissioner Dan Happel
“I didn’t really see too much conspiracy theory stuff when I was there,” he said. “What I saw were people concerned about vaccinations, for instance.”
“Anti-vax” critiques, often sourced to a now-discredited study of 12 children by British researcher Andrew Wakefield, typically involve suspicion that routine childhood vaccinations against measles, mumps, and rubella may increase the risk of autism. During a measles outbreak in Clark County, Washington, that sickened at least 31 people earlier this year, public health officials blamed “junk science” spread on social media for pushing vaccination rates below the critical threshold at which enough people are inoculated to provide the public with “herd immunity.” A major study, published in April, tracked more than 657,000 Danish children and concluded routine MMR vaccines present no increased risk of autism.
During the 2019 legislative session, a majority of Republicans in the Montana House voted in favor of three bills that would have loosened the state’s childhood vaccination requirements in some situations, with lawmakers citing the “medical industrial complex” and a disputed claim that vaccines contain cells from aborted fetuses. All three bills were defeated with opposition from moderate Republicans and minority democrats.
RUNNING ON THE WEDGE
In Nevada, standing in front of a banner reading “Because you know something is wrong” and flanked by advertisements for the health benefits of “Hydrogen Enriched Water,” Pinocci drew on his personal political experience in Montana to advise would-be candidates to emphasize wedge issues and interest group scorecards, especially in Republican primaries.
He pointed to his 2018 election to the PSC, which regulates NorthWestern Energy and other Montana utilities through often highly technical proceedings. Pinocci said he was able to defeat his main primary opponent, then-state representative Rob Cook, by attacking Cook over a poor grade on a Christian-issues scorecard issued by the Montana Family Foundation.
“You have to find an issue between yourself and your opponent,” Pinocci said. “When they make a mistake, you use that mistake and run on it.”
Pinocci, who lives in Sun River, was previously elected to the Montana Legislature in 2014. During the 2015 session, he sponsored a bill opposing Agenda 21, a non-binding United Nations sustainability measure signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992. That bill, which Pinocci described in his Red Pill talk as an effort to protect property owners from bike lane easements, would have prevented Montana cities from collaborating with non-governmental organizations and banned public efforts to “indoctrinate” children “for global citizenship.” It was defeated in the Montana House 41-59.
In 2018, Pinocci defeated Cook by an 868-vote margin in the four-way Republican primary for the PSC district that serves north-central and eastern Montana, including Great Falls and Havre. He then cruised to victory in the general election, beating his democratic opponent by more than 14,500 votes.
At the Nevada event, Pinocci described legislative scorecards from the National Rifle Association, Americans for Prosperity, and Christian groups as effective political ammunition. He also touted the Legistats website, which scores Montana lawmakers based on how often they hew to the GOP party line on disputed votes — an algorithm comparatively moderate Republicans have criticized for penalizing bipartisan compromise and promoting “brain-dead legislating.” The organizers behind Legistats, Pinocci said, are looking for opportunities to franchise the site in other states.
“You come here to this event, you get fed this important information — it’s like drinking from a fire hose. You are qualified to run, each and every one of you.”—Montana PSC Commissioner Randy Pinocci
His main message, Pinocci told Red Pill attendees, is that joining the political fray as a candidate rather than as a gadfly forces mainstream politicians to engage with non-mainstream ideas, even if the candidate isn’t elected.
“All of a sudden our issues become the issues for both candidates,” he told his Nevada audience. “That’s the type of power you have when you run for office — that you don’t have trying to fight city hall.”
Ryan Bundy, who also took part in the Malheur armed occupation and made an unsuccessful third-party bid for Nevada governor in 2018, called Montana Free Press at Pinocci’s suggestion this week. Pinocci has urged him to take another run at state office in Nevada, he said.
Pinocci said in an interview that he just wants people to join the political process.
“If their opponent says that they’re crazy and comes back and shows statistics that prove that they’re wrong, they should lose,” he said.
The political process does sometimes put “knuckleheads” in office, he said, but that isn’t the politicians’ fault.
“You have got to put the responsibility of who’s in office on the peoples’ shoulders,” he said. “You get the government you deserve.”
This story was originally published by Montana Free Press here.
ABOUT ERIC DIETRICH
Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer based in Helena. He is the lead reporter on the Long Streets Project and also covers state policy for MTFP. He has previously worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 406-544-1074.