Monday, April 12, 2021

Ms. Hostetter

I mentioned how once in a while the New York Times does "get it right," or nearabouts, which, as noted, is why I still read the paper (along with the L.A. Times) on most days. 

Now, I'm not saying this article is perfect, but it's pretty good --- and darned interesting --- as it's a story that literally "hits close to home," in the O.C. where I live, and where, actually, there are indeed a lot of crazy nut cases (and while I don't know if Ms. Hostetter is crazy, her husband sounds questionable, which adds to the intrigue here, so, well, that's it). 

At NYT, "A Teacher Marched to the Capitol. When She Got Home, the Fight Began":

Kristine Hostetter was a beloved fourth-grade teacher. Then came the pandemic, the election and the Jan. 6 riot in Washington.

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. — Word got around when Kristine Hostetter was spotted at a public mask-burning at the San Clemente pier, and when she appeared in a video sitting onstage as her husband spoke at a QAnon convention. People talked when she angrily accosted a family wearing masks near a local surfing spot, her granddaughter in tow.

Even in San Clemente, a well-heeled redoubt of Southern California conservatism, Ms. Hostetter stood out for her vehement embrace of both the rebellion against Covid-19 restrictions and the stolen-election lies pushed by former President Donald J. Trump. This was, after all, a teacher so beloved that each summer parents jockeyed to get their children into her fourth-grade class.

But it was not until Ms. Hostetter’s husband posted a video of her marching down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol on Jan. 6 that her politics collided with an opposite force gaining momentum in San Clemente: a growing number of left-leaning parents and students who, in the wake of the civil-rights protests set off by the police killing of George Floyd, decided they would no longer countenance the right-wing tilt of their neighbors and the racism they said was commonplace.

That there was no evidence that Ms. Hostetter had displayed any overt racism was beside the point — to them, her pro-Trump views seemed self-evidently laced with white supremacy. So she became their cause.

First, a student group organized a petition demanding the school district investigate whether Ms. Hostetter, 54, had taken part in the attack on the Capitol, and whether her politics had crept into her teaching. Then, when the district complied and suspended her, a group of parents put up a counter petition.

“If the district starts disciplinary action based on people’s beliefs/politics, what’s next? Religious discrimination?” it warned.

Each petition attracted thousands of signatures, and San Clemente has spent the months since embroiled in the divisive politics of post-Trump America, wrestling with uncomfortable questions about the limits of free speech and whether Ms. Hostetter and those who share her views should be written off as conspiracy theorists and racists who have no place in public life, not to mention shaping young minds in a classroom.

It has not been a polite debate. Neighbors have taken to monitoring one another’s social media posts; some have infiltrated private Facebook groups to figure out who is with them and who is not — and they have the screenshots to prove it.

Even the local yoga community, where Ms. Hostetter’s husband was a fixture, has found itself divided.

“It goes deeper than just her. A lot of conversations between parents, between friends, have already been fractured by Trump, by the election, by Black Lives Matter,” said Cady Anderson, whose two children attend Ms. Hostetter’s school.

Ms. Hostetter, she added, “just brought it all home to us.”

Complicating matters is Ms. Hostetter’s relative silence. Apart from appearing at protests and the incident at the beach, she has said little publicly over the past year, and did not respond to repeated interview requests for this article. People have filled in the blanks.

To Ms. Hostetter’s backers, the entire affair is being overblown by an intolerant mob of woke liberals who have no respect for the privacy of someone’s personal politics. Yet Ms. Hostetter’s politics, while personal, are hardly private, and to those who have lined up against her, she is inextricably linked to her husband, Alan, who last year emerged as a rising star in Southern California’s resurgent far right.

An Army veteran and former police chief of La Habra, Calif., Mr. Hostetter was known around San Clemente as a yoga guru — his specialty is “sound healing” with gongs, Tibetan bowls and Aboriginal didgeridoos — until the pandemic turned him into a self-declared “patriotic warrior.” He gave up yoga and founded the American Phoenix Project, which says it arose as a result of “the fear-based tyranny of 2020 caused by manipulative officials at the highest levels of our government.”

Throughout the spring, summer and fall, the American Phoenix Project organized protests against Covid-related restrictions up and down Orange County, and Mr. Hostetter’s list of enemies grew: Black Lives Matter protesters. The election thieves. Cabals and conspiracies drawn from QAnon, the movement that claims Mr. Trump was secretly battling devil-worshiping Democrats and international financiers who abuse children.

By Jan. 5, Mr. Hostetter, 56, had graduated to the national stage, appearing with the former Trump adviser Roger Stone at a rally outside the Supreme Court.

His appearance there and the next day at the Capitol prompted some of San Clemente’s more liberal residents to make bumper stickers that read: “Alan Hostraitor.” It also led the F.B.I. to raid his apartment in early February, though he was not arrested or charged with any crime. (He, too, did not respond to interview requests.)

Ms. Hostetter was there every step of the way, raising money and filming her husband as he rallied supporters at protests. When the American Phoenix Project filed incorporation papers in December, she was identified as its chief financial officer.

The Teacher

Ms. Hostetter grew up in Orange County back when locals still joked about the “Orange Curtain” separating its conservative and overwhelmingly white towns from liberal and diverse Los Angeles to the north. In the late 1960s, Richard M. Nixon turned an oceanside villa in San Clemente into his presidential getaway, christening it La Casa Pacifica. John Wayne kept his prized yacht, Wild Goose, docked up the coast in Newport Beach.

“Orange County,” Ronald Reagan once declared, “is where the good Republicans go before they die.”

It also was where surfers and spiritual seekers met cold warriors and conspiracy theorists, where some of the conservative movement’s most virulently racist, anti-Semitic and paranoid offshoots went. In the 1960s, Orange County saw a surge in the popularity of the John Birch Society, an anti-communist organization that in many ways presaged the rise of QAnon. In the 1980s, its surf spots became a magnet for neo-Nazis and skinheads. And in 2020, the onset of the pandemic produced a new generation of Orange County extremists.

If Ms. Hostetter had any strong political leanings before last year, she did not let on, said her niece, Emma Hall. She only picked up the first hint of her aunt’s rightward drift at small party to celebrate the Hostetters’ wedding in 2016.

“There were about six people, friends of theirs, that did not let up asking me if I was going to vote for Trump,” recalled Ms. Hall’s husband, Ryan.

Neither of the Halls gave it much thought. Ms. Hostetter seemed happy, and her new husband exuded the laid-back charm that typifies a certain kind of Southern California man in the American imagination...

More later.