THE BIKE IS IMMACULATELY polished and gleaming in the late afternoon South Florida sun. A bald eagle in full squawk graces the gas tank, white stars checker the front fender, and a tattered red-and-white-stripe motif designed to evoke Old Glory covers the rest of the body. Any hint of grime or dust is purely aesthetic; 22 years in the military teach a man to clean up after his mess. The helmet sits right-side-up on the saddle and is adorned with two rows of jagged teeth and a bright red tongue, like the nose of an old Spitfire; two US Army logos; six bullet-hole decals; and, down at the bottom, the signature of its owner, who has just roared up: retired Lt. Colonel Allen B. West.
It’s mid-April and momentarily West, the Republican congressman from Florida’s 22nd District—an imaginatively carved Tetris piece stretching from West Palm Beach to the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale—will take the stage at the Palm Beach County Tax Day Tea Party in Wellington. He’ll call the tax on tanning salons enshrined in the Affordable Care Act “racist,” the president “an abject failure,” and, directing his assembled battalion’s attention to a small group of placard-bearing liberal protesters, ruminate on his sanity: “They say Allen West is the craziest person that ever set foot on the House floor! Let me tell you who’s the craziest person to truly ever set foot on the House floor. That’s President Barack Hussein Obama.”
SINCE THUMPING DEMOCRATIC REP. Ron Klein at the polls in 2010, West has taken dead aim at the lily-livered sissies he believes are running America into the ground—and the Islamic extremists he’s convinced are poised to seize control. He has suggested that Democratic leaders—whom he calls “chicken men“—”get the hell out of the United States of America”; considers drivers with Obama bumper stickers “a threat to the gene pool”; and says black Democrats are trying to keep his fellow African Americans “on the plantation”—and he’s the “modern-day Harriet Tubman” helping them to escape.
Of the 94 freshman congressmen who came to Washington in January 2011, none captured the id of the tea party movement—and the ire of the left—as perfectly as West, an Army veteran who retired in 2004 after firing his gun, Jack Bauer-style, past the head of an uncooperative Iraqi detainee. Reborn as a conservative icon, he is the torch carrier for a political culture and a region where, more than anyplace else in the country, radical Islam is the existential threat lurking around every corner.
LET’S GET THIS OUT OF THE WAY: Allen West does not regret a single Red-baiting, Obama-hating thing that he’s said during his career in political office. “I’m not like the president,” he snipes. We’re in the lobby of the Palm Beach Synagogue, a pastel-colored building squarely in the middle of an upscale, palm-tree-lined community, where a man’s affluence is measured by the height of his hedges.
West, wearing a green camouflage yarmulke and the same leather Rolling Thunder vest, has just held forth in the sanctuary for 45 minutes on debt and taxation and radical Islam, sprinkled, here and there, with token Westisms like “Katie, bar the door!” I was told by his staff we’d have a few minutes to chat after the event, but now he’ll have to keep it short because he needs to take a leak.
“My parents raised me very conservatively, and I think that’s what you have to understand,” he says when I ask about his upbringing. “That’s what you have to understand”—it’s a phrase West uses a lot, usually followed by a discourse on the Koran (he says every American should read it) or the Progressive Era.
He grew up in a middle-class household in Atlanta, the son of a World War II veteran. His parents, Herman and Elizabeth, were both Democrats, but with a conservative bent. They taught him to read the stock index in the Journal-Constitution and to scorn the thought of a handout. “The Democrat party was once upon a time a very conservative group,” he says. West is uncompromising, right down to his grammar. Every sentence is a proxy war in the larger struggle between patriots and the “people in this world that just have to have their butts kicked,” and as a consequence he never—never—gives the Democratic Party the dignity of an adjective.
By the time he was assigned to a base 20 miles north of Baghdad in 2003, Lt. Colonel West had command of 650 troops; he was tasked with making inroads with the locals. “There I’d be, an inner-city kid from Atlanta sitting on the floor like Lawrence of Arabia, with 30 Arab sheiks,” he later told the New York Times. That August, West received intelligence about a potential plot on his life. A week later, the convoy he was scheduled to be traveling in was ambushed. A few days after that, West arrested an Iraqi policeman, Yehiya Kadoori Hamoodi, who he believed had inside knowledge of the plot.
In testimony at an Army hearing that November, West would state that he had watched four of his subordinates beat the detainee, delivering blows to Hamoodi’s chest and legs. Finally, he stepped in. West took the detainee outside, pulled out his 9 mm, instructed Hamoodi to place his head in a barrel full of sand, and fired into the barrel. The detainee screamed, called for Allah, and started to talk. But the house Hamoodi suggested searching yielded no leads; he was released 45 days later and was never charged with a crime.
The high-profile case effectively ended West’s military career. He avoided a court-martial but was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and was banished to the rear in a noncombat role. West didn’t regret a thing: “If it’s about the lives of my soldiers at stake, I’d go through hell with a gasoline can.”
FORT LAUDERDALE, DECEMBER 30, 2008—for South Florida’s anti-Muslim activists, this was their Lexington and Concord. It came in the middle of the Israeli conflict in Gaza, and a group of Muslim, pro-Palestinian demonstrators held a protest across the street from a smaller band of Israel supporters. “It was the day that the jihad was uncovered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida,” says Tom Trento, founder of the United West, a group dedicated to exposing radical Islam in the United States and Europe. And it was also the day that West, who had just lost his first congressional race against Klein, solidified himself as a hero of the cause. “I don’t know if you’ve seen the video,” Trento says.
Trento is referring to the shaky footage he shot. In it, you can hear him muttering periodically that things aren’t looking good. After an imam leads the demonstrators in their evening prayers, some of the younger Muslim men cross the street to confront the counterprotesters. Trento was bracing for violence. “And then, out of the shadows, there comes Allen West,” he says. West joined forces with a handful of police officers and, like a modern-day Charles Martel, pushed back the Muslim demonstrators.
There’s Walid Phares, a leading scholar of “stealth jihad” and a onetime political adviser to a Lebanese Christian paramilitary group, who taught Trento at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton (and currently advises Mitt Romney on foreign policy). Joe Kaufman, a friend of West’s who runs the anti-Islam group Americans Against Hate, lives in Broward County; Joyce Kaufman (no relation), a local conservative radio host, campaigned against the grocery chain Publix for including the Islamic New Year in its wall calendar and was—briefly—tapped by West to be his chief of staff. Citizens for National Security, based out of Boca, works to raise awareness of Islamic propaganda in school textbooks, among other places. (In 2011, West invited the group to Capitol Hill, where its leaders announced they had a list of 6,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood currently living in the United States but could not release it due to security concerns.) Reverend O’Neal Dozier, a black pastor who’s a GOP fixture, preaches out of a Pompano Beach church where West has spoken from the pulpit; Dozier’s claim to fame, at least as far as Islam is concerned, came in 2006, when he protested the construction of an Islamic center by handing out comic strips attacking the Muslim faith. The list goes on.
WEST DIDN’T JUST ride the tea party’s wave in 2010—in many respects, he is the movement’s political avatar. Three years ago, West’s second congressional campaign was catapulted forward at a tea party rally where he captured activists’ hearts with one of his trademark fiery (critics would say unhinged) speeches aligning their cause with that of the American Revolution. “As a great man said in December 1776: ‘These are the times that try men’s souls. When the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from his duties.’ If you’re here to shrink away from the duties, there’s a door—get out,” he told activists during his last campaign. “But if you’re here to stand up, to get your musket, to fix your bayonet, and to charge into the ranks, you are my brother and sister in this fight.”
PATRICK ERIN MURPHY, the 29-year-old vice president of an environmental cleanup firm, would like nothing more than to make West a congressional has-been.
He “really just spews hatred,” the political novice who’s running against West says when we meet at his Palm Beach Gardens campaign headquarters in April. “He has no problem lying. He has no problem distorting the truth. There’s no place for that in our country.”
“And,” he adds, “the latest one about the progressive caucus being communists—you can’t say something like that and not expect consequences.” Palm Beach Democrats have adopted West’s jabs as a badge of honor, literally; volunteers at the opening of Murphy’s campaign office wrote “communist” on their name tags and addressed each other as “comrade.” “I never saw so many communists in the same room,” Murphy joked to supporters.
It will be a close race, though money won’t be an issue for West. One benefit of regularly accusing the opposition of high treason is that it opens up wallets across the country. He had $3.3 million on hand after the first quarter, an enormous sum for a House race. Murphy, meanwhile, has so far banked nearly $2 million—more than almost any other Democratic House challenger in the country.