When he debuted on the political stage in Washington and Oregon in 2016, Joey Gibson often spoke at rallies while wearing a “Hillary for Prison” T-shirt. He railed against “big government” while proclaiming he was part of “a silent majority” ready to gently go to the polls to defeat liberal Democrats.

During a Trump rally in Vancouver, Wash., he said people with different opinions are “not the enemy.”

“I want to have a conversation, and I want to talk to you,” he said in early October 2016. “What I don’t want to do is shame you for what you believe in.”

But within a few weeks, as he watched increasingly hostile exchanges between protesters and Trump supporters across the country, Gibson’s tone changed. Believing that liberals were subverting conservatives’ free speech by disrupting Trump rallies and maligning conservatives on college campuses, Gibson formed Patriot Prayer, which he viewed as a vehicle for aggressively confronting left-wing activists and more extreme groups, including antifa, in West Coast cities.

Police in Portland, Ore., were investigating Aug. 30 a fatal shooting that took place amid clashes between supporters of President Trump and counterprotesters. (The Washington Post)

In the four years that have followed, experts on right-wing extremism say Gibson has become the leader of one of the nation’s most divisive and dangerous domestic political organizations, and an example of the radicalization of American politics in the Trump era.

The group has been involved in a string of violent clashes in cities throughout the West Coast, and scrutiny of Patriot Prayer has intensified since a follower of the group was fatally shot Saturday night in Portland. Gibson and Aaron Danielson, who was killed, had participated in a caravan of flag-waving Trump supporters that descended on the city and sparked confrontations with Black Lives Matter counterprotesters.

Danielson, 39, was wearing a Patriot Prayer hat when he was killed, and Gibson says they were close friends. Authorities have not publicly identified the alleged shooter, who opened fire amid weeks of turmoil as far-left groups battled Portland police and federal agents.

The death has reignited tension in the city, with residents blaming the mayor and local leaders for allowing right-wing and left-wing groups to converge in the city’s downtown.

Nick Sonies, 68, who said he has lived in Portland his whole life, said he was glued to his iPad as the clashes unfolded, observing the raw political tensions playing out in the streets of his city.

“It seemed like it was almost inevitable and it was almost planned,” he said. “They knew if they came down they would meet the protesters that have been here for three months, and you saw what happened — people got hurt, one person got killed and a lot of just unbelievable situations.”

Gibson said he and Patriot Prayer played no role in organizing the large pro-Trump caravan into Portland, and he said only a few of his followers traveled with him there.

But for years, Gibson led his supporters, some of whom have suspected ties to white nationalists and supremacists, into the center of violent clashes on college campuses, in public parks and in neighborhoods throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“They claim to be pro-life and pro-freedom, whatever that means, and also anti-communist,” said Vegas Tenold, investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “In large part they define themselves not by who they are or what they believe but by who they are against, which is anti-fascist activists on the left in general. This ensures a big tent that street brawlers of all kinds can find a home in.”

Some of Gibson’s initial supporters had ties to white-supremacist groups, and in 2017 he became more closely aligned with the Proud Boys, a far-right group that has engaged in white-nationalist and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

In an interview Tuesday, Gibson said he is no is longer affiliated with the Proud Boys, after he and other leaders of the group went their separate ways.

Last summer, Gibson was indicted on a felony rioting charge after he was accused of violently confronting antifa activists during a May Day gathering at a Portland bar. He maintains his innocence, adding that he is seeking federal intervention to have the state charges dismissed.

“This is discriminatory prosecution,” said Gibson.

Gibson said his group is not the threat that experts say it is. Although he admits that he injected himself into volatile protests in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s victory, he said he has shifted the group to be less confrontational. Instead of charging into liberal cities to confront far-left protesters, Gibson said, he is now focused on organizing conservatives in “smaller cities” where he believes his anti-government message has more opportunity to resonate.

“The last few years, we didn’t even organize in Portland,” said Gibson, 36. “We go into smaller areas, and we have been putting all of our effort into meeting with victims of government overreach,” such as state stay-at-home and mask orders related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, Gibson concedes he was with Danielson in the back of a truck during Saturday’s pro-Trump caravan into downtown Portland, but he said he didn’t know it was heading there. He said that final route was decided at the last minute at the Clackamas Town Center parking lot.

Gibson said he and Danielson, who lived in Portland, separated after the caravan ended.

“When he got shot, it was not connected to the Trump cruise,” Gibson said. “The only way it was connected is he was shot by someone looking to assault or murder Trump supporters.”

But experts on right-wing extremism say Saturday’s events in Portland crystallized their long-standing fears about the Patriot Prayer organization and its past ties to politically charged, violent encounters.

“It’s a provocative, provocation-oriented ideology,” said Alexander Reid Ross, a doctoral fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. “This became Joey’s main act — he would sort of chaperone into Portland and Seattle with this rabble of fascists and Nazis and far-right bikers.”

Ross said Patriot Prayer initially thrived on seeking out confrontation, including showing up on liberal college campuses or in diverse neighborhoods to campaign in support of Trump’s conservative immigration policies.

The group’s tactics often put it in direct confrontation with the far-left antifa group. Like Patriot Prayer, antifa is especially active in the Portland area.

“Increasingly, it just became an excuse for the right wing, which was bent on violence, to interject themselves in Portland in really provocative ways,” Ross said. “They would beat up their political enemies.”

In June 2017, a man seen at a past Patriot Prayer event was charged with fatally stabbing two men on Portland’s light rail train. The two victims had tried to intervene when Jeremy Joseph Christian, the alleged assailant, began verbally harassing two female passengers in an anti-Muslim diatribe.

At the time, Gibson denied any connection to Christian, who he said had been kicked out of Patriot Prayer before the stabbing because of racist behavior, the Associated Press reported.

Still, Ross notes that Gibson went on to organize a Patriot Prayer rally a few days later, rattling a city that was grieving.

In 2018, Gibson briefly stepped back from demonstrating when he sought the GOP nomination in Washington for senator against incumbent Maria Cantwell (D). He finished fourth in the primary, drawing 2.3 percent of the vote. By the next year, he was back out on the streets confronting left-wing protesters.

Gibson also downplayed the influence of Patriot Prayer, which he said has no formal membership.

“In the beginning, I was going into areas where conservatives were not welcome or too scared to enter,” he said. “But now I am going into areas where conservatives are wanted — I proved my point, and did my thing, but it now feels much better fighting for people who want to be advocated for.”

But Cassie Miller, a senior analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said she worries that Gibson is purposely minimizing the influence of Patriot Prayer among the far right.

They organize around “kind of vague right-wing principles,” Miller said. “But that’s in some ways kind of the entire depth of their ideology, and I think that is done on purpose because they want to create some kind of plausible deniability.”

“What they really want to do is silence their political enemies, and they want to do that through violence and intimidation, and that’s kind of their predominant purpose,” Miller said.

Faiz Siddiqui in Portland and Julie Tate and Katie Shepherd in Washington contributed to this report.