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Trump has caused an identity crisis for American militias

"You have to ask, 'Are the militias primed for violence?'"

Where are America's militias heading?  CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES / ILLUSTRATION BY DIANA OFOSU
Where are America's militias heading? CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES / ILLUSTRATION BY DIANA OFOSU

America’s militias never expected to be here.

No one did, of course. Donald Trump was never supposed to reach the presidency. The powers that be — the powers that were — were supposed to prevent something like that from happening. The ones pulling the strings, those the fever-swamp conspiracists assumed were actually in charge, simply wouldn’t allow someone like Trump to access such power.

But then, in late 2016, Trump won. The man who was never supposed to be anywhere near power was sitting, eating, tweeting in the White House. Trump, the man backed by so many on the far-right, was president of the United States.

And America’s militias, with Trump from the beginning, didn’t know what to do. “For the first time in its 25-year history, the militia movement had a presidential candidate that they love,” Mark Pitcavage, a senior researcher with the Anti-Defamation League, told ThinkProgress. “This had never happened before.”

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Suddenly, the government the militias had long feared and railed against was controlled by their man. Like that, they were forced to look for a new reason for being, a new group or movement to target with their ire.

A year and a half into Trump’s presidency, the militias seem no closer to finding an answer. But that hasn’t stopped their search. Nor has it quelled fears regarding the role militias may play in rising domestic tensions. After all, 2020 is just around the corner, and a historically unpopular president who has been unwilling to admit defeat will face reelection.

Of course, there were concerns about how militias, and the far-right more broadly, would react to Trump’s assumed loss in 2016. “This was something we were really concerned about, and we wrote about it in advance of the election, and we were really concerned that when the election was over and [Hillary Clinton] was the next president — as all the polls said she would be — that we were going to have real a problem on our hands,” Pitcavage said.

That was before Trump acquired the reins of power, reins he’ll carry through the next presidential election, all while ignoring — and, in some cases, stoking — the violent froth of white supremacists and neo-fascists on the far-right. And so, as Dan Nexon, an associate professor at Georgetown University, told ThinkProgress, “One of the questions is, in these unprecedented political times, full of tumult and confusion, you have to ask, ‘Are the militias primed for violence?'”

Wandering militias

It’s unclear how many of these paramilitary groups, nominally dedicated to upholding Constitutional rights, currently exist in the U.S., although the number is generally understood to be in the low hundreds. But it’s clear that, in terms of individual members, militias have only grown in popularity over the past few years.

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While their numbers may have been smaller, the unifying force motivating militia groups was clearer under previous presidential administrations. Under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and especially Barack Obama, America’s militias had a narrative to which they could cling. Their message centered on globalist cabals and secretive organizations stealing America’s sovereignty, replacing red-blooded Americans with neutered, disarmed subjects. It was an accessible narrative, one that gained remarkable credence over the past few years if numbers are to be believed.

“It’d be like open season on antifa. There’s nothing you could do to stop it.”

It was also a narrative that played a role in events like the Oklahoma City bombing, or the Malheur occupation a few years ago, both of which had their own ties to the American militia movement. Strains of it were also evident in more recent events, like the attempted car-bombing of an immigrant community by a handful of Trump supporters in Kansas, or the so-called “White Rabbit Militia” members who wanted to use “guerrilla tactics” like bombing a Minnesota mosque.

Under Trump, though, that narrative has taken a beating; it’s tough to claim that the government is gunning for you when your man is the one in power, after all. As such, the militias began cycling through some alternatives for a new, primary foe.

One of the first, in 2017, was antifa: the anonymous, black bloc groups comfortable with public violence, especially when it came to the suddenly public presence of fascists and white supremacists like Richard Spencer.

But when militias decided to show up at last year’s far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, claiming they were there to keep the peace, they never expected the backlash they incurred. As Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said, “You saw the militia walking down the street. You would have thought they were an army.”

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After Charlottesville erupted in violence, with a white supremacist killing counter-protester Heather Heyer, the militias began pulling back from the more overt racists and neo-fascists. “The Charlottesville backlash has caused them to back down from a lot of the events that they were showing up to, especially white supremacist events,” Pitcavage said. (Militias weren’t directly involved in the worst of the violence last year, but their presence exacerbated tensions, according to local officials.)

But threats of violence from antifa groups — even if they’re imagined — still motivate militia leaders, and help organize the militia movement writ large, at least to an extent.

“Take the attorney general of Florida, for example,” Oath Keepers militia head Stewart Rhodes told ThinkProgress, referring to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R). “Imagine if she were assaulted — or even worse, if some antifa group were to go and attack and burn down an ICE agent’s home with his family inside. Then it’d be like open season on antifa. There’s nothing you could do to stop it.”

America first

Where antifa has dissipated as a force over the past year, two other groups began to unite America’s militias, both of which have been demonized by the president militias continue to admire. The first, unsurprisingly, was immigrants — or, rather, the fear that America was suddenly being inundated by undocumented migrants. And the second was Muslims, American or otherwise. In that sense, the “White Rabbit” and Kansas incidents were illustrative, targeting mosques and Somali-American communities, respectively.

These communities have “long been secondary enemies for the militia movement,” Pitcavage said. And with Trump continuing to smear and dehumanize immigrants and Muslims alike, these two groups will likely remain targets for militias moving forward.

But, barring some kind of massive Islamist terror attack, these groups likely won’t provide a sufficient rallying cry for America’s militias — or at least the kind of rallying cry that a supposedly totalitarian federal government once presented for militias.

Instead, over the past few months, another topic has begun gaining strange credence among militia and far-right circles: civil war. Namely, the threat that apparently violent leftist groups pose to the country and the supposed danger that a swelling move toward socialist-style policies presents for Americans.

“The thing that’s concerning to me right now is… this discussion of civil war,” Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security official focused on monitoring the far-right, told ThinkProgress.

“It seems like this is a theme that’s kind of resonating out there — that the militias feel there is an impending civil war that’s brewing between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, the militia versus antifa,” Johnson said. “That’s very concerning when you have a movement that is as well-armed [as militias], and conducts paramilitary training, and stockpiling and prepping and everything else. When you have them getting paranoid and discussing the possibility of a civil war, it’s not out of the realm of possibility of them actually trying trying to instigate it or provoke it.”

America’s militia members aren’t the only ones on the far-right who have begun wondering aloud — or even frothing — at the prospect of civil war. Rep. Steve King (R.-IA) has hinted at a looming civil war, and publications like The Federalist have begun publishing visceral imaginations of scalping liberals, written by RV salesmen.

“In terms of where the country’s going, I really, personally… feel that the country is actually at a tipping point,” George Curbelo, the state commander for the New York Lightfoot Militia, told ThinkProgress. “Right now what we’re looking at is a potential flash-point for a growing trend towards violence [against] the right by those radicalized on the left.” (Curbelo didn’t mention who he specifically viewed as a threat from those “on the left,” but he did say that America’s “education system has been overrun by liberal professors, by… openly communist and openly Marxist professors.”)

When ThinkProgress asked Stewart Rhodes, the head of America’s most prominent militia, about any parallels he views between the current American political moment and U.S. history, he also cited the Civil War. As Rhodes said when asked for American historical comparisons:

Unfortunately, the Civil War. Maybe some of the discontent during the ’60s, where you had the Symbionese Liberation Army or the Weather Underground blowing stuff up. I think we’re in danger of that. I think we’re in danger of that from both of those elements [from far-left and white supremacists]… Both of those fringe elements want to start conflict — they want, in their own heads, [to] spark the revolution, or they’re going to spark the race war, and they think they’re going to come out on top out of the chaos. They both want it. So how do you keep the retards on the fringes from blowing this up in our faces? That’s kind of where we’re at.

All the president’s men

Of course, whether it comes to the militias’ future direction or the prospects for any kind of looming domestic turmoil — or civil war — there’s one great, all-consuming unknown: Trump.

The question is not simply whether the president would support militia mobilization against immigrant communities or far-left protesters; after all, even without the actual threat of far-left violence, it’s clear Trump and his sycophants aren’t exactly informed by the reality surrounding them. Rather, one of the looming questions is whether the president would respect the results of any of the upcoming elections — or resist handing over the office of the presidency if he loses to a Democratic challenger come 2020.

“What you would see from Oath Keepers in that scenario would be arguments that Trump should not concede.”

“Trump is not [Richard] Nixon — in some ways [he’s] much worse than Nixon, because Nixon ultimately had a sense of shame, some sense of responsibility to country,” Nexon said. “If Trump loses or is impeached, he’ll go back Trump Tower, he’ll probably be fighting attempts to imprison him, and will be tweeting to millions of loyal followers he’s being persecuted and democratic will is being thwarted.”

To many in the militia community, the notion of Trump refusing to concede defeat is laughable. “It’s a ridiculous concern,” Curbelo told ThinkProgress. “It really is. Our constitutional republic, the laws of our republic, guarantee that that doesn’t happen.” If anything, the threat of violence from a far-left crowd in response to a Trump 2020 victory seems a much likelier scenario, at least to militia leaders.

To be sure, Trump’s potential refusal to concede would not mean that any militias would instantly come to his aid. But for those who follow these movements and these groups, even if there aren’t explicit calls to support Trump, that doesn’t mean there won’t be dog-whistles aplenty for militia supporters.

“What you would see from Oath Keepers in that scenario would be arguments that Trump should not concede, that clearly there was large-scale voter fraud, that the liberals or collectivists or whoever sort of orchestrated the thing to subvert the real will of the people,” Sam Jackson, a visiting researcher with VOX-Pol who has extensively studied Oath Keepers, told ThinkProgress. “But you wouldn’t explicitly see calls for violence.” 

In that instance, the threat would seem to come less from some type of top-down, organized front creating earthworks around the White House. (Although “if the militia ever does decide to go offensive, that’s going to be a major problem,” Johnson added.) Rather, it would be the type of small-cell operations that are so often responsible for militia-linked violence we’ve seen over the past quarter-century, from Oklahoma City to small-town Kansas.

“A paramilitary response to a Trump loss? We should be thinking about it, the sooner the better,” Jackson added. “If a Trump loss is in the cards, those of us who don’t want to see paramilitary violence should start thinking about it sooner or later. The last thing we want is to be blindsided.”

So maybe that’s where we are — maybe America’s militias, having spent the past 18 months looking for a cause, are simply waiting for the crisis to come, a crisis that’s now years in the making. After all, America’s militias never expected to be here. But that doesn’t mean they don’t know where they’re going.