The growing “militia” movement may seem cartoonish to many Americans. Those skeptics should reconsider. Although many members of these heavily-armed groups are just engaging in chest-thumping bravado, expressing their hollow “patriotism” to the cheers of their buddies as they down another round of beers, others are, in fact, truly dangerous. And they are being egged on by Donald Trump.
On a number of occasions, the Republican nominee has incited his audiences to beat up protesters at his rallies, even offering to pay their legal fees. He has repeated this theme over and over again, once noting when protesters who interrupted his speech were led out of an event:
"In the good old days this doesn't happen because they used to treat them very, very rough" and when they protested once, they would not do it again so easily,” he said, before lamenting "we've become weak."
The “good old days.” Uh-huh. Some of us still have scars from that rough treatment. And we are lucky. Others lost their lives.
Trump has called upon his supporters to watch the polls on Election Day, something that has placed him at odds, publicly at least, with the Republican National Committee. Trump has been simultaneously cryptic and clear about what he truly means—“And when I say watch, you know what I’m talking about, right?”
This kind of talk may come across to many observers as mere bluster. Just Trump being Trump, pretending to be a tough guy for the hurrahs it gets him from certain elements among his followers. Nothing really to worry about. Unfortunately, combined with his relentless claims during the past three months that the elections are rigged against him, Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric could easily have lethal results after the election by spurring some of these so-called patriots to undertake attacks on federal targets and individuals. Think Malheur. Think Oklahoma City. Think Alan Berg.
Beginning in the 1980s, similar groups engaged in assassination, bombings, bank and armored car robberies, and some notorious shootouts with law enforcement. While those groups were crushed when their leaders were killed or imprisoned, a revival may well be underway.
Chris Hill, a paralegal who calls himself "Bloodagent," founded the Three Percent Security Force several years ago. The group’s name comes from the assessment that only 3 percent of Americans fought in the revolution against the British. The group is independent but loosely affiliated with a nationwide network of similar organizations with a deep-seated hatred of the federal government, some of it based on fear the government will take away everyone’s guns, on neo-Confederate nonsense, on the Ku Klux Klan, on bastard versions of neo-Nazi ideology, or twisted, violence-prone versions of the kind of survivalism seen on “reality TV.”
During a weekend of rifle practice and hand-to-hand combat in rural Georgia:
Amid the war games, Hill weighed plans for a possible armed march on Washington if Clinton wins. [...]
He said he doesn't want his members leading the way, but they will defend the protesters if need be. His group will not hesitate to act if a President Clinton tries to disarm gun owners, he said.
"I will be there to render assistance to my fellow countrymen, and prevent them from being disarmed, and I will fight and I will kill and I may die in the process," said Hill, who founded the militia several years ago.
Trump obviously didn’t invent militias nor originate the conspiracy theories, racism, and other hatreds so many of them proudly hold to. But he’s added plenty of fuel to their fire. At the beginning of this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a 45-year-old monitor of hate groups, said that the number of militia groups it counts in the nation soared from 202 in 2014 to 276 in 2015.
Political Research Associates is a group supporting social justice and human rights, and a watchdog of right-wing politics that has been around for 35 years. The organization’s Spencer Sunshine wrote a condensed analysis of the “Patriot movement,” now in its third wave.
At its height, the [second wave] militia movement had 20,000–60,000 active members, and perhaps five million people who agreed with its basic worldview. It was able to attract supporters in Washington, D.C., including U.S. Representatives Steve Stockman (R-TX) and Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-ID). There were also state and local legislators like Colorado State Representative and Senator Charlie Duke.15) Gary Johnson, the 2016 Libertarian Party presidential candidate, even had a disturbing meeting with the militias in 1995 when he was New Mexico’s governor. Occurring about a week after the Oklahoma City bombing, Johnson emerged to call them “very patriotic” and say he shared their views about federal government overreach.16) But after George W. Bush’s 2000 election win—and then, even more so after 9/11—the movement, which has always been strongest in opposition to a Democratic administration, declined.
In late 2008, with the election of Barack Obama, the movement sprang back to life with a third wave. New organizations emerged, but they still promoted the doctrines that the county sheriff should interpret the Constitution; that most of the federal government was unconstitutional; and that it was essential to form paramilitaries and a parallel legal apparatus, such as movement-controlled court systems, in order to replace the current structure of government. After 2008 it became rare to find open, ideological White supremacist (or separatist) views among those in leadership positions. Islamophobia also largely supplanted antisemitism, with Muslims replacing Jews in recycled demonizing narratives.
While organized militias, which were popular in the 1990s, are still around, they are no longer the central organizing force of the movement. Since 2008, Patriot movement activists who engage in armed organizing, or other actions that overstep the law, usually fall into five main groups. The Oath Keepers are a membership-based organization of current and former police, military, and first responders who swear to “defend the Constitution.” (Others can join as associate members.) Oath Keepers swear not to enforce 10 hypothetical orders—mostly derived from staple right-wing conspiracy theories about how the U.S. government will disarm civilians and herd them into concentration camps to facilitate a foreign invasion. The organization attempts to operate within the law while also being armed, and to portray themselves as a cross between a veterans’ group and a community service organization. They were present at the Bundy Ranch standoff; sent members to Ferguson, Missouri, during protests against police killings; tried to recruit at Occupy Wall Street events; and offered to guard Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis when she refused to register same-sex marriages.)
The Oath Keepers are one of the groups that have vowed to monitor the polls on Election Day.
While the most immediate concern is what some members of one of these groups might do on Nov. 8, their long-term plans present the greater danger. There is no way they could overturn the government, of course. But that was also true of the terrorists of the Ku Klux Klan. What they did do was disrupt democracy by intimidating people with their selective violence, causing fear among both people of color and their allies in the white population, and making a mockery of the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution. The consequences of that were disastrous and lasted for decades.