The anti-government “Patriot”/militia movement is at a kind of crossroads thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
The movement has been suffering from cognitive dissonance ever since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, split between followers’ innate paranoid hatred and fear of all things federal and their rabid fandom for the new president and his administration. So now they can’t seem to decide whether to oppose social distancing and quarantine orders coming from state and local governments as another form of “tyranny,” dismissing fear of the virus as a “deep state” hoax intended to harm Trump, or to obediently support the government measures, heeding Trump’s advice, and turn instead to scapegoating the Chinese government.
Ammon Bundy, one-time leader of the 2016 “Patriot” armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, is representative of the split. Having already distanced himself from Trump, Bundy is now leading a kind of low-level resistance to Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s self-isolation order, issued last week.
“It does not matter what is most safe or not, what is good or not,” Bundy proclaimed in a video he posted on Facebook. “Because in this case, the government does not have the right to do what they’re doing. They do not have a right to restrict you from going to church, worshipping, having meetings, or being with your family, grieving with them. They do not have that right.”
Bundy’s meeting in Emmett, Idaho, on Thursday night was primarily about Bundy telling people—roughly two dozen showed—that they didn’t need to obey the governor’s orders. And he pledged to bring fellow “Patriots” to the rescue if anyone felt pressure from “authorities” to comply.
“I will be there,” Bundy told the Idaho Press. “I will bring as many people as we can. We will form a legal defense for you, a political defense for you, and we will also, if necessary, provide a physical defense for you, so that you can continue in your rights.”
A number of other zealots are similarly decrying the anti-coronavirus measures as government overreach, including ex-Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who urged people the week before to “take to the streets” in defiance of the orders. However, other “Patriots,” including factions formerly aligned with Bundy’s, are taking a more staid route: Avidly backing Trump, submitting to social distancing measures, and blaming the Chinese government as the culprit for the virus’ spread in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The Oath Keepers—who participated in the first Bundy standoff in Nevada—were among these. Their website is currently dominated by straight news reporting about COVID-19 infections in New York, a story plumping up the U.S. Naval Ship Mercy’s mission to treat pandemic victims, and typically partisan reportage on Democrats’ handling of the coronavirus relief bill.
It also features a piece headlined: “China Should Be Forced to Pay Reparations for Coverup.” Meanwhile, similar “Patriot” sites focused on pieces blaming the pandemic on “Chinese communists” and suggesting that it was intentionally released by China’s government as a bioweapon.
A report by Devin Burghart of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR) explored the variety of ways the “Patriot”/militia activists are responding to the pandemic. It found that the majority of the movement was reluctant to accept news of the growing contagion as legitimate and mostly remains so; it continues to rely to conspiracy theories to inform followers on the pandemic, many of which continue to downplay the virus’ lethality; and perhaps most disturbingly, many of them see it not just as the manifestation of their paranoid fears about a looming doomsday, but as an opportunity to inflame and ignite a civil war—called the “Boogaloo”—with an emphasis on shooting urban liberals.
Each passing day, the fear in the militia-sphere has become more palpable. As the proverbial “SHTF,” the Trump-nationalism of the militia-sphere was supplanted by the hyper-individualism of the members. One member of the 25th BN/42nd FF Light Foot Militia stated, “I’d rather have dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery… and will be prepared for the former.” A member of Michigan Boogaloo Boys Defending the 2nd wrote, “Following orders is not patriotic. I will not sit and wait.” Another meme that appeared on the California State Militia Training Connect page featured the image of an “Official Permit” that simply read “I can do what I want.”
The report pointedly observes that while there is relatively little discussion of mutual aid among the “Patriots” for these apocalyptic events, many of them have turned to casual discussions of their willingness—not to mention desire—to rob their neighbors in the event of a social breakdown. One of their frequently shared memes features a photo of a camo-clad military team conducting a home raid, with the text: “Me and the boys going for a grocery run at my asshole neighbor’s house.”
“What’s the plan when shit goes south boys?” a Kentucky State Militia group member asked his colleagues. One responded: “Protect my family by any & all means regardless if I become a killer.”
One militiaman—a “Three Percenter” from California named Shane Scott III, who believes the coronavirus is a “deep state” hoax—began arguing for mob attacks. One of his Facebook posts, featuring a photo of a noose, read: “Why aren’t we rounding up ALL media personal[sic] and oath-breaking politician[sic] and hanging them!!?? They have done so much damage to this Country[sic] over the last 20 years. When are we going to put an end to this??!”
Elsewhere, Scott argued that “this weak pathetic corona virus [sic] has put us in a weird test run for socialism,” adding: “The reason they don't want you out in public is because you will talk to people and discover it is just BS. … There’s something way bigger going on and we are being kept in the dark for a reason!”
As Chrissy Stroop at The Conversationalist observed, the response among authoritarian Christians generally has been to undermine the public health response to the pandemic, in no small part because they already see institutions like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of a “globalist” plot to enslave mankind.
Obedience to authority is certainly emphasized as a virtue among authoritarians, and the Christian Right is no different in this regard. However, the authority in question must conform to their white supremacist patriarchal social hierarchy in order for them to consider it legitimate. Hence the “defiance of what they think of as evil liberal officials telling them what they can’t do,” as seen, for example, in former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore calling the inclusion of restrictions on church services in public health responses to the pandemic “tyranny.”
One of Bundy’s most avid supporters in the Idaho Legislature, Rep. Heather Scott—who is also closely associated with Washington’s controversial Rep. Matt Shea—posted an essay on Facebook by another far-right “Patriot” leader—Montana’s Chuck Baldwin—dismissing the pandemic as a government conspiracy against ordinary citizens.
“If it's not a hoax, the virus IS being used as a completely exaggerated, super-hyped, super-inflated psychological ops campaign against the American people—a coordinated full-court press of intimidation and fearmongering by the government, the mass media and the CDC,” Baldwin wrote. “And disgustingly, many so-called patriot bloggers and broadcasters have also given themselves to grotesque fearmongering.”
In the South, a similar response to the pandemic came from the neo-Confederate League of the South, which announced that it intends to hold its annual convention in Alabama in June regardless of whether or not any COVID-19 restrictions are in place. League president Michael Hill recently posted: “We are actively making plans and raising funds to help our members who are in financial straits, and we are moving ahead with our plans for upcoming events, including our 2020 national conference in late June.”
Ammon Bundy’s resistance effort involving a “Patriot” response team defending people who feel threatened by the Idaho avoidance order was couched in soothing tones, but the threat of violence underlying the enterprise was also unmistakable.
“When someone’s rights are being violated for whatever reason … then thousands of people come and surround that person and bring a tremendous, a lot of attention and bring accountability to the bad actors,” Bundy told the Emmett gathering. “The First Amendment is secured by the Second Amendment.”
That meeting, as the Idaho Press noted, likely violated Gov. Little’s stay-home order. The governor on Friday emphasized at a press conference that he has the authority to outlaw public gatherings, which are discouraged and are “frankly in violation of this stay-home order.”
“There’s no difference between a political gathering and any other gathering,” Little said.