You’ll often hear hardcore right-wing Trumpists refer to themselves as “patriots.” Repeatedly. Donald Trump himself regularly refers to his devoted followers the same way. And because the word has a common, generic meaning, most of us glance over its use without giving it much attention.
We should be, because the word is actually a kind of code, a signal of team membership. Certainly, its use has an obvious propaganda purpose: If the people who support Trump are “patriots,” then his opponents by right-wing logic must be unpatriotic and unAmerican. But more importantly, identifying as one signals to others your affiliation with the far-right “Patriot Movement”—better known to some as the militia movement or “constitutionalists.” And understanding this is central to understanding that this movement is the nexus of the right’s insurgent war on democracy.
“Patriots” has become the word that far-right ideologues, including various pundits and politicians, and their army of followers use to identify one another. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for us as patriots to stand up,” admonished Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance this week in calling for support for Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse. Tucker Carlson titled his pseudo-documentary promoting a conspiracy theory that “the left” is now persecuting conservatives “Patriot Purge.” The Jan. 6 insurrectionists currently under arrest in the D.C. Detention Facility call the section where they are held the “Patriot Wing.”
Indeed, it was the word that the mob of right-wing extremists who invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 consistently used to identify themselves. A video of himself recorded by Scott Fairlamb, the 44-year-old mixed martial arts fighter sentenced this week for assaulting police officers outside the Capitol showed him shouting: “What (do) Patriots do? We fucking disarm them and then we storm the fucking Capitol!”
Inside, the “QAnon shaman” Jake Angeli—garbed in furs and a horned hat—could be heard hailing his comrades: “Hold the line, Patriots!” In a New Yorker video taken inside, Angeli can be seen greeting other rioters inside the Senate chambers: “Heyyyy, glad to see you man. Look at you guys, you guys are fuckin’ Patriots!” Leading a prayer from the dais later, he thanked God for “filling this chamber with Patriots who love you and love Christ.”
This was not new. For the previous three years, Donald Trump had come to refer to his most rabid followers as “patriots,” and those same followers used the same word to describe themselves and each other—particularly the conspiracy theory-fueled worlds of Infowars and the QAnon cult. Following his defeat at the polls in November, however, its use intensified and spread, cropping up among Trump supporters ranging from white nationalists to Republican congressmen.
In mid-November, white nationalist podcaster Nick Fuentes—whose organization bore the Trumpian name America First—declared the post-election environment, one in which a majority of Republicans believed the election had been stolen, ripe for advancing the white nationalist cause: “This is the opportunity to galvanize the patriots of this country behind a real solution to these problems that we’re facing.”
One QAnon adherent—identified as Thad Williams of Tampa, Florida—posted on Twitter that he had raised more than $27,000 to provide monetary aid to Trump fans trying to get to Washington on Jan. 6: “Patriots, if you need financial help getting to DC to support President Trump on January 6th, please go to my website,” he wrote three days before the event.
Then, during the “Stop the Steal” rally at The Ellipse prior to the insurrection, Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks—who led the House effort to contest the certification of the Electoral College votes—warmed up the crowd with an incendiary speech: “Today is the day American patriots start takin’ down names and kickin’ ass!” Brooks had shouted, to roaring approval.
One of the attendees at the Trump rally that preceded the Jan. 6 riot—a 55-year-old man from Chicago—told a reporter: "We're not moving on … We are not Republicans. We are the MAGA party. We are Patriots.”
And when the men who had come to the capital city that day prepared for violence began marching on the Capitol, they called each other and themselves Patriots. Jeffrey Sabol of Colorado—who was later charged with beating two police officers who were attempting to save another rioter who herself later died—told investigators that as he approached the steps of the Capitol, equipped with zip ties, a two-way radio and earpiece and wearing a black helmet and steel-toed boots, he heard flashbangs going off, which he interpreted as a “call to battle” set off by antifa infiltrators. So, he told them, he hurried to the front lines and “answered the call because he was a patriot warrior.”
Trump supporters elsewhere who celebrated the insurrection applied the label as well. A Stop the Steal protest organizer in Illinois told a local TV station: "Well, now the patriots are waking up and we're taking our country back. As you've seen in D.C., they've stormed the Capitol and they are making their voices be heard. So, that's what we'll continue to fight for."
And after Trump’s coup attempt failed, and he angrily blamed the loss on the Republican Party for failing to support his every dictate—at one point announcing he intended to leave the GOP, and create his own third party. The name he intended to bestow on his new entity was the “Patriot Party.” He only backed down after Republican leaders mollified him by assuring him they would be dutifully loyal to him in the future.
The insurrectionists’ use of the name Patriots, however, is not simply the generic one suggesting people with a deep love of American democracy. In reality, you’ve never met a more seditionist lot; well before the attack on the Capitol, it was common for them to speak among themselves of overthrowing the government and “the globalists,” and preparing for civil war. Their notions of patriotism revolve around enforcing authoritarian adherence to “legitimate” leadership figures and not around the democratic values America of our historical traditions.
In psychological terms, it’s an expression of a deep need to see oneself, and to be seen by others, as heroic. The dynamics of achieving that heroic status inform everything they do and say, particularly their constant reification of concocted enemies against which they set out to do battle. In the 1990s, the threat was the “New World Order” and its black helicopters; in the 2000s, it became an invading horde of immigrants, combined with the threat of Islamist terror. Under Trump, it became “antifa” and Black Lives Matter and critical race theory.
In practical terms, it is an identification with the far-right conspiracist Patriot movement that, for the past 30 years, has been generating such antigovernment activities as organizing so-called “citizen militias,” as well as violent “sovereign citizen” extremists, border-watching “Minutemen” vigilantes, armed “III Percent” gun fanatics, and more recently, street-brawling “Proud Boys”—all of them built around an alternative far-right universe comprising conspiracy theories.
Indeed, while the Patriot movement has been typically described over the decades since it began organizing in the 1990s by researchers who have monitored them as “antigovernment,” that term may not give the most accurate sense of their ideology. Given that many of them deny they are opposed to government—they in fact believe government would be just fine if they were in charge, as they believed they were under Donald Trump; they simply oppose any kind of liberal democratic government—and that many of them are unmistakable in their hostility to democratic principles and democracy itself, it is more fundamentally an antidemocratic movement.
Their hostility to democracy is reflected in one of the movement’s embedded truisms: “America is a republic, not a democracy” (which is, as historian George Thomas explained in detail in The Atlantic, is not just a historically wrong claim, it’s a dangerously toxic one). It’s also reflected in the movement’s historic animus directed at ethnic and religious minorities, as well its openly seditionist rhetoric, and its bedrock belief that liberal democratic government is secretly in the hands of an evil “globalist” (or “communist” or “Marxist,” depending on the conspiracy theory) cabal. That hostility became starkly manifest on Jan. 6.
While the Patriot movement has often been considered synonymous with the militia movement of the 1990s, it really is more of an umbrella term encompassing a range of far-right extremists, including so-called “sovereign citizens” and “constitutionalists.” In the post-alt-right era, it has been adopted for identification by an even broader range of ideological warriors, including the Alex Jones Infowars crowd and the Proud Boys.
The Anti-Defamation League defines the Patriot movement thus: “A collective term used to describe a set of related extremist movements and groups in the United States whose ideologies center on anti-government conspiracy theories. The most important segments of the ‘Patriot’ movement include the militia movement, the sovereign citizen movement and the tax protest movement. Though each submovement has its own beliefs and concerns, they share a conviction that part or all of the government has been infiltrated and subverted by a malignant conspiracy and is no longer legitimate.”
The use of the name originated with right-wing extremists in the mid-1980s who called themselves “Christian Patriots,” and were unabashedly racist—many of its participants could be found at annual “Aryan Congresses” assembled by the “Christian Identity” Aryan Nations near Hayden Lake, Idaho. This movement was studied in depth by sociologist James Aho in his 1990 book, The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism (University of Washington Press). Derived in many regards from the openly racist and antisemitic “Posse Comitatus” belief system, Christian Patriots also claimed that ordinary people could declare themselves “sovereign citizens” to free themselves from rule by the federal government (including paying taxes), and that the county sheriff was the supreme law of the land, able to countermand federal law if he deemed it unconstitutional. Civil rights laws, public land ownership, a federal education department—these were all considered null and void in their world of radical antifederalism.
Following the tragic outcomes of the armed federal standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, and at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in 1993, an idea that had been circulating in far-right circles—a strategy called “leaderless resistance” that called for forming small action-directed “cells,” along with violent acts of “lone wolf” domestic terrorism—became the consensus response among Christian Patriots. They called them “militias”—a reference intended to invoke the wording of the Second Amendment as a way to justify their existence.
Moreover, to broaden the appeal of the militias to include more secular-minded recruits, the movement dropped “Christian” and began calling itself simply the “Patriot movement.” The name stuck permanently.
At the time he blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, Timothy McVeigh self-identified as a “Patriot,” as did Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics backpack bomber. The Montana Freemen—purveyors of sovereign citizen pseudo-legal scams and major figures in the movement—engaged in an 81-day armed standoff with FBI agents in 1996 near Jordan, Montana.
Despite the connection to public violence, however, the Patriot movement—as I explained in my 1999 book In God’s Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest—played the strategic role as part of a campaign for ideas and agendas from the radical right to become more mainstream. The general idea was to strip their overt bigotry (especially the innate antisemitism and racism) from their radical localist and nativist politics and to present them wrapped in American-flag bunting and lofty sounding “constitutionalist” rhetoric that disguised its utterly nonsensical nature with heavy doses of jingoist jargon.
Throughout the 1990s, the Patriots continually organized their vigilante paramilitaries as militia groups, and preached the constitutionalist approach to government to anyone who would listen, along with their never-ending web of “New World Order” conspiracy theories, peddling maps of “FEMA concentration camps” and sightings of “UN black helicopters.” The conspiracism reached a kind of fever pitch in 1999 over the supposed looming “Y2K Apocalypse,” but after that proved to be an utter nonevent, it then receded into a low-level hiatus during most of the early 2000s, with conspiracists mostly devoted to the massive speculation industry that sprang out of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Among the leaders of that industry was radio host Alex Jones, a onetime John Birch Society member who began his career in Texas regurgitating conspiracy theories originally concocted by the Militia of Montana and other Patriots, then packaging them for mass consumption. Shortly after the embarrassment of having hysterically hyped the Y2K Apocalypse, Jones seized on the 9/11 attacks as a fresh, and wildly promotable, avenue for drawing listeners into his web of fantasies. Over the years, Jones increasingly identified on-air with “the Patriots” in their “war against the globalists.”
In the early 2000s, much of the radical right, including white nationalists, began organizing around immigration as an issue because of what they saw as an unwelcome tide of nonwhites permanently altering the American cultural landscape. Among Patriots, this manifested itself in the formation of vigilante border-watch militias who took it upon themselves to detain border crossers and to threaten them, motivated by a far-right conspiracy theory that immigration from Latin America was part of a New World Order plot to turn the American Southwest back over to Mexico in a “Reconquista.”
The most successful of these was the 2005 “Minuteman Project,” which attracted Patriots from around the country to participate in a large vigilante patrol on the Mexico border that also drew massive media coverage. Within five years, however, the Minutemen had crumbled apart amid internal bickering and the increasing criminality of its participants, culminating in the 2009 murders of an Arivaca, Arizona, man and his 9-year-old daughter in a botched home invasion by a Minuteman leader named Shawna Forde and her henchmen. Minuteman cofounder Chris Simcox is now in prison for a child molestation conviction.
Around 2008 and the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, the Patriot movement suddenly came roaring back to life. While the numbers of militia groups had declined to a mere 131 groups in 2007, they revived sharply over the next two years, with 512 groups. By 2012, they had reached a record high 1,360 militia groups. However, relatively few of the movement’s leaders from the 1990s remain active to this day, many of them having subsequently died.
The revival of the Patriot movement during the Obama years primarily revolved around the Tea Party movement. By mid-2010, it had become clear that the Tea Party—first promoted by mainstream media as a kind of normalized right-wing populist revolt against liberal Democratic rule in the Obama era—had swiftly transformed into a massive conduit for conspiracy theories, ideas, and agendas directly from the Patriot movement. Attending a Tea Party gathering after that year, particularly in places like rural Montana, was indistinguishable from the scene one could have found 15 years before at a militia gathering: the same speakers, the same books, the same rhetoric, the same plenitude of paramilitary and survivalist gear for sale.
The ultimate emblem of this ideological takeover by the Patriots was the ascendance of the Gadsden flag (“Don’t Tread On Me”) as the Tea Party’s most prominent symbol. The flag had originally been revived in the 1990s by the Patriot movement and was commonly on prominent display at their gatherings, as well as available through the Militia of Montana mail-order catalog.
It remained a standard symbol for Patriots well afterward, and was prominently used by Minutemen groups while organizing vigilante patrols on both the Mexican and Canadian U.S. borders. When a group of far-right conspiracists gathered to discuss the supposed globalist conspiracy to destroy Western civilization at the core of their world views, a Gadsden flag was hung above the club where they met.
But soon after the Tea Party began organizing rallies in the spring and summer of 2009, Gadsden flags began appearing prominently. Soon the banner became the best-known symbol of that movement—reflective of the flood of Patriot movement ideologues who seized control of the Tea Party agenda.
The yellow Gadsden flag and its coiled rattlesnake also made prominent appearances during two armed standoffs with federal law enforcement in the West led by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his family, first in Nevada in 2014, and then in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016. Two of the participants in the Nevada standoff, Jerad and Amanda Miller, went on a murder spree two months afterward in Las Vegas. After shooting two police officers to death in a pizza parlor, they covered their bodies with a Gadsden flag.
The same flag appeared in large numbers among the mob that invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6; one of the five people who died that day in the crowd, a 34-year-old Georgia woman named Rosanne Boyland, had carried her own Gadsden flag to the rally that day. (It was later determined she had died of an accidental amphetamine overdose.) Numerous insurrectionists carried them inside the Capitol that day; one left their flag, still attached to its pole, sticking out of a large waste can for crews to clean up afterwards.
It now appears everywhere there is a right-wing protest, including last weekend’s Proud Boys marches in New York and Los Angeles. Now, it flaps prominently from the back ends of jacked-up pickups that cruise with “Trump Trains” and anti-Joe Biden protests, alongside “Blue Lives Matter,” “Trump Is My President,” and “Fuck Biden” flags.
The seep of the Patriot Movement’s most recognizable emblem into mainstream right-wing politics is symbolic of the movement’s gradual, and now seemingly complete, absorption into conservative politics and, by extension, the Republican Party.
Patriots have shifted the focus of their antidemocratic fervor over the years. Today’s Patriots no longer are focused on black helicopters, troop movements, and the government fiascos at Ruby Ridge and Waco. But at their core is the same fundamental ideology: fueled by conspiracy theories with an antisemitic core, angrily militant and heavily armed, organized around vigilantism and a desire to end democratic governance through eventual overthrow.
The core animating beliefs of the Patriot Movement today are either direct descendants of their original worldview, permutations of long-held cultural values, or modern-day adaptations of those values to fit their narratives about current events and politics:
- The world’s politics and culture are being secretly controlled by an elite cabal of “globalists” who seek to enslave the world under a single, tyrannical world government (long known, and still referred to at times, as “the New World Order”).
- The “unpatriotic” Americans they oppose—variously liberal Democrats, civil rights and immigrant rights leaders, environmentalists, mainstream journalists—are the willing tools of Socialists, who are Marxists, who are Communists, who are actually the real fascists. All are worthy of elimination.
- In addition to the government, media and educational institutions are under the control of the cabal, and are dedicated to brainwashing American children with Marxist propaganda.
- All of these coconspirators are deliberately encouraging nonwhite immigration into America so that the traditional white demographic base of the country will be permanently altered with more “obedient” races.
- America is not a democracy, it is a republic. “Democracy” is a Socialist lie.
- The Second Amendment not only forbids any kind of gun safety restrictions whatsoever, it also enshrines the formation of private armies accountable to no one because they are “militias.”
- The same amendment exists to enable ordinary citizens to obtain any kind of armament they desire so that they can rise up and prevent any kind of “Communist takeover” by taking up arms against a “tyrannical” world government. (This is known as the “insurrectionary theory of the Second Amendment.”)
- The globalist cabal knows that the resulting heavily armed populace is the chief obstacle for their nefarious schemes, which is why they work so relentlessly to undermine the Second Amendment—and why Patriots must defend it with their blood and their arms.
- The Constitution severely limits the power of the federal government, which should not be permitted to own federal lands, enforce civil rights or environmental laws, engage in overseeing public education, or any other traditional function outside of providing a national defense.
- The extraordinary extremism now exhibited by their enemies—endorsing “socialist” government funding schemes, supporting same-sex marriage and abortion rights, embracing a movement to end racist policing—means they have been overwhelmed by Marxist ideology and are an existential threat to their republic. This means that any kind of force, especially lethal force, is a reasonable response to this threat.
- Donald Trump’s presidency came under relentless attack from the globalist cabal even before he won election, because he is a real American Patriot who espouses and defends real American values. The 2020 election was nefariously stolen from him by the cabal using election fraud, and the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C., was a justifiable attempt by ordinary Patriots to prevent the theft of his presidency.
- Joe Biden is not only being controlled by the elite cabal, he is also in the pocked of the Chinese Communist Party, and his administration is now engaged in a program of destroying America to pave the way for a Communist takeover.
These beliefs, all of them fundamentally extremist, form the cornerstones of the Patriot Movement’s worldview and how it organizes and recruits. And as we can see, a number of them are being voiced steadily and regularly by ostensibly mainstream right-wing figures, particularly Fox News pundits, social media trolls, and Republican politicians.
This is how extremism has crept into the mainstream, like the Gadsden flag: unremarked upon, quietly, and with only a few raised eyebrows within mainstream political discourse. In the same way, the Patriot Movement has silently insinuated itself at the center of that discourse and radicalized an entire political party along the way.
The Patriot Movement is the nexus of the insurgent war on democracy that is currently well under way; it may be helpful to think of Jan. 6 as the open declaration of that war. Most of all, if we have any hope of defeating this threat to the American democratic way of life, we need first to properly identify it and call it out.
When right-wingers call themselves or fellow activists “Patriots,” it’s going to be essential to understand that they’re not identifying as believers in America. Rather, they are the opposite.