One recurring theme running through many of the shocking images and videos that streamed from Charlottesville on Saturday was that of heavily armed men in camouflage, walking through crowds while carrying semiautomatic weapons and tactical gear.
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To the uninitiated, they may have looked like members of a local police unit, deployed in order to keep the peace. In reality, however, they were members of antigovernment militias, ostensibly volunteering to help prevent violence, but more likely to ensure that the rally would go ahead undisturbed by counter-protesters. It was a powerful show of force.
To many around the world, no doubt, Saturday’s events served as a frightening revelation, both with respect to the degree to which the far right in the United States has grown in recent years, and also concerning one of its more ominous manifestations: the proliferation of radical antigovernment paramilitary organizations and their recent, improbable entry into the world of partisan politics.
After years of decline, antigovernment militias experienced a resurgence in the last decade, spurred by fears of immigration, changing demographics and, most importantly, the election of Barack Obama. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of armed militias exploded after 2008 and peaked in 2011 with 334 such active groups. The number has since fallen, dropping to 165 militias by 2016.
The Trump resurgence
Once considered fringe actors with no discernible political allegiances (except perhaps former Republican Congressman and staunch libertarian Ron Paul), the antigovernment (or so-called patriotic) movement in America — a hodgepodge of publishers, citizens groups, Christian churches and militias, all trafficking in antigovernment conspiracy theories — has become more and more partisan following Donald Trump's rise to power on the wings of antigovernment conspiracy theories.
While not all militias are inclined to incorporate white nationalist ideas into their ideology (many have been actively trying to shed this image), all of them typically see the U.S. government as their main enemy. If once they were doomed to remain bit players in American politics forever, that situation is seemingly changing, as far-right groups enjoy a newfound legitimization under Trump.
In a 2016 New York Times profile of a Georgia “Three Percenter” militia — Three Percenters are one of the largest such networks in the U.S. — the group's members expressed worries that Hillary Clinton might become president and try to take away their guns, thereby forcing them to defend their “way of life.” Trump, on the other hand, was universally adored by militia members for his staunch pro-gun stance, his anti-Islamic incitement and his hatred of immigrants. His victory, fittingly, was celebrated by militia groups all over the U.S.
This adoration for the president is rather unusual for people whose entire mission is based on resisting the tyranny of the federal government. What’s even more improbable is the militia movements’ recent forays into the world of party politics, courtesy of Republicans who are apparently eager to sic them on liberal activists.
“Some state and local politicians who are remaking partisanship in Trump’s image may see militias as a way to tighten their grip on power,” according to a recent report by Vice/The Trace.
Militia groups, meanwhile, seem eager to serve Trump's agenda. A recent report by AP claimed that while activity by such organizations historically drops under Republican presidents (and rises with Democratic ones, particularly if their name is Barack Obama) – activity under Trump doesn’t seem to follow the same pattern.
The militias, in fact, are recruiting. According to Mic.com, Oath Keepers — one of the largest militia groups in the U.S. — and similar groups have been enlisting new members through online communities like 4Chan, sites that have served as a hotbed for the growth of the alt-right and tend to attract disaffected young men. This, in itself, is not particularly shocking: Much like other far-right movements, militias were early adopters of the internet, says Arie Perliger, a professor at the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts – Lowell, and an expert on far-right extremists and domestic terrorism. These groups have been using it to promote their ideology, solidify ranks and coordinate activities.
“They have hundreds of thousands of subscribers to their websites. They’re extremely active,” the professor notes. “This is why when people are talking about 'lone wolves,' I think they need to be very careful. People may act by themselves, but they never see themselves as acting alone. They see themselves as people who represent a wider community.”
In recent years, law enforcement authorities have grown increasingly concerned about the rise of far-right and white supremacist groups, says Perliger, who also served as director of Terrorism Studies at the Combating Terrorism Center at the West Point military academy. According to a report by Foreign Policy, quoting from a report by FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, white supremacist groups have carried out more terror attacks than any other domestic group in the past 16 years, and more attacks are likely to come.
Securing political events
While Charlottesville provided the most media exposure of their recent activities, militia groups have been making appearances at numerous right-wing political events for the past two years.
In some cases, heavily armed militiamen have been asked to provide security at Republican Party and pro-Trump functions. In July, for instance, Republicans in Portland, Oregon, voted to invite armed members of two local militias – the Oregon Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers – to protect their events from left-wing protesters. Both groups espouse radical antigovernment and racist ideology inspired by various conspiracy theories.
In Charlottesville, militias also played a key role: According to ProPublica, local authorities effectively “turned the streets of the city over to groups of militiamen,” who “played a more active role in breaking up fights” than the much-maligned, local police force.
In trying to defend the police’s passive response to the violence on Saturday, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe revealed just how intimidating these militias have become: “It’s easy to criticize, but I can tell you this: 80 percent of the people there had semiautomatic weapons,” said McAuliffe, who went on to say that the militias had better equipment than the State Police.
Officially, many of these groups deny any connection to white nationalism, identifying as patriots who only aim to “keep the peace” and “defend First Amendment rights.”
Following the events of Charlottesville, the Three Percenters issued a “stand down,” denouncing any members who attended or plan to attend neo-Nazi or white supremacist events in the future.
Reality, however, runs counter to the claim that militias help keep the peace: Over the years, members of these far-right groups have been connected to numerous instances of domestic terrorism and racist hate crimes. Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people and injured over 600 in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, reportedly attended meetings of the Michigan Militia, as did his co-conspirator Terry Nichols.
Just this Saturday, as white supremacists and antifa protesters clashed in Charlottesville, a 23-year-old man named Jerry Drake Varnell was arrested in Oklahoma City after attempting to detonate what he thought was a van filled with explosives outside a bank. Varnell was inspired by the Three Percenters’ ideology and wanted to form his own militia.
Antigovernment private militias have been part of American history since its very beginning. The modern-day militia movement, however, actually had its genesis in the early 1990s, following two major events: One was the 1992 “Ruby Ridge” standoff in Idaho, where federal agents attempted to take a white separatist named Randall Weaver into custody for weapons charges, leading to an 11-day siege that ended in three deaths, including Weaver’s wife and teenage son. The other landmark was the deadly siege of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, in 1993, which left 76 men, women and children dead.
Spurred by the seeming government encroachment on civil liberties, as well as by the conspiracy-laden paranoia that followed George H.W. Bush’s 1990 declaration of a “New World Order,” many took up arms and began training, under a rigid military-style regimen, believing that an armed conflict between them and the federal government was sure to come.
The rise of the militia movement in the last two decades can essentially be divided into two waves, says Perliger, the expert on extremism. One wave followed Ruby Ridge and Waco, he says, while the other one evolved during the last decade or so.
“The principal agenda of these groups didn’t really change,” says Perliger. “Many of them believe that the U.S. government is controlled by a foreign agent, that it doesn’t serve the interests of the American people. Eventually, they believe, a violent confrontation with the U.S. government will occur, so they are preparing for that by conducting military training, stockpiling weapons and so on.”
Legally, militias are allowed to operate as long as they don’t overtly call for violence. While most states have laws restricting the activity of paramilitary organizations, such groups are largely able to avoid scrutiny.
“While they wear uniforms and at least rhetorically seek to undermine the legitimacy of the federal government, the fact is they’re very small and never, as far as I can tell, endorse violence as a main practice,” says Perliger. “Yes, they are training, because they believe eventually there will be an all-out war in which they’ll have to defend themselves, but they are smart enough to never really engage in violence in a systematic way.”
Nonetheless, he adds, “What is important to note is that since 2008, all the data we have show a consistent increase in the level of violence.” Much of this increase in violence has come through the so-called lone wolf attacks inspired by the movement’s radical ideology, notes Perliger. In 2016, for instance, three members of a Kansas militia group known as “the Crusaders” plotted to bomb an apartment complex that was occupied predominantly by Muslim immigrants.
While some members of the militia movement have been trying to shed their white supremacist image – in effect ignoring an important part of their own history, and also the role anti-Semitic conspiracy theories still play in their movement’s ideology – in recent years they have become increasingly anti-Muslim.
Whether the Trump administration is ready to deal with the growing threat of far-right radicals, however, remains an open question, particularly given the president's well-documented ambivalence about publicly attacking white supremacists and his wish to focus all terrorism efforts solely on Islamic radicalism.
When Prof. Perliger was asked whether he believes that, following the events of last weekend, far-right groups in America are likely to face more scrutiny, he offered the following, terse reply: “No.”