February 10, 2021
In the 18th century, Voltaire wrote wisely and presciently that “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” History has provided numerous validations of Voltaire’s observation, centered around self-serving leaders who build and exploit a cult of personality. The most recent example was the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 to disrupt the counting of Electoral College votes, committed by assorted cultists who believed Donald Trump’s latest absurdity that he had won an election in a landslide, when all the evidence showed that he had lost definitively. The insurrectionist mob followed Trump’s instructions to try to overthrow a free and fair election, all the while claiming in Orwellian fashion that they were attacking in order to save democracy.
But the commitment of atrocities requires more than a leader willing to incite a crowd with his or her delusions. It requires cult members susceptible to believing absurdities. This post is about those gullible cult members. The Jan. 6 mob was dominated by violent extremists and QAnon theists. The extremists involved are fully invested in the slippery slope logical fallacy that we have described here. On the one hand, they have convinced themselves that measures such as mask-wearing mandates or partial lockdowns to protect public health by mitigating the spread of a deadly virus are incremental steps of a government malevolently intent on achieving tyranny. On the other hand, they willingly submit to a Big Lie that represents a wide open gateway to tyranny. The QAnon theists are individuals who have willingly submitted to brainwashing via social media, built on flimsy and cryptic narratives woven from illusions and absurdities. There are undoubtedly overlaps between the two groups of participants in Trump’s cult of personality, but we will deal with them separately in the following sections of this post.
In Part I of this post, we review in Section I some of the incidents and some of the organizers and participants in the insurrection events of Jan. 6. In Section II, we then discuss the history of the American paramilitary movement, along with profiles of some of the groups and leaders who played important roles leading up to the Capitol siege. In Part II of the post, we offer (Section III) some perspectives on the spread of QAnon and the mindset of its adherents. We then discuss in Section IV possible future developments of the Trump cult, now that Trump has vacated the Presidency.
I. organizers and participants in the January 6th capitol siege
Donald Trump long anticipated that he might well lose his re-election bid in 2020. Even before the start of the Democrat Party primary elections, he was most worried about Joe Biden as an opponent. This is why he sought to strong-arm the newly elected President of the Ukraine to open a phony corruption investigation into Biden’s role, when he was Vice President, in getting a corrupt Prosecutor General replaced in that country. The leverage Trump used was withholding $400 million in badly needed military aid to Ukraine that had been approved by Congress. This act earned Trump his first impeachment in December 2019, but he was not convicted by the U.S. Senate. Once Biden formally became the Democrats’ Presidential candidate, Trump repeated often and loudly that Trump could only lose the election to Biden if it was rigged by corrupt Democrats in big cities. But he did lose the election, fair and square. Biden managed to flip the results in five states that Trump had won in 2016, and thereby earned a substantial Electoral College victory, especially by dominating absentee ballots cast abundantly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of state laws, those ballots were counted last in several of those flipped states, but as we have documented elsewhere on this site, there is no evidence of fraud or statistical anomalies in any of that late counting. Nonetheless, the fact that Trump appeared to be leading in some of those states at the end of Election Day, before the counting was completed, fed into his narrative that the election was stolen from him.
Trump is a malignant narcissist. He simply cannot psychologically process any series of events in which he can be characterized as a loser. He thus invents delusions in which his loss is blamed on the incompetence or fraud of others. His “stolen election” claims are based on such delusions, fed and amplified by sycophantic supporters and enablers he’s surrounded himself with. The months-long organized disinformation campaign that Trump and his co-conspirators waged has been documented in detail in a lengthy New York Times report.
However, there is no evidence of the sort of widespread fraud or election irregularities Trump and his supporters promoted to the world. The election vote counts in several of the flipped states were confirmed by multiple audits and recounts, including hand recounts that confirmed the results of voting machines that Trump allies falsely claimed were switching votes from Trump to Biden. Trump’s own erstwhile overly loyal Attorney General, William Barr, said of Department of Justice election investigations: “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” Trump’s own appointee to secure America’s election systems, Christopher Krebs, called the 2020 vote “the most secure in American history.” Those comments simply led Trump and his allies to identify Barr and Krebs as part of the vast conspiracy to steal the election. Both were told to depart their posts shortly before the administration was due to end.
Trump’s legal “team” managed to get their lawsuits rejected in more than 60 court cases around the U.S., often by judges that had been appointed by Republican Presidents, including Trump himself. The rejections often came with highly dismissive language. For example, one of Trump’s appointees to a federal appeals court, Judge Stephanos Bibas, wrote the following in his decision to reject an appeal of one of the Trump court losses: “Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.” Without support from courts, Trump tried to arm-twist Republican state legislatures in the flipped states to violate their own state laws by intervening to appoint electors in opposition to the popular vote in their states. These attempts also systematically failed.
As the Constitutionally mandated date of January 6 – two weeks prior to Inauguration – for Congress to certify the Electoral College votes submitted by each state approached, Trump was growing increasingly desperate, possibly also stimulated by his fear of criminal indictments once he would no longer be protected by the Presidency. As a last resort, he urged all “patriotic” supporters around the country to converge on Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, for a rally labeled either as “Save America” or “Stop the Steal,” intended to pressure members of Congress, or at the very least, Vice President Mike Pence, to decertify electors from the flipped states and hand the election to Trump: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” he tweeted. While waiting for the 6th, Trump continued to apply pressure to state governments to change the outcome. As revealed in a remarkable long phone call with the Georgia Secretary of State, Republican Brad Raffensperger – a recording of which was made public by Raffensperger on Jan. 3, — Trump accused Raffensperger of criminal failure to report election fraud, telling him: “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.”
Trump’s supporters did come out in force in D.C. on Jan. 6. One of the main organizers of the rally was Amy Kremer, former head of the Tea Party Express, who leads a non-profit group calling themselves Women For America First. That group has organized several pro-Trump mass rallies and started the Facebook group “Stop the Steal.” Kremer’s daughter Kylie Jane Kremer serves as Executive Director of Women for America First, and was listed as one of the organizers on the D.C. rally permit application. The group had financial backing from America First Policies, a pro-Trump policy advocacy dark money group. Other organizers listed on the permit have clear ties to Trump’s re-election campaign and, as revealed by the Center for Responsive Politics, the campaign itself contributed $2.7 million through a variety of shell companies to the organization of the rally. The connections are illustrated in Fig. I.1. The rally was a Trump operation from the start, intended to serve Trump’s goals.
Another organizer was Ali Alexander, a felon who started a “Stop the Steal” organization and now claims that three Republican Congressmen (Gosar and Biggs of Arizona and Brooks of Alabama) helped him plan the rally and assault to put “maximum pressure” on Republican members of Congress to resist the acceptance of electors. Alexander was in frequent contact with Rep. Gosar before the rally. Ali Alexander led a chant on Jan. 5 of “victory or death!” and posted a video of himself amongst the insurrectionist mob, claiming “I don’t disavow this. I do not denounce this.”
Trump indeed had ample support from allies in Congress, including well over 100 Republican members of the House of Representatives who pledged to vote against accepting electoral college votes from selected states. And a handful of Republican Senators also pledged initially to raise objections, once the ice had been broken by Josh Hawley of Missouri. Hawley was infamously photographed saluting the mob approaching the Capitol with a raised fist of solidarity. Trump also had support from the state Republican Attorneys General Association, whose dark-money-funded policy arm the Rule of Law Defense Fund (irony, anyone?) sent out robocalls encouraging wide attendance at the D.C. rally.
The crowds at the Jan. 6 rally spanned a variety of pro-Trump organizations. Included in addition to the organizing groups were the Eighty Percent Coalition and The Silent Majority. But also present were significant numbers of members of various extreme right-wing organizations we profile in Section II of this post, political groups or militias that promote violence to achieve their aims, which range from protecting gun rights, through opposing liberal groups with significant Black or Jewish membership, to inciting a new race war in America. Groups represented included the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the Boogaloo Bois and various state militias. Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio said “that his followers would ‘be incognito’ and ‘spread across downtown D.C. in smaller teams.” Tarrio himself was arrested by D.C. police on Jan. 4 for burning a Black Lives Matter banner. In the aftermath of the ensuing Capitol siege, several members of the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys have been charged with conspiracy to plan the assault on Congress, and more conspiracy charges may well be coming.
Many among the rally crowd were devotees of the bizarre and viral QAnon conspiracy theory that we discuss in Section III of this post. Everyone present had bought into Trump’s Big Lie that he had actually won the election in a landslide, but the victory had been stolen from him through fraud and irregularities, especially in big cities with large Black populations. Many had come to D.C. specifically to march on Congress and to apply pressure for members of Congress to overturn the Electoral College votes, with no backing to do so from either the Constitution or actual evidence. They were ready to roll, having engaged beforehand with others through social media and the Dark Web. They did not need to be ginned up further. But the speakers at the rally, prominently ending with Donald Trump himself, went out of their way to inflame the passions within the crowd.
On the eve of the rally, Michael Flynn, who had briefly served as Trump’s initial National Security Advisor, and later been pardoned by him for the felonies to which he had pleaded guilty, told the crowd that they should be ready to “bleed” for freedom. On Jan. 6, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told the rally crowd: “Over the next 10 days, we get to see the machines that are crooked, the ballots that are fraudulent, and if we’re wrong, we will be made fools of. But if we’re right, a lot of them will go to jail. Let’s have trial by combat.” He repeated the tired, old election fraud claims that more than 60 courts had rejected over a two-month period as mere unsubstantiated speculation. He suggested that if he only had 10 more days he could produce all the evidence he had so far failed completely to turn up over the preceding two months. He misinformed the audience that Vice President Mike Pence had the Constitutional authority to cast aside the Electoral College votes and turn the election back to state legislatures (controlled by Republicans) in the five states Biden had flipped.
Trump himself worked on the crowd for more than an hour, telling them: “You don’t concede [the Presidential election] when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore and that’s what this is all about…We’re going to have to fight much harder and Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us…You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength. You have to be strong…If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Note that Trump used language (the boldface phrase above) reminiscent of the deranged news anchor Howard Beale in the movie Network (see the YouTube excerpt from the movie in Fig. I.2), before exhorting his followers to march down to the Capitol and make sure that the election was not “stolen.” The permit for the Jan. 6 rally was not issued to allow such a march, but it served Trump’s purpose.
And many in the crowd followed Trump’s marching orders. He did not join them, as he had promised. But he did let them know while they marched that Mike Pence was not going to be complicit, as the Vice President understood and would adhere to the Constitutional limits on his mostly ceremonious role in the counting of electors. So, the crowd began chanting “Hang Mike Pence” as they marched. One or more of them even set up a makeshift noose outside the Capitol. Other cries heard from the amassing mob at the Capitol: “Arrest Congress!”; “Military tribunals! Hang them!”; “Keep moving forward! Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!”; “Stop the Steal!”; “Hell no, never Joe!” Many carried Trump flags, some the Confederate flag. Their outfits and their symbols included clear references to QAnon, to white supremacy, to Nazi death camps, to specific right-wing militia, and to Trump’s MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) mantra.
They formed a human battering ram, thousands strong, and forced their way past inadequate Capitol Police presence into the building. Some of them viciously beat Capitol Policemen, killing one. They used flag poles, fire extinguishers, ladders, parts of police barriers, crutches, batons and stun guns as weapons. Others smashed windows and climbed walls inside the Capitol, straining to assault the assembled members of Congress already in the midst of counting electors. Others invaded Congressional offices, including that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom several threatened to kill on their own selfie videos. They stole equipment and scattered documents. One of the invaders was shot and killed by Capitol Police as she was attempting to enter the Congressional chamber through a smashed window in a blockaded door, while members of Congress were still being evacuated from that chamber. And all of this unfolded with live TV coverage while the world watched in horror, but Donald Trump watched from the White House in a state aides characterized as “mesmerized.” A short video of parts of the riot is included in Fig. I.3.
Although the assault was chaotic, it was not totally spontaneous. As the New York Times has reported, “the term ‘Storm the Capitol’ was mentioned 100,000 times in the 30 days preceding Jan. 6, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights company. Many of these mentions appeared in viral tweet threads that discussed the possible storming of the Capitol and included details on how to enter the building.” The use of the term “Storm” was especially meaningful to QAnon adherents, for whom it signifies the predicted onset of victory over the Satanic cabal they believe rules the world.
Trump was too occupied with watching the siege unfold to issue authorization for National Guard backup for the Capitol Police. Eventually such a call was made by Vice President Pence, who was under siege with his family, and along with all of Congress. Order was finally restored after several hours. After a couple of hours of the siege, Trump was finally convinced to put out a video urging the rioters to go home peacefully, but in it he emphasized: “We love you, you’re very special! I know your pain, I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it. Especially the other side.” A massive FBI probe has now led to many arrests of participants who broke multiple laws during the insurrection, with more arrests to come.
Donald Trump got his cult members to believe his absurdities and incited them to commit atrocities. But what, in the end, did they actually accomplish? Congress resumed the counting of electors that evening and completed the work overnight. The riot cut in half the small number of Republican Senators who would raise objections to some state’s electors. Joe Biden was confirmed as the new President to be inaugurated on Jan. 20. Five people, including both protesters and police, died during the riot and many Capitol Police were seriously injured. Two other members of the Capitol Police and D.C. Police forces committed suicide in the aftermath of the siege.
Many participants in the riot have been arrested, lost their jobs, and will likely serve time in jail. Donald Trump’s accounts have been terminated on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media, along with many of the accounts pushing violence to keep Trump in power or spreading conspiratorial nonsense to QAnon believers. Major social media and cloud companies have withdrawn infrastructure support for the Twitter competitor Parler, to which many Trump cultists had flocked. Major corporations have pledged to terminate campaign donations to those Republican Congress members who supported Trump’s Big Lie and did vote to decertify electors from some states.
Donald Trump was impeached for a second time by the House of Representatives, this time for the quite serious crime of “incitement of insurrection.” Among the votes to impeach, along with all the Democrats, were 10 Republican members of the House, including Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who is part of the Republican caucus leadership. Cheney’s powerful statement in support of impeachment lays out clearly what happened: “The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.” As Joe Biden stated in his inaugural address, “Democracy has prevailed,” but not by a robust margin.
In the following sections, we explore what has led so many to submit to Trump’s absurdities and the urge to commit violence to defend his delusions. We will also comment on what may become of his cultists with Trump removed from the White House and muted on social media.
II. The American paramilitary movement
Today, law-enforcement authorities generally agree that the greatest threat to our democracy is the rapid growth of right-wing extremist groups. In this introduction, we will review the history of these extremists, particularly the rise of militia groups and paramilitary organizations. Next, we will discuss some specific organizations that have been active, most recently in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. We will also discuss one radical left-wing group and assess its threat to our political system.
The Patriot Movement refers to a group of right-wing populist organizations that first rose to prominence in the 1980s. These groups adopted elements of racism, anti-Semitism and nationalism. Several of these had been central focal points of the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership had dwindled since its heyday in the late 1800s and the first few decades of the 20th century. A central theme of the various Patriot movement groups was that the federal government was illegitimate, and that citizens needed to form their own governing bodies, and to resist aspects of the federal system that they believed violated the Constitution. These groups considered themselves to be true American patriots, and they saw their mission as remaining faithful to their vision of the Constitution. They felt it was necessary to resist a brutal and illegitimate federal bureaucracy, by violent means if necessary.
For example, the Posse Comitatus group, which we shall review in more depth, believed that all elements of the federal bureaucracy above the office of county sheriff were illegitimate. They claimed that they could declare themselves “sovereign citizens,” and thus refuse to obey any federal laws; a point of emphasis of this movement was refusal to pay income tax or to purchase drivers’ licenses. They also believed that the federal government could not hold or control any lands; they asserted that they could unilaterally exert control over federal lands for their own use in building homes, grazing cattle, operating mines or other uses.
The Patriot movement groups were strongly influenced by white Christian nationalism, such as was embodied in the Ku Klux Klan. Many of their theories about a pending civil war (or race war, depending on the group) were very similar to fundamentalist Christian “end times” narratives. Initially these groups were relatively small and physically isolated. There were pockets of white nationalists, particularly in the West in isolated areas of Idaho and Nevada. However, over the past 30 years these groups have grown by very large amounts. They have become much more sophisticated in their recruitment techniques, and different nationalist groups have begun to coordinate their efforts.
There are three major reasons for the growth of these organizations. The first is the explosive growth of social media. The Internet allows like-minded groups to communicate with one another. In fact, media platforms such as Facebook have algorithms that link people and groups with common interests. A recent article by Laura Smith in the New York Times details how in the early 1980s, white supremacist Louis Beam was able to connect diverse like-minded groups across the country, by showing them how to communicate using tools on the brand-new Internet.
Today, extremists are able to share their conspiracy theories and to recruit new members using both mainstream platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and also elements of the “Dark Web” such as 4chan, Parler and Telegram. While platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Reddit will eventually ban posts that advocate violence or the overthrow of the state, these latter sites are much more likely to allow seditious content to be shared. At the moment, these Dark Web sites seem to permit almost any topics to be covered and shared on their platforms.
A second reason for the rapid growth of extremist groups is the continued demonization of liberals by conservatives. Political races always rely on exaggeration and criticism of one’s opponents and their positions. However, the past 40 years have seen a real weaponization of messages against Democratic political figures. For example, Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential race was due in part to a 30-year campaign against her. She has been accused of participating in the death of her colleague Vince Foster, and groups like Fox News alleged that Seth Rich was murdered to cover up his involvement in the leaking of e-mails from the Democratic National Committee. Also, a shocking number of Republicans believed the completely false allegation that Barack Obama’s presidency was illegitimate because he had been born in Kenya (alternatively, that as a youth he had renounced his American citizenship).
More recently, the QAnon conspiracy theories, which we have reviewed in a post on this blog and will discuss further in Section III of the current post, claim that the entire Democratic party organization, together with the international banking system and Hollywood, is controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshippers who kidnap young children, abuse and kill them. Although these theories have no basis whatsoever in fact, the conspiracy theories of these extremist organizations have been frequently supported by political commentators at Fox News, which gives them more credence.
The third reason for the recent rapid growth of violent extremists is the Trump Administration. It seems somewhat bizarre that groups of citizens who claim that the federal government is tyrannical and illegitimate and should be overthrown should throw their support to a U.S. government administration. However, Donald Trump has openly supported these groups, and considers them a valuable part of his political ‘base.’ As we will show, Trump repeatedly refused to condemn violent actions by these groups, while he insisted that the real threat to the American people was from leftist groups such as Antifa.
Another reason that militant extremists have supported the Trump Administration is that several of Trump’s priorities are similar to those of the militia groups. For example, Trump’s first Secretary of the Interior was Ryan Zinke, who made it clear that a high priority was to dramatically reduce the size of federal land holdings in the West. In 2017, Trump issued a proclamation that reduced the size of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by 85%. At the same time, he also reduced the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly 50%. In addition, under Trump the Environmental Protection Agency has drastically cut back a number of environmental protection statutes. Endangered species protections had made it illegal to carry out activities like mining and cattle grazing on public lands, so slashing those protections would make it possible for previously prohibited activities to be resumed. So these actions by Trump would be viewed favorably by right-wing extremist groups.
Still, it is shocking that one of our two major political parties would actively court groups of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, informal ‘militias’ and anti-Semites. The degree to which these extremist groups have gained a foothold in the Republican party is evidenced by the fact that at least two newly-elected Republican Congresswomen (Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia) have indicated their support for QAnon. And current Republican Congressmen such as Matt Gaetz of Florida, Paul Gosar of Arizona and Mo Brooks of Alabama have openly supported groups that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 of this year.
The Posse Comitatus and ‘Sovereign-Citizen’ Movements:
The Posse Comitatus movement (Latin for the “force of the country”) was a far-right group of populists who came to prominence in the late 1960s, were active primarily in the western and southern U.S., and eventually morphed into the various right-wing militias active today. They were strongly influenced by the white supremacist Christian identity movement.
A leader in the Posse Comitatus movement was Henry Beach of Eugene, Oregon. Around the time of Hitler’s rise in Germany, Beach had been a member of an American pro-Nazi group called the Silver Shirts. In 1969 Beach began issuing “Posse Charters” to affiliated groups. At that time, the Posse Comitatus groups claimed that they had been chosen by God as the “true Israelites.” Their claim was that the U.S. government had been taken over by Jews, who had created such Satanic institutions as the Federal Reserve System and the Internal Revenue Service.
Posse Comitatus groups refused to recognize any form of government higher than the county level; they considered the county sheriff to be the ultimate authority on governmental matters. Furthermore, their manifesto stated that if the sheriff failed to carry out the will of the people, “he shall be removed by the Posse to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and at high noon be hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown as an example to those who would subvert the law.” So, the county sheriff was the ultimate power unless he failed to carry out the “will of the people,” in which case he would be killed.
The Posse Comitatus was most powerful among small cadres of like-minded people in relatively unpopulated areas. They were most prevalent in the Western and Southern U.S. For obvious reasons, the Posse Comitatus movement was closely affiliated with anti-Semitic Christian nationalist groups. In 1985 a member of Posse Comitatus declared that the U.S. “is now completely under the control of the International invisible government of the World Jewry.”
The insistence that federal income taxation is unconstitutional, that the Federal Reserve System is corrupt, and that the nation must return to the gold standard are remnants of arguments that were current around 1913, when the federal income tax was initiated after the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. A return to the gold standard is something that is regularly cited by both libertarian and right-wing extremists as something not only desirable but necessary. For example, libertarian and former Congressman Ron Paul has made a return to the gold standard part of his philosophy. Despite repeated claims that the world financing system will collapse unless it is backed by gold, that has not happened in the 50 years since the U.S. abandoned the gold standard during the Nixon administration.
A related movement that grew out of Posse Comitatus was the “Sovereign Citizen” movement. This was first introduced by the Posse pastor William Gale. This group maintains that there are means by which individuals can renounce their “federal citizenship” and thus become “sovereign citizens.” The claim is that once they have done this, individuals are not subject to any federal laws. Wikipedia describes groups who subscribe to such notions as “a loose grouping of American litigants, commentators, tax protesters, and financial-scheme promoters.”
The sovereign citizen movement is also closely tied to the constitutional militia movement. Adherents of this doctrine focus particularly on not paying taxes. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that roughly 100,000 Americans are “hard-core sovereign believers.” Although the notion of sovereign citizens is closely tied to white-nationalist movements, there is a similar group of African-Americans that call themselves ‘Moorish sovereigns.’ Many in the sovereign-citizen movement have tried to advance in court their arguments that, because they have drawn up obscure documents that define themselves as “sovereign citizens,” they could then refuse to pay taxes, obtain driver’s licenses, or obey various laws. All such legal cases of which we are aware were thrown out as frivolous; in some cases the people filing the claims were jailed for tax fraud. In fact, the IRS has added “free born” and “sovereign” citizenship to a list of “frivolous” claims that can subject the filer to a $5,000 penalty when used as the basis for an inaccurate tax return.
A particularly enjoyable court finding was issued when Kenneth Leaming attempted to argue that he was a “sovereign citizen” and hence not subject to federal laws. The court noted: “Sovereign citizens are fascinated by capitalization. They appear to believe that capitalizing names have some sort of legal effect … He appears to believe that by capitalizing “UNITED STATES,” he is referring to a different entity than the federal government. For better or worse, it’s the same country … The court, therefore, feels some measure of responsibility to inform Defendant that all the fancy legal-sounding things he has read on the Internet are make-believe.”
Nevertheless, the ‘sovereign citizen’ movement still has some devotees, particularly in the Western U.S. There were compounds in Idaho and Nevada and other Western states that contained pockets of Posse Comitatus or sovereign citizen devotees. And they were influential with other anti-government extremists who were interested in tax protests, or other protests. One thing that may be confusing to sovereign-citizen adherents is their ability to file liens on federal property. When extremists file such liens (for example, giving themselves title to certain federal lands), nothing happens to them, so they proceed under the assumption that their lien has succeeded. However, the government generally does not investigate the validity of a lien at the time of filing. It is only when the person filing the lien attempts to act on the claims listed on the lien that they get in trouble with federal authorities.
In 2015 Assistant Attorney General John Carlin stated that the “Obama Administration had witnessed ’anti-government views triggering violence throughout America.’ He personally stated that during his tenure at the FBI and DOJ, law enforcement officials had identified sovereign citizens as their top concern.” As a result, the Dept. of Justice (DOJ) had created the position of Domestic Terrorism Counsel.
In 1992 and 1993, there were two incidents that involved federal agents and what were perceived to be groups of extremists. The results of these incidents had a great impact on the subsequent handling of standoffs between federal government officials and extremist groups. The two incidents were the standoff between U.S. Marshals and Randy Weaver and his family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the siege of the compound of the Branch Davidians religious sect in Waco, Texas. We review below both of these incidents, their outcomes, and the conclusions that were drawn by federal officials.
In addition to the effect that these incidents had on federal officials, the two cases also had a major impact on right-wing extremists. To members of these groups, the government’s actions justified their belief that the feds were brutal, untrustworthy, and an illegitimate governing body. Both the Weavers and the Branch Davidians were seen as martyrs to federal government over-reach. These two incidents would be responsible for significant growth of the American right-wing extremist movement, and for future actions taken by militant extremists.
The Ruby Ridge Standoff:
Randy Weaver was a former Army Green Beret who moved to Ruby Ridge, Idaho with his wife Vicki and their four children. Weaver was a survivalist whose intent was to move to the country and home-school his children. Weaver’s wife Vicki was a religious fundamentalist who believed that the Apocalypse was imminent. The Weavers began selling their belongings and built a cabin with no electricity. Weaver’s involvement with federal authorities began in 1984. At that time, he had a disagreement with a neighbor over a land deal; the neighbor lost a court case and was ordered to pay an additional fee to Weaver. The neighbor then informed the authorities that Weaver had made threats against the Idaho governor, President Reagan, and the Pope.
Figure II.1: Randy Weaver, his wife Vicki and three of their children.
In 1986, Weaver attended a meeting of the World Aryan Congress. There, he was approached by a federal informant who offered to supply Weaver with weapons. In late 1989, the Division of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) claimed that Weaver had sold the informant shotguns that had been illegally sawed off. Apparently, an ATF agent tried to get Weaver to inform on the Aryan Nations group in return for dropping the weapons charge; Weaver refused this offer. The ATF filed weapons charges against Weaver in 1990, and a trial date was set for February 1991.
The court sent letters regarding Weaver’s upcoming trial; however, the letters were not delivered to Weaver but to his lawyer; furthermore, the letters listed the wrong date for Weaver’s trial. When Weaver did not appear at his trial, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. After that, agents of the U.S. Marshals attempted to induce Weaver to leave his cabin and stand trial on the weapons charges. Over a period of seven months, Weaver refused to leave his cabin. He used the fact that he had been given an incorrect trial date as evidence of bad faith by the government. In addition, his lawyer had (erroneously) told Weaver that if he was convicted on the weapons charge, he would lose his land and his children would be taken away from him.
In April 1992, Geraldo Rivera featured Randy Weaver’s case on his TV show. A helicopter was hired to fly over Weaver’s cabin to provide video for that show. The media reported that Weaver and his family had fired on the helicopter. This was used by the US Marshals as justification for their eventual standoff with the Weavers, although reports of the firing on the helicopter have been disputed. In August 1992, six US Marshals were deployed to arrest Weaver. They divided into two teams and approached Weaver’s cabin. One team encountered Weaver’s son Sammy, his dog and a family friend Kevin Harris. A firefight occurred that resulted in Sammy Weaver and his dog being killed, while US Marshal Bill Degan was also killed.
The following day, the FBI set out a list of “Rules of Engagement” for apprehending Randy Weaver. They surrounded Weaver’s cabin with snipers. When Weaver emerged from his cabin to walk to a neighboring outbuilding (where Weaver’s son’s body had been taken), an FBI sniper shot and wounded Weaver. Weaver’s friend Kevin Harris was also on the property. When he saw Weaver shot, Harris ran towards the cabin. The sniper then shot Harris as well; but the bullet passed through Harris and killed Vicki Weaver, who was standing inside the door to the cabin. Eventually Randy Weaver surrendered to federal authorities.
Kevin Harris was then indicted for the murder of US Marshal Bill Degan, and Randy Weaver was indicted for attempted murder; however, both men were acquitted. The jury accepted Harris’ plea of self-defense, and felt that Weaver had mitigating circumstances. There was also much criticism of the Rules of Engagement that had been drafted for this encounter, as they allowed the government snipers to shoot Harris and Randy Weaver, and to kill Vicki Weaver, without first calling on them to surrender. The federal government dramatically changed their actions in dealing with future armed anti-government groups, as a result of the outcome of this case, and the acquittal of the combatants in court.
Waco and the Branch Davidian Siege:
In 1993, a major incident occurred with the government siege of the Branch Davidian sect led by David Koresh in Waco, Texas. The Branch Davidians were an offshoot of an earlier fundamentalist sect. They believed that the Second Coming was imminent, and their compound was built as a location for their followers to prepare for this event.
A few years earlier, David Koresh (whose name was originally Vernon Howell) claimed that he had been commanded by God to procreate with the women in the compound to produce an “Army of God” in preparation for the end of days. This required the husbands of the women to separate from their wives, and the husbands were told to maintain celibacy. In 1993, the Waco paper ran an exposé about the Branch Davidians written by former members of the colony. The article claimed that Koresh had taken a large number of wives, including some as young as 12 or 13 years old, and that he had fathered children with some of these.
In addition to the charges of polygamy and statutory rape, the government believed that the inhabitants of this religious sect were stockpiling weapons. Furthermore, they had reason to believe that the Branch Davidians were illegally converting their guns to fully automatic weapons, and that they had also imported machine guns. They also had testimony from informants that David Koresh may have been running a methamphetamine lab, as a means of making money for the compound. On February 28 1993, agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) entered the Branch Davidian compound with warrants to search for illegally stockpiled weapons, and for the arrest of leader David Koresh and some of his followers.
The ATF was counting on their foray being a surprise. This was not the case; although the ATF had an informant inside the compound, the Branch Davidians had determined his identity, and were well aware of the pending ATF raid. The ATF effort to enter the compound and arrest David Koresh and some of his top deputies led to a fierce firefight between the agents and Branch Davidian members that left four agents and six Branch Davidians dead.
Following this unsuccessful ATF operation, the FBI then mounted a siege of the Branch Davidian compound. They communicated with David Koresh at regular intervals. At one point, Koresh and the FBI reached an agreement that the Branch Davidians would leave the compound peacefully if a message from Koresh was broadcast on national radio. However, after the message was broadcast, Koresh said that God had told him to “wait,” and he reneged on his agreement. The sect did allow 19 children to leave the compound without their parents.
After 51 days and no resolution of the issue, the FBI stormed the compound after bombarding the area with tear gas. Several fires broke out in the compound, and this resulted in the deaths of 76 people, including leader David Koresh. The cause of the fires remains in dispute; the FBI claimed that the Branch Davidians set several fires within the compound, while supporters of the sect claimed that the fires were started by the tear gas from the FBI.
The Waco siege and the resulting deaths of the Branch Davidian families in the compound is still a subject of much controversy. Government officials defended their actions, claiming that they had unsuccessfully pursued non-violent actions for seven weeks without success. They argued that the allegations of child abuse and weapons violations were sufficiently dire that they were forced to take action. On the other hand, many Americans considered that the Branch Davidians were massacred by the federal government simply for trying to pursue their religious beliefs. Right-wing extremists used the Ruby Ridge incident and the Waco siege as rallying points for their claims that the federal government was illegitimate and needed to be resisted, perhaps violently. For many of these extremists, the Ruby Ridge and Waco participants were martyrs to the federal government.
The Waco incident also had a profound effect on the way that the federal government deals with armed groups of civilians. In subsequent standoffs with heavily-armed groups, the federal government has gone to great lengths in attempts to find non-violent solutions to these conflicts. As we will mention, the stance of the federal government in backing off from violent methods seems to be confined to their interactions with white extremist groups.
The Oklahoma City Bombing:
On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh drove a rented Ryder van to the front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. McVeigh parked the van, lit a two-minute fuse and exited the truck at 9 am, just when the building was opening for business.
Two minutes later, the 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and nitromethane loaded in the van exploded. The entire north side of the Murrah Federal Building was destroyed, and 168 people were killed in the blast; this included 19 children attending a day-care center in the building. Another 684 people were injured in the explosion. This was the largest number of people ever killed in a domestic terrorist attack.
So who was Timothy McVeigh, and what motivated him to blow up a federal building? Timothy was born on April 23, 1968 in Lockport, New York. That is uncomfortably close to the place where one of us grew up (TL, in Niagara Falls, NY). McVeigh was shy and withdrawn, and had difficulty interacting with girls. But he was introduced to guns by his grandfather, and became interested in gun culture and 2nd Amendment rights. After graduating from high school, he briefly attended college but dropped out. At age 20, McVeigh enlisted in the U.S. Army. After basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he was deployed to Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Storm.
McVeigh was awarded a number of medals for his service in Kuwait. After that, he aspired to join the U.S. Army Special Forces. He signed up for that battalion, but he washed out after just two days of a 21-day training program. After that, McVeigh became progressively more and more depressed and angry about his situation. He was working in a dead-end job; his efforts to date co-workers were rejected; and he was still living in his father’s home. McVeigh had always been bitter about tax issues; for example, he once wrote to a local newspaper, “Taxes are reaching cataclysmic levels, with no slowdown in sight … Is a Civil War Imminent? Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn’t come to that. But it might.”
McVeigh then developed a gambling problem. His obsession led to large debts, which he attempted to pay off with cash advances. When he got into debt too deeply, he defaulted on his loan payments. He moved out of his father’s house, but became even more isolated as his new apartment had no phone.
Timothy McVeigh became progressively more angry over the Waco incident that we have described above. While the siege was in progress, McVeigh moved to Waco where he handed out literature on gun rights and sold bumper stickers with 2nd-Amendment slogans. He was interviewed by a reporter and said, “I believe we are slowly turning into a socialist government. The government is continually growing bigger and more powerful, and the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control.”
In April 1993, during the Waco siege, McVeigh traveled to Michigan to visit his friend Terry Nichols. While McVeigh was staying with Nichols, Terry and his brother taught McVeigh how to make explosives using household chemicals mixed in plastic jugs. McVeigh became thoroughly radicalized following the disastrous end to the Waco siege.
McVeigh then traveled the country working at gun shows. He handed out cards that contained the name and address of FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi. Horiuchi was the government sniper at the standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. At the resulting siege, Horiuchi had fired two shots at Randy Weaver and his friend Kevin Harris. His first shot wounded Weaver; his second shot wounded Harris, who was armed and was trying to enter the Weavers’ cabin. However, Horiuchi’s second shot also struck and killed Vicki Weaver, who was standing inside the door that Harris was attempting to enter. McVeigh hoped that his actions would inspire someone in the Patriot movement to assassinate Horiuchi.
At the gun shows, the normally solitary McVeigh found himself among like-minded people. He met several people who also identified with the Patriot movement. McVeigh enjoyed discussing conspiracy theories that involved the menace of the federal government, threats to gun rights, and the possibility of the U.S. being taken over by a United Nations-sponsored New World Order. McVeigh began to produce and distribute anti-government pamphlets; one such pamphlet had the title “U.S. Government Initiates Open Warfare Against American People.”
Around this time, McVeigh and Terry Nichols began making bulk purchases of ammonium nitrate. They kept some of it and re-sold the rest to survivalists, as there were rumors that the government was about to ban purchases of the fertilizer. McVeigh also sent a long letter to a boyhood friend Steve Hodge. In that letter, he declared “Those who betray or subvert the Constitution are guilty of sedition and/or treason, are domestic enemies and should and will be punished accordingly. It also stands to reason that anyone who sympathizes with the enemy or gives aid or comfort to said enemy is likewise guilty. I have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic and I will … I have come to peace with myself, my God and my cause. Blood will flow in the streets, Steve. Good vs. Evil. Free Men vs. Socialist Wannabe Slaves.”
By this time, it should have been obvious to his friends that Timothy McVeigh was planning a domestic terrorist attack. In fact, McVeigh told his best friend Michael Fortier that he was planning an attack on a federal building. Fortier refused to join the plot, but he did help McVeigh scout out the Murrah Federal Building. Also, Fortier’s wife Lori helped McVeigh produce a driver’s license with a false name, that McVeigh would use to rent the truck that held the explosives. McVeigh composed a couple of letters to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; in one of those letters he warned, “ATF, all you tyrannical mother fuckers will swing in the wind one day for your treasonous actions against the Constitution of the United States. Remember the Nuremberg War Trials.“
In April 1995, Nichols and McVeigh loaded the ammonium nitrate and nitromethane into McVeigh’s rented Ryder van and assembled a bomb from those materials. On April 19, McVeigh detonated the van and its contents directly outside the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Fig. II.5 shows the Murrah Building in the aftermath of the bombing. The entire north half of the building was blown open in the horrific explosion.
McVeigh was captured soon afterwards. A state trooper near Perry, Oklahoma noticed that McVeigh was driving a car with no license plates. When he was picked up, McVeigh was also carrying a gun, for which he had no license in that state. Government investigators had identified the rented van from a piece of the axle found at the bomb scene. Staff at the Ryder rental agency in Junction City, Kansas had worked with FBI agents to produce a sketch of the person who had rented the van. The sketch, shown below, turned out to be a good likeness of McVeigh; so in a short period of time, McVeigh was charged with the murder of the eight government employees killed in the Murrah building blast. He was also charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, using a weapon of mass destruction, and destroying a federal building.
McVeigh was convicted on all of the federal charges and sentenced to death. Terry Nichols was sentenced to life in prison, and Michael Fortier was sentenced to 12 years in prison after testifying against McVeigh. After a number of appeals, Timothy McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001; he was the first person in federal prison to be executed in 38 years. Although he later expressed some misgivings over bombing the federal building, McVeigh showed no remorse. He said that if he had to do it over again, he would have tried to kill a number of government personnel in sniper attacks, rather than bombing a federal building. However, since McVeigh considered all government personnel to be federal soldiers, he felt that killing them was a justified act of warfare, not unlike his military service in Kuwait. In fact, McVeigh said his only regret was that his bomb had not destroyed the entire Murrah Building.
The Turner Diaries:
One of the pieces of literature that strongly influenced Timothy McVeigh was the novel The Turner Diaries by Andrew Macdonald, a pseudonym of right-wing white supremacist and neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce. Excerpts from The Turner Diaries were found in McVeigh’s car when he was arrested following the terrorist bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh had highlighted several passages from that novel.
William Luther Pierce was a physicist who worked for the aerospace company Pratt & Whitney. He became an associate of American Nazi Party head George Lincoln Rockwell. After Rockwell was assassinated in 1967, Pierce became one of the leaders of the National Socialist White People’s Party. In 1974, Pierce founded the National Alliance, and he headed that organization until his death in 2002. Pierce’s goal was that the National Alliance would be a political organization that would eventually lead to the overthrow of the U.S. government and its replacement by a white nationalist regime.
Pierce published The Turner Diaries in 1978 under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald. It describes Pierce’s vision of an American race war that starts in Los Angeles. The protagonist of this novel is a man named Earl Turner, who is a member of an underground white revolutionary cabal called The Organization. That group is itself led by a secret inner circle called The Order, that was apparently modeled after the Nazi SS group. The first major event in this cataclysm is an uprising called The Day of the Rope. In that event, “race traitors” in Los Angeles are rounded up and killed in mass hangings that take place in a public square. Groups that are especially targeted in this event are Jews, homosexuals, and interracial couples.
The Day of the Rope is followed by a thorough and systematic ethnic cleansing of Los Angeles. This movement then spreads across all of the U.S., and eventually becomes a world-wide phenomenon. Pierce/Macdonald describes the mass killings and genocide as “terrible but absolutely necessary.” Not surprisingly, The Turner Diaries have become a “must read” for many domestic terrorists and extremists, particularly those that are associated with white supremacist or anti-Semitic groups. For Timothy McVeigh, the most important section of the Turner Diaries was an episode where Earl Turner is tasked with bombing the headquarters of the FBI. Apparently there are significant similarities between the bombing of FBI headquarters in The Turner Diaries and McVeigh’s real-life bombing of the Murrah Federal Building.
An earlier white nationalist group influenced by The Turner Diaries was called The Order, also known as The Silent Brotherhood. The Order had broken off from the Aryan Nations white nationalist organization; apparently, they maintained that the Aryan Nations were insufficiently devoted to revolutionary action. In the early 1980s, The Order took part in a number of crimes such as bank robbery and counterfeiting. Eventually they hijacked a Brinks Armored Car and made off with $3.6 million.
The leader of The Order, Robert Jay Mathews, had written a letter declaring war on the U.S. federal government. After Mathews was connected with the string of crimes committed by The Order, he was the subject of a major government manhunt. He was tracked down to a house on Whidbey Island, Washington, where an armed standoff ensued. After Mathews fired on an FBI helicopter flying over Mathews’ house, the helicopter pilot dropped three flares on the home. The flares ignited a cache of hand grenades and ammunition inside the house, and Mathews burned to death. After this, the members of The Order were rounded up and convicted of a number of crimes.
More recently, The Turner Diaries also influenced some of the activities in the attack on the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021 (see Section I for further details). During that assault, one group erected a gallows with a noose outside the Capitol, a call-back to “The Day of the Rope” in The Turner Diaries.
After McVeigh’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, great attention was paid to “Patriot” right-wing extremists. Several of the more active domestic terrorists were either killed in shoot-outs with authorities, or were captured and jailed. As a result, many people resigned from Patriot organizations, while others went underground. This marked a significant temporary setback to right-wing extremist groups. However, these groups would rebound dramatically during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Trump considered these groups to be part of his “base,” and he went to considerable lengths to stroke them and to avoid criticizing them. In August 2017 the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia saw one of the counter-protesters killed by a car driven by a white supremacist. The previous night featured a shocking parade of anti-Semites holding torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” When asked to condemn the actions by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and other right-wing extremists, Donald Trump said that he had seen “many fine people on both sides” at that incident.
In similar fashion, when asked at a presidential debate to condemn the role of right-wing extremist groups for their role in violence in American cities in summer 2020, Trump said that “Almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing,” and he told the Proud Boys group to “Stand back and stand by.” Trump’s embrace of right-wing extremists was a mutual one: these groups, that nominally believe that the federal government is corrupt and should be resisted, and that are waiting for events that will signal the outbreak of hostilities – a race war, civil war or revolution, depending on your particular extremist group – instead turned into major supporters of President Trump. So, these right-wing extremists became co-opted as part of Trump’s “base” and outspoken supporters of his personality cult. Since they largely reject fundamental tenets of American democracy, they had no compunction about joining a riotous mob attempting on Jan. 6 to overturn a democratic election.
Next, we will review the history of four current extremist groups. We will begin with the Oath Keepers; second, white supremacists as represented by Richard Spencer; next, the male chauvinist group The Proud Boys; and finally the Three Percenters. We will pay close attention to leading figures in these groups, as these organizations tend to be headed by leaders with bombastic personalities and massive egos. The organizations we highlight reflect the spectrum of violent, anti-democratic, right-wing extremists in the U.S., including groups that claim authorization to take arms against government actions that do not meet the group’s own interpretation (frequently at odds with the interpretations of the Supreme Court) of the U.S. Constitution, and others that explicitly aim to launch wars to reclaim dominance by white Christians within the U.S. A common theme among all these groups is preparation for – in some cases, explicit instigation of – a new American civil war.
The Oath Keepers:
The Oath Keepers is an anti-government militia-style group that was founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes. Rhodes joined the army right after graduating from high school. His military career was cut short when he fractured his spine in a parachute jump. In 1993, he was shot in the face when he dropped a loaded handgun. He lost an eye in the accident and he now wears a black patch over his left eye. After that accident, he enrolled in a community college, then attended the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, and then to Yale Law School.
After graduating from law school, Rhodes returned to Montana and opened a legal practice there. He also began a blog that advertised his libertarian beliefs; and he volunteered for Ron Paul’s 2008 Presidential campaign. In 2015, Rhodes was disbarred by the Montana Supreme Court for refusing to respond to grievances filed against him by a federal district court in Arizona (Rhodes had written letters threatening legal action against people in Arizona, despite the fact that he was not licensed to practice law in that state).
In a style that was reminiscent of the Patriot movement philosophy, Rhodes focused on the part of the soldier’s oath that promised to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” However, he neglected the remaining part of the oath that “I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me.”
Rhodes’ focus was primarily on “domestic enemies” of the Constitution. And he fixated on the right and duty of officers to resist and defy “un-Constitutional” orders. In that fixation, it is left to each individual, not to the U.S. Supreme Court, to consider his/her own interpretation of the Constitution. Rhodes then created the Oath Keepers group,
So, the soldier’s oath was turned into a rationale for military officials to defy orders that were deemed to violate the Constitution. As with all Patriot-style militia movements, the first of these “un-Constitutional” orders was anything to do with gun control. Rhodes then assembled a list of “orders we will not obey.” This is part of an Oath Keepers manifesto.
- We will not obey any order to disarm the American people.
- We will not obey any order to conduct warrantless searches of the American people, their homes, vehicles, papers or effects – such as warrantless house-to-house searches for weapons or persons.
- We will not obey any order to detain American citizens as “unlawful enemy combatants” or to subject them to trial by military tribunal.
- We will not obey orders to impose martial law or a “state of emergency” on a state, or to enter with force into a state, without the express consent and invitation of that state’s legislature and governor.
- We will not obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty and declares the national government to be in violation of the compact by which that state entered the Union.
- We will not obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.
- We will not obey any order to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext.
- We will not obey orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people to “keep the peace” or to “maintain control” during any emergency, or under any other pretext. We will consider such use of foreign troops against our people to be an invasion and an act of war.
- We will not obey any orders to confiscate the property of the American people, including food and other essential supplies, under any emergency pretext whatsoever.
- We will not obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.
As you can see, the list above (and the Oath Keepers specify that this list is not exclusive) is basically composed of three parts. The first is the statement that they will not obey orders to disarm themselves or other Americans. The second part refers to statements based on the notion that a state or other group will declare itself to be an independent sovereign entity, outside the U.S. federal system, and the Oath Keepers will refuse to take any action against them. Such statements were originally applied when states attempted to secede at the start of the American Civil War. However, the Patriot movement extends these arguments to groups of citizens that want to declare themselves as independent sovereign entities. This follows from arguments advanced by various groups in the Patriot Movement that wished to declare themselves as “sovereign entities,” independent and not subject to federal jurisdiction; in particular, in an attempt to avoid paying federal income taxes, or respecting restrictions on activities on federal lands.
The third set of conditions are related to the notion that the U.S. will become part of an international New World Order, and that American citizens would be subjugated to rule by some foreign entity. Once again, these follow from conspiracy theories that Americans are about to be taken over by a world government and deprived of their liberties.
In the case of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes concentrated on recruiting people who were either current or former members of military organizations, police forces or fire departments. The group states that the Oath Keepers are open to “currently serving military, reserves, National Guard, police, fire-fighters, other first responders (i.e. State Guard, Sheriff Posse/Auxiliary, Search & Rescue, EMT, other medical 1st responders, etc.) AND veterans/former members of those services.” These people would generally have had military or para-military training, and so could be counted on to use their military training when called upon. The Oath Keepers would be particularly dangerous if they were able to recruit active members of the military or police forces. Such groups would likely be called upon to maintain order in emergencies or natural disasters. Also, members of the military will have had training in mobilizing forces and the use of weapons. They might also be tasked with guarding officials.
It should be remembered that the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in October 1984 by two Sikh members of her personal team of bodyguards. The assassination was in retribution for a military action that Gandhi’s government had taken against a Sikh leader and his followers, who were occupying the Golden Temple in Amritsar. So, the idea that significant numbers of military or police personnel might be members of a group of anti-government zealots has raised concerns, particularly in the light of recent events in the 2020 Presidential election and the events leading up to the inauguration of President Biden.
Oath Keepers and the Cliven Bundy Standoff:
Until the past couple of years, the Oath Keepers have functioned as most Patriot-style groups. Stewart Rhodes would mobilize groups of Oath Keepers when various anti-government groups or individuals put out requests for support. One such effort occurred in 2014. In 1993, the government had instituted a habitat conservation plan in order to protect the desert tortoise, which had been declared an endangered species. Some federal lands in Nevada were included in the habitat conservation area, so grazing of livestock was no longer permitted there. While most ranchers in the area sold their grazing privileges back to the government, rancher Cliven Bundy refused on the ground that the government did not have the authority to hold large tracts of land.
When Bundy did not pay his fees, the grazing permit for his cattle was canceled in 1994. Over the next 20 years, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had taken Bundy to court several times. The right of the federal government to own and manage the land had been confirmed each time, all the way to the Supreme Court. Bundy lost every one of his arguments in court. As an example of a legal precedent in these matters, in 1922 in McKelvey v. United States, “the Court ruled that ‘It is firmly settled that Congress may prescribe rules respecting the use of the public lands. It may sanction some uses and prohibit others, and may forbid interference with such as are sanctioned’ and that ‘states may prescribe police regulations applicable to public land areas, so long as the regulations are not arbitrary or inconsistent with applicable congressional enactments.’”
In 2014, Cliven Bundy had still not paid the $1 million in penalties that had been assessed against him – for comparison, the total amount of overdue grazing fees owed by ranchers over the rest of the U.S. amounted to less than $250,000. The BLM obtained an order to capture and remove trespassing cattle on federal lands, and they began to enforce that order in March of 2014. At that point, Bundy publicized his views, using the language of the Patriot movement and ‘sovereign-rights’ advocates. He stated that “as a citizen of Nevada,” he did not recognize the authority of the federal government. He particularly did not recognize the BLM authority over federal lands. Bundy also ordered the Clark County sheriff to “confront the federal agents, disarm them and deliver their arms to Bundy.” This was consistent with the stance of the Posse Comitatus group. Their claim was that they recognized no authority higher than a sheriff, and they considered the sheriff the sole authority over disputes with ‘sovereign citizens.’ The Clark County sheriff refused to disarm the federal agents.
The BLM attempted to strike an agreement with Bundy and his family, but were rebuffed. The Clark County Sheriff also attempted to negotiate with the federal agents and the Bundy family, but he was also unsuccessful in reaching an agreement. In early April 2014, BLM personnel arrived with an order to round up cattle that were illegally grazing on federal lands. They succeeded in rounding up about 400 cattle, nearly all of which belonged to the Bundy family.
In response, Cliven Bundy released letters titled “Range War Emergency Notice and Demand for Protection.” Bundy’s complaints, containing allegations of government mistreatment and denying the right of the federal government to regulate lands under its control, registered with various right-wing extremist groups. Over the next week or two, members of various militia, including the Oath Keepers, groups showed up in Bunkerville, Nevada.
On April 12, 2014, a crowd of armed protesters gathered at the Bundy ranch. Bundy greeted them with a statement that ended “We’re about ready to take the country over with force!” The federal agents were heavily outnumbered in this encounter; furthermore, the protesters had announced their plans to set up stations behind a line of unarmed women, under the assumption that the federal agents would not commence firing if this resulted in the deaths of unarmed women.
However, the Oath Keepers did not remain until the end of the standoff. They told the Bundy family that they had intercepted ‘Intel’ that the Obama administration was about to attack the Bundy protesters using a fleet of drones. The Oath Keepers then fled the area; they were ridiculed by the Bundy supporters as delusional paranoids and cowards.
Those protesters that remained with the Bundy family were correct: the feds were unwilling to carry out their orders when confronted by a group of armed white men. The federal agents decided to halt the round-up of cattle and left the area. A decision was made to pursue the matter further in the courts. However, the various militias and armed protesters concluded that heavily-armed groups of right-wing protesters could achieve their ends by means of threats and coercion.
Indeed, the federal government has tended to back down in the face of armed protests, ever since the 1992 standoff between federal agents and Randy Weaver and his family, and the 1993 incident between federal agents and David Koresh’s Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas. After the Ruby Ridge shootout, Randy Weaver and his associate Kevin Harris were tried for murder and were acquitted. After federal agents attempted to storm the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, a fire broke out in the Branch Davidian compound that killed 76 people.
When we say that the federal government tends to have a “hands off” policy when confronted with groups of armed citizens, we mean that this policy is in force for white armed citizens. Conversely, when the Black Panthers began a policy of sending armed groups of African Americans to “monitor the behavior” of the police in Oakland, California, the response was dramatically different. The head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, developed a massive counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, to counter what he called “The greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
Hoover’s COINTELPRO program was “designed to undermine Panther leadership, incriminate and assassinate party members, discredit and criminalize the Party, and drain organizational resources and manpower. The program was responsible for the assassination of Fred Hampton and is accused of assassinating other Black Panther members, including Mark Clark.” While COINTELPRO was formally terminated in 1971, a number of its tactics have been re-emphasized from time to time within the FBI. For example, from 2017 through 2019 under the Trump administration, the FBI introduced the designation Black Identity Extremists, and used the designation to target Black Lives Matter activists for surveillance and imprisonment.
Erik Molvar, Director of the Western Watersheds Project, reviewed the government’s actions in these militia-aided standoffs: “The rarity of arrests and indictments, and the botched prosecutions, that followed in the wake of these acts of terrorism in the west sent a message that law enforcement will turn a blind eye to ‘alt-right’ lawlessness by overwhelmingly white perpetrators.”
Oath Keepers and the Ferguson Protests:
In August 2014, black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. The case caused a great deal of agitation in Ferguson and around the country. The statements by officer Wilson were radically different from those of eye-witnesses to the shooting. After a lengthy grand-jury inquiry, it was announced that there would be no prosecution in the case, and that officer Wilson’s testimony had been corroborated by both physical and eye-witness evidence.
There were widespread protests in the Ferguson area, both immediately after the shooting and after the report exonerating Officer Wilson in November 2014. At that time, the Oath Keepers put out a request that its members travel to Ferguson “to assist the police in maintaining order.” Stewart Rhodes, the head of the Oath Keepers stated: “We thought they were going to do it right this time, but when Monday rolled around and they didn’t park the National Guard at these businesses, that’s when we said we have got to do something.” On December 2, 2014, ‘volunteer security guards’ associated with the Oath Keepers kept armed watch on Ferguson rooftops, despite the fact that they were ordered by the police to stop their activities.
According to the Oath Keepers, not only did they help to keep the peace, but they protected Ferguson stores owned by both whites and blacks. Despite the fact that they were standing on rooftops, heavily armed, the Oath Keepers asserted that they were a calming presence in the community. Furthermore (and hard to believe), the Oath Keepers claimed that they were in Ferguson to show their solidarity with the protesters. However, St. Louis county Police Chief Jon Belmar stated that the Oath Keepers’ presence was “both unnecessary and inflammatory.”
Until recently, the Oath Keepers were like a group of mercenaries awaiting an uprising that they could either join or quell. It seemed that every time a situation arose, Stewart Rhodes would issue a statement that a civil war could be imminent, or that this event appeared to be the start of a civil war.
For example, in September 2014, Rhodes announced that the Oath Keepers would be massing in Rowan County, Kentucky in support of county clerk Kim Davis. Ms. Davis had refused to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples who had requested them, following the Supreme Court’s ruling validating same-sex marriage. She had argued that her First Amendment rights allowed her to claim a conscientious objection to same-sex marriage. After losing several court challenges to her actions, Ms. Davis then began refusing all requests for marriage licenses. After refusing court orders that she issue the marriage licenses, based on what she called “God’s authority,” Ms. Davis was jailed briefly for contempt of court. Somewhat paradoxically, the devout Ms. Davis had herself been married four times.
The Oath Keepers arrived at a time when Ms. Davis was in danger of being jailed a second time for contempt. They claimed to be supporting Ms. Davis’ actions. Stewart Rhodes announced “If the sheriff, who should be interceding, is not going to do his job and the governor is not going to do the governor’s job of interceding, then we’ll do it.” They furthermore critiqued the judge in the case, saying “This judge needs to be put on notice that his behavior is not going to be accepted and we’ll be there to stop it and intercede ourselves if we have to.” However, the following day Kim Davis’ legal team refused the group’s offer to provide her with a “security detail.”
For a few years, the Oath Keepers insisted that they were an anti-federal government, but otherwise non-partisan, group. For example, in 2012 Stewart Rhodes argued in his blog that the group should not endorse Republicans, even though the Republican party was generally more strongly anti-gun-control than the Democrats. He argued that civil war was imminent regardless of which party was in power. “The Republic is on the verge of destruction precisely because Republicans have chosen the lesser of two evils (the lesser of two oath breakers) in each election. … When you take a slightly reduced dose of poison, say 80% poison instead of 100%, you are still poisoning yourself, and you will still die. This Republic has been subjected to a reduced dose of poison over and over, for decades, and is now about to die.”
However, the Oath Keepers claim of a non-partisan stance towards political parties depended critically on the politicians involved. In April 2008, when Hillary Clinton appeared to be leading Barack Obama to be the Democratic presidential candidate, Stewart Rhodes wrote a column for S.W.A.T. magazine called Enemy at the Gates. In that article, he outlined hypothetical actions if Ms. Clinton were to become President. “Imagine that Herr Hitlery [Hillary Clinton] is sworn in as president in 2009. After a conveniently timed ‘domestic terrorism’ incident (just a coincidence, of course) … she promptly crams a United Nations mandated total ban on the private possession of firearms. … But Hitlery goes further, proclaiming a national emergency and declaring the entire militia movement … to be ‘enemy combatants.’ … Hitlery declares that such citizens are subject to secret military detention without jury trial, ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques, and trial before a military tribunal hand-picked by the dominatrix-in-chief herself. Hitlery then orders police, National Guard troops and active military to go house-to-house to disarm the American people and ‘black-bag’ those on a list of ‘known terrorists,’ with orders to shoot all resisters.”
And beginning in 2008, after Obama became the Democratic presidential candidate and later won the Presidency, many right-wing groups endorsed the ‘Birthers’ claims. These were totally false allegations that Barack Obama was not a legitimate President because he was a Muslim who was born in Kenya. In fact, Donald Trump’s first major foray into politics was his enthusiastic endorsement of the ‘Birther’ conspiracy theory.
By 2016, the Oath Keepers were firmly in the Donald Trump camp as he ran against “Hitlery” Clinton. So although this para-military group firmly espoused their belief in a coming civil war, they also strongly defended Trump. During Trump’s presidency, this support continued for several reasons. First, Trump widely touted his support for Second Amendment rights during his campaign and his presidency. Second, he not only refused to denounce right-wing extremist groups, he nurtured them as part of his base. After the events at the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where extremists paraded with tiki torches chanting “Jews will not replace us,” Trump claimed that he saw “very fine people on both sides” at this rally.
Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer:
Richard Spencer is an American white supremacist and anti-Semite. He grew up in Dallas, and obtained an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and an MS from the University of Chicago. In 2008 he was an assistant editor at The American Conservative magazine, but he was fired because his views were considered too extreme for that publication.
In 2010 Spencer founded the website AlternativeRight.com, and he claims to have introduced the term ‘alt-right’ to describe the views of right-wing extremists like himself. In 2011, Spencer became the president and director of a white supremacist think tank called the National Policy Institute. Under Spencer’s leadership, this group gained significant publicity and attention from the media.
In 2014, Richard Spencer was banned from 26 European countries for three years under the Schengen Agreement, when he attempted to organize a workshop in Europe for white nationalists called the National Policy Institute Conference. The aim of this conference was to promote Spencer’s idea for the creation of a white-only European enclave; it would presumably resemble Spencer’s push for a North American all-white ethno-state. But a number of European countries reacted violently to Spencer’s neo-Nazi views, particularly countries like Hungary and Poland that suffered greatly after they were invaded by the Nazis during World War II.
Spencer is able to place his views within the context of noted political philosophers, he appears to have significant organizational skills, and he also seems to be skilled at making public statements that win him considerable notoriety. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Spencer as “a white supremacist in a suit and tie.”
Spencer has argued for creating “a white Ethno-State on the North American continent.” He denies that his views represent white supremacy, claiming that the “white people have been ’dispossessed’ by a combination of rising minority birth rates, immigration and government policies he abhors.” Spencer claims that, as a result of this dispossession, white people need to have their own state to stop the “deconstruction of white culture.” Spencer claims that this could be done using “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” whatever that means. In public speeches he often presents what appears to be a relatively moderate argument for a white-only state. He states that “Jews are vastly over-represented in … the establishment.” And this white ethno-state envisioned by Spencer would certainly not be governed by the principles set forth in America’s Declaration of Independence or Constitution. Spencer argued “Should we, for instance, really be fighting for ‘limited government’ or the Constitution, so that the Afro-Mestizo-Caribbean Melting Pot can enjoy the blessing of liberty and a sound currency?”
However, if you scratch the surface, you encounter the same vicious anti-Semitic and anti-black tropes that are associated with more virulent racists. After the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Spencer was captured on tape with these remarks about Jews and blacks: “Little fucking kikes. They get ruled by people like me. Little fucking octaroons. My ancestors fucking enslaved these little pieces of fucking shit.” Although in public speeches Spencer often states that he is merely trying to re-create something on the order of the Holy Roman Empire, his goals are actually much darker.
Spencer inserts veiled references to the Nazis in several of his public addresses. After Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, he called Trump’s election “the victory of will,” a call-back to Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 propaganda film about Hitler, Triumph of the Will. And after Trump’s election he told his supporters that they should “Party like it’s 1933.” Spencer is also fond of giving and receiving the Nazi “Sieg Heil” salute. In November 2016 he gave a talk at an alt-Right conference in Washington, DC. After he quoted some Nazi propaganda, he said “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” When members of the audience cheered and gave the Nazi salute, he extended his right arm in what appeared to be returning the Nazi salute.
Spencer also maintains retrograde notions about the role of women. He has said “I don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing,” when asked about women’s right to vote. He maintains that in the white-only ethno-state that he envisions, women would return to their “traditional roles” as homemakers and mothers, and he believes that women should not be allowed to make foreign policy.
Richard Spencer gained considerable public exposure at the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Spencer was one of the organizers of this rally, that featured a number of militia groups, white supremacists and anti-Semites. Spencer’s group organized an evening march that featured a parade of white men carrying tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” This combines the “white replacement” theory feared by so many right-wing extremists with a virulent anti-Semitism.
Following the Unite the Right rally, Spencer was in relatively high demand as a speaker and provocateur. He gained a fair amount of publicity when various universities and other organizations cancelled planned speeches by Spencer on the grounds of public safety. However, we have not heard that much from Richard Spencer lately. Apparently in August 2020, Spencer said that he regretted voting for Trump and that he would vote for Biden and the Democrats in the coming election. “Trump is an obvious disaster, but mainly the paradigm contained flaws that we are now able to perceive. Be patient. We’ll have another day in the sun. We need to recover and return in a new form.” The Biden team denounced Spencer’s support, and we can only hope that this “new day” for white supremacists does not materialize.
How large is Richard Spencer’s organization, or how many Americans subscribe to these white nationalist/neo-Nazi views? This is hard to say. The number of people who actively participate in organizations with Spencer is likely less than 1,000 people. However, his reach on social media is far greater. Following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a Washington Post/ABC poll showed that roughly 9% of those polled expressed support for the Unite the Right marches. This would indicate that as many as 22 million Americans supported white nationalists. However, this poll took place just after Donald Trump had claimed that he saw “many fine people on both sides” at Charlottesville; many of those indicating support for these extreme right-wing positions may have simply been expressing support for their President.
A key question will be whether these groups gain or lose momentum following the storming of the Capitol by the mob incited by Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021. There will clearly be renewed vigilance of potential violence from these groups, now that President Biden’s administration recognizes the danger posed by these extremists. Also, their access to the most popular social media sites will be dramatically decreased as they are de-platformed from sites like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. Trump’s election loss and Biden’s inauguration may also discourage these group members and limit the danger that they pose.
On the other hand, exactly the opposite may occur. The spectacle of a mob invading the Capitol might increase interest in right-wing militias. Certainly some of the militias feel that storming the Capitol was a great success. And the combination of Donald Trump’s constant falsehoods about the election being ‘stolen’ from him, amplified by many Republican Congresspersons and Senators, and right-wing news venues such as Fox News, has left an extraordinary number of Republicans convinced that Trump was victimized and that he decisively won the election over Joe Biden. Backlash from aggrieved Republicans could also help right-wing extremists in recruiting.
The Proud Boys: Violent Male Chauvinists
The Proud Boys are another all-male right-wing extremist group. They were founded in 2016 by Gavin McIness, the co-founder of Vice Media. The group’s views are taken from the “white male replacement theory.” They consider white males to be under attack in Western society, and claim that they are fighting back against the leftist threat to American and Canadian society. The group attempts to have their cake and eat it, too: thus, they deny that they are white supremacists or racists, while they take part in activities organized by the same white supremacists and racists.
The Proud Boys are known for their penchant for fighting. Gavin McIness is quoted as saying that violence “is a really effective way of solving problems.” He criticized Trump supporters for being insufficiently violent. “I want violence. I want punching in the face. I’m disappointed in Trump supporters for not punching enough.” Overt violence is thus one of the hallmarks of the Proud Boys, leading the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to term them a “right-wing fight club.” The ADL refers to the Proud Boys as “overtly Islamophobic and misogynistic” and “all too willing to embrace racists, anti-Semites and bigots of all kinds.” Because of their support for violence, the Proud Boys have recently been banned from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.
The Proud Boys go to some lengths to gain notoriety by espousing extreme positions. For example, they have praised former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet’s murders of leftists in that country. They have also worn T-shirts with the acronym “6MWE,” which stands for “6 million was not enough;” that number refers to the number of Jews who were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. Gavin McIness has made videos where he gives the Nazi Salute and chants “Heil Hitler.” He also posted a video on Real Media in 2017 titled “Ten Things I Hate About Jews.” McIness has said about Islam: “Palestinians are stupid. Muslims are stupid. And the only thing they really respect is violence and being tough.”
The Proud Boys white-male culture is also overtly misogynistic. Founder Gavin McIness claims that the Proud Boys “venerate the housewife,” a statement of their strong support for women in their traditional roles as mothers and homemakers. He has said that women are “lazy” and “less ambitious” than men. “This is nature’s way of saying women should be home with the kids.” McIness has also described feminism as “a cancer that makes women ugly.” Joe Biggs, a close friend of current Proud Boys president Enrique Tarrio who has been a planner of several Proud Boys rallies, has repeatedly issued tweets that glorify sexual violence. For example, describing a date, he tweeted that “I like to reason with her [reason=chloroform] and then just drink a lot of beer and release.” Another time he tweeted, “Call me old-fashion, but something about clubbing a bitch over the back of the head before sex really sets the mood right.”
Although the Proud Boys claim that they are really primarily a “pro-Western drinking club,” a number of incidents show their violent nature. In October 2018, Proud Boys joined with members of a New York City skinhead group called the 211 Bootboys. They took part in a brawl outside the Manhattan Republican club. As a result, two Proud Boys members “were convicted and sentenced to substantial prison terms, while another seven members pleaded guilty.”
The Proud Boys were active at the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In fact, the principal organizer of that meeting was Jason Kessler, who was a member of Proud Boys at that time. Gavin McIness claims that Kessler was thrown out of the Proud Boys once his racist views became known. However, one of the men convicted of assaulting deAndre Harris at the Unite the Right event was a member of the Proud Boys.
The Proud Boys had a significant presence in Portland, the site of many protests by leftist groups following the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd beneath the knee of a Minneapolis policeman. The Proud Boys seemed to live up to their penchant for inciting fights between leftist and alt-right groups. In Portland, the Proud Boys frequently teamed up with members of the group Patriot Prayer; both groups appeared determined to provoke fights with left-wing protesters in that city. In October 2020, members of the Proud Boys descended on Ashbury United Methodist Church, the oldest historically-black church in Washington, DC. The protesters tore down and burned a Black Lives Matter sign that the church had raised on its grounds. Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the Proud Boys, claimed responsibility for the vandalism. He was charged “with one count of destruction of property (a misdemeanor) and two counts of possession of high-capacity ammunition-feeding devices (a felony).”
The Proud Boys gained publicity when they were named in one of the 2020 Presidential debates between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he would disavow white supremacists who inflamed protests and ask them to “stand down.” Trump then asked Wallace to “give me a name” of a right-wing extremist group, and Biden called out “the Proud Boys.” But Trump then told the Proud Boys to “Stand back and stand by,” asserting that the violence “Was not a right-wing problem; it’s a left-wing problem.”
The Proud Boys were already strongly pro-Trump, and they were energized by this remark, which they took as giving them marching orders. They took to wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Stand Back and Stand By.” Proud Boy member Joe Biggs stated “President Trump told the Proud Boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA … well sir! We’re ready!” On the other hand, conservative commentator David French remarked “That was one of the most irresponsible and reprehensible statements I’ve ever seen from a president.”
Several of the Proud Boys were apparently involved in the storming of the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021 (see Section I of this post for more details). To date, twelve members of the Proud Boys have been arrested for their involvement in the insurrection at the Capitol, and two of those were indicted for conspiracy.
The Proud Boys are clearly one of the groups of right-wing extremists that pose a danger to the country. On Feb. 3, 2021, Canada officially designated the Proud Boys as a “terrorist entity.” Under Canadian law, it is an offense to provide, use or possess property for terrorist purposes. It is also possible that Proud Boys members will experience travel restrictions into or from Canada after this terrorist designation. Although the ADL estimates that the Proud Boys have only a few hundred members, the group clearly aims at provoking violence between left-wing and right-wing protesters. They thus pose a real danger to our society. It is hoped that the recent focus by the Biden administration on right-wing extremist groups will be paying attention to the Proud Boys.
The Three Percenters:
The Three Percenters are a right-wing extremist group that was founded in 2008. The group’s name derives from their (mistaken) belief that only three percent of American colonists took part in the American Revolution. The idea is that a relatively small but dedicated group of radicalized citizens are capable of beginning a revolution, and in principle would be able to succeed in a rebellion.
Formation of the Three Percenters grew out of a perception that Barack Obama’s presidency would result in widespread gun-control measures. Like nearly all Patriot-related groups, the initial focus was strong hostility to any attempts at gun control. One of the founders of the Three Percenters was Mike Vanderboegh from Alabama. Vanderboegh claimed that he was initially a member of the Socialist Workers Party, but that he became radicalized on the right during the 1970s. Before founding this group, Vanderboegh had been a member of the Oath Keepers. There is considerable overlap in both membership and tactics between the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers and other militia-type organizations.
The Three Percenters share many features with the earlier Patriot movement. They stand firmly against gun control, they claim to be vigilant against overreach or “tyrannical” actions by the federal government, and they claim that county sheriffs represent “the supreme law of the land.” Furthermore, their website claims that the Three Percenters are a “national organization made up of patriotic citizens who love their country, their freedoms, and their liberty.” Although the group looks and acts like a militia, the Three Percenters firmly deny that they are a militia.
Three Percenters Founder Mike Vanderboegh:
One can get a good glimpse of the philosophy of the Three Percenters by reviewing the life and sayings of their founder Mike Vanderboegh.
After the Waco disaster with the ATF and the Branch Davidian sect, Vanderboegh wrote a tract called “Strategy and Tactics for a Militia Civil War.” In that document he advocated for groups of snipers that could target secret police, or government groups that spied on militias. In 2008 Vanderboegh wrote a novel called Absolved. Although it was never published, the novel has nevertheless been influential with militia groups across the country. A central event in the book is a violent confrontation between the government and a man protecting his stockpile of weapons. This spurs militia members to murder government officials. Officials allege that the book Absolved was the inspiration behind a 2011 Georgia plot by militia members to “attack four cities with ricin, blow up federal buildings, and assassinate law enforcement and other officials.” Plot leader Frederick Thomas had already amassed over 52 firearms and 30,000 rounds of ammunition, and was milling castor beans to produce ricin, when he was apprehended by federal authorities.
In addition to his promise to use violence against any efforts at gun control, Vanderboegh also inveighed against gay marriage and government health care. In his blog in June 2012, after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare, Vanderboegh commented on the threat posed by universal health care: “The health care law carries … the hard steel fist of government violence at the center. If we refuse to obey, we will be fined. If we refuse to pay the fine, we will in time be jailed. If we refuse to report meekly to jail, we will be sent for by armed men. And if we refuse their violent invitation at the doorsteps of our own homes we will be killed — unless we kill them first.”
And in a November 2012 blog post Vanderboegh urged his followers to vote in the Presidential election. This was an otherwise laudable action; however, he had to add at the end, “At least later on you can say you tried everything else before you were forced to shoot people in righteous self-defense of life and liberty.” We can see here a foreshadowing of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol: you can vote, but if you don’t get the result you desire, you can then attempt to overthrow the result by violent means.
Vanderboegh passed away from cancer in 2016. This caused a temporary setback for this organization, as his blog posts had been quite influential in setting the tone of the Three Percenters.
The Chattanooga Mall Shootings:
In August 2015, a Palestinian-American named Mohammed Abdulazeez drove past an Armed Forces recruiting station operating out of a strip mall in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Abdulazeez, who was heavily armed, opened fire on the people inside the recruiting center. He killed four people instantly, and a fifth person who was wounded later died of his injuries. Abdulazeez next drove to a Navy Recruiting Center a few miles away, and once again opened fire on soldiers and recruits there. He killed one Navy sailor before being killed by local police.
Abdulazeez suffered from mental illness and had serious addiction problems. He was also facing bankruptcy because of serious financial problems. He had traveled several times to Jordan, and it has never been clear whether he was radicalized during his last trip to Jordan. Before this incident he had viewed several al-Qaeda recruitment videos. It appears that his actions were a combination of the radical ideas that he had absorbed, and his serious mental and addiction issues. Understandably, Abdulazeez’s actions were termed a terrorist attack.
As a result of these shootings, a number of Three Percenters and some Oath Keepers groups began showing up at Armed Forces Recruiting Centers around the country. The militia groups were heavily armed and claimed to be protecting the recruits and military members. However, the Army Command Operations Center Security Division issued a bulletin ordering soldiers not to interact with these groups. It argued that they were “Sure the citizens mean well, but we cannot assume this in every case, and we do not want to advocate this behavior.”
The recruiting center activities are rather typical of the Three Percenters. They often respond to requests from right-wing advocates for support from like-minded groups. The Three Percenters then show up, generally as an armed presence, and announce their support for groups that are facing “government tyranny.”
Occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge:
In 2015, emboldened by the success in the standoff at their ranch in Nevada, Cliven Bundy’s son Ammon Bundy and a number of right-wing extremists traveled to Oregon. Their initial purpose was to support two men, Dwight Hammond and his son Steven Hammond, who had been convicted of arson. Their sentences were later vacated, but the court then re-sentenced them to longer terms. Ammon Bundy and a number of his followers traveled to Harney County, Oregon to protest the re-sentencing; however, the Hammonds said that they intended to serve their sentences, and declined the help of the Bundy militia. However, Bundy and his followers gathered in Harney County, where they publicized the situation and requested support from like-minded anti-government groups.
On January 2, 2016, the protesters held a rally in support of the Hammonds. However, immediately after the rally Ammon Bundy announced his plan to occupy the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. This was apparently part of a plan by the right-wing militias to pressure the U.S. government to hand over federal lands back to individual states.
A number of Three Percenters traveled to Malheur in support of Ammon Bundy and his group. They said that their intent was to “secure the perimeter” and to “prevent a Waco-style situation.” However, the Three Percenters left just hours later when they were told that their presence was not required. Mike Vandeboegh was quite critical of the occupation of the wildlife refuge, saying “What Bundy and this collection of fruits and nuts has done is to give the feds the perfect opportunity to advance their agenda to discredit us.”
The Malheur Wildlife Refuge is located in the Pacific Flyway and is one of the premier birding locations in the country. Bundy and his supporters occupied the refuge for 40 days, until they finally left the area and surrendered to authorities. The authorities surrounded the refuge, and set up roadblocks in various areas, but otherwise allowed the protesters to occupy the refuge. In this case the “wait them out” strategy worked, in the sense that the occupiers eventually left the area without achieving their stated goal of forcing the federal government to turn over the wildlife refuge to the state of Oregon. However, the occupiers did about $3 million worth of damage to the refuge.
One of the occupiers, Robert Finicum, was killed in an altercation with police when he attempted to avoid a roadblock that had been set up by the authorities. A dozen of the occupiers pleaded guilty to charges against them, and five others were convicted after trials. However, two of the ringleaders, brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, were acquitted of all charges against them.
Along with various Oath Keepers groups, the Three Percenters helped provide security for the Unite The Right rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017. This was a typical Three Percenter Event, where they showed up to “provide security” for a group of right-wing militia members, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other right-wing extremists. Interestingly, after the Unite the Right rally, the “National Council” of the Three Percenters denounced the event and issued a statement that “We will not align ourselves with any type of racist group.” This is noteworthy, as many of the Patriot movement and right-wing extremists seem to be closely aligned with white Christian nationalist groups; therefore, many of their members are white supremacists, anti-Semites, and Islamophobes.
We consider these anti-racist sentiments to be laudable; however, one should consider the anti-racist stance of the Three Percenters with considerable skepticism. For example, in 2018 three men were arrested in connection with the bombing of the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomfield, Minnesota. One of the accused men, Michael Hari, had connections to the Three Percenters.
Militias and the COVID Pandemic:
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the U.S. in early 2020, and exponential growth of COVID cases was experienced, a number of states imposed temporary public-health restrictions in order to slow the spread of the disease and to prevent health services from being overwhelmed by COVID-related hospitalizations. This issue became highly politicized, and has been treated in posts on our blog here and here. The ‘lockdowns’ imposed by the states were consistent with recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control; they recommended temporary closures of all but essential businesses, and they listed a set of criteria under which states could re-open their economies.
However, the CDC criteria were resisted by President Trump, as he wanted the economy to rebound as rapidly as possible, in order to assist his campaign for re-election. Thus, Trump put considerable pressure on governors of states to re-open rapidly. Along with Trump’s urging of states to cease these public-health restrictions, right-wing groups also attacked the lockdown orders as illegitimate efforts that violated the rights of citizens in those states. “Re-Open” groups were created in several states. The first large organized protest against COVID restrictions took place in Michigan; it was called Operation Gridlock and was organized by the Michigan Freedom Fund and the Michigan Conservative Coalition. Both of these groups were bankrolled by large donors to right-wing activities, such as the Koch Brothers and the DeVos family. The organization also brought in militia groups from around the state.
Similar lockdown protests then commenced in other states. Although they were touted as being spontaneous uprisings against restrictions on citizens’ ‘constitutional rights,’ in fact the protests in different states were coordinated. The conservative group FreedomWorks associated with Tea Party activities uploaded a “#ReOpenAmerica Planning Guide” for other states to use. The Michigan protest drew several thousand people. It included Republican party operatives, 2nd Amendment activists, anti-vaccination activists, and heavily-armed militia members.
The protests in Michigan were among the largest and most radical. About 3,000 people attended the first protest, called ‘Operation Gridlock.’ Most of the people attending remained in their cars in a major gridlock outside the state capitol in Lansing. A second protest on April 30 was organized by the American Patriot Council. A few hundred heavily-armed people forced their way into the Michigan state capitol while the state legislature was in session. In a further protest organized by the group Michigan United for Liberty, the group’s Facebook page was deleted because it contained death threats toward Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and a protester at this rally held up a doll that was hanging by a noose. Donald Trump continued to support the protesters with Tweets urging the states to “re-open.”
As might be expected, the Three Percenters have been involved in protests against public-health restrictions placed on citizens during the COVID pandemic. In May 2020, a group of protesters including Three Percenters protested outside the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion. They hung an effigy with the face of Kentucky governor Andy Beshear and a sign that read “Sic semper tyrannis.” In October 2020, 13 men were charged with plotting to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. One of those men was Barry Croft, who claimed to be the second in command of the Wisconsin Three Percenters. Croft had quite a rap sheet. He “was arrested multiple times from 1994 to 1996 for assault and burglary. He was convicted in 1997 for possessing a gun in the commission of a felony and spent three years in prison … According to recordings of the alleged plotters, Croft claimed he had been granted permission from God to commit murder.”
Extremists on the Left:
Until now we have focused on right-wing violent extremists. This is because the bulk of violent domestic incidents in the U.S. are the result of right-wing actions. However, the Trump administration relentlessly pushed the idea that the real danger to America came from leftist groups. After the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, and related killing by police of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, protests erupted across the country. Although the vast majority of the protests were non-violent, a great deal of property damage occurred in many cities. One of the demands made by protesters was to “defund the police.”
Donald Trump felt that the protests offered him an advantage in his re-election campaign. He pushed very strongly the idea that the protests, and in particular the participation of “anti-Fascist” or Antifa protesters, posed an existential threat to Americans. Without providing any evidence that Antifa adherents were behind the looting and property damage during protests, Trump asserted that his administration would fight vigorously against these violent and dangerous protesters. He also claimed that the demands to “defund the police” would leave suburban Americans helpless against radical leftists. Furthermore, Trump claimed that it was essential that protesters be met with overwhelming force, and he told state governors that they must “dominate” protesters, as otherwise they looked “weak” and made other countries consider the U.S. a “laughing stock.”
Trump’s claims were bolstered by public remarks from his Attorney General William Barr. With no supporting evidence, Barr claimed that Antifa were heavily represented among people accused of violence in the Floyd-related protests. However, in June NPR reviewed the files of 51 people facing federal charges in the protests, and none of them were alleged to have ties to Antifa. In September 2020 testimony at a Congressional hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray stated that the FBI had undertaken “any number of properly predicated investigations into what we would describe as violent anarchist extremists,” including into individuals who identify with Antifa. But, he said, “It’s not a group or an organization. It’s a movement or an ideology.”
We will review one left-wing group that, like right-wing militias, also features heavily-armed members in public appearances. This is the group Redneck Revolt.
Redneck Revolt: Oxymoron? Extremists?
The organization Redneck Revolt is an offshoot of an earlier group, the John Brown Gun Club. Like its right-wing counterparts described earlier, Redneck Revolt members tend to carry guns openly at events where they participate. They also engage in firearms training for their members. But unlike their right-wing counterparts, Redneck Revolt takes a strong anti-racist stance. Redneck Revolt members call themselves libertarian socialists. Redneck Revolt members subscribe to the following creed:
- We stand against white supremacy
- We believe in true liberty for all people
- We stand for organized defense of our communities
- We are working class and poor people
- We are an aboveground militant formation
- We stand against the nation-state and its forces which protect the bosses and the rich (police and military)
- We stand against capitalism
- We stand against the wars of the rich
- We stand against patriarchy
- We believe in the right of militant resistance
- We believe in the need for revolution
Despite the fact that most of the entries in the Redneck Revolt creed sound like left-wing advocacy points, and despite the affirmation of a need for revolution, the group denies that it is leftist. They claim to be opposed to the “bosses and politicians” who run the country. Their basically Marxist critique is that white supremacy is an integral part of capitalism, and that in attempting to overthrow the capitalist system, they also intend to wipe out white supremacy at the same time. The group attempts to convince white working-class people that they have more in common with minority groups than they do with the wealthy, the ‘bosses.’ And Redneck Revolt chapters tend to have far larger minority membership than their right-wing militia counterparts.
One of the spokespersons for Redneck Revolt, Levi Van Sant, claims that several of their chapters “have been able to challenge the white nationalist ideologies of these right-wing libertarian militias and flip them away from anti-immigrant and pro-capitalist positions”. We know of no cases where this has occurred. However, some Redneck Revolt chapters have reached out to Three Percenters groups and attempted to begin a dialogue, with the goal of flipping the Three Percenters to Redneck Revolt positions.
Are the Redneck Revolt members “extremists?” They certainly behave much like the far-right militias in that they show up at public meetings and protests heavily armed. Unlike the right-wing militias, the Redneck Revolt folks are generally on the opposite side of such protests: Redneck Revolt will be supporting groups protesting against racism. For example, Redneck Revolt joined protests against Donald Trump after he was elected President in 2016. Redneck Revolt also showed up to protect counter-protesters to the right-wing groups featured at the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Redneck Revolt want to show the country that white people are not inherently conservative, and they want to highlight the fact that as members of working-class and white rural communities, they can nevertheless advocate in solidarity with oppressed people. The group’s commitment to direct action, their stated desire for a revolution in this country, and their penchant for arriving heavily armed at public events, makes one nervous that they will provoke violence at protests, and that they will escalate already tense situations. And in espousing revolutionary action, they certainly raise concerns that they will eventually resort to violence in pursuing their goals.
However, until now we do not know of many violent actions that they have provoked. There was violence at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, but we are not aware of any provocation by the Redneck Revolt. They are associated with virtually none of the mass murders that have been committed by right-wing domestic terrorists. The only example we can cite is that of Michael Reinoehl, who shot and killed Jay Danielson, a member of the right-wing Portland group Patriot Prayer. Five days later, Reinoehl was shot and killed by a member of a federal fugitive task force. The killing of Jay Danielson was the first left-wing activist killing in the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) database in two decades. However, Attorney General William Barr called Reinoehl a “violent agitator,” and “a dangerous fugitive, admitted Antifa member, and suspected murderer.”
In conclusion, we are nervous that in the future Redneck Revolt could be identified with violent confrontations; furthermore, leftist groups were criticized by officials in the Trump Administration, who were eager to focus their attentions on violence from left-wing groups (while ignoring violence from right-wing extremists). However, until now it would be difficult to argue that Redneck Revolt posed any significant threat to the country. And there is certainly nothing like the violence and murder that we have seen to date from right-wing domestic extremists.