In the video, the host of a local independent news radio program surveys the late-night shadows of a Kenosha, Wisconsin, car lot. You can just make out four men, long rifles in their hands, as they pace on top of the building. “We got militia on the roof here, and it’s pretty neat,” he says. On the ground, the videographer chats with other people he identifies as part of “the militia” — including an eager and excited-looking kid who tells the videographer his name is Kyle.
Kyle Rittenhouse would go on to allegedly kill two people and injure a third later that night. In the aftermath, the extent of his ties to militia activity — and militia activity itself — have been widely discussed: Are militias hate groups? Was Rittenhouse actually a part of a formal militia group? When people who identify as militia members show up in the middle of a protest … whose side are they on?
For the purposes of this article, when we refer to the militia movement, we are referring to an umbrella term that encompasses paramilitary activists and groups with strong anti-government leanings. But beyond that, modern militias are hard to explain and categorize — what even counts as a militia is up for debate. One thing is for sure: There is no one militia — not in Kenosha that night and not anywhere in the country. Instead, experts say, “the militia” is really a multifaceted movement with fluid boundaries. The key to understanding that movement’s role in the chaos of 2020 is knowing just how difficult it can be to pin down what apparent militia members believe — much less how they’re connected to each other and the broader movement.
While established militias are kind of like a heavily armed scout troop — formal organizations with ranks and membership dues and training programs and regular meetings — some academics argue that many people who are falling into the militia movement’s orbit these days are more like loosely affiliated individuals. “Members” is a strong word for this kind of community, with lots of people drifting along, sharing memes online or showing up, guns in tow, to protests — despite having no clear ties to any specific group. Even the organized, club-like militias don’t ascribe to a single overarching ideology, which makes it especially difficult to figure out what motivates individuals like Rittenhouse, or even how to describe them. “It’s almost like people are choosing their own adventure,” said Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League.
So a crowd like the one that showed up in Kenosha can be made up of individuals, even strangers, with little connecting them except a shared interest in gun rights and a sense that they’re the only ones who can protect their community. And in these trying times — amid a pandemic and protests against racial injustice, plus a president who is giving them more public support than they’ve ever had from the national political establishment — those individuals are taking a collective turn in a direction that, experts fear, is likely to result in more violence.
An armed militia — or even a lone individual with ties to the militia movement — is not, of course, unique to 2020 or even the Trump era. Experts who study modern militias quibble over when the movement actually emerged, but most whom we spoke to date it to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when paramilitary groups and self-described “sovereign citizens” (who believe they, and not the government, get to decide which laws they follow) began to organize, partially in response to the deaths of political dissenters in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho. These groups didn’t bear much resemblance to the colonial-era militias mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but they had a few things in common — specifically, anger at the federal government, and a strong belief in their individual right to own weapons and use those weapons to defend themselves against perceived government overreach or a threat to their community.
How the various members of the movement define that threat is where things get muddy. For instance, some — but not all — militia members are also part of the white power movement, and see themselves as part of a struggle against the federal government that would eventually lead to a race war. Other parts of the militia movement, conversely, have explicitly rejected the white supremacist label. But that doesn’t mean that their members don’t hold racist views. And the decentralized nature of the movement has made it easy for militia groups or leaders to disavow individual people who committed acts of violence, even when they were likely influenced by some part of the movement’s ideology. Social media has made it even easier for someone with a passing interest to find out about militias online, and get involved — even tangentially — in whatever part of the movement fits their ideology and goals.
“People are organizing more around concepts and less around groups,” Segal told us. Some people might be pro-police; others might be anti-police. Some might be libertarian, others might be trying to stoke a race war. “They identify with an ideology, maybe with a movement. But not everyone is going to be part of Militia Group A, B or C,” he said.
The rise of President Trump, and the tumultuous events of 2020, have made it even more difficult to untangle what militias are doing and what their individual adherents believe. From the beginning of his candidacy, Trump’s rhetoric — his attacks on the “deep state” or the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant insults that peppered his tweets and speeches — have resonated with and garnered public responses from people within the militia movement. When Trump tweeted about an impending civil war or warned about threats from the left, it brought extremist theories and conversations into the national conversation. “With Trump, the fringe entered the mainstream,” said Lawrence Rosenthal, the chair and lead researcher of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
The pandemic — and the racial injustice protests that have roiled cities throughout the summer — appear to have brought even more people into the militia movement’s orbit. Suddenly, people were at home all day, feeling anxious and fearful about the future and spending a lot more time online. Many in the militia movement chafed at state lockdown orders, and started appearing, heavily armed, at state capitols across the country to protest what they saw as an assault on their individual freedoms. “It’s the same central narrative about government tyranny: ‘I have the right to get a haircut, you don’t have the right to tell us we have to shelter in place,’” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociologist at American University, where she runs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab.
The same messages were echoing across internet forums and Facebook groups, including among more loosely organized corners of the militia movement, prompting people who weren’t part of formal militia groups to show up. And they didn’t just appear at protests of government lockdowns — militia members also materialized at the protests of police brutality that sprang up in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. People in that city are still arguing, months later, over whether those people were supporting protesters, supporting police, simply trying to incite violence, or some combination thereof.
Many of those people might never have met before in real life, but they sported signs of a shared identity, like Hawaiian shirts, the emblem of the apocalyptic “Boogaloo” movement, an amorphous online militia that has been described as a “meme-based insurgency.” “Boogaloo” identifiers aren’t held together by a coherent ideology — or even a shared sense of what it means to don a Hawaiian shirt. But their ranks have swelled quickly since the pandemic began, according to research by the Network Contagion Research Institute and others. And what these individuals do have in common is a tendency to be armed to the teeth in situations where tensions are already very high. For obvious reasons, that increases the likelihood of a violent confrontation.
Fear and anxiety are predictors of people — particularly young people — turning towards extremism and violence, said Miller-Idriss. In that context, the conditions of the pandemic are a perfect culture for radicalism to grow. “We know from the research that unemployment itself does not lead to greater risk of engaging in extremist behaviors but economic precarity does,” she said. For the last six months, the entire country has lived on the edge of economic and social precarity. What if our institutions crumble? What if we can’t get our normal lives back? Extremist ideologies can offer meaning, purpose and a narrative of control when everything feels out of it.
The president’s rhetoric has fed into that, experts say. By the time he was elected, Trump was a hero to many in the militia movement. “Donald Trump has succeeded in being at once the head of government and the head of anti-government,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a remarkable thing, actually.”
With Trump saying both implicitly and explicitly that militias or even just armed individuals are the only thing standing between America and the chaos of a leftist takeover of the country, the promise of control becomes even stronger. It becomes a call to arms — one that more young Americans, sitting at home without school or even work, may try to answer.
But if the head of the government isn’t the threat, who is? The answer, said Sam Jackson, a professor at the University of Albany and the author of a new book on one of the country’s most prominent modern militia groups, has turned out to be other Americans — specifically, left-leaning ones who oppose Trump.
That transition wasn’t as hard to make as it might seem, Jackson said, because many of the individuals loosely affiliated with the militia movement never really saw themselves as exactly “anti-government” to begin with. Instead, it’s better to think of them as radical libertarians, who wanted drastically less government, or maybe different government. “So when their man is in office, it’s an easier pivot for them to say … not all government is bad, but we don’t need to target the White House anymore,” he said.
But targeting opponents of the White House means a drastic change in the character of the American militia movement, said Robert Churchill, a history professor at the University of Hartford who extensively researched the militia movement of the 1990s. The majority of militia members back then were radical libertarians, he said, agreeing with Jackson, but their opposition to the federal government broadly meant they weren’t a partisan force. In fact, that definition of militias — small, armed groups of civilians fighting against the government — has characterized these kinds of movements throughout American history, Churchill told us.
Until now. Given the way things are changing, the people who study the militia movement and have spent years talking to its members think there’s a risk of American militias becoming more like the militias of other, often politically unstable, countries. “What matters is if the movement becomes essentially a more traditional Latin American pro-regime paramilitary, which seems to be what Trump is trying to create or wants,” Churchill said.
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