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Right-Wing Border Militias Are the Troops of Trump’s Authoritarian Regime

The milita’s “commander” was arrested last Saturday by the FBI on federal firearms charges.

"Striker," the leader of the Constitutional Patriots New Mexico Border Ops Team militia, speaks with "Viper" (right) inside the team's camper while discussing logistics on a group chat near the U.S.-Mexico border in Anapra, New Mexico, on March 20, 2019. Both go by aliases to protect their identity.

Last week, in New Mexico, the United Constitutional Patriots militia, a group of vigilantes led by Larry Mitchell Hopkins “detained” 300 asylum seekers from Latin and South America. United Constitutional Patriots is one of many such right-wing paramilitary groups operating along the U.S.-Mexico border. It has also been reported that these “militias” de facto coordinate with the United States Border Patrol and other law enforcement organizations in their extra judicial if not illegal behavior. Larry Mitchell Hopkins, the “commander” of the United Constitutional Patriots was arrested last Saturday by the FBI on federal firearms charges dating back to 2017.

The United Constitutional Patriots vigilante militia and others like it are not outliers or curiosities. They embody and represent the much larger threat posed by Donald Trump and the Republican Party to America’s multiracial democracy.

Donald Trump and his Republican allies have contempt for the rule of law and the United States Constitution. What I have described elsewhere as “trickle down” immorality and lawlessness creates a permissive environment for violence by Trump’s supporters and other members of the White Right against whatever groups and individuals they deem to be their “enemies.”

Bernard Harcourt, who is professor of law and political science at Columbia University, and the author of The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens, provides some additional context.

He communicated to me via email how: “If this is true (that this militia is armed and detaining individuals and turning them over to Border Patrol), it would likely amount to criminal behavior. It would likely amount to kidnapping. This is on U.S. soil, so constitutional protections apply, and the members of the militia have no way of knowing what is the asylum status of these individuals. There is nothing that gives them the right to detain or forcibly transport these individuals. Reasonable law enforcement would arrest people for engaging in these kinds of acts.”

Donald Trump encourages violence by his supporters and other members of his political cult against liberals, progressives, “immigrants,” nonwhites, Muslims, the free press, and any other group or individual which he identifies as being an enemy of his right-wing authoritarian movement. Trump’s use of “stochastic terrorism” and “scripted violence” is not new: this has been a common strategy and tactic by conservatives and other parts of the American right-wing for several decades.

Right-wing stochastic terrorism and scripted violence has been extremely effective in the Age of Trump: during his presidential campaign and now into the third year of his presidency there has been a large increase in hate crimes and other, sometimes lethal political violence, such as the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh.

David Neiwert, who is an investigative journalist and author of Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, locates right-wing militias and their intimidation and abuse of nonwhite immigrants, refugees, and migrants at the U.S.-Mexico Border as part of a much larger phenomenon — one which has culminated in Trump’s explicitly nativist (and racist) immigration policies.

He explained to me by email how, “The Minutemen of the mid-2000s were one of the leading indicators of the incoming tide of right-wing authoritarianism in America, especially given their origins in the conspiracist ‘Patriot’ right, and the way they were normalized in the press even then — and their criminality routinely overlooked and covered up by the mainstream — was frankly shocking, but another clear sign of the path we were headed down even then. Trump’s ascent to power was fueled with all the same elements: the conspiracism, the paranoid nativism, the bellicose appeal to an ethos of violence.”

Neiwert continued:

It’s not all happenstance that so many far-right domestic terrorists are fueled by much of the same rhetoric, since ideologically they come from the same place as these border militiamen. It’s clear that Trump’s rhetoric not only is intended to call these elements in his support base to action, but that it is indeed having that effect. This is classic scripted violence, and we can see it having its effect in the real — see Cesar Sayoc, Robert Bowers and Brenton Tarrant for only the most recent examples. When Trump begins making the calls for eliminationist violence more explicit, then we will all be at serious risk. I don’t believe that day is too far away.

Neiwert is correct: In the affidavit against Hopkins, it was revealed that he and his right-wing terrorist militia were training to assassinate Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and liberal financier George Soros.

In a healthy functioning government the State has a monopoly on violence. By comparison, in authoritarian regimes as well as failing democracies, this power is shared with paramilitary and other martial organizations. These groups — often working with law enforcement and the military — then target the designated enemy Other. This is often done along racial, ethnic, and/or religious lines.

Jason Stanley, who is a professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, explained to me by email how:

Historically, it is an extremely concerning sign when extra-judicial militias start appearing on the scene, motivated by extreme rhetoric directed against minorities or immigrant groups. Of particular concern are extreme nationalist far right extra-judicial militias because fascism is itself a form of revolutionary ultra-nationalism.

The appearance of such extreme nationalist extra-judicial militias is further evidence that we need to take the threat of fascism seriously in America. The Nazi movement started with ultra-nationalist paramilitary groups that targeted religious minorities.

Donald Trump is an unrepentant racist and a white supremacist as repeatedly demonstrated by his public behavior and the types of political policies and norms he is forcing on the American people. He has surrounded himself with people such as Stephen Miller who share such values.

To wit. Donald Trump has slurred Latinos and Hispanics as a “race” of “rapists,” “murderers” and human pollution who only come to America in order to “breed” and “infest” the country while preying on white people — especially women and girls.

In shamelessly and boldly combining racism with public policy, Donald Trump’s regime is expanding its concentration camps for Latinos, Hispanics and other non-white immigrants, migrants, and refugees. Trump and his minions are changing America’s immigration laws to maintain a white majority and to make it increasingly difficult for nonwhites to immigrate to the United States. Trump and his subordinates are also doing everything they can under the law — and sometimes exceeding it — to engage in “soft ethnic cleansing” against nonwhite immigrants who already live in America.

Trump and his allies in the Republican Party as well as the right-wing media also refer to nonwhite immigrants, refugees, and migrants as “invaders.” This language is another example of how Donald Trump encourages violence. It is no coincidence that “invaders” is the language used by white supremacists such as the neo-Nazi who killed 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand several weeks ago.

Heidi Beirich is an expert on right-wing extremism and hate groups. She also leads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report. Beirich explained the importance of language such as “invaders” to me in a recent phone conversation as:

The language of “invaders” is even more than just racist. It is one of violence because you have heavily weaponized people going to the border who believe that their country is being invaded. And what do you do? You kill invaders. The power imbalance between people with guns and unarmed migrants and immigrants is immense.”

The right-wing militia movement has increasingly embraced such white supremacist values and ideology.

In the same phone conversation Beirich also told me how, “The right-wing militia movement has become completely racialized. They are rabidly anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant in ways that you did not find in the 1990s. In that way these militia groups do not sound much different than hate groups. This situation is very volatile and dangerous because you have people who are animated by racist beliefs. There is not much daylight between hate groups and many militia groups regarding nonwhite immigrants. They are radicalized. Trump’s rhetoric is giving sanction to that.”

Trump is also helping to recruit people into these right-wing militia groups because he is in the so-called “mainstream. That makes it easier for these right-wing militia and other anti-immigrant groups to legitimize their views.”

This is part of a long history which Kathleen Belew, who is a professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, explained to me via email as:

The detention of immigrants by militias at the border is a strategy that has come up over several decades, one honed by Klansmen in the 1970s and mercenaries in the 1980s.

In the 1970s, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan began a Klan Border Patrol in Texas and California. Their aim was to detain undocumented immigrants and to assist the U.S. Border Patrol. The press at the time largely dismissed this as a publicity stunt, but these patrols were highly militarized and did have the effect of intimidating border crossers, and were reported on in Mexico and as far away as Nicaragua.

The Klan Border Watch was implemented at the same time as a string of paramilitary camps that sought to train Klansmen and other white people for race war.

I would expect to see claims that the militia was “neutral,” or simply enforcing the law. But militias are not neutral. Militias are one part, one strand, of a complicated anti-government movement that also includes white power activism.

Right-wing militias such as the United Constitutional Patriots are Trump’s foot soldiers and shock troops. Along with other members of Trump’s political cult, they are prepared to escalate their political violence in order to protect their hero and leader if he is forced to step down from the presidency by Congress or is not reelected in 2020.

There is little reason to believe that Trump would not fully unleash these forces on the American people. Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to imprison Democrats and his other political rivals. Trump has also said that that he is a victim of an attempted coup. Trump has also said that he believes that any election where he loses is illegitimate. Trump has also signaled that he may not leave the presidency if either defeated at the polls or tried, impeached and convicted by Congress for the numerous apparent crimes he has committed as detailed by the Mueller Report.

Trump’s strongman authoritarian behavior has escalated since the public release of his human insurance policy Attorney General William Barr’s redacted partisan version of the Mueller report last week. In recent days, Trump has said via Twitter that his enemies in the news media will be forced to kneel before him; vowed “to turn the tables” on his enemies who dared to try to hold him accountable under the law through the Mueller investigation; told reporters that “no one disobeys me” in defiance of the law; is refusing to allow members of his administration to testify before Congress; and continues to refuse to release tax documents as mandated by law.

Heidi Beirich concluded our phone conversation with this warning:

They view themselves as protecting Donald Trump from the “deep state” and the “new world order.” These right-wing militias view Trump as being “real Americans” like them. We have to worry about what people in this movement will do if Trump loses in 2020. When they get really paranoid that is when we get another Oklahoma City bombing or other right-wing terrorist attacks.

Authoritarianism and fascism — in both the American form under Trump and as manifest in other places at other times — involves the creation of a malignant reality where virtue is turned into something negative and immorality, cruelty and other horrible behavior is elevated as noble and righteous. This is taking place in many ways in Trump’s America. The cruelty by Trump’s enforcers against nonwhite immigrants, migrants, and refugees along the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere is one such example.

This moral inversion is seen when people of conscience who leave bottles of water and other supplies in the desert for desperate human beings who have traveled from Latin and South America for a better life in the United States are put in jail while right-wing thugs, bullies, and goons such as the United Constitutional Patriots and others of their ilk are feted and praised by Donald Trump, the Republican Party, the right-wing media and their public as being “patriots” who are only trying to “protect” America.

Something has long been very wrong in America. Trumpism and all that it represents are both just another iteration while also being a new present-day culmination of very old demons such as racism, bigotry, racism and other types of cruelty which have never been fully exorcised.

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