Media reports, pundit commentary and social media simply seemed unable to reckon with the reality of the January 20 pro-gun rally at the Virginia state capitol.
Under a Democrat-controlled legislature, a collection of relatively moderate gun control measures — increased limits on gun purchases, increased areas where guns are banned and universal background checks — were set to be pushed through the statehouse in what many thought was impossible in a Southern state. In response, 22,000 people flooded the capitol in what was euphemistically labeled a “lobby day,” but was instead the capture of Martin Luther King Jr. Day by one of the largest open-carry rallies in recent history.
The pro-gun protesters were there to put on a show, carrying sniper rifles, semi-automatics and shotguns. But with the memory of Charlottesville still in people’s minds cemented by years of white supremacist violence, many expected blood.
Yet little happened. The rally, though adorned with political flags and attended by militia organizations like the III%ers, remained largely nonviolent. The gap between expectation and reality left onlookers with an inability to make sense of the event and how to situate it into the 2020 political landscape. Some media outlets have turned on their original predictions, using this as an example that the people at the protest may, in fact, be nonviolent after all.
But looking at the event in isolation obscures the actual history of the far right militia movement, the role the perceived threat of gun control continues to play, and how right-wing fantasies about a second American civil war signal what is to come from the right.
How Militia Violence Takes Shape
People often equate the militia movement and the white nationalist movement, particularly given the militia movement’s origins in the Christian Identity movement. Today, however, open white supremacist rhetoric has been all but completely whitewashed from most militia organizations, and many of these groups have more in common with the fringes of the GOP than they do with someone like the infamous white nationalist Richard Spencer.
Self-described “patriot” organizations fall under the broader ideological umbrella that can encompass some of the radical right militias. The “patriot” movement, particularly its ancillaries in the militias of the 1990s, fed heavily off the Libertarian, anti-environmentalist and conspiratorial wing of the Republican Party. Because of this tacit alliance — particularly on the regional level in states like Nevada, Montana, Oregon and Washington — militias got their key support often from local linkages to the GOP.
The violence that did occur, including attacks against federal agents in the 1990s that ultimately culminated with the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, came as militia growth and influence was approaching its zenith. Militia violence grows as militia numbers grow, which can stray from the moments of white power terror attacks that can often act as a rearguard against a failing movement.
“Violence is a byproduct of the movement period, so when the movement swells, there will be more people producing the byproduct,” says Spencer Sunshine, a researcher who focuses on the far right and the militia movement. “There certainly is a threat that when the movement expands, the violence expands.”
While the Virginia rally may have the appearance of a peaceful rally, it wasn’t the behavior on display that matters; it’s what comes later. For instance, far right activists from the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League were joined by elected officials, including Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan, in what could be the beginning of a strategic alliance. Several counties have preemptively declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” that will not follow imposed gun laws they think violate constitutional gun protections.
Moreover, law enforcement used their kid gloves to deal with protesters during the Virginia rally, including ignoring a law that makes wearing a mask during a protest a criminal offense. While such laws are regularly used against left-wing protesters, the police seemed obliged to offer leeway to the far right.
To make matters worse, in Republican districts represented by rural populists, many lawmakers and public officials are taking militia talking points on as their new political identity. For instance, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert began telling the press that the Virginia rally was an effort to strip lawful gun owners of their weapons, a conspiratorial reading of the gun control measures that reflect the patriot movement’s worldview. This represents a fundamental shift in the character of parts of the party that had, in previous years, thought of militias as a political liability. Now, we see these segments joining the heavily armed crowd at the Virginia capitol to call the state’s gun control measures “unconstitutional.” Some even suggested they would support some version of an armed uprising or violent attacks. Such tacit support can only grow militia’s numbers.
When militias are given cover to multiply, their later standoffs over issues like grazing rights or mine policy can become dangerous, particularly to federal workers at places like the Bureau of Land Management or the Environmental Protection Agency, as we have seen. As long as these groups remain small, however, they could continue to exhibit a “peaceful” public persona.
Gun Control Grows Militias
There are a few key lessons we can learn from the peak in militia violence in the 1990s. Among the most discussed reasons for the growth in the militia movement during this time was the federal conflict at Ruby Ridge and the Waco siege, respectively. Many, however, don’t realize that there was a third incident that may have been even more motivating. While the ATF’s response to both Ruby Ridge and Waco were technically unrelated to a piece of landmark gun control legislation they preceded, it appeared to many in the patriot movement that they were all examples of systemic government overreach in a way that affected mostly rural, right-wing separatists.
In 1993, Congress passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, mandating federal background checks on gun purchases and a five-day waiting period. This was all militia organizations needed to “prove” their claims of governmental intrusion.
Patriot organizations work in ways much less ideologically grounded than even open fascists. Their political framework is built on unverifiable conspiracy theories rather than argued political positions. Within this worldview, the state is looking to subdue the population, usually through some form of disarmament. Gun control is evidence of this dystopian situation, and once guns have been taken from the faithful, there is no stopping the tyrannical federal apparatus from completely taking over.
On the other hand, the Democratic Party’s energy comes from a number of causes, not the least of which is gun control. This is particularly salient among certain groups of young people who have come out of the March for Our Lives movement with uncompromising views of the gun industry. This has created an unbridgeable chasm marked by increased militancy on both sides and the inability to communicate cross-politically.
Virginia is a good example of such a chasm. The state’s gun control efforts originally looked to ban AR-15s and assault weapons, but this conjured the dreaded image of police coming to the homes of gun owners to confiscate their weapons, a measure that experts in the field warn has the potential for retaliatory acts of violence. So the measure was eventually shot down in the legislature.
As the gun control movement advances on their own party ahead of the 2020 election, advocates need to look at how such strategies have historically acted as a short fuse for patriot organizations and consider how to create community support for safety measures around firearms. Otherwise, the movement will simply play into the darkest fantasies of armed militias — that elitist liberals and the state are subverting their way of life.
“I’m terrified about what [future] rallies will look like … these are inherently volatile situations. And I think we should be suspicious of if the authorities can prevent this,” says Patrick Blanchfield, the author of Gunpowder. Many of these far right militia organizations have a long history collaborating with law enforcement, either in shared membership or a common mission, and many of the state authorities who have been sharing their message on gun control have been the police themselves.
“There is this vast universe of symbiotic overlap with white nationalist types who have historically worked with the state,” points out Blanchfield. “I don’t think they are going to kick down one another’s door.”
The Armed Right’s Divisions
There was heavy press coverage of the recent FBI raid on operatives from The Base, the white supremacist “accelerationist” terror network that has been training around the country to prepare for race war. Unlike white nationalist figureheads like David Duke or Spencer, The Base is not trying to build a mass movement of like-minded whites to develop a white nationalist mass movement; they want to force the dissolution of the U.S. through mass chaos and subsequent ethnic cleansing.
The Base sees the Libertarian-minded conspiracy culture of the patriot movement with disdain, and, before they were foiled by the FBI, the group planned a false flag attack in which they would open fire during the Virginia rally to inspire impulsive killings among the anxiety-ridden crowd.
The Base, as well as the more occult-leaning Atomwaffen Division, have become a prime focus for people watching the far right because they make up the clearest organized presence of white nationalists who are promoting violence and terrorism. They have dispensed with public rhetoric entirely, and because of their covert nature and military training, they represent a clear and present threat of violence.
In the coming months, as gun control issues continue to remain an important priority for political campaigns and militias continue to see growth as a result, groups like The Base may more freely recruit, train and expand their own ranks. The Virginia rally was only the first of what will likely become a trend, and was quickly followed up by an armed (and masked) action where militia members entered the Kentucky state capitol without intervention. If these continue, then there will be more opportunities for The Base to try and replicate their failed false flag attempt in a worst-case scenario.
As white nationalist movements hit a decline as a result of anti-fascist activity, law enforcement, media pressure and their own strategic failures, elements of their movements will head to Virginia-like rallies to pursue acts of violence. The “alt-right’s” decline was a hit for their movement, and the growth of white nationalist terror networks has since exploded in an equal and opposite reaction.
The Base’s leader, Rinaldo Nazzaro, was recently named for the first time in The Guardian, and it seems the group’s operation may very well continue to grow. Nazzaro’s home base in Russia has shown that his ability to facilitate the organization remotely is powerful, and that the group does not need a heavy organizational hand to recruit and become dangerous.
Similar groups are popping up around the country – such as the Crusaders, who were arrested amid a plot to bomb a mosque in Kansas — targeting activists and journalists, and are quickly becoming a new normal in 2020. This threat is distinct from what the patriot militias will bring to the table. What remains likely, however, is that such groups will continue to organize.
The Left’s Gun Control Divisions
As the patriot militia movement and more extreme and far right terror networks like The Base continue to grow, the Virginia rally signals that opposition among gun control advocates may be dwindling. There were just a handful of activists using March for Our Lives materials to counter the pro-gun crowd.
The reasons for this are varied, including the high probability that such an excess of weapons makes confrontations more volatile. However, even when gun control is singled out as an issue, disconnected from things like immigration or other problematic political positions patriot militias offer, many anti-fascist protesters become alienated.
Such anti-fascists like the pro-gun John Brown Gun Club were present at the rally, handing out pamphlets titled “To Those Who Seek Liberty,” in the hope of offering a different view on guns. Members of the Gun Club argue that they prefer creating bonds of community solidarity built on mutual aid and a liberatory politics rather than reactionary patriot posturing.
These community self-defense groups attended the rally not just as a safety precaution against potential far right violence, but to present their own face of gun ownership and concerns regarding centrist gun control rhetoric around increasing sentencing and the use of “red flag laws.” For left-wing gun owners, such measures could lead to politically motivated disarmament of activists, the marginalization of people with mental illness, and increased sentences against people who are already facing disproportionate attention from law enforcement.
These groups hoped to influence those in the crowd who were unaffiliated with far right groups but could easily be recruited into them because of their affinity for firearms. Instead, armed anti-fascist groups sought to split the crowd and pull away militias’ potential recruits while validating those individuals’ working-class experiences.
While such groups are only a small subset of the larger left in the United States, they represent particular rifts forming along a number of critical issues. If gun control continues to be a prime focus for the Democratic Party, these activists are going to find themselves increasingly isolated. Instead, the party should include the voices and concerns of left-wing gun owners in gun control debates. Yet, as the Virginia rally clearly shows, there has been little of this type of collaboration on a large scale.
Government Illegitimacy Theory
Ultimately though, the left should remain focused on addressing the central theme that animated the Virginia rally: the pro-gun rights groups’ claims that the legislators who are passing bills are illegitimate.
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was a target of the right-wing gun advocates’ hate, particularly because organizations he is affiliated with pumped money into Virginia to push through the gun control measures. A conspiratorial view similar to that of liberal philanthropist George Soros drove much of the conversation on the ground, with protesters viewing Bloomberg as a similarly rich usurper perpetuating a top-down attack on the people. Both of these figures are Jewish, and seem to be singled out because of that ethnic background, echoing the anti-Semitic origins of the militia movement.
Given both his Jewish identity and history in the upper echelons of banking, “[Bloomberg is] the perfect … vehicle for all this,” says Blanchfield. Bloomberg (and gun control at large) acts as a proxy for other issues. In this case, he represents a proxy for the wealthy and the government to take something that belongs to you with little regard for your own lifeways.
“The bank is already taking away my land or house. The debtors are taking away my time and health … it is a [sign of] being cheated,” says Blanchfield, about the way that gun control has become a signpost of dissatisfaction with the state of popular institutions. “There’s something that is such a powerful symbol about that.”
This framework of illegitimacy is built on the foundational worldview of the patriot militia movement, which evolved from the earlier Posse Comitatus movement, which itself was built on Christian Identity principles and a conspiratorial view of international finance. In the skewed Christian Identity worldview, all white people are the descendants of the biblical Israelites, people of color do not have souls and Jews are literal cohorts of the devil.
Over subsequent generations, the explicit white supremacist eschatology that motivated Posse Comitatus and helped militias recruit farmers harmed by the 1980s farming crisis became somewhat de-racialized. While the militia organizations still have a far right interpretation of politics that retains some white supremacist ideological components, they have now replaced the Jews at the center of the conspiracy with other, less uniform figures such as the “deep state.” The ideological structure — that world events are based on the actions of an unseen minority at the center of world affairs — remains the same, however.
2020 will be fought on hot-button issues, and even if the militia movement is willing to put on costumes and behave themselves in front of the news cameras, their fingers are still on the trigger. They have been building a culture of all-out war for decades now, and are prepared to fight an enemy that exists at the intersection of paranoia and projection.
Donald Trump spent 2016 flirting with patriot organizations, particularly around the issue of federal land management, and this is something he began to own up to as he attempts to strip out environmental land protections.
“If Trump doesn’t get re-elected, there might be more desperation,” says Sunshine, pointing out that the white nationalist movement is still bigger than it has been in previous years, which positions it for more potential violence.
What we can expect to see in 2020 is a significant part of Donald Trump’s Republican base, armed and organized, ready to fight when pushed, and their impulsivity ultimately rewarded.