Trump’s warnings that he could lose only if he were cheated out of the vote are taken by many as ‘dog whistles’ for vigilantes to take their own action.
“LIBERATE MICHIGAN”, tweeted President Donald Trump last April. With a Twitter pulpit boasting over 77 million followers, Trump’s views do not go un-noticed and sure enough a gang of gun-carrying, hard-right Republicans, some of whom held signs adorned with swastikas and confederate flags, stormed the Michigan State Capitol.
One of those was Barry Croft, a 44-year-old with a long criminal history. Together with 12 of his mates, all right-wing extremists calling themselves the Wolverine Watchmen, Croft hatched a plan following the instruction in Trump’s April tweet. They would kidnap Michigan’s Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, at her vacation home and put her on trial for “treason” in a safe house in Wisconsin. After all, they had been encouraged by the President’s use of the word “liberate”, and they wanted to liberate Michigan from Whitmer’s enforcement of Federal guidelines and safety measures against Covid-19. Fortunately for Governor Whitmer, the plot was foiled by the FBI, and all 13 were arrested and charged last week.
It may be tempting to dismiss the language in Donald Trump’s tweets as mere Twitter rhetoric, as in most cases his messages are only loosely connected to the truth. But occasionally it’s worth paying attention to the actual words used—among his followers are militia groups looking for signals.
Take the example of his tweet on 30 September 2019 referring to his impending impeachment: “If the democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they never will be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our country will never heal.” An hour later, the Oath Keepers, a far-right armed militia tweeted to their 24,000 followers: “This is the truth. This is where we are. We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war.”
Claiming that they are “an association of current and former serving military and police who pledge to fulfil the oath taken by all military and police”, the Oath Takers pledge “to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic”. Of course, they decide on what is “for” (right-wing views) and what is “against” (left-wing views) the Constitution. They also insist that not only will they refuse any unlawful order which violates (in their view) the Constitution, but they will fight the tyrants who give the order. Mention any stiffening of the gun control laws, and you get a strong no-no reaction. Oath Takers are usually seen providing an armed escort for Trump supporters to “protect them against leftist violence”.
There’s little doubt that the Oath Keepers would have viewed any successful impeachment of Donald Trump as “unconstitutional” and therefore not to be obeyed, with worrying consequences. They have been very active in proselytising members of law enforcement forces as well as active military creating a complex and dangerous relationship with law enforcement. Many supporters are ex-military veterans who have not been able to adjust to civilian life, perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other effects of wars.
The US engagement in lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has provided powerful feeder lines of veterans for these militias. While many return filled with gratitude to be back in the US, others return with very different views. Informed by their work in countries whose political systems they despise, they fear that such ideologies could infiltrate their own country. Revulsion of communism, Islamism and Marxism permeate many veterans’ thinking, making them acutely sensitive to such threats in their homeland and therefore a rich source of recruitment for the militia. Veterans are welcomed for their paramilitary skills and their ability to survive in the field, as well as leadership skills. Back in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security released an “Intelligence Assessment” warning that returning veterans who faced trouble reintegrating could “lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks”. How prescient!
The Oath Takers are far from the only militia group in the US that vocally back the use of potential lethal force in support of the President. Last year, after Trump’s repeated warnings of an invasion on the southern border, another group—the United Constitutional Patriots—set up camp at the New Mexico border with Mexico. Without any legal authorisation, they assumed the duty of US Customs and Border Protection to stop and detain migrants, all while heavily armed and dressed in military fatigues. Livestream videos were posted on Facebook showing militia members chasing and capturing migrants while armed with assault rifles. Leaders of the Patriots claim they are simply responding to President Trump’s warning in 2015 that the country is being “invaded by rapists, drug barons and criminals from Mexico”. They feel part of the “war” raging on the border.
A small number of veterans have joined ranks with left-leaning groups, such as the Antifa, or groups not associated with the political right. But the vast majority of militias are on the far-right spectrum and proclaim themselves as supporters of Donald Trump’s policies. They believe they have an ally in the White House for the first time. With this flag, many right-wing militia groups have inserted themselves into a number of cities in order to fill a perceived vacuum in law enforcement. They frequently develop thick relations with political authorities, becoming de facto private armies of politicians.
Constitutional Patriots and Oath Takers are just two of about 300 vigilante groups of well-armed militias in the United States, with an estimated 100,000 active members. All are warmed to the idea that the way to deal with political conflict is to engage in armed struggle. Most see the November presidential elections, for which they are on high alert, as a perfect scenario.
“I remain concerned about safety and integrity going up to this election,” said Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer following the detention of her would-be attackers. Uppermost in her mind was Donald Trump’s refusal to commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power if he were to lose on 3 November. Unwilling to condemn right-wing vigilante groups, which he sees as the vanguard of his supporters, Trump told one right-wing group during last month’s presidential debate, to “stand back and standby”. You need little imagination to get the message.
Not to be outdone, the President’s son, Donald Trump Jr, has called on Facebook and Twitter for “every able-bodied man and woman to join ‘Army For Trump’s election security operation’”. As a result, several militia groups, claiming legitimacy under the second amendment of the US Constitution, are vowing to have two or three-man militia teams at every polling station “to protect and make sure voting locations are secure”. When asked for the reason, a spokesman told Reuters, “the stakes were raised because some on the left are armed and because the right is expecting Mr Trump to win by a landslide”. Most alarmingly he added, “If there’s a clear sign of corruption there’s definitely going to be outrage—and I don’t know where that goes. If Trump comes out and says something to the effect that the election was clearly stolen from him and puts a call to action…” The mind boggles.
Donald Trump has repeatedly called postal voting a fraud. His warnings that he could only lose if he were cheated out of the vote are taken by many as “dog whistles” for vigilantes to take their own action. While it’s illegal for a group of armed individuals to activate themselves as militias on behalf of law enforcement, many moderates are concerned that local police reactions range in some parts of the country from tacit acceptance to encouragement and actual collaboration. A right-wing county sheriff in Michigan previously praised and shared a public stage with members of the Wolverine Watchmen, the same vigilante group that watched Gretchen Whitmer’s home as part of their alleged plot!
Although Joe Biden is currently well ahead in the polls, many remember a similar situation in 2016 when Hillary Clinton easily beat Donald Trump in the popular vote, but because of the idiosyncrasies of the Electoral College failed to win the presidency. In seventeen days’ time, just a few voters in the swing states could turn the election into a narrow win for Joe Biden, a result which Donald Trump will not accept. This is the nightmare scenario for the United States. Well-armed Trump-supporting militias, encouraged by a White House Twitter storm insisting that the result is a fraud, will emerge on the streets carrying their semi-automatic weapons, determined to overturn the result.
These weapons are being loaded—reverberating around the country.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.