The New Vigilantes
The postwar, post-pandemic period of the early 1920s were the golden years for a resurgent Ku Klux Klan. The Klan of that era was not solely focused on suppression of Negroes but espoused a broader view of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant supremacy that targeted Catholics, Jews, and foreigners, as well as a disdain for elites, intellectuals, and “dirty” city-dwellers. At its peak in the mid-1920s, the Klan had anywhere between three and eight million members containing a full cross-section of American society. The Klan also developed a serious strategy to win political power, resulting in the organization effectively controlling the state governments of Indiana and Colorado.
The organization’s traditional violence continued. As Joshua Rothman writes, “From the late 1910s through the 1920s, Klansmen carried out hundreds of beatings and whippings, and dozens of murders. They threatened bootleggers, flogged Mexicans, tarred and feathered doctors who performed abortions, and strong-armed politicians. They lynched black people, showed up on night rides to terrify prostitutes, bullied Jews, and lashed young women found riding in cars with men”. This violence may have been perpetrated by a minority of the Klan but was either accepted or quietly disavowed by the majority of its members.
An assumedly apocryphal aphorism attributed to Mark Twain is that “history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme”. And we can certainly see the echoes of the 1920s Klan in Trump, the Trumpified Republican party, and Trump’s core supporters. The xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-intellectualism is still there, encouraged by the President’s inciteful rhetoric of political violence. The belief among Trump’s ex-urban and rural supporters that urban residents and coastal elites do not represent “real” America is still there. The white, male, Protestant nationalism has morphed into white, male, Christian nationalism, combining evangelical Protestants with conservative Catholic extremists. And the vigilante violence and what are now defined as hate crimes have become more and more common over the last four years. Of course, for African Americans, the vigilante violence has never really ended, while, under Trump, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate crimes have reached near historic highs.
Perhaps the most striking illustration of this resurgence of hatred was the heavily armed white nationalist riot in Charlottesville which ended in the murder of Heather Heyer. According to the ADL, in the two years following the riot, “White supremacists have committed at least 73 murders since Charlottesville, 39 of which were clearly motivated by hateful, racist ideology. These numbers include the deadly white supremacist shooting rampages in Parkland, Pittsburgh, Poway and El Paso, the deadliest white supremacist attack in more than 50 years”. The “Jews will not replace us” chant from Charlottesville certainly sowed the seeds of the massacre inside a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh a year later by a raving anti-Semite.
Only slightly less disturbing than the riot itself was the total abdication of the state and undermanned local police, who stood idly by as the armed white nationalists and those protesting against them battled in the streets. Both sides criticized the police for not doing enough to prevent violence or stop it after it had broken out. As one witness reported, “There was no police presence. We were watching people punch each other; people were bleeding all the while police were inside of barricades at the park, watching”.
Charlottesville was only the beginning for these right-wing militia groups wishing to flex their muscle. Last year, the Oregon legislature was forced to shut down, after the State Police warned Democratic legislators there were credible threats against them from right-wing militias. The militias were rallying to support eleven Republican state senators who had absconded in order to scuttle a climate change vote. One of those fleeing senators had earlier warned that if the governor tried to force them back to the capital, the State Police should “Send bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple”.
In January, Virginia avoided a repeat of Charlottesville when the governor declared a state of emergency in anticipation of an enormous rally protesting the legislature’s attempt to pass some small and sensible gun control legislation. Armed militias from across the country had promised to descend on the state capital, threatening violence. The Governor’s emergency order banned weapons in the capitol plaza and provided a robust police presence, resulting in a peaceful protest.
The pandemic, combined with Trump’s inciteful rhetoric, has only seemed that ratchet up this new vigilantism. Trump’s rhetoric about the “Wuhan” virus, espousing a conspiracy that China intentionally spread the virus around the world, along with the ever-prevalent anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering, has created an enormous spike in anti-Asian and anti-Semitic hate speech. Asian-Americans have been verbally abused, spit on, and physically attacked.
In Oklahoma, a homeowners association (HOA) president effectively held a black delivery driver hostage for over an hour demanding to know how and why he was in the gated community. The standoff wasn’t resolved until the customer to whom the driver had made the delivery came out and convinced the HOA president the driver was there appropriately. In Vermont, a black man driving with his son was flagged down by men whom he thought might need assistance. Instead, one of the men told the driver he was “not wanted in Vermont and told to leave”.
In Texas, armed paramilitaries have “protected” businesses that re-opened in defiance of the state’s pandemic restrictions. In Odessa, the sheriff who closed a business violating the state’s orders and arrested the paramilitaries “protecting” it received numerous death threats and even had to call the bomb squad to his residence. Similar incidents have occurred in other states, including Michigan.
Paramilitaries were also heavily involved in the protests to re-open states. Nowhere were they more visible than in the two states of Michigan and Wisconsin, coincidentally important swing states in the upcoming election. In Michigan, the paramilitaries even invaded the gallery of the state Senate, intimidating the legislators below. The groups openly discussed assassinating the Governor online and at least one person has been arrested for making credible terroristic threats against the Governor and Attorney General. A similar armed invasion on the capitol took place in Kentucky, where yet another Democratic governor was targeted. As in Michigan, there was no resistance from authorities because both states are open-carry states where there is no regulation prohibiting firearms inside the legislature.
While some of these protests are spontaneous and grass-roots, a disturbing New York Times report shows that much of it was orchestrated by conservative groups closely aligned with the Republican party and the Trump White House. In Wisconsin, Stephen Moore, appointed to lead Trump’s advisory task force on reopening, claimed that he had arranged for one large Republican donor to pay for the bail and legal fees of any protestor arrested. Moore himself told the Times that he would not speak at that protest because “it’s important that no one be under the impression that it’s sponsored or directed by national groups in Washington”.
It’s not just the Republican establishment that seems willing to coordinate with these paramilitary and vigilante groups. It appears that local police do as well. The stalking and execution of Ahmaud Arbery is no different than Trayvon Martin’s and countless others over the years, or the lynchings in the century after the Civil War. Compared to the Martin case, what is slightly different with Arbery, and more like the lynchings of the past, is that local police had apparently specifically outsourced policing in that area to the vigilante group that killed Arbery. A Glynn County police officer texted a homeowner that he should contact the retired police officer who eventually killed Arbery to deal with trespassers on his property where a house was being constructed.
In fact, the Arbery case is not the only recent one where law enforcement appears to be coordinating with vigilante groups. In North Carolina, a sheriff’s deputy led an armed mob searching for a missing girl. In searching for a friend of the missing girl who was also thought to possibly know her whereabouts, the deputy led the all-white mob to the wrong house and terrorized the black family that lived there.
Sheriffs across the country have also unilaterally decided to refuse to enforce their state’s pandemic-related orders. In Michigan, Wisconsin, and Washington, sheriffs have openly declared they will not enforce their Democratic governor’s orders, claiming those orders infringe on religious freedom or constitutional rights. At least some of these sheriffs subscribe to the Constitutional Sheriff movement which states that sheriffs are “the highest authority in the land”. The movement arose out of the far-right Posse Comitatus movement of the 1970s and the belief that the “sheriff is not beholden to federal authorities”.
These recalcitrant sheriffs may only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to far-right extremists infiltrating law enforcement. The lead researcher on a 2009 DHS report on right-wing extremism that was withdrawn after complaints from Republicans stated, “Federal law enforcement agencies in general — the FBI, the Marshals, the ATF — are aware that extremists have infiltrated state and local law enforcement agencies and that there are people in law enforcement agencies that may be sympathetic to these groups”. The researcher “singled out the Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association for their anti-government attitudes and efforts to recruit active as well as retired law enforcement officers”.
In fact, the backlash from Republicans over that 2009 report actually allowed far-right extremist groups to flourish during the Obama years. As one expert on right-wing ideology in law enforcement noted, “I believe that because that report was so denounced by conservatives, it sort of closed the door on whatever the FBI may have been considering doing with respect to combating infiltration of law enforcement by white supremacists. Because after the 2009 FBI report, we simply cannot find anything by local law enforcement or the federal government that addresses this issue”. In fact, it took an entire decade, until late last year, for the DHS to finally acknowledge the true level of threat from domestic terrorists on the far right and begin to refocus on it.
Admittedly, these armed protestors represent a tiny fraction of the their state and the country overall. Overwhelmingly, people still support measures to deal with the pandemic. But, as Mehdi Hasan worries, while the protestors may not have public support right now, “here’s the two things they do have, which worry me…They have guns — lots of them, big guns — and they have the support and encouragement of the President of the United States, lots of encouragement”.
The President has openly talked about fomenting economic and societal collapse in order to be able to literally rebuild our society and “make America great again”. In 2014, Trump declared, “You know what solves it? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to hell and everything is a disaster. Then…you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great”. Charles Murray, of all people, identified the symbiotic relationship between Trump and his extremist followers. As Francis Wilkinson summarizes, “For many supporters…Trump is a ‘murder weapon,’ a blunt object to be wielded against domestic enemies…Trump’s purest promise was always destruction. He would tear it down. Blow it up. Repeal it with no plan to replace it. And just as nostalgia for white male dominance is Trump’s theme — his most enthusiastic targets, like Whitmer, are women — destruction is his agenda.
Theme and agenda are intimately linked. Before the nation could be turned over to the clamoring blacks and the browns and the ‘nasty’ women, Trump would blow it to smithereens. The new America would inherit only debt and dust from the resentful old one”.
In Georgia, the Republicans just used some legal chicanery to cancel a judicial election, allowing them to maintain a seat the state’s Supreme Court for at least another two years, something critical for gerrymandering after the 2020 census and maintaining GOP political power in the state for much of the next decade. As many have noted, Trump can not cancel the November election, but he can make it as difficult and dangerous as possible to vote. Republicans have basically decided to hitch their wagons to Trump’s fate, with GOP Senate Whip John Thune admitting, “I just think that everybody realizes that our fortunes sort of rise or fall together. One thing we have to do is to…make sure that there’s not separation between the White House and Republicans in Congress”.
The re-open protests have shown that Trump can and will be able to call those paramilitary and vigilante groups out, and that the Republican establishment will provide them with monetary, legal, and organizational support. And Wilkinson notes, “Whether the U.S. can get through this election (or the years that follow) without political violence is a troubling question. Trump’s politics have always been a self-conscious vector for violence”. If that should happen, either before, during, or after the election, I think we will find there are far greater numbers willing to follow Trump down that violent path and more law enforcement unwilling to restrain them than we have seen in the last few weeks.