An Expert on Right-Wing Extremist Groups Warns ‘The Threat Is Escalating’

Jack Holmes
·21 min read
Photo credit: Getty Images / Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Getty Images / Elaine Chung

From Esquire

It’s easy to lose your bearings in the time warp that now constitutes our unfortunate reality, but it was less than two weeks ago that 13 men were arrested for their alleged part in a plot to kidnap the sitting governor of Michigan. A 14th man has now joined them in custody. That same week, just two days before we learned this group considered holding a “trial” for Governor Gretchen Whitmer on charges of “treason,” the Department of Homeland Security issued a report detailing its findings that far-right groups, in particular white-supremacist outfits, are the single deadliest domestic terror threat in the United States.

In truth, this has been escalating for some time. The DHS report found 2019 was “the most lethal year for extremism in the United States since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.” (Another symptom of the time warp is that we seem to have memory-holed events like the mass shooting at an El Paso, Texas Walmart, an explicitly white supremacist act.) Oklahoma City was a landmark on the long road to ruin on which we are traveling at increasing pace, even if it was long misunderstood as a lone wolf act by Timothy McVeigh. Few have more effectively traced McVeigh’s place in what’s called the militia movement—a loose and overlapping network of white power groups, Klansmen, neo-Nazis, anti-government types, and paramilitary outfits—than Kathleen Belew, a professor at the University of Chicago and author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

Esquire spoke with Belew about the growing threat of far-right paramilitary violence as the election approaches and the President of the United States seems to do everything except try to bring down the temperature. Along the way, we traced the movement’s development in the 1990s, to the president’s message from the debate stage in September to the Proud Boys, one of the more prominent paramilitary groups of the moment. Belew suggested that the president may not have the power to “unring that bell” even if he wanted to, because these groups are defined, perhaps above all, by their opportunism.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Esquire: The way the news cycle goes these days, it seems like the plot to kidnap a sitting governor of a U.S. state has already gone out of our collective consciousness. But you’re still talking about it, I bet.

Kathleen Belew: I'm still talking about it. I think the conversation [lately] has been about the revelation that the governor of Virginia was also on their target list. And then of course there’s this big ongoing question in the counterterrorism community about where the line is between intelligence and entrapment. Which is to say, if an FBI agent is involved in helping the plot progress to the point that they can then make an arrest, whether that is a valid action or not. It’s interesting that the litmus is completely different, as in most things, when we’re talking about white-power movement terrorism versus radical Islamist terrorism.

Esquire: The entrapment issue has long been under the surface of, say, anti-ISIS work, but you think it’s getting a different airing now?

KB: Yeah, I’ll leave it to the legal people to tell you where the line is. But we're much more worried about entrapment when the people being arrested are homegrown white terrorists than we are when the people arrested are people of color in the US who are planning terrorist action, or people who have come from elsewhere with an intent.

Esquire: This conversation certainly does have a racial element. I saw you recently pushed back on this new round of criticism for the term “militia.” Could you unpack that?

KB: I'm glad you describe it as a new round of pushback. I've been writing and studying about these groups since 2005 and this is the first time I have heard any public concern about the use of the word “militia.” I think what's at stake there is that people see the word militia as referring to a moment in our nation's history that people think of as valid and patriotic, meaning the militias enumerated in the Constitution, and the militias that were instrumental in the victory of the American Revolution. And some people even go so far as to call militia movement activity rooted in the Constitution, or nostalgic, and that's just simply a total misrepresentation of history.

The well-regulated militia was incorporated into National Guard movements in the early 20th century. So there are legal militia in the United States, but they're in National Guard units. All private militia activity is extralegal or in some states, illegal, and does not enjoy that direct genealogy from those early militias forward the way the National Guard units do. Who's supposed to be doing the regulating in the well-regulated militia? The degree of regulation in private militia varies dramatically as you can see even from Kenosha to this case in Michigan. And the degree of organization varies dramatically. And in addition to all 50 states having law on the books prohibiting private involvement or private militias in policing, some of them even have more restrictions on things like parading in public with firearms, because people have found over the course of American history that the amassing of private armies have not been good for democracy.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

One of the comments around the Michigan case was from the local sheriff, who claimed that they were just trying to make a citizen's arrest. And I think reasonable people can agree that a citizen's arrest does not require the use of explosives. So we can see a real dissonance between the rhetoric of militiamen as neutral arbiters, militias claiming to enforce the Constitution, and the actual impact of these groups, which have been, first of all, connected to the largest mass casualty event on American soil between Pearl Harbor and 9/11, in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Esquire: Do some of these groups claim the name of “militia” in order to self-legitimize? Like the Three Percenters, aren’t they trying to draw a false line between themselves and heroic revolutionaries?

KB: Yeah, absolutely. But I think the point that I'm trying to make is all of this is broadly, we have a broad category that is white power and militia activism. And those are overlapping circles on a Venn diagram. All of that is anti-democratic. All of that is fundamentally opposed to the exercise of American democracy as an institution, right? Some of that is also domestic terrorism. But within that broad movement of people, militia is a word that experts need in order to describe distinctions between groups. And it's also important because first of all, there is no legitimate militia outside of the National Guard, right? ... What happened in Michigan was also domestic terrorism. They can be domestic terrorists and militiamen at the same time. And in fact, many, many, many activists are. A notable example is Timothy McVeigh.

Esquire: I just wonder whether it shapes news coverage and public perception—whether groups are viewed differently if in their local news coverage, even, they’re characterized as a “militia” rather than a “paramilitary,” which has a different connotation.

KB: Well, “paramilitary” is a very good descriptor for what this is. And I would stand behind the use of that word, too. I guess the corollary on the other side might be that we have the category called Jihadism and then we specify ISIS, right? So this is all within the category of white supremacist extremism, and we can specify within that category militia.

Esquire: On that point about the white-supremacist element, it seems like there are groups like the Proud Boys that like to trumpet their nonwhite membership, or the Boogaloos, who insist they're anti-government but not white supremacists. Are these legitimate distinctions? Do they matter with respect to how things play out on the ground?

KB: I think yes and no. In the long history of this movement, there are more people of color that joined white power groups than you would expect. And you might think of somebody like Tom Martinez, who rose in the white terrorist group called The Order, and he actually spent a lot of time telling everyone he was white, and they didn't really turn on him as a person of color until after he left the group to become an FBI informant. But there are these examples throughout the long record. And you know all of that is just a historical note that America has long been a nation of racial passing. We have all of these racial categories in general that are more fluid than I think a lot of people realize.

But the Proud Boys is a little bit different. I would characterize it more as a far-right strikeforce than a white power group proper, and it does include activists of color, and its platform is self-described “Western chauvinism,” meaning it's anti-immigrant, it's anti-Islam. It's what they would call pro-Western civilization—that white Western Europe and its civilization and its exports have been the contributors of an outside share of the good things in the world. So that does have white supremacy mixed in. But on the ground, it varies a lot, group by group and activist by activist, and the Proud Boys are also interested in some other things, like misogyny.

Photo credit: David Ryder - Getty Images
Photo credit: David Ryder - Getty Images

Boogaloo is a little bit trickier, because although watchdogs have found it originated from white power content and online activity, and certainly Boogaloo serves the interests of white power activism, I think it's a bigger and more diverse movement than just white power activists. And I think part of that just owes to the historical moment that we now find ourselves in, right?

To white power activists, it doesn't really matter why people are wanting to start the second civil war. They believe that if people start the second civil war, it will awaken enough white people that they will come around and join the side of the white power movement. This is a very opportunistic movement, and has been since the days of the Klan, at least in the 1920s, if not earlier. This is a movement that's interested in exploiting whatever the context of the moment is. This is a movement that has for more than a century made it its strategy to get in there, figure out what people are upset about, and use it for its own purposes, which are to radicalize people, to recruit people, and to mount violent attacks on the federal government and other targets.

Esquire: Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s would-be kidnappers talked about their intention to hold a “trial” for her. From your research, what might that have looked like? I was fascinated by their co-opting the language of the law for what they were going to do.

KB: Without knowing the particulars of this case, in many situations where these activists have talked about kidnapping, particularly kidnapping of a public official, and talked about bringing them to trial, what they have meant by that is a hanging from a tree, a lynching. I don't know for certain if that's what they meant in this case, but that was one question that I had reading through the FBI charging documents, because it is so contiguous with movement strategy.

People in the militia movement have done this before with kidnapping opponents. There was a militia in Montana that [targeted] a judge in the early 1990s that comes to mind. And white power activists have also done things like this. The White Patriot Party leader, Glenn Miller—who re-emerged in the early 2000s in a shooting in Overland Park, Kansas—he wrote about kidnapping and assassination of officials by hanging from a tree limb. The Order wrote about assassination of opponents and carried out some of those actions, like the assassination of Alan Berg in Denver in 1984. The Order also at one point or another talked about a list very much like the list that the Wolverine Watchmen were looking at. The Order’s targets were quite diverse and included people like Norman Lear, because they didn't like his multicultural television show. People like the Rothschilds, because they thought they controlled the banks and they believed in Jewish conspiracies. And then also a bunch of more recognizable targets, like local politicians like federal judges, state troopers, FBI agents, etc. So this is an old strategy that dates back to the '80s within this kind of activism.

Esquire: When I hear them use that language of the law, I think, “Do they want to overthrow the current state and establish some state of their own?” But from what you describe, as that hanging by a tree, that sounds almost like a Wild West, frontier ethos. Or is it some combination?

KB: I think a combination might actually be a good way to think about it. The other big piece of ideology at work here is this old movement called Posse Comitatus, which got incorporated into the white power movement in the ’80s, and a lot of the ideology carried into the militia in the ’90s. Posse comitatus is an interpretation of law that claims to be lawful, but the platform is that the group members only recognize one portion of the original Constitution. They say they'll follow the law, but only to the level of the local sheriff.

So this brings us again to the comments of the sheriff in the Michigan case. And the idea that a local sheriff has some control over these groups, or might even be elected by them, right? We know that in some cases white power movement activists have run for sheriff exactly for this reason. Again, I don't know the particulars of that case because I'm not on the ground, but one question I would have for the FBI agents, and a question I would have if I were in the jury of this case, is to what extent local law enforcement might be turning a blind eye, or even involved.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

ESQ: There was [an FBI report in 2006] documenting the infiltration of some local law enforcement by these kinds of groups. Has that remained a problem?

KB: I’m not sure I could add to that report, though it's deeply concerning for a number of reasons. I think about infiltration of our police by these groups. I will say that they have been interested in recruiting active-duty military since at least the late 1970s, and have done so not in great numbers, but with outside impact from those people when they can get them. Because when they get specialized memberships like this, I think this is also true of policing, those members come to these groups with skills and training that dramatically escalate the impact of the violent acts that they can carry out. Timothy McVeigh being a Gulf War veteran dramatically impacted the kind of violence he was able to carry out in the Oklahoma City bombing. And that's true of other military and ex-military, who are, again, a tiny percentage of veterans or active duty troops, but have a huge impact on these white power groups when they do join.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

ESQ: The DHS report this month found that 2019 was the most lethal year for extremism in the United States since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.” Does it feel like the threat is escalating, and where does the election fit within that?

KB: Yes, I feel that the threat is escalating, and I'm just a person that knows the history and is reading the newspaper. The people who work more closely with these problems today are all sounding the alarm. We're hearing this from whistleblowers leaving DHS and the FBI, we're hearing this from people who work in deradicalizing projects trying to help people who want to leave the movement. We hear this from the watchdog agencies and also people who monitor hate content online for the social media companies. Journalists on the beat are even saying that they're worried. I’ve never heard anything like this before.

I think the election is going to be important because even if we take the most generous possible interpretation of Trump's remarks in the debate—even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he was fed the line about the Proud Boys, and that he misspoke and meant to say stand down—even if we do all of that, I am not at all sure that he can unring that bell. Because I think many people in white power and militia groups heard that as a call to preparedness for battle. And I'm not at all sure that the president has the power with these groups to actually stand them down at this point, even if he wants to, which he does not seem to do.

So my concern is that in a Biden victory, these groups will not believe the results of the fair election and will take the streets, possibly violently, or will mount mass casualty attacks, which they've done for many decades now. And in a Trump victory, I'm concerned that they've now been given this feeling of legitimacy. Whether or not they continue to receive that from his administration is another question, but it could get dramatically worse if he were to recognize them as de facto paramilitary shock troops. And then the next set of historical comparative examples takes us to death squads in Latin America and the Pinochet era. Which, by the way, is a model for a lot of these groups, including the Proud Boys, of what they'd like to do.

So this is very concerning in any outcome, and I don't see any way that these people just peacefully set down their guns and go back to their lives. I think that we as a society are going to need a set of strategies to get through this moment with our democracy intact.

Esquire: You mention Pinochet, and lately I’ve seen a lot of rhetoric online that’s like, “Pinochet did nothing wrong,” or whatever. But I’ve also for years seen people out at Trump rallies wearing shirts that read, “Rope. Tree. Journalist.” Has the appeal of this rhetoric widened to a broader audience?

KB: People use the word “divisive” for this a lot. It really is like a culture war, except that I think it's also taking shape to be a culture war that has an actual body count.

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency - Getty Images
Photo credit: Anadolu Agency - Getty Images

Another factor is the actual war that we're still in. It turns out that all of this activity, the membership surges align more coherently with the aftermath of combat than they do with any other social factor. More than poverty, more than anti-immigration moments, more than big civil-rights gains, the big predictor for this activity is the aftermath of warfare. And even though we don't talk about it much, we don't even rate it probably on the top 20 list of crises in our given moment, we've been at war now—my undergraduates don't remember a time that we haven't been at war. And this long protracted aftermath of warfare will have real ramifications on this kind of activity in our society, and I think that's part of what we're starting to see.

Esquire: How many people are we talking about, really—who are active in these groups?

KB: I can't really help you with a reliable membership estimate. As a historian, my archive really ends in 1996 and I can give you some good estimates for what was happening then. But the other thing here is that these groups are interested in doing violence in the mode of leaderless resistance, which is to say cell-style terrorism, and that's been the prevalent mode of action in these groups since 1983. One of the things that often happens is that group size diminishes because they're adopting that strategy. So sometimes cresting membership does not correspond with violent outcome, if that makes sense. If you're trying to march 2,000 people down the street, that's a different kind of recruitment than if you're trying to get six people to detonate a bomb. So just sometimes decline in total membership among these groups doesn't mean declining violence.

Esquire: So is there evidence that some people go up to a certain line and then turn back because they don’t like where it’s going?

KB: Oh, definitely. So if you look at the white power movement in the '80s, which is where I feel like I have the clearest numbers, we're only talking about like 10,000 to 25,000 people in the hardcore center circle of the movement. And we can think of it as like concentric circles. So in that center, middle arena, we're talking about people who really have their whole life located in the movement, and I think that's where the radical actors usually are, the people who might do violence. But it also includes the women who go to church in the movement and get their childcare through the movement, get their marital counseling through the movement, like these people give each other rides to the airport, they share homeschooling and recipes, like their whole life is inside of the movement.

Then outside of that, there's a circle of like 150,000 more people and those are the people who like attend every rally and buy all the newspapers and read them all the time and they're dedicated members. And then there's a circle of like 450,000 more people who are much more casual kind of interfacers of the movement. And they like, they don't read every newspaper but they read, or maybe they read them but they don't subscribe, right? Then outside of that is what we don't really know which is a bigger number of people who are less involved, right? So those are the people who I think you're getting at, probably the people who might wear a shirt like the one you've just described if they're not in the movement. Those are people who would never maybe read something that says official newspaper of the Knights of the KKK, but they might agree with a lot of what's printed in it, especially if it's delivered to them through a social connection or over the dinner table.

The mechanics of who can and can't be radicalized is a specialty of scholarship, it's very complex. I tend to think that there are as many roots into the movement as there are people in the movement. Like you see people who for their whole life seemed to have been on the road to doing something, but you also see people who are really transformed by one experience and then pulled in at an opportune moment.

Esquire: You mentioned church. What is the role of Christianity in the movement?

KB: In every way but race, this is an incredibly diverse movement. It encompasses a lot of different kinds of white power ideologies, different kinds of people ranging across all regions of the country. This is rural, urban, and suburban, this is all kinds of educational backgrounds. We're talking about people ranging from felons to religious leaders, right?

Within the religious belief in this movement, there's a very clear strand of people who believe in Christian Identity or British Israelism, which is a political theology that says that white people are really the lost tribe of Israel, God's chosen people, and everybody else in the world is descended from animals or from Satan. And Christian Identity also is a very apocalyptic face that doesn't believe in the Rapture, so there's no peaceful transport to heaven in Christian Identity. The faithful are supposed to pick up weapons and clear the world of non-white people before Christ can return. So that transfigures this whole thing into a holy war, right?

And then the other big one is around Norse Paganism and other Pagan belief systems that’s trying to posit that there's something special about whiteness and white history and white folk religion that can be translated into a white supremacist theology today. So Odinism is a big one, Wotansvolk. Some people have belonged very openly to both Christian Identity churches and more mainstream congregations. So like Louis Beam, who was a main leader of the movement in the 80s, described himself as Identity/Baptist. So these are kind of, they are somewhat flexible belief systems.

Esquire: In the way that people sort of move between groups as well. It seems like opportunism is the overwhelming force.

KB: Exactly. It's opportunism, whiteness, and then that apocalyptic state of emergency that they feel under attack.

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