Myth No. 1
Militia members are
especially prone to violence.
The appearance of heavily armed groups at Black Lives Matter protests suggests a strong and direct link between militia membership and violence. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) warns, “The threat of violence is implicit every time armed paramilitary groups confront the government.” After Kyle Rittenhouse was charged with fatally shooting two people in Kenosha, Wis., coverage stressed his self-identification as a member of a local “militia,” suggesting that it helped explain his violent actions.
In truth, however, solo extremists are more dangerous than organized “patriot” groups. A 2015 Southern Poverty Law Center study of domestic terrorism concluded that “lone wolves” or “leaderless resistance” groups were responsible for most of the violence; the vast majority of attacks were the work of one or two people, such as the lone gunman who killed 23 people in El Paso last year. Analysts traditionally define a lone wolf as a terrorist who is not part of a group or directed by an outside organization.
In my reporting and research, I have seen that militias often shun newcomers who seem too antisocial or violent, partially because the members fear (with good reason) that the wannabe might be an FBI plant. If anything, these organizations provide a social outlet for members, which might subdue violent tendencies.
Myth No. 2
Right-wing militants love President Trump.
The ADL’s Mark Pitcavage said that in the 2016 election, “for the first time in its 25-year history, the militia movement had a presidential candidate that they love.” Addressing more recent developments, the left-leaning website OrgUp claims that “Trump and the militias consummate[d] their marriage” during the coronavirus pandemic and warns that the GOP and its backers may deploy “fascist militias as the shock troops of their campaign.”
No doubt, Trump’s rise has delighted and emboldened many armed militants who love having a president who shares their disdain for the federal government. But they’re not all Trump supporters. “Patriot” purists find it hard to reconcile decades of anti-government ideology with their new reality. Some believe that anyone in charge of the federal government is, by definition, the enemy, and that includes Trump. In 2018, for instance, I watched as a man at a “patriot” camp in rural Nevada unfurled a Trump flag and sparked a heated argument with his fellows.
Ammon Bundy, who became a movement big shot when he led the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, has spoken out against Trump, criticizing the administration’s immigration policy in 2018. The dissonance was especially acute this summer when Trump said he might use military forces against civilians in the United States. One militia expert said her sources in the movement were divided over Trump’s threat. Some thought it looked like a classic example of government tyranny, but they were worried that criticizing the president would amount to supporting antifa.
Myth No. 3
Militias' anti-government views are wildly extreme.
The Southern Poverty Law Center labels members of the anti-government movement as “extremists.” Similarly, a 2017 High Country News article included “self-styled militias that espouse anti-government ideologies” with other “extremist groups.” The effect is to suggest that such groups are outliers on the ideological spectrum.
Militia and “patriot” organizations are united by their distrust of the federal government, but that view is far from radical these days. In 1964, 77 percent of Americans said they could trust the government in Washington to do what is right most of the time. Today, only 17 percent of citizens say the same. These days, anti-Washington sentiment is nothing if not mainstream, far more popular than its opposite.
I have listened to many hours of “patriot” conversations that didn’t sound all that different from what you would hear during a typical evening on Fox News. Many seemed to have joined the cause for social reasons, or because they liked guns, or because they wanted to be part of something they saw as historic and grandiose — not because their views were far more radical than those of typical right-leaning Americans.
Myth No. 4
The 'patriot' movement has a consistent ideology.
The trouble may start with the word “movement,” a useful shorthand term but not an accurate way to describe the loose association of groups. They are not bonded together to advance a shared political or social idea in an organized fashion. “Patriots” are motivated by a varied and sometimes conflicting array of issues. Some focus on gun rights or immigration; others get riled up about privacy, taxes or government overreach. They disagree often and are united only by their vow to protect the citizenry against a tyrannical federal government.
Myth No. 5
Racism drives the 'patriot movement.'
Members of right-wing militant groups are predominantly male and White, and they often end up at events also attended by racist groups, leading many to believe that all militia organizations are motivated primarily by racial concerns. After the 2017 confrontations in Charlottesville, Politico Magazine declared that “armed antigovernment groups have found common cause with Nazis, KKK and other white nationalists.” In a Reveal News article that frames “the American militia movement” as a “breeding ground for hate,” one commentator declared, “They pretend they’re not, and they’ve learned to portray themselves as innocent neighborhood watch-type groups, but they’re hate groups.” And it’s true that, after Trump’s election, I noticed an uptick in anti-Muslim and anti-Latino online activity among individual “patriots.” The decision by several militias to target Black Lives Matter protests hasn’t helped their image here.
But while there are plenty of virulent racists among the “patriots,” racism is not usually part of their publicly stated ideology. The Bundys, in particular, became associated with racist dogma when Cliven, Ammon’s father, gave an infamous speech in 2014 to his supporters about “the Negro,” suggesting that African Americans might have been better off under slavery. But the speech was an aging man’s awkward, offensively anachronistic attempt to embrace minority communities and bring them into the anti-federal-government fold. Ammon Bundy supports Black Lives Matter and efforts to defund the police. Some “patriots” told me they wished their organizations were more diverse, if only to better counter the perception of widespread racism in their ranks.