On Thursday, Michigan state officials announced that thirteen men had been charged with involvement in a conspiracy to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer and violently overthrow the state government. It was the latest in a series of alarming developments and questions related to the rise of far-right militias and the danger they pose to America. Perhaps the largest question of all?
Are America and its leaders prepared?
The news on Thursday was a clear signal that far-right militias are growing bolder, with potentially deadly consequences. As detailed in the Michigan state indictments, first reported by The Detroit News, the aims of the conspirators and their militia allies were startling in both their scope and their specificity. The plot, which was purportedly hatched following a rally at the Michigan state capital in June, involved individuals associated with a Michigan militia group that goes by the name Wolverine Watchmen.
In announcing the charges, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said the investigation across a range of law enforcement departments thwarted a “serious and credible threat” to public safety.
“Our efforts uncovered elaborate plans to endanger the lives of law enforcement officers, government officials and the broader public,” Nessel said during a news conference. But it was Michigan Police Col. Joe Gasper who had the most chilling words about the conspiracy.
“It does send a very vivid reminder that while we may be in a period of discourse, possibly even divisiveness and fighting across the nation, law enforcement stands united,” Gasper said.
So are the nation’s leaders prepared for the challenge that might be ahead of us?
Some are not so certain, particularly given the nation’s history.
Militias have been an active presence in most states since their modern inception in the early 1990s. According to Amy Cooter, a senior lecturer in sociology at Vanderbilt University who has studied US domestic militia groups for more than a decade “most people, including local law enforcement, tend to overlook these types of groups except in instances when a group does garner federal attention, usually for an alleged violent plot.”
Yet their numbers have been steadily growing.
The Anti-Defamation League has reported that the number of militias have doubled since 2008, with a surge in growth following the election of President Obama. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2018 figures list 612 anti-government groups nationally, including 216 active militias. The groups are also increasingly active, with the ADL recording with a a sharp increase of far-right violence in 2018.
As a result, right wing groups and militias are increasingly drawing the attention of state and federal law enforcement authorities. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently testified to Congress that white supremacy and “racially-motivated violent extremism” is a “persistent, pervasive threat” to the nation.
Some state authorities are beginning to take note as well. “There has been a disturbing increase in anti-government rhetoric and the re-emergence of groups that embrace extremist ideologies,” Nessel said in a statement regarding the Michigan indictments/ “These groups often seek to recruit new members by seizing on a moment of civil unrest and using it to advance their agenda of self-reliance and armed resistance. This is more than just political disagreement or passionate advocacy, some of these groups’ mission is simply to create chaos and inflict harm upon others.”
But with the nation still reeling from a summer of violent protests, and with President Trump refusing to commit to a peaceful transition of power in the event he loses the election, many are concerned about the rising risk of violent post-election violence. That concern was only further exacerbated when, during the first presidential debate, President Trump refused to condemn white supremacists and militia groups by name. Rather, the President notably said about the Proud Boys, a group that has been designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, they should “stand back and stand by.” Only days later, in news that was largely overlooked, Trump stated he condemned white supremacy.
While to many Trump’s comments during the debate might have seemed like breaking news, the reality is the President has not shied away from embracing right wing groups and militias throughout his presidency. In fact, the roots of Trump’s subtle embrace of right wing militias goes back to July, 2018 when the President pardoned two men who had been convicted of destroying federal property in Oregon. The convictions of Dwight and Steven Hammond, father and son cattle ranchers, was the sparked the armed takeover and standoff at the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by Ammon Bundy and his followers. The standoff ultimately ended after 41 days and the death of one of Bundy’s followers.
The Hammond convictions had been a rallying call for far right groups, and many followers saw Trump’s grants of executive clemency as a tacit approval of their actions. Trump’s comments during the first presidential debates have also be seen by many militia members as a similar “wink and nod” at their activities, with members of the Proud Boys rallying to the President’s cause—even more overtly.
According to Cooter, militias and groups like them are incredibly attentive to political leaders and their remarks. With the Hammond pardon, for example, members immediately took to social media to discuss how it was “nice to have a President who does the right thing, who upholds individual liberties.”
“More extreme groups, like overt neo-Nazis have also found resonance with many of Trump’s speeches since day one, discussing on message boards as early as summer 2016 how he was the closest representative of their interests they had ever seen in national office,” Cooter says.
That is why the plot that was uncovered in Michigan is so troubling. Americans have long prided themselves on domestic tranquility and peaceful transitions of power. As a result, America’s leaders have long operated on the assumption that violent militias were remnants of the past not threats for the future. This complacency on the root causes of militia membership, and the surging rise in militia activity, means today’s leaders are not prepared to address the widespread societal havoc they can cause.
Cooter notes that “while the vast majority of militia members are law abiding citizens, there are some that pose a real risk of violence in the current political climate. What’s more, many people still fail to recognize that what is typically described as “extreme” militia ideology in fact has many shared elements with what lower-middle class, white folks all over the country believe.”
“In many cases, they are really a barometer of political stances that are underrepresented in most national polls,” Cooter added.
With November 3rd less than a month away, all eyes have been on the nation’s time-honored tradition of peaceful elections. But the nation’s leaders would also be wise to pay attention to what else is bubbling under the surface of American politics – the risk of violence at the hands of well-armed, and increasingly well-organized militias.
Because if the news out of Michigan is a window into right wing militia activity, leaders can, and should, use that information to prepare for future threats.