A "particular strain of Vanilla ISIS" — that's how terrorism expert Malcolm Nance described groups like the self-proclaimed "militia" that authorities say took part in what they said was a plot to abduct Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. "They exist in a fantasy world," Nance said. According to the 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment published early this month by the Department of Homeland Security, "ideologically motivated lone offenders and small groups will pose the greatest terrorist threat to the homeland, with domestic violent extremists presenting the most persistent and lethal threat."
But with President Donald Trump failing to separate himself from racists, white nationalists and conspiracy theorists, the lines between a militant fantasy and reality are getting awful blurry. Trump is courting danger by playing footsie with armed paramilitary groups, potentially encouraging violence and, by doing so, openly encouraging potential illegal activity, since it is illegal for armed private citizens to try to enforce laws or enact new ones.
Trump's lack of full-throated, robust responses to alleged members of a Michigan militia who, allegedly, were plotting the abduction, unlawful extradition and "trial" of Whitmer, as well as to attacks on the Michigan State Capitol and a police station, has many wondering what he is signaling by avoiding criticizing those groups. And what Trump doesn't say can be equally as dangerous; in any other era, the response of a president to news of the arrests would have been to condemn the plot and express solidarity with and support for the governor or whomever the target was. But Trump tweeted criticism of Whitmer for the same reasons the conspirators wanted to harm her: the Covid-19-related restrictions that she, like several other governors, had enacted. He sided with the literal enemy of the state and blamed its victim.
Of course, it should be noted that most Americans who own firearms are not members of a militia. But Trump's references to "liberating" states with strict Covid-19 restrictions and encouraging supporters to protect private property, watch polls and "stand back and stand by" are certainly creating a comfortable space for militia groups in society. This rhetoric emboldens and empowers those who believe — or are willing to be convinced — that immigrants are rapists, that Muslims are fanatics and that Joe Biden is going to put Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey in charge of the wholesale relocation of poor people of color into mostly white American suburbs.
During the protests that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 23, Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, traveled to Kenosha from his home in the nearby Chicago suburb of Antioch, Illinois. There, he is alleged to have shot three people, killing two and wounding one. In an interview with the conservative media outlet The Daily Caller before the shootings, Rittenhouse explained why he was there: "People are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business ... and part of my job is to also help people. If there is somebody hurt, I'm running into harm's way. That's why I have my rifle — because I can protect myself, obviously."
It's unclear who the "our" is to whom Rittenhouse referred, but the implication is that he identified with others who had also assumed responsibility for the protection of public property during the protests, some of which turned violent. With Rittenhouse facing homicide charges, his attorney has described him as "a Minuteman protecting his community when the government would not."
Except that's not a thing. The Minutemen were a civilian militia that took part in the Revolutionary War and were made obsolete by the creation of the National Guard in the early 20th century. Since then, not only has there been no formalized role for armed civilians in American law enforcement, but it is also expressly illegal in every state, either by state constitution or statute, for civilians to arm and organize outside of a government body without express authority. In certain circumstances, the president can engage the National Guard or the military in civilian law enforcement duties, but never civilians.
The Minutemen may have been a reliable force back then, but today's militias tend to be far-right nationalist groups made up of people who distrust the federal government.
The Minutemen may have been a reliable force back then, but today's militias tend to be far-right nationalist groups made up of people who distrust the federal government. The number of militias in the country multiplied during Barack Obama's presidency, and they seem to have found more footing under Trump, for whom many militia members have developed an affinity. The federal government, which Trump trusts only insofar, it seems, as it helps him, agrees that armed gangs pose a major threat. Trump's own mantra of distrust of the federal government — particularly the so-called deep state — has the potential to dangerously embolden these groups.
In fairness, distrust of the government is something of a feature in America, and lots of Americans are armed. But these so-called militias blend these two features into a grievance with a potential solution, even if, as in the case of the alleged Michigan plot, the solution is entirely illegal. While they're not often violent, militias are, by definition, heavily armed, and while they exist in every state, they tend to proliferate in states with looser gun laws. According to experts who study these paramilitary groups, they are made up almost exclusively of white males, who hold exaggerated, almost cartoonish views of patriotism and liberty. Except that they're heavily armed, which makes the whole thing a lot less cartoonish.
And regardless of whether the self-appointed vigilantes in Michigan felt that their beef with Gov. Whitmer was valid (ostensibly that her orders were trampling on their civil liberties), there is no role whatsoever for civilians, armed or not, to assume law enforcement duties.
What is legal when it comes to defending oneself and bearing arms? In many states, civilians can engage in their own protection or the protection of others, but they can't band together to do so in an organized fashion. Private security firms can engage in the protection of people or property, but generally only under strict regulation by the state. So if you aren't a member of the National Guard or an employee of a security firm or you aren't protecting your own property or family, you have no business in America attempting to enforce laws.
In not taking a strong position against these paramilitary groups, Trump risks tacitly encouraging them. Trump has done little to create space between himself and the worst of these groups, starting with his now-infamous response to neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017: "You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides."
Changing course at this point in his presidency isn't likely for Trump, but the effect and impact of his approval of militias and their ideals will outlast this election, no matter who ends up winning. So we had better start getting our facts right.