Citizen Militias in the U.S. Are Moving toward More Violent Extremism

Citizen Militias in the U.S. Are Moving toward More Violent Extremism thumbnail

Editor’s Note (6/14/22): The current hearings on the January 6, 2021, insurrection, held by a U.S. House of Representatives committee, have highlighted ties between mainstream supporters of former president Donald Trump and extremist groups in the mob that invaded the Capitol. Sociologist and militia expert Amy Cooter analyzed these connections in this recent Scientific American article.

Is this Field Day?” I asked through my car window on a chilly, rainy April morning in central Michigan in 2008. A lone man dressed in head-to-toe camouflage, whose hand was casually resting on an AK-47 rifle strapped across his chest, nodded and stepped aside on the narrow road. I drove ahead to a parking lot next to an old, red brick farmhouse with several acres of soybeans. About 50 people were gathering at a spot where the fields met a wooded bog. I was at the annual Field Day event of the Michigan Militia outside Bancroft. It was a family and public outreach opportunity that was held on private land owned by a World War II veteran.

Wood smoke escaped from a campfire. Some members were already laughing about the unattractive weathered, tarp covered outhouse at the site and bemoaning their decision not to rent portable toilets like they did the previous year. A few men were already opening MREs, which are high-calorie, packaged meals that can be purchased at military surplus stores or on eBay.

Most of the men were wearing some camouflage. They laughed as they showed off their new tactical vests and other equipment, and shared stories about past training events. The few children and women who were present were more reserved and wore casual clothes, rather than camo. Nevertheless, they participated in various activities such as target shooting.

This was the third time I attended a militia event. I am a sociologist and was just starting my in-depth fieldwork on the U.S. militia movement. I had met this group at a public meeting in a strip mall diner a month before. I wanted to know why people join civil groups that prepare for armed conflict. I also wanted to see if militias promote racism and violence. My fieldwork in Michigan, as well as in-depth interviews that included groups in other states, continued through 2013. Since then, I have kept in touch with militia members, especially in Michigan. They keep me informed about their activities and reactions to social and political events. We often talk about their values, and their motivations. I follow their posts online. Last summer, I conducted a survey asking members their opinions about protests related COVID social restrictions as well as George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota.

I have learned that there are important differences among militia groups. They are spread across a spectrum. One end is a unit whose activities are limited to outings for “grown up Boy Scouts,” as many members described themselves at the Field Day event they attended years ago. On the other side are units that are openly mad and plot violence against government officials. They also advocate white supremacy. Some of the latter stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Extremist militia groups carry guns, wear military garb, and endorse conspiracy fantasies. They have been confronted by racial justice activists, and protested the implementation of pandemic public healthcare measures in many states. In Michigan, people in one militia splinter group were arrested in 2020 and charged with plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer in retaliation for a perceived failure to uphold individual liberties.

While there are many similarities between militia groups across the spectrum, they share some commonalities. Their members are almost entirely white men and they believe in nationalism and yearn for better times. They are often referred to as nostalgic groups by me and other sociologists. Because they ignore or deny the hostility directed against minority groups and women during this idealized history, their values are often intertwined with racists and sexist attitudes. To explain the relationship between these groups, I like to use the analogy of multiple trees growing on a small piece of land. Although they are distinct entities, their roots grow in the same soil. When the wind blows just right their branches will intertwine, sometimes getting close enough to make it difficult to tell where one tree ends and another starts.

Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021.
Militia members were among those drawn to the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021. Credit: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

This shared soil, which is an idealization of a past with greater freedom, allows members and units to move across the spectrum. They may start out telling stories around the campfire, but they can quickly turn to conspiratorial thinking and open hostilities or even violent action. In recent years, I have noticed an increase in extremism. People who used to be focused on camaraderie and preparedness for militia events are now claiming that the insurrection at Capitol was nothing but a protest. Others posted repeatedly on social media about the need for them to “do something” regarding the allegedly stolen presidential election. Members making this shift were on edge in 2020, believing their core values of individualism and self-determination have been threatened by racial justice movements, the pandemic and efforts to control it and by what they claimed–falsely–was fraudulent voting.

Many of these people heard their worries reinforced by right-wing media and Donald Trump’s rhetoric about threats from corrupt Democrats and immigrants. The most anxious members tend to have more racist or xenophobic views and are more inclined to go toward the extreme end. They are more susceptible to the appeals of hate groups like the Proud Boys and overt neo Nazis. They believe that despite their differences, they all share the common goal of protecting America’s foundation.

I grew up in a rural East Tennessee community that values firearms for personal protection, hunting, and target practice. I learned gun safety and basic marksmanship as a child. I also saw my father shoot and kill an escaped coyote trying to eat my rabbit. I obtained my concealed carry permit when I was old enough. My background has given me a better understanding of firearms and their use than social scientists who only study militia groups via online message boards or media reports. Militia members invited my to private trainings and other events early in my fieldwork. They openly spoke to me about their beliefs and motivations.

It is impossible to know how many civilian militia groups there are. They form and break up into new units as their members’ interests change. Typical units have no more than 20 or so members who consistently attend events, but some have only two people, and others have more than 200. In addition to the heavy skew toward white males–at least 90 percent in most groups–most participants are in their late 20s or early 30s, although I have known of members as young as 18 and as old as 70. A few women participate fully in militias. They are often well respected and rise to leadership positions because of their activity. One example is Jessica Watkins, a leader in an Ohio militia, who was arrested for participating in the Capitol riot. However, most militia units are infused with casual misogyny.

Military members believe it is their constitutional responsibility as good Americans to be well-armed and prepared to defend their country from threats, including natural disasters and foreign invasion. They come together to share their skills in target shooting, land navigation, and emergency preparedness. Many of these skills were first learned in the military. One 27-year-old man, who had a regular job as a customer service representative, told me that his militia participation was about “serving the public, wanting to do [his] part for the community.” He proposed ideas for his group such as organizing fundraisers to help people who had lost their jobs. He saw his militia participation as a form of neighborly support and a way to connect with others who share similar values.

These people see the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers in a perfect historical moment. They view them as almost impeccable paragons who exemplify individualism and fearlessness, and should be emulated today. In many conversations, a long-serving leader of the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia explained to me that modern militia membership is all about following the Founding Fathers’ standard for upholding the Constitution. This was a refrain repeated often by other members at public militia gatherings that I attended. He said, “Look, as people, we really have to get back to the roots, and need to be a bit better armed. And we need to understand that that’s how secure your society is and that’s why you keep it free. He also stated that he was “really inspired by the courage of militia founders [when] all they were doing was quoting the Constitution.” He said those people were “labeled as radicals and extremists [when] all they were doing is quoting the Constitution.”

Militia members often told me they long for a “simpler time,” when they insist that individuals–especially men–took more responsibility for working and providing for their families, where the federal government was smaller and not a substitute for self-sufficiency the way they perceive it to be today.

Members tend to ignore the oppression of non-white people in American history. Few militia members I met were openly racist. Some units even tried unsuccessfully to recruit non-white members, and posted messages on their Web sites to promote inclusivity. This was the most prominent statement on the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia site, until it was taken down about five or six decades ago. It stated that “Everyone is Welcome, regardless of race or creed, color or religion, as long as you don’t bring harm to our country, or people.” If you are a United States citizen (or have declared your intent to become such), who is capable of bearing arms, or supports the right to do so, then YOU ARE the MILITIA!”

Military participants don’t seem to realize that racism goes beyond the unresolved, legalized segregation in the past or the hatred from openly white supremacists. Many people don’t understand how systematic racism can prevent equal economic attainment, equal access to quality healthcare, or educational opportunities.

For example, one member, a 56-year-old white man, a lifelong Detroit resident who worked in IT, blamed what he described as the “downfall” of his city on “forced busing” that happened in the wake of the civil rights movement and was intended to help equalize school opportunity. This man tried to make a different argument. Although there is a history of open racism in opposition to busing, he was not trying to be racist. He stated that he believed both Black families and white families were opposed to the busing policy which required children to travel long distances to school and spend time in transit. He claimed that the policy caused Black and white “good workers” to leave the city, leaving behind comparatively lazy workers of both races and disengaged citizens.

He had little understanding of why his argument didn’t apply to Black families who are unable to move elsewhere due to financial barriers, such as lower home values caused by long-standing discrimination on lending and real estate market. They cannot sell their house and buy one in a better school area because of the low prices. This militia member did not understand that Black families might embrace busing rather than resent it: it was an opportunity for their children to attend superior schools in a city that had previously neglected them.

Members in militias, according to my analysis, exhibit what sociologists refer to as “modern racism.” They endorse ideas of cultural inferiority over biological deficiency. One of the most striking examples I encountered was a man who told me that he wasn’t “outright” racist, that he had good Black friends, and then went on to say that some Black people made it uncomfortable. “I guess when you look at a group [young Black men] dressed in somethin’ and they are hippin’ and jumping at a corner …. it’s just that…

Whiteness, masculinity are key features in the rearview nationalism values of militia members. Their stories are based on archetypes that depict brave, independent men who helped to establish a nation. These men are always white. The extent to which groups understand and embrace the racial and gender-biased elements in this narrative varies. Sociologist Ruth Braunstein of the University of Connecticut noted in a recent article examining the intersections of religion, race, and nationalism that nostalgic groups take advantage of a “cultural power of whiteness” and “thus write themselves into their American story as the patriotic heroes who will alter the course of the country’s decline by urging a return to the conditions of the past.”

Historian Robert Churchill of University of Hartford developed a two-part typology which distinguishes between “constitutionalist”, and “millenarian,” militias. This has been invaluable in understanding how this type of aggressive and selective nostalgia allows people to move to more violent and extreme groups. Churchill states that Constitutionalist groups believe it is their responsibility to maintain an originalist interpretation on the Constitution, which is centered on a limited government. They view themselves as law-abiding patriots who limit the power of central authorities.

Drawing of a human body overlapping an image of an American militia group.
Credit: Mark Smith

I also found this information in my research.

I also found this information in my research.

Millenarian militias take a more aggressive stance against governments, and are generally more open for violence. They are more focused on bonding and self-sufficiency during meetings than they are on target shooting. They are more interested in conspiratorial speculations about how the government might interfere with their lives and they fantasize about retribution.

One millenarian member said that he joined the militia to “revenge” a Desert Storm veteran. He believed that the war in Iraq was being conducted under false pretenses, and that the U.S. government had performed experiments on him and his fellow soldiers. He claimed that this experimentation resulted in others in his unit being diagnosed with cancer early and having high rates for children with birth defects. He stated that he was afraid of having children and had decided not to have them. He expressed his fear and bitterness that the government might persecute and that he was open to the fight. While the exact motivations for hatred of the government were different, a general attitude of anticipating and even yearning to face a violent confrontation was common among millenarians I met. A year and a quarter after I interviewed him, several members of his militia, called the Hutaree by me, were arrested and charged for plotting to kill Michigan police officers.

In both my and Churchill’s estimations, for most of the early 2000s militias in the U.S. were about 90 percent constitutionalist groups and 10 percent millenarian groups, and most posed little threat of violence. We believe that this proportion has shifted towards extremism over the past decade as members fear changing social conditions in a variety areas (immigration, pandemic, protests against police shootings, Black people, and the presidential election). Fears that Trump directly stoked are what we both believe have led to an increase in extremism.

Churchill said it “seems that the millenarian-wing has come to the forefront.” Although the exact percentage of the movement’s millenarians is hard to determine, his observation is consistent with what I have observed. Previously ridiculed for their conspiracy fantasies, Constitutionalist groups have shifted to saying they were “monitoring” and “researching” claims from the far-right conspiracy group QAnon. Even though they deny fully embracing them. They share posts that predicted terrorist attacks that never happened. They circulate fake news stories about antifa (antifascist) members traveling by buses to various locations in the country and setting fires to create chaos. One of the most common forays into conspiracy fantasies that I saw militias across the country post to social media pages leading up to the 2020 election were images of Joe Biden being affectionate with his granddaughter or other children. These images were used to “prove” the existence of QAnon theories regarding Democratic leadership pedophilia.

During racial justice protests and the stress of the pandemic in 2020, some militias became more willing to figuratively and literally bump shoulders with fundamentally racist nostalgic groups in an effort to maintain their vision of America. They stood together in public. I was able to see militia members discussing online shared interests with previously antagonistic groups. One Indiana unit member advocated for “loyal Americans,” on social media, to “take back” the civil rights protest zone in Seattle. The area had been declared autonomous from the city. He believed that anarchists planned to take over American cities if these zones were not challenged. Some members who responded to my 2020 survey felt COVID-related restrictions were unacceptable state control. While some had similar objections to the state’s power in breaking up social justice protests, many believed that such protests were orchestrated by antifa.

Recently, I observed some constitutionalist members adopting such fear-driven views and quickly drifting into the millenarian framework. This dangerous transition was illustrated by the disconcerting example of some members of the large, publicly funded Michigan Liberty Militia splitting off to form the Wolverine Watchmen. They recruited others who were not affiliated with the Liberty group. In spring 2020, according to court documents, the Watchmen plotted a coup of the Michigan governorship, angered by state restrictions on activities enacted to reduce the spread of COVID. Militia members claimed that such orders were a violation of civil liberties. Details of the case are still being uncovered, but it seems that Watchmen were formed and radicalized after realizing that the Liberty Militia wasn’t violent enough to achieve its goals.

This case is similar to one that received less national attention. Shortly before the 2016 election, three militia members were accused (and ultimately convicted) of plotting to bomb a Somali refugee community. The lawyers for the accused men suggested they were more than just complaining about immigrants and had begun to plan actions to harm them as a result of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. They also fear that Muslims outsiders could threaten America.

The January 6 insurrectionists seem to be a movement towards extremism. Participants believed they had to “Stop the Steal” to stop their preferred candidate and their vision for the nation from disappearing. The invasion was a massive act of violence that echoed the disgruntled chatter about election fraud that many had witnessed over the past few months. This radicalization went beyond the borders of nostalgia groups or militias. Many of the insurrectionists at Capitol were not affiliated before.

Although federal law enforcement attention has had a cooling impact, others inspired by events at Capitol may now seek to find more violent nostalgia groups for future action. Churchill said that there was convergence of apocalypticism coming from the [militia], QAnon and Evangelical Christianity movements. What we really saw on January 6 was not just the [militia] movement but a whole broader phenomenon.”

To those of us who have studied militias for a long time, that phenomenon unfortunately has the feel of the 1990s, where nostalgic groups were more on edge, “less rational, a lot more emotional,” as a long-term militia leader–a government employee–told me. After the law-enforcement sieges of Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge in Idaho, the state had been surrounded by law-enforcement forces, groups were ready to fight the state. The charged environment fostered men like Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in a devastating act of domestic terrorism in Oklahoma City in 1995.

There are few positive ways to view the most recent developments. One is that the country seems to be more aware of the importance of taking militias and other nostalgic groups seriously. The House Committee on Veterans Affairs asked me and other experts to testify in October 2021 about extremist groups recruiting military veterans to their ranks. Many nostalgic bands have been openly recruiting veterans for decades, in part because they are a commitment to the country that can attract new recruits. Extremist groups may also want to use the military skills of veterans for violent activities. These scenarios warrant congressional investigation. Serious research is needed to determine how veterans, particularly those who are disenchanted with the service they received, can be better supported and discouraged.

It is difficult to speculate on how militias will evolve under increased scrutiny, due in large part to the fact that the units are still adapting after Trump’s presidency. Contrary to what many members expected, they didn’t see President Biden create martial law or attack Second Amendment rights immediately. Millenarian militias, and other groups at the extreme end the nostalgic group spectrum, remain vigilant and are ready for violence. Although members may be plotting to commit deadly acts, they are now on more private and secure Internet platforms which are harder to monitor.

The danger is not diminishing. It is quite the opposite. Militia activities and emotions could easily be exacerbated by another politician who encourages paranoia and exclusionary thinking or by a terrorist attack from abroad that nostalgic groups perceive as threatening America’s safety and culture.

Law enforcement should be vigilant for signs of radicalization within the movement. However, as uncomfortable as this may seem, we as society must also recognize that militias have the potential to cause violence beyond these groups. They are not isolated incidents. They share ideological similarities with white Americans who distrust government and believe that the country has declined due to increasing liberalism. It is still difficult to overcome the distrust and protect innocent people from the violence it breeds.

This article was originally published with the title “Inside America’s Militias” in Scientific American 326, 1, 34-41 (January 2022)

doi: 10. 1038/scientificamerican0122-34

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

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    Amy Cooter is a senior lecturer in sociology at Vanderbilt University who has been studying militias as well as extremist groups for 16 years. Her analysis of neo-Nazis was published in Sociological Inquiry in 2006. She has testified before the U.S. Congress about her

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