In the space of 10 days, startling challenges to American democracy have flared over the political landscape. At the first presidential debate, Donald Trump refused to condemn right-wing extremists. Both he and Vice President Mike Pence have declined to promise a peaceful transfer of power should they lose the election.
And yesterday, law enforcement agents arrested 13 men and charged them with plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and seize the state capitol in an effort to foment civil war.
For UC Berkeley scholar Lawrence Rosenthal, those three signals are closely connected.
Trump’s election in 2016 “gave new breath to the militia movement,” he said in an interview yesterday. “Instead of organizing against the enemy in the White House… they think, ‘Our guy is now in charge and that gives us license, which we have not had before.’”
Rosenthal is the chair and lead researcher of the UC Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, which he founded in 2009. His most recent book, released last month, is Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism (The New Press | September 2020).
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Berkeley News: Armed right-wing demonstrators massed at several state capitals in the spring, and in August one killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has just issued a report saying that white supremacists are the top domestic terror threat. Is the apparent plot in Michigan the tip of an iceberg?
Lawrence Rosenthal: There’s this longstanding fantasy in the militia right in America that there would be an event, a spark, and the patriots, as they call themselves, would rise up armed and attack government, and also attack things like Hollywood, the University of California, things they think of as elements of the liberal elite.
There are two strands: One of them is white nationalist and the other is anti-government. Their world changed radically in 2015 — somebody running for the presidency of the United States was talking their language.
That person was Donald Trump. He’s not politically sophisticated. His politics seem almost entirely focused on: ‘These people like me. These people don’t like me.’ The people who don’t like him are, as he just called Kamala Harris, ‘monsters.’ And people who do like him are — he’ll take anybody.
So after the violent ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville (in 2017), he said, ‘There are good people on both sides.’ His response to the QAnon conspiracy movement? ‘Well, they like me.’ That’s his perspective on these things.
Are you saying that Trump is the spark that the right-wing militias have been waiting for?
Yes, and he has gotten an extraordinary response.
At the presidential debate [on Sept. 29], he was asked to condemn the Proud Boys [an anti-government militia]. Instead, he said: ‘Stand back and stand by.’ As though he were the militia commander. And they respond. They say, ‘Yes, sir.’ They make little shoulder patches that say, ‘Stand back and stand by.’
Now they actually have hatched a plot to overthrow, in the most criminal way, the government of the state of Michigan.
This puts Trump in an amazing dilemma. When he shouts out to the Proud Boys from the debate stage, he is acting as commandante of the militias, which sits side by side with his presidential role as the U.S. commander-in-chief. He establishes himself at once as both the head of the government and the head of the anti-government. It’s a remarkable status unseen in U.S. history.
Who are the people drawn to these militias? What motivates them?
The militias are extreme expressions of discontent. In its less extreme form, this resentment was organized in the form of the Tea Party during the presidency of Barack Obama, and it has been the most significant factor in the Trump constituency. It is a resentment of the liberal world. In politics, it is the resentment of the Democratic Party and the minorities that they regard as the Democratic client base. It’s resentment against their perceived elitism, for being the know-it-alls, for being the people who want to tell them how to live their lives.
In Michigan, the anti-lockdown protesters were marching against ‘elite’ COVID-19 proscriptions in the name of what I would call that populist epidemiology. There is a sense of, ‘You’re not going to tell us what to do,’ and that gets those people out on the streets. They resent the government or the governor in Michigan issuing legal injunctions around how to behave, things like social distancing and wearing masks.
But in the militias, this takes a more extreme form. It goes into this set of beliefs that view the government as illegal or illegitimate from the get-go. It becomes, ‘The illegitimate government is constricting our liberty.’
How do members of these armed, far-right groups — the Proud Boys, for example, or the Boogaloo Bois — view President Trump?
Historically, extreme right groups have been isolated. Two things changed that. One was the Internet, which has allowed these organizations to network — and they not only network within the U.S., they network internationally.
The other was the presidential campaign and election of Trump. Both the white nationalist side and the anti-government side have this sense that, after years of being the fringe, suddenly in 2015, they have a place in national politics. And that gave new breath to the militia movement. Instead of organizing against the enemy in the White House, instead of a shared sense that the country is occupied by the liberals, ‘now our guy is in charge and that gives us license which we have not had before.’
Then you get Charlottesville. Most recently, you have guys with weapons in two successive sets of demonstrations: The anti-lockdown demonstrations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic brought out the anti-government people. And then the demonstrations after the police killing of George Floyd brought out the white nationalists.
Has President Trump done anything to discourage their action?
In the course of the Trump era, they have never been repudiated.
More recently, Trump has become overtly supportive of guys with guns on the streets. Last spring, earlier in the pandemic, he tweeted ‘LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save the second amendment.’
LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 17, 2020
In other words, he was inviting the support of these armed groups. So, the stage has been set in a way we’ve never seen before.
Should we expect this kind of activity to gain momentum in the period leading up to the election, and after?
Again, go back to the extraordinary fact that you have anti-government demonstrations against the pandemic lockdown, and the white nationalist demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd, one after the other. So, now we have both elements of the militia right, shall we say, locked and loaded.
Increasingly, we are hearing of ‘accelerationists.’ Accelerationism implies: ‘Whatever it is that we want — our goal, our utopia — forget about that. That’s not important right now. Bringing the system down is what’s important.’
We’ve seen a rise of accelerationism since Charlottesville. That’s something that all sides can agree on: ‘Let’s put aside the end goal. Let’s just bring the sucker down. And we have a guy in the White House who can act as our commandante.’
Recent polls have shown Trump falling further behind former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger. Does that give Trump more of an incentive to galvanize these groups?
He’s in a pickle right now. Is he going to alienate the militias? At the same time, we’ve seen subversion, we’ve seen an attempt to bring down a state government, which any normal chief executive would be obligated by the oath of office to prosecute.
It will be very interesting to see how he solves this dilemma. It may be more a psychological issue, a version of cognitive dissonance, than a political issue.
The FBI made these arrests just before the election, at a time of national volatility. With Trump trailing, is there a risk that anti-government groups, or white nationalists, will see the curtain coming down —
It may be that people will make judgments based on whether they think it’s going to go anywhere. That may depend on whether they feel they’re getting clear messages from the top — from Donald Trump. The two other significant factors in that calculation are law enforcement and the military, and how the militias perceive them.
You know, people have kids, people have jobs. Whether people are willing to throw their lives away is a real question. There could be some heedless and suicidal guys, I suppose. But whether the movement rises up as the fantasy suggested, rises up all over the place and takes over governments — I think people are going to make more instrumental judgments.
This time is different because they have an ally, the commandante-in-chief of the militias. Those practical calculations might not melt away in the collective enthusiasm of the moment.
Wouldn’t it also be possible that the extreme right continues on the current course — overtly hostile, but without an immediate acceleration?
That may be very likely. They could decide, ‘OK, we’re not ready for the rise-up fantasy. We’re going to go back to the steady state, what we’ve always been — opponents of the Democrats elected to run the government.’