Those armed protesters won't be as easy to control as their GOP financiers believe
The craziness flowed like a broken sewer line at the many anti-lockdown protests that erupted—all across the nation, from Michigan to Nevada and Arizona to Washington, Oregon, and California—over the past week, replete with signs declaring: “Give me liberty or give me COVID.” Another offered “Free COVID Hugs.” Proud Boys vowed to kill their enemies in their beds, and MAGA-hatted “Patriots” wrestled with police, getting in their faces and sneering: “How does it feel to be a race traitor?”
The mainstream right—from Donald Trump himself to the corporate interests underwriting some of the protests, such as the DeVos and Koch families and the NRA—have played key roles in helping set the stages for these protests and encouraging them, regardless of their likely negative impacts on public health. But it would be a mistake to see these protesters—who are the end product of the right’s willing indulgence of insatiable conspiracy theories as a way to build an authoritarian army—as being simply tools of these corporate interests, or of just doing their bidding. Those interests may have brought this Frankensteinian monster to life, but this is a creature beyond their ability to control.
As Mark Sumner has explained, the corporate interests served by these protests are fairly narrow and short-lived: “For anyone who had any doubts about the motivations behind wealthy conservative groups funding ‘reopen’ protests, or right-wing media inflaming people to get out there on the streets, or Donald Trump issuing ‘liberate’ tweets, this is it: purge workers without having to pay unemployment. And you can bet that also includes allowing corporations to pocket emergency relief that was intended to go to employees.”
Enabling and empowering the paranoid, conspiracy-fueled far right is the same ploy, as Sumner noted, that proved so fruitful during the Tea Party “revolt” of 2009-10. Indeed, many of the same people out in the streets over the past weekend could be found bellowing about Obama’s birth certificate at healthcare reform town halls in 2009. The MAGA hats and Trump banners are just the final collective identification of far-right “Patriot” ideologues—glued to Infowars and Fox News—who the mainstream right has deliberately cultivated for a long time, dating back to even before the Bush years.
Author Jared Yates Sexton, whose book American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World But Failed Its People is out in September, recently penned a long Twitter thread that laid out exactly how this has come to pass: “What you saw in Michigan yesterday wasn't a bunch of ‘posers’ or ‘gun nuts.’ These are paramilitary separatists who are using the pandemic for their own benefit and carrying out dry runs for what they see as a fascist takeover of the US,” he tweeted.
As it happens, I wrote about much of the trajectory Sexton describes in this thread in my 2017 book, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, though in rather greater detail. And since its publication, I’ve only seen this movement gaining momentum and growing more threatening by the week, empowered by a powerful combination of once implicit, now explicit support from the White House and related mainstream-right interests, which seem to believe that they can reel this violent element in when it has finished serving their purposes.
The relationship between the corporate right and the conspiracist far-right at one time was further removed. However, the Tea Party phenomenon—which indeed had its origins in fake grassroots right-wing groups financed by corporate sugar daddies, eager to undermine the new Obama administration—became the template for an increasingly symbiotic connection. The astroturfers would foot the bill to create the events, and the people who came out to them came increasingly under the sway of the far-right “Patriot” movement that had overtaken the Tea Party’s rank and file within a year of its origins.
The Obama-hating Birther conspiracy theories represented the essence of Tea Party conspiracism, so the ascent of the nation’s foremost Birther—Donald Trump—to the GOP nomination was an affirmation of their worldview, and his election to the presidency was a sign of empowerment beyond their wildest fantasies. But rather than settle for empowerment, the continuing agitation and increasing street violence of the authoritarian army has made it clear that they will not be content until their opposition is not only defeated but eliminated outright. So their fantasies now are of the bloodthirsty kind.
Perhaps the most disturbing development of the Trump years has been the increasing crossover of interests and talking points and ideas between the extremist white-nationalist/neo-Nazi far right and the much more mainstream-oriented anti-government “Patriot”/militia movement, which has always tended to recruit from a more conservative rural base that is more disinclined to violence and overt racism. Events featuring street-brawling white nationalists like the Proud Boys were increasingly opportunities for participation by—and recruitment of—“Patriot” militiamen and Oath Keepers, many of whom wore their MAGA hats to these marches. The old lines began to blur.
The “Boogaloo”—the extremist right’s longtime shared violent fantasy of a violent “second civil war”—has become the apotheosis of this crossover, drawing together elements of both the violent neo-Nazi right and the increasingly radicalized True Believers of the “Patriot” movement. Its ascendance among the heavily armed segment of the movement exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic was in full evidence over the weekend at the anti-lockdown protests, signified by the armed men with body armor over their Hawaiian shirts—a reference to the “Big Luau,” as they have nicknamed the war in which they will be shooting their neighbors.
As a recent report from the Network Contagion Institute explained, the crazily laughable idea of a civil war has become a carefully plotted reality in the making for the people who believe it.
The boogaloo, a joke for some, acts as a violent meme that circulates instructions for a distributed, viral insurgency for others. The topic network for boogaloo describes a coherent, multi-component and detailed conspiracy to launch an inevitable, violent, sudden, and apocalyptic war across the homeland. The conspiracy, replete with suggestions to stockpile ammunition, may itself set the stage for massive real-world violence and sensitize enthusiasts to mobilize in mass for confrontations or charged political events.
And as Sexton observes: “Chances are, the Michigan ‘protest’ with armed, armored men intimidating legislatures isn't going to end and will only grow in scope and frequency. These people are ready for widespread violence and mayhem and are only waiting for the spark.”
The protests themselves have been populated by an amalgam of right-wing conspiracists: “Patriots,” anti-vaccination fanatics, Proud Boys, Alex Jones fans, neo-Nazis, and handful of older Tea Partiers still drinking the Kool-Aid—all of them deeply authoritarian. Of course, thrown in among their number are the occasional truck driver or hairdresser out of work because of the lockdown, recruited into believing somehow that COVID-19 respects their personal liberties and concerns.
Some Boogaloo adherents—such as Matt Marshall, leader of the 3 Percent of Washington militia that has been an armed presence at Washington’s anti-lockdown protests, and who like others in the group arrived in Hawaiian shirts—have tried to claim that the “Boogaloo” idea isn’t about planned violence but rather defensive action. (Marshall, recently elected to the local school board in Eatonville and an announced primary challenger to the Republican House Minority Leader, denies that the Boogaloo is inherently violent.)
Yet not only is discussion of the Boogaloo on social media overflowing with hateful rhetoric culminating in violent fantasies—including not just killing law enforcement officers and lynching political authorities, but also of invading their neighbors’ homes and killing them, as Jones recently did—its history as an idea is derived straight from white supremacist lore. Researcher Megan Squire recently laid this history out in a long thread detailing the meme’s first use by a neo-Nazi poster on Reddit in April 2018. Its first appearance on Facebook was on a page run by an overt racist.
“The boogaloo types can claim to be not racist,” Squire writes, “but the fact is their meme is straight out of the white power playbook [and] their movement props up white supremacy by literally arming themselves to force a premature ‘reopen’ that will disproportionally affect marginalized groups.”
Even as the tide of extremism rises—marked, ever so subtly now, by the Hawaiian shirts in the crowds of armed men—the mainstream right has been in denial about its presence, even while it has been empowering it. Trump called the protesters “great people,” while in Michigan, the Republican-controlled state House readily jumped to the demands of the armed protesters and passed legislation to end Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown orders.
Whitmer, fortunately, ignored them and extended her order anyway. She also rebuked the protesters: “Some of the outrageousness of what happened at our capitol depicted some of the worst racism and awful parts of our history in this country,” Whitmer said in an interview on CNN. “There were swastikas and Confederate flags and nooses and people with assault rifles. That’s a small group of people when you think that this is a state of almost 10 million people, the vast majority of whom are doing the right thing.”
What the pandemic protests have demonstrated is that the army of reality-resistant far-right authoritarians deliberately cultivated by mainstream right-wing interests over the past decade and longer do not need careful or expensive planning now, as during the Tea Party era, in order to become active on the streets. They can and will spring into action now in defense of Trump’s presidency with guns in hand.
And while it may please the financiers of this insanity to know that the possibility of mass civil violence lurks among the chunk of the populace they have cultivated—and perhaps to fantasize a little themselves about how that might turn out to their advantage—the truth is that these are never forces they can control. The mainstream right may have helped unleash this beast, but it is helpless now to stop it. The only thing that might is COVID-19—no respecter of constitutional liberties and the need for a normal life itself.