Armed protesters on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses (JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Soldiers of the boogaloo: David Neiwert on the far right's plans for a new civil war

Author of "Alt-America": What happens this year will be a "key turning point" on the path from democracy to fascism



Chauncey DeVega
May 18, 2020 11:00AM (UTC)

The U.S. government has the official public policy of never negotiating with terrorists, paying them ransom or otherwise surrendering to their demands. The logic is simple: to give in to terrorists is to encourage more violence and other attacks.

It would appear that the state of Michigan does not follow the same policy.

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Last Thursday, the Michigan state legislature announced it would not convene because of threats of violence and chaos by armed right-wing militias and other paramilitaries, as previously seen during the recent anti-lockdown protests.  

In what could be construed as an act of treason, President Trump recently ordered such paramilitary groups and right-wing thugs to take up arms and to threaten Democratic-led state governments such as Michigan's in order to force them to "reopen" their state. Such behavior is part of a broader pattern of right-wing terrorism and violence in the United States where armed militias and paramilitaries have allied with the Republican Party in its effort to delegitimize and undermine democracy. Such an alliance is common to failing democracies and rising fascist movements. The example offered by the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler in the 1930s is perhaps the most ominous.

Right-wing terrorism is and will be a future template for Trump and his movement against their perceived or real enemies. White neo-fascist violence, and the threat of such violence have consistently escalated during the Age of Trump.

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Matters are now so dire that even the New York Times, which views itself as a neutral "journal of record," is sounding the alarm about Trump's armed paramilitary groups. Last Friday, columnist Roger Cohen published an op-ed entitled "The Masked versus the Unmasked" in which he issued this warning:  

So much for those resilient checks and balances I lauded to my Colorado neighbor.

Back then, in the bygone era, he wrote to me: "No wonder Republicans are laughing at us. The billionaire politicians have complete control (besides the military at this point), no oversight, and most of their constituents are armed, some heavily, and ready to defend them. Roll over and die? What the hell? Time to even things up. To save this country. Hopefully, guns will always be a deterrent, but they may be our last hope to save this country. Time to gun up, liberals!"

If you prefer, think of "gun up" as get real, get tough, get registered, get mobilized, get implacable and vote Trump out. Or you may just want to go down to the range.

Ultimately, the upcoming presidential election in November will be a test of the United States' ability to have a peaceful transfer of power — assuming the election take place, and assuming Trump is somehow defeated, an outcome that seems increasingly unlikely.

How are the anti-lockdown protests in Michigan and elsewhere connected to the history of the Tea Party movement and its network of right-wing plutocrats and other backers? What is the role of white supremacists and other right-wing extremists in Trump's coronavirus "protests"? How are right-wing militias and other paramilitary groups trying to plan for and incite a second American civil war and armed insurrection — which they call "the boogaloo"? If Donald Trump loses in November, how will these armed militias likely react?

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Is Trump actively encouraging right-wing violence through stochastic terrorism? And if so, why aren't the American people mobilizing against such anti-democratic behavior?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with investigative journalist David Neiwert, a contributing writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Neiwert is also the author of several books, including the recent "Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump," "Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right" and the forthcoming "Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us."

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The anti-lockdown "protests" in Michigan and elsewhere appear to be staged events. In essence they are fake protests which are sponsored and created — just like the Tea Party "movement" from several years ago — by rich conservatives or corporate oligarchs. In a series of recent essays, you have suggested that these events are more complicated than that. Can you explain?

They are astroturf protests in the same way that the Tea Party movement was put in place by people who have corporate right-wing money as well as the monetary support of very rich families such as that of Betsy DeVos [Trump's education secretary]. But the "lockdown" protests are a movement that has taken on a life of its own. This has a great deal to do with structure and organization.

The Tea Party initially was backed by right-wing corporations, interest groups and private money, which is why it had so much support from Fox News. But within about six to eight months the Tea Party had its ranks swell with far-right extremists from the Patriot movement. Over the next few years the Tea Party became a conduit for the revival of the Patriot movement, where right-wing extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters became closely associated with the later iterations of the Tea Party.

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The full integration of these right-wing extremist militia groups and the Tea Party took some time to happen, but with Trump it is complete. With individuals and groups such as the DeVos family having set up the structure, it is easy for these anti-public health "protests" to spread across the country. The right-wing backers of the Tea Party created their astroturf machine and now it is a type of Frankenstein monster that rampages across the country.

Who are the various elements at these coronavirus rallies? What should the public and the news media really be focusing on?

Nothing about this is that invisible. So much of it is visible. It is a matter of understanding its context.

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Men wearing camouflage and carrying guns are not there for the purpose of defending "gun rights." They are at protests in Michigan and other states to threaten the legislators and the governor. These men with guns are at these protests to threaten anybody who tries to stop them when they go marching into the state house in Michigan. What we saw in Michigan was seditious. If black people had behaved the same way with these guns, wearing camouflage and threatening legislators and the governor, they would have been shot dead by law enforcement.

How do you interpreting the symbols and codes being displayed and shared at these rallies?

Confederate flags were ubiquitous. There was also the Gadsden flag. The latter is now associated with the Tea Party. The Gadsden flag was associated with the right-wing extremist militants in the Patriot movement in the 1990s, and now they are present at these coronavirus protests and gatherings. The anti-vaxxers have now joined up with these right-wing extremists at the anti-lockdown rallies. It is a natural alliance of sorts because they are all obsessed with conspiracy theories. One of the defining features of the Patriot movement is conspiracism.

You have talked to people involved in these various right-wing extremist and paramilitary groups and broader movements. How do the people at these rallies make sense of their claims that they are not "racist"  or "violent" while they are carrying guns, waving Confederate flags, wearing other fascist insignia and in several cases displaying signs with Nazi slogans?

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There is a great amount of cognitive dissonance among these people at the coronavirus rallies. One of my favorite images was that man with the Confederate flag who was wearing a T-shirt that says, "America, love it or leave it!". So many of the people at the Michigan rally and elsewhere are enormously confused. But there are also people at these events who are bloodthirsty for the opportunity to use the pandemic to advance their goals. They see the pandemic as societal breakdown and therefore an opportunity to get out their guns and finally shoot all those liberals that they have wanted to kill for a very long time.

Now, along with the Confederate flags and Nazi regalia and language there is a hidden symbol operating in plain sight for those who understand its meaning and power. Notice the Hawaiian shirts and the references to something called the "boogaloo." Also notice the "boogaloo" flag, which is blue and has an igloo and a palm tree on it.

These are references to the "boogaloo," a term meaning the second civil war that the right-wing paramilitaries and other extremists are hoping for and lusting after right now. These right-wing extremists want to replace America's constitutional democracy with authoritarian right-wing rule. Online, these right-wing extremists spend a great deal of time talking about the "boogaloo" and killing federal law enforcement agents. They also fantasize about societal breakdown and killing their neighbors for supplies. These people are very serious about their violence.

This organizing is being done online on Facebook and elsewhere. Facebook thinks this is fine and has not taken it down. There are not that many members in these right-wing militias and other extremist groups, but they can create a lot of havoc and hurt and kill many people. Their "boogaloo" fantasy of a second civil war and mass violence has no chance of succeeding, in my opinion. But their shared fantasies of violence have the potential to cause great harm if acted upon even by a small number of its adherents.

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What would the "boogaloo" or other acts of right-wing civil war and insurrection look like, if it actually took place? "Anti-government" is usually code for white supremacy and racism against nonwhites, especially black people.  

Obviously the first targets are going to be people of color and LGBT folks. In this "boogaloo" and other right-wing civil war fantasies, those groups would be rounded up and put in concentration camps or otherwise disposed of. Jews would probably all be assassinated or otherwise killed. The way that these right-wing extremists talk among themselves is very graphic in terms of the violence.

How are these individuals and groups using the pandemic for their recruitment efforts?

They have been intensely recruiting among their usual demographic. They radicalize disaffected young white people — mostly men but not exclusively, of course — by infiltrating every online platform, including the various message boards and forums to YouTube. They want to radicalize impressionable young people between the ages of 13 and 30. The result is that we are seeing a wave of very young Nazis.

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How is the pandemic specifically being used in the recruitment and radicalization process?

It usually consists of some story about "white genocide" and apocalypse. They say that there is a plot to commit genocide against white people, white males in particular, and to destroy "Western civilization." This is a plot led by Jewish people who are manipulating immigrants and people of color. This conspiracy is not really much different from what Nazis and other white supremacists were preaching in the 1920s. It has just been updated for the social media age with the use of memes, ironic humor and the like. That makes it attractive to young people.

Another way that the pandemic is being used by these bad actors is through eco-fascism, where the recruiting is done by talking about how the virus has created cleaner air and animals are taking back the planet from human beings and that nature is healing. Many of these "nature is healing" posts are being spread by some of the most dangerous fascists who believe that human beings have contaminated the Earth and need to be eliminated. These fascists are pro-genocide and they have been trying to co-opt the logos of legitimate environmental groups such as Extinction Rebellion.

What are these right-wing terrorists waiting for, in terms of beginning their "boogaloo" attacks? What will the signal be?

They're waiting for a spark. It would be something such as an incident where law enforcement decides to finally crack down on right-wing militia, paramilitaries and those in league with them. In the 1990s these right-wing groups retaliated with truck bombs.

If Donald Trump loses the 2020 presidential election, will that be a signal for right-wing militias and paramilitaries to launch attacks against their enemies?

It is possible that these right-wing extremists and other boogaloo types will attack locations that they believe are vulnerable and will make a difference in their "civil war." One of the wildcards to consider is the ominous presence of Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater, who is also Betsy DeVos' brother, and his private army of mercenaries. Prince commands a very skilled group of commandos and other ex-military and paramilitary operatives. Such a group of people could cause great harm to the country if so ordered.

Donald Trump and the right-wing media have been using stochastic terrorism to encourage violence against Democrats, liberals, progressives, journalists and anyone he or they deem to be an "enemy." On Twitter, Trump actually told the pandemic "protesters" to take up arms and force the Michigan state government and others to cease public health measures designed to slow down the coronavirus pandemic. Trump has been threatening to put Barack Obama and other prominent Democrats in prison for participating in a "conspiracy" to overthrow him. He continues to call Democrats and journalists "human scum." Where is the outrage from the American people at this vile behavior? Are they just numb to it?

The American people have been conditioned to such language by decades of relentless propaganda from Fox News, the other parts of the right-wing machine, and now Russian bots on social media. The right-wing echo chamber propaganda machine has normalized that violent language and authoritarianism. The right-wing media machine is so powerful it has intimidated and cowed networks such as CNN and MSNBC. The latter are afraid to tell the truth about Trump and the far right's threats of violence.

I have been writing about these dangers for more than 10 years. People said I was "alarmist" back then. I don't think they would say that about me anymore. Everything that I have warned about has exactly come true. In fact, under Trump things are worse than I predicted. America is at a key turning point right now in terms of surrendering to fascism. America must decide if it is going to become a damned and foul demon of a country by fully surrendering to fascism and Donald Trump in the upcoming election.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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