Paramilitaries at the Polls
As we draft this memo in the days immediately prior to Election Day 2020, there are dozens of articles and opinion pieces pointing out possible “chaos” or “nightmare” scenarios related to the 2020 elections and what could happen in their wake. Interestingly, few of these are about the potential consequences of four more years of racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ, anti-public good, and anti-democracy policies and appointments. However, whoever ultimately becomes the next President of the United States, the period between Election Day and Inauguration is going to be contested and potentially chaotic, and not just because of the actions and provocations of the Trump administration, but because of the reactions and interventions of far-right social movements. This memo will focus on how far-right movements may attempt to influence this period, what some analysts are calling the interregnum, and the likely consequences of their activities.
- Far-right violence could erupt anywhere, but likely hotspots include Central Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Washington.
- On Election Day, we can expect aggressive poll watching techniques by an auxiliary force of Trump supporters, aimed at ‘discovering’ alleged instances of voter manipulation/fraud to be used as a pretext for Trump and the Right to muddy the waters, and advance drastic anti-democratic measures at local and national levels.
- Trump rallies, some armed, will be held outside polling places. Militias and paramilitary groups will likely conduct armed patrols at and nearby polling locations.
- In the weeks following, risk of militia and vigilante attacks against progressive protestors remains high, using a variety of tactics including car assault. Individual white nationalists may commit acts of focused political violence against named enemies and minority communities. Other accelerationist factions, such as the ‘Boogaloo Boys’, may seek to destabilize protest space and escalate violence.
- While it’s certainly possible violence could come from already-established groups, the largest category of far-right actors involved in violence and intimidation this summer, were those with no identifiable group affiliation beyond pro-Trump or pro-police.
- Trump himself, with nothing to lose, is likely to use the lame duck period to make ever more extravagant and unfiltered conspiracy claims.
Prepare for Far Right Militancy as We Build Multiracial Democracy
We at Political Research Associates believe that regardless of the results of the 2020 elections, movements for racial and social justice will face escalating challenges from the far right, and without strategic and effective action, the political spectrum will continue to lurch to the right, with anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Black “law and order” policies becoming even more normalized. Spending on the public good will become even more degraded and demonized. And for all of that, the demographic changes, climate catastrophes, and the move to mass automation will be the backdrop for politics in the coming years.
We want to emphasize the need for social justice leaders to call for sustained movement resources to address and out-organize right-wing movement building. In the event of a Biden victory, particularly if there is a Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate, the understandable tendency of liberal and centrist organizations will be to move policy. The far right, however, is not going away and our movements have to be ready to continue to fight it. There are tremendous opportunities to build on the momentum of the past five months, consolidating the multi-racial and feminist democratic movement leadership that has called into being an inspiring and potentially transformational alternative conception of “the people,” and of democracy itself. As at no time since at least the 1960s, there seems to be an opening to imagine and create an alternative to the market liberalism and colorblind racism of the last several decades. Rather than the kind of authoritarian aspirations represented by the Trump regime, it is perhaps possible to build toward a society that is democratic in more than name.
The new political reality we seem to be entering is not unfamiliar to students of the international scene. In many parts of the world, where nation-state level legitimacy is highly contested and rival ethnic, religious, and ideological factions regularly accuse each other of treason, the risk of death from political assassination is considered the price of running for or holding office. We believe that this is a threat that both movements for racial and social justice and the country more broadly need to take seriously. A recent report from the centrist Center for Strategic and International Studies, though we would take issue with their “both sides” framing, broadly supports this view. So does the Department of Homeland Security—with whom we have many more issues. Even as movement activity has reached a peak in 2020 not seen for decades, the risks we face from far-right violence, particularly in the event of a Trump loss, are entering a new phase. We cannot assume that the familiar relations between allied social movements, the state, the police, and the far right—as dreadful as they have been— are stable.
PRA has long understood that while a Democratic victory in 2020 could interrupt our current trajectory towards cascading authoritarianism, it would almost inevitably catalyze far-right militancy, including violence. Without a champion in the White House, many in the far right would conclude that advancing the cause requires robust extralegal organizing. For the far-right, defeat at the ballot is an argument for the bullet. The 1990s militia movement and Oklahoma City federal building bombing (with 168 fatalities) occurred in the context of the Clinton presidency; during Obama’s administration, we experienced the surge of Tea Party nationalism and the rebirth of right-wing paramilitaries in the form of such groups as Oath Keepers, III% militia, and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.
Paradoxically, liberal and progressive strategists have tended to regard the election of Democratic administrations as evidence of declining influence on the part of right-wing social movements, whereas recent history demonstrates that such elections are typically a prelude to a wave of right-wing militancy and violence. For the social justice movements PRA works with the existing challenges of systemic white supremacy will not go away. The right-wing social movements that laid the groundwork for Trump will be busier than ever, with a new legitimacy on the broader right and the potential collapse of the old “mainstream” conservative right. The long-term concerns, however, should be set against the possibility that right-wing efforts, in accelerated call-and-response with Trump, will react to a Biden victory as if it is the precursor of the End Times (here meant both figuratively, and in some cases, literally). Some things to anticipate in the case of any Biden victory (or potential victory), whether it comes early or late include:
- A massive uptick in calls for “patriotic” resistance to what Trump will doubtless call a fraudulent result and refuse to concede under all but the most insistent pressure. These calls will echo back and forth from Trump to right-wing media, to far-right social media.
- These calls for resistance will include half-joking, half-serious declarations that a new civil war has started.
- Far right social media are projecting large social justice street protests, which they characterize variously as antifa uprisings, a Eastern European style “color revolution,” or outright coup attempt against Trump. The likelihood of pro-democracy street mobilizations may be understood by many on the right as confirmation of these stories.
- Trump’s call for unregistered, unofficial poll watchers raises severe concerns about intimidation. Armed paramilitary factions—Oath Keepers, III%, or more local pro-regime groups or unaffiliated individuals—at or near polling places will be both provocative and intimidating. Steward Rhodes, a leader of the Oath Keepers, told the Los Angeles Times, they would “be out patrolling on Election Day to protect people who are voting.”
- It is all too likely that sooner or later, individuals or small groups will succeed in carrying out some attack similar to one plotted against the Governor of Michigan or against social movement leaders seen as leading antagonists to Trump and the nation he is calling into being.
- White nationalists and those disillusioned by Trump’s loss will insist the loss is the result of the president’s lack of follow-through on measures like mass deportations, law-and-order crackdowns, use of the Insurrection Act, and more generally, his not being white supremacist enough.
- In a parallel lane, GOP operators will blame “moderate” defectors and critics of the President for the loss, leading to a further move in the direction of anti-immigrant, anti-Black, law-and-order policies, possibly baking these planks into the party’s platform the way anti-choice has been baked-in.
Right-Wing and Far-Right Responses
Below we lay out in short form what various specific movement factions and groups are likely to do on and around the election.
Regime-aligned paramilitaries, particularly the Oath Keepers, III%, and ideologically similar local groups will (or already):
- Call for armed patrols around polling locations to defend against left-wing “rioters and looters.”
- Some at least of these will make a showing on Election Day, though it is not clear as of yet that they will attempt to make a show of force adjacent to an actual polling location, as opposed to in some assembly or ready area.
- If anti-Trump forces are rallying somewhere on or after Election Day, these forces are all too likely to stage counter-protests that may lead to clashes and will quite possibly overshadow the crucial efforts for racial justice that have developed in 2020.
- In jurisdictions where law enforcement has been tolerant of or aligned with far-right paramilitaries, there may be more open shows of force. Even when these are far from areas with large Black, Indigenous, or other movement centers, the possibility of practical disenfranchisement is high under such circumstances—and the optics of such spectacles will draw attention away from ongoing justice work.
Regime ambivalent groups, such as some factions of what was for a short time called the “alt-right,” will likely confine themselves to amplifying the ineffectual and chaotic nature of protests and criticize both Trumpists and the vestige of the GOP establishment from the Right.
- There have been, according to PRA research, at least 90 vehicular assaults on protestors between May and mid-October 2020. USA Today reported the number as 104 in early July. Car attacks on protestors have become a popular form of dark humor, with viral circulation in rightwing social media. The attacks themselves be- come something to copy, a mode of violence that becomes familiar. The large protests that are likely to happen following Election Day will be prime targets for such attacks.
- Some perpetrators are known to follow protest-related live feeds, effectively stalking their targets.
- Many of these assaults are not high-speed efforts to attack as many protestors as possible. Rather they have a pattern of intentional deniability. They look like this:
- The driver accelerates or veers toward protestors in a threatening manner in an act of intimidation and provocation.
- Then the car slows or even comes to a stop, either in the midst of protestors or immediately adjacent to them.
- At this point, protestors often try to “hold ground” in front of the car, and/or surround the car—both understandable but extremely dangerous.
- The driver now has pretext to claim they were afraid for their life; they may brandish a weapon or surge forward in spurts, using their vehicle as a weapon.
- In spite of the temptation to demonstrate that we won’t be intimidated, activists should be advised and urged to move away from vehicles being driven aggressively. Clear the ground in front of it and get good photographs as it drives away. Be aware that it may well return.
The hard ideological core of white nationalism will mount critiques of Trump and any rightwing politics that fails to center demographics and their priority of consolidating and expanding a large, permanent white population majority in the country.
Individual white nationalists, interactive with the panoply of pro-Trump and Trump-ambivalent movement factions, have always been the most violent faction of the right, seeing themselves as fighting an existential battle against imagined white genocide. Acts of focused political violence, highlighting the enemies they see as most influential (Jews, Black people, Muslims, immigrants), will remain a plausible threat.
Regime disloyal, anti-state factions of the far-right, including most notably the Boogaloo movement, will continue to insert themselves into protest situations where their calls for, or prediction of, civil war will encourage additional rounds of accelerationist political violence. There is no way to predict if this will happen in the immediate aftermath of the elections, but a chaotic transition and large-scale protests and left-right clashes will probably increase the likelihood of such violence.
Keep in mind the 2020 context of thousands of racial justice protests that have been met with hundreds of right-wing acts of intimidation, counterprotest, and violence. Even before the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked this new wave of racial justice activity, the far right responded to public health measures enacted to protect public health during the pandemic with dozens of “anti-lockdown” protests that saw the coming out of the Boogaloo movement.
At the same time key types of interpersonal violence and bias crimes are sparked during times of heightened political tension. Violence against LGBTQI people will likely continue to escalate as individual queer people are seen as threats to misogynist, racist control. This has been the most deadly year on record for trans people (with 31 recorded murders as of mid-October and certainly more going unreported. The vast majority of these victims were transgender women of color. As the Trump campaign continues to weaponize anti-trans rhetoric, transgender people of color will continue to face direct harm or indirect neglect by establishment forces.
- It is not a coincidence that the vast majority of trans people facing violence in 2020 (and in all years of recorded history) are trans women of color. Racism and transmisogyny are sibling means for consolidating white, male, Christian Right power. Transgender and gender-nonconforming people of color will no doubt continue to face violence both on the streets and behind closed doors as they find themselves once again at the crux of everything that the Right devalues in order to consolidate their own power and influence.
Law Enforcement and the Security State
Any analysis of election/post-election actions from the far-right must anticipate potential reactions and provocations from the state. Many, probably the majority, of far-right paramilitary actors are to some degree pro-regime/pro-Trump. However, an increase in political violence is sure to provoke a reaction from the security state—and that reaction is not likely to focus primarily on the paramilitary or racist right.
Here are some points to keep in mind:
- Local police are not equipped to manage weeks or months of daily protests from racial justice movements. Protesters understand the law enforcement propensity to incite violence, but it also needs to be anticipated that “Back the Blue” counter-protest groups, even when armed, are likely to be seen as allies and recognized as brothers-in-arms for their familiar style of militarized masculinity.
- Even one incident of large scale violence—something that approaches the carnage of the Oklahoma City bombing— will inevitably result in new repressive measures from the government that will target racial justice movements and the left. (The 1996 anti-terrorism laws enacted in response to Oklahoma City were deployed with ruthless aggression against Muslim communities and anti-war dissidents in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks.
- Successful FBI infiltration and undermining of far-right political groups will increase the credibility of these historically reactionary forces and lead to highly politicized calls for reciprocal enforcement against racial and social justice movements.
- Movement efforts to defund the police and ongoing protests against lack of police accountability and for racial justice may lead to higher levels of recruitment and attraction of active duty or recent LEOs into militia type groups.
Regardless of who wins the election, 2020 has been an extraordinary year in U.S. politics. There remain many open questions that we at PRA will be following closely and working with our partners to better understand, evaluate, and generate strategy around. Will the tectonic shift toward radicalized/nationalist “populism” under Trump lead to a Biden presidency accepting “soft” versions of white identity claims for immigration restriction? How will economic libertarians mobilize against a Biden administration—including through the new supermajority on the SCOTUS? Will the recession harden into a depression? How will the police and security apparatus respond to the pressures for radical transformation—and how can our movements both keep up the pressure and anticipate right-wing responses. Just how unjust will the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine turn out to be, assuming one is developed, and how will forces left and right respond? Will interpersonal violence against LGBTQI people, intimate partners, migrants, and people of color worsen? In what ways will nationalists, explicitly racist or otherwise, attempt to rebrand the climate crisis and use it to drive an “America First” agenda? How will demographic pressures and changes shape all of the above? All of these open questions, problems, and challenges are opportunities for collaboration and imagination.
How Can PRA Help?
We will continue to support movement organizations in the atmosphere of rumor and misinformation and actual right-wing violence that we see coming. This will be more crucial and more urgent than ever in the days and weeks around the 2020 elections. The election’s results will open a new chapter in the fight for multiracial, feminist, and religiously plural democracy. PRA looks forward to navigating these narrows and fighting to build a democracy worthy of the name. Here are some things we have to offer:
- Appended to this memo are a number of links to resources for understanding and contextualizing the current moment.
- PRA will be tracking incidents, rumors, and misinformation, particularly as they relate to far-right violence, intimidation, and provocation in relation to the elections, but also as they may target vulnerable communities. We will continue to track militia and paramilitary activity, rightwing sheriffs, collaboration between law enforcement and the far right, white nationalist organizations, as well as Christian nationalism, anti-LGBTQI policy and misinformation, misogynist movements, attacks on the public good, and threats to democracy.
- We will be available to consult with partner organizations on issues related to threats from the far right and strategy development around countering far-right violence, understanding ideologies, anticipating tactics, and strategizing responses.
- For national organizations, or local groups facing particular challenges from the far right, PRA can, within our capacity, provide training to staff, board, and members on elements of the Right.
- PRA will continue to host regular webinars that bring together activists, organizers, journalists, and subject experts to discuss issues related to rightwing threats and developments in anti-democratic organizing.
- PRA publishes work that addresses issues that are crucial to racial, social, gender, economic, and LGBTQI justice. This work is written by PRA staff, by activists, experts, and practitioners whom we contract with, and sometimes in collaboration.
Battle With Bullets: Advancing a Vision of Civil War, PRA, August 31, 2020.
Paramilitaries at Your Protest: An Activist Field Guide, PRA, June 24, 2020