The political marriage between the GOP and militias

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Members of the Proud Boys march in Manhattan against vaccine mandates on November 20, 2021 in New York City. A U.S. Circuit Court granted an emergency stay to temporarily stop the Biden administration's vaccine requirement for businesses with 100 or more workers. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
Members of the Proud Boys march in Manhattan against vaccine mandates on November 20, 2021 in New York City. A U.S. Circuit Court granted an emergency stay to temporarily stop the Biden administration's vaccine requirement for businesses with 100 or more workers. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

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Extremism experts are ringing alarm bells:

"America has long had political violence on the fringes of both the left and the right," says Rachel Kleinfeld at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "What we're seeing now is different because it's moving into the mainstream. And one of the reasons it's moving into the mainstream is because we have an anti-democratic faction on the right that’s supporting it and that's using it. And it's looking particularly bad now."

Across this country, Republican politicians are embracing right wing militia groups. It’s a pattern seen around the world in failing democracies: a mainstream party co-opts extremists to assert power.

"But we're not there yet," Kleinfeld says. "It's not a prediction. We can still change."

Today, On Point: the GOP’s militia problem.


Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (@RachelKleinfeld)

Bill Kristol, editor-at-large of The Bulwark. Founder and director of the advocacy group Defending Democracy Together. (@BillKristol)

From the Reading List

Just Security: "The GOP’s Militia Problem: Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Lessons from Abroad" — "The January 6 Select Committee hearings have been framed as an effort aimed at accountability and posterity. But their findings are at least as important to the future. The Committee’s disclosures that Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson tried to hand-deliver a slate of fake electors to Vice President Pence, that Arizona Congressman Andy Biggs asked Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers to decertify their state’s electors the morning of January 6, and that some Republican Members of Congress sought pardons from then-President Trump for their roles are further signals that co-conspirators in the schemes to thwart the democratic choice for president remain in power."

Interview Highlights

How real is the threat of marriage between militia groups and a political party in the United States?

Rachel Kleinfeld: Well, let me back up a little bit from that statement. First of all, most political violence in this country is not committed by groups. It's committed by individuals. And so, we have a threat from regular people normalizing violence, as well as groups. The second thing I'd say is that this isn't the Republican Party. There is a faction of the Republican Party that is trying to take over the Republican Party in part through threats and violence. And recognizing that that's internecine fight within the Republicans is very important to trying to solve this problem.

On political entrepreneurship

Kleinfeld: In other countries where we see political violence starting to bubble up, places like the former Yugoslavia before the wars there, Northern Ireland before the troubles, what you tend to see is political leaders or sometimes media personalities – maybe media personalities who want to become political leaders – who start to demonize the other side and then dehumanize the other side. The other side is not always just their opponents.

As I said before, the first target is usually people within their party who are not willing to use violence or not willing to go along with their plans. And these conflict entrepreneurs, political entrepreneurs that we see, make their names based on this demonization, this dehumanization. And what we tend to see is that they pop up on multiple sides, and they feed off each other. So you see them popping up in the former Yugoslavia with Serbia and [Slobodan] Milosevic, but then you saw it with the Croats, with [Franjo] Tudjman, both doing the same kind of evilness, but not always symmetrical, not always with the same level of power, but that kind of polarization and dehumanization tends to be a spiral. It's cyclical.

How are you seeing that in the U.S. now?

Kleinfeld: Those of us who study political violence get really worried about dehumanization because it's the first step on a trajectory, but it's an important first step. And the reason it's important is that … [it’s] very hard to get regular people to commit violence. Most people are really socialized against it. But it's easier to commit violence against bugs and that sort of vermin, things like that. And so when you start seeing dehumanization, it's a way of bringing down the barriers that people have to violence.

And you see it over and over again. You know, from the Rwandan genocide to Kenyan political violence to former Yugoslavia. We've been seeing it in America very strongly over the past five years. We’re well along that path. Everything from former President Trump's statements about Mexican immigrants, repeatedly dehumanizing them, misogynistic comments, jokes. Jokes are particularly bad because they get around people's kind of rational thought. They're going to slip in and you think, oh, it's OK to pass on this joke. And then, of course, the QAnon rhetoric about pedophiles and groomers. Groomers are sort of not even human at all at that point. This is the kind of language that allows regular people to commit violence.

What creates that link between those people and the militia groups?

Kleinfeld: So what we're seeing in America is the next stage of this phenomena. You know, the first stage might be dehumanization and allowing a mass public to start having beliefs about violence, that it's OK. The next stage is trying to get organized groups. These are really violence entrepreneurs or violence specialists. Regular people, even those primed to commit violence, are still – they're wary of taking the first step. But if you get violence specialists involved who are very comfortable with violence, then it's easier to get a crowd of people to commit violence. And that's where the militias come in. So what we're seeing is in Republican counties, often local officials, occasionally state level – we're starting to see this willingness to work with militias.

And that's very dangerous because it enables regular people to be more likely to commit violence. And as I said before, more violence is committed by regular people. But the militia linkage to this faction of the Republican Party is growing. So, we saw in Clark County, Nevada – that's where Las Vegas is located – a battle between the local Republicans and the GOP leader, where the GOP leader seems to have brought in Proud Boys members to vote out local leaders … and then threatening them. They moved their meetings over and over and canceled their meetings because they felt so threatened by the use of violence to oust this more conservative but pro-democratic portion of the party in Miami. …

And then we're seeing it at in local races. So Liz Cheney's opponent in her race, the chairman of Wyoming's GOP, is a member of the Oath Keepers, according to some leaked data that leaked Oath Keepers membership a couple of years ago. You've got sitting members of the House in Arizona like Mark Finchem, and then you've got militias starting to back parts of elections. So Shasta County, California, on the board of supervisors, you have new leaders who owe their positions to militias. So this is an internecine battle within Republicans where some Republicans are calling on militias, allowing militias to serve as security and otherwise using militias to vote and so on in order to force out more pro-democratic conservatives and gain control over the party for themselves.

What is the motivation from the members of the party to embrace these groups

Kleinfeld: America's political system, what's called a winner-take-all system, where if you get 50 percent of the vote plus one, you win the whole election for whatever segment of the electorate you're trying to win. We know internationally that that is particularly prone to violence because if you change one elector or a hundred in a certain place, you get the whole pie.

And so all over the world, countries with that kind of election system tend toward more violence and intimidation. And then there are other ways that America has organized. For instance, our two party system, so that it sort of tends toward a polarizing force rather than five or six parties. These are things we know internationally have a tendency to lead toward violence.

So one reason that you're seeing Republicans do this is because the stakes are high and because they can. They're not being punished for it. And changing election systems is something that they did in, say, Northern Ireland in their peace deal to deal with that particular problem.

Another part of the issue with these Republican parties is that the Republican Party has changed a great deal. You know, I know the left wing didn't like the Republican Party under Reagan, and they didn't like the Republican Party under Nixon. There's a lot of people on the left who haven't liked the Republican Party for a long time.

But I think it's really important to recognize for Republicans that their party has changed a great deal in just the last few years. So we've had about … 45 percent turnover since Trump took office in Congress of the Republican Party members. It's very large, about 75 percent since the Tea Party revolution in 2008. So, the people who are running this party are no longer the people who were the kind of Liz Cheney's of the world and so on, who might be very conservative but still attached to democratic principles. ...

What happened in 2016? You got a lot of voters who were swing voters. They'd voted for Democrats as well as Republicans, but they believed their white identity was pretty important to their political identity. They moved more firmly into the Republican Party. And then in this last election, you actually got more Blacks and Asians and Hispanics and so on moving into the Republican Party as well.

So, the Republican Party has this very confusing base for it to work with. And what it's found is that by weaponizing cultural issues, it can keep this base together. Policy doesn't really hold it together, but weaponizing cultural issues can. And so that's what they've been doing. And by weaponizing cultural issues, they've been demonizing other groups. And by threatening other groups, they can bring out their base.

On the violence from the left

Kleinfeld: The statistics show if you look at, say, the global terrorism database, which looks at terrorism all over the world, that violence on the right has skyrocketed since 2016. And it is nothing like violence on the left. There's just no comparison.

There is, however, something the left has to start acknowledging, which is that the property damage caused by the BLM protests was real, that there is violence latent in parts of the left that they need to deal with. That doesn't mean it's the same. It doesn't mean that there's any symmetry whatsoever. But it is something that the left needs to deal with as well, because what we're seeing on the left is a desire among people who are not connected to the Democratic Party. The justifications for violence on the left are coming from disaffected, young, rich, white progressives who want to support ethnic and racial minorities. That's who we're seeing justifying that violence. And they're very disaffected with the Democratic Party. It's a problem.

It's a very different problem than the problem on the right, where the violence that we're seeing is from more mainstream members, married people with kids and jobs, often white-collar jobs, who are very connected to the Republican Party, who feel very tightly and strongly supportive of the Republican Party. That means violence on the right is mobilizable, and we're seeing it being mobilized by a number of candidates, by candidate ads, by former President Trump, whereas on the left, it's what we used to see in the '60s and the '70s. It's disaffected fringe people who are not being supported by electoral candidates. But if that changes, if you see electoral candidates support them, things could change on the left.

This program aired on July 20, 2022.


Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


Kimberly Atkins Stohr Guest Host, On Point
Kimberly Atkins is a senior opinion writer and columnist for Boston Globe Opinion. She's also a frequent guest host for On Point. She formerly was a senior news correspondent for WBUR.



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