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In the aftermath of the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot, anti-government militias like the Oath Keepers thrust themselves to the forefront of public consciousness. The ongoing January 6th committee hearings have increased the pressure on these groups to defend their actions leading up to and during that day. But the word “militia” is a very old word that appears in the founding document of the United States. It wasn't always associated with people attacking democracy but rather safeguarding it. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Carole Gallaher joins us to discuss American militias.
Professor Gallaher explains what constitutes an American militia (1:21) and how that’s vastly different from the militias referred to in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution (2:47). She breaks down the overlap among today’s American militia groups, white nationalism, and white supremacy (3:51); the relationship militias like the Oath Keepers have to far-right groups like the Proud Boys (6:51); whether or not American militia groups are always violent (9:22); and who, in the US, is most likely to join such groups (11:08).
Why are the violent and tragic events of Ruby Ridge in 1992 and the Waco siege in 1993 associated with the American militia movement of the 1990s? (16:03). Does the political party of the sitting US president have any impact on militia membership and activity (17:21)? Professor Gallaher answers these questions and discusses why the presidency of Barack Obama spurred a rise in militia movement activity (19:52). She then reveals how US public attitudes about militias have changed since the ’90s (22:306) and her experiences interviewing Kentucky militia members for her research (27:19). The episode concludes with Professor Gallaher explaining the relationship between militia groups’ support of former president Donald Trump and their own anti-government views. (28:39).
During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Gallaher suggests five things that should be done to tackle the threat that American militias pose to democracy (12:28).
0:07 Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. The House of Representatives' January 6th committee hearings have become must-see TV for millions of Americans. Those hearings, and the aftermath of the January 6th riot itself, have brought names of groups like the Oath Keepers to the forefront of public consciousness. But the word militia is a very old word that appears in the founding document of the United States. It wasn't always associated with people attacking democracy, but rather safeguarding it.
0:41 KS: Today, we're talking about American militias. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Carole Gallaher. Carole is a professor in the School of International Service and the school senior associate dean. Carole researches the politics, internal dynamics, and patterns of violence of militias and paramilitaries. She's the author of three books, including On The Fault Line: Race, Class, and the American Patriot Movement.
1:05 KS: Carol, thanks for joining Big World.
1:08 Carole Gallaher: Thanks for having me.
1:09 KS: I'm very excited to get into this conversation. First of all, to get us started, Carole, what constitutes an American militia, and how long have militias existed in the US?
1:21 CG: Well, when you hear the word militia today, most people think about the 1990s so-called militia movement that began around activism and protests against the government's actions at Waco, Texas, against the Branch Davidians and also the standoff that had held against Randy Weaver in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, both of those standoffs led to civilian and law enforcement deaths. They created this groundswell of anger among what became nascent militias.
1:49 CG: But more recently, when you hear the term militia, you think about the Oath Keepers the Three Percenters, or if you're out west, the Bundy Militia, and they've been multiple iterations of this, they were at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, they were in Nevada at Cliven Bundy's ranch.
2:04 CG: But if we look back in history, and we think about examples of localized armed groups that take matters into their own hands, we see this pattern throughout American history. Some of the earlier examples of this would be the South Carolina Regulators or the Whiskey Rebels in Pennsylvania or West Virginia.
2:24 KS: Looking back historically, the Second Amendment to the US Constitution says that, "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." And we hear a lot today about what the founders intended. In your opinion, are today's militias at all what they meant when this amendment was drafted?
2:47 CG: Not at all. If you think about the militias that were part of the revolutionary war, they were fighting against the British for American independence. Today's militias are usually fighting against the state. They're actually fighting against the country that the historical militias were fighting for independence for. Just to give you an example, some big examples, of course, 1995, Timothy McVeigh parked his rider truck outside of a building that he—and then blew up. It was a federal building. It was the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. More recently in 2016, Ammon Bundy, who's the son of Cliven Bundy, he took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, saying that the federal government should not own it.
3:29 CG: Most people today, when we think about militias, we think about anti-government groups. And in fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center defines militias primarily as anti-government organizations—extremists but anti-government.
3:44 KS: Right. And what is the relationship between American militia groups today and white nationalism and white supremacy?
3:51 CG: The way I think about this is like a Venn diagram. If the listener can just imagine three circles and they have areas of overlap between the three of them, I'll just talk about the overlap between the militias and white nationalists and white supremacists.
4:05 CG: All three of them have, I'd say, three things in common. Mostly, they're populated by white men, they tend to believe in similar conspiracy theories, like the "new world order and elements of Qanon," and they're all very suspicious of the government. But there are big differences. I think the biggest one is what these groups emphasize.
4:27 CG: White supremacists and white nationalists, they emphasize race as fundamental to who they are, they embrace the fact that they're white, and they see the presumed rise of power by Jews, Black people, Latino people, Asian people, anyone of color as their main target, as their main threat. Most militias don't emphasize race even though the large majority of them are white. What they tend to focus on is what they see as an overreaching government. That doesn't mean that militias, they don't have necessarily white supremacist beliefs, I think a lot of them do, but it's not what they emphasize.
5:03 CG: Another thing that's different about these groups is that militias have historically, in the more recent period, I'd say roughly 1990 to today, they have historically seen power as something that needs to be concentrated in the local level. For them, the locality should trump the state or federal government, right? If the government wants to send ICE into a county or they want to send the Department of Homeland Security into a county, militias should be able to say, "No" to that. And that they think their rules should trump state and federal law, which of course is the exact opposite of how it actually works in practice.
5:40 CG: White nationalists, on the other hand, they tend to support a strong state. In fact, they want a strong state as long as it's someone that they support that's running it because you need a strong state to control the people that you see as enemies or to force them out. How they interface with the state is a big difference. I will say what we did see in the 2020 election is these groups coming together to support Donald Trump. In that sense, they became pro-state, but in reality, it was really more pro-Trump, pro-regime, so they were like his unofficial armed defenders.
6:21 KS: And we've seen two groups in particular in these Venn diagrams, and I love Venn diagrams, all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. I think that's helpful. Looking at a couple of these different ones, what is the relationship of militias like Oath Keepers to far right groups like the Proud Boys in terms of, is there overlap in their membership? Do they share any specific goals or do they coordinate their activities?
6:51 CG: Well, I think the first thing to think about is how groups that track these groups define them. One of my go-to organizations for this is the Southern Poverty Law Center, and they classify the Oath Keepers as an anti-government group and the Proud Boys as a hate group.
7:08 CG: However, in the run-up to the 2020 election, the Oath Keepers and the proud boys started showing up in similar places. They were at Trump rallies, they were counter-protestors at BLM protests. They came to each other's events. Many of them, in both groups, showed up on the streets in Portland at a variety of protests. More recently, of course, on the Eve of January 6th, there's documentary evidence that the Proud Boys' leader Enrique Tarrio met with the Oath Keeper's Stewart Rhode. What we don't yet know is in that particular case is the degree to which they were coordinating. We know they did some coordination, but we don't know how much and what that coordination looked like. One of the things that, if you looked at the footage from January 6th, and again, I haven't seen anything more than the average person would've seen, because I'm not
8:00 CG: inside policing this, but both groups were organized in how they approached the Capitol, but they weren't doing it at the same time in the same places, and so they could have been coordinating on opposite sides of the Capitol, but they may not have been. That's sort of an open question. But again, this is probably a greater level and degree of sharing space than we've seen in quite some time. The predecessor to this would've been in Charlottesville and the Unite the Right rally, and there, that was organized by people on the alt-right, and they brought militias in or they invited them in, but the militias didn't really work with the organizers, and there were a lot of personality scuffles and things like that. And then after that whole thing sort of fell apart, there was a lot of finger pointing going on, so the ability to coordinate has always been kind of hampered by not just personality but also kind of different ideologies. What we saw at January 6th is they kind of came together in a more substantial way.
9:02 KS: And thinking a little bit about January 6th, Carole, the images from January 6th are burned in the national memory at this point. It was a scary and violent day for most Americans, but are American militia groups always violent? It's certainly the image that people have of them, but is it true? Are they always violent?
9:22 CG: They're not always violent, but they use the threat of violence as part of their politics, and let me just give you an example. So when I first started researching the militia movement in the mid to late ‘90s, I was looking at what was then the Central Kentucky Militia, which became the Kentucky State Militia, and I interviewed and went to their meetings for several years, and their leader was Charlie Puckett. And every time I talked to Charlie, he would say, "I'm glad that you're talking to us because we're not a violent militia. We're not extremist. We're a mainstream organization." And after I left Kentucky and I moved to Washington, DC, Charlie Puckett was arrested, and when they arrested him in his house, he had dug a trench around his house and they had explosives in the trench facing outward, and he was found with I think it was roughly 30,000 rounds of ammunition, and he had a machine gun, which at the time was illegal, and also other weapons he was not supposed to have because he had a felony on this record.
10:25 CG: I always take with grains of salt anyone that says the militia movement isn't violent. I mean, many militias don't engage in violence, but if you call yourself a militia and you describe the state as an imminent threat, and you're collecting weapons and storing ammunition, you may not have used it yet, but you have the potential to use it. That is part of the imagery and the iconography of these groups to say, "We are powerful. We have weapons. You need to pay attention to what we want and what we care about because we are armed."
10:58 KS: When we think about who joins, who the joiners are, who in the US would you say is most likely to join militia groups and why?
11:08 CG: Well, sometimes the way I think about this question is to ask it slightly differently, which is who do militias recruit, right? Because at the end of the day, militias, they're a little bit older than some of the other groups like alt-right groups and things like this, so the sort of demographic doesn't always live online. So personal recruitment is important, and so it really is a matter of who people go and recruit. Because militias are often designed to be local, even if you have a sort of quasi-national group, you have local chapters, and so really personal connection is key. And so it's often one white man that joins for whatever reason, maybe because they were recruited, and then they go and recruit their friends. So it's largely white men, but again, a lot of these networks are about personal networks that people use to recruit.
12:05 KS: Carole Gallaher. It's time to Take Five. This is when you, our guest, get to daydream out loud and reorder the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. Recent evidence suggests that militias, as currently constituted in the US, pose a threat to democracy. What five things would you suggest be done to tackle that threat?
12:28 CG: So the first thing I think that needs to happen is that the military and law enforcement at all levels need to purge members of militias and other far-right groups from their ranks. They cannot police people if they have these views, and if they are, in many respects in some cases, engaging in illegal behavior.
12:46 CG: The second thing I would suggest is that we also police militias when they show up in force. This is going to depend on the state and local laws, but we often let militias do things—protesting and walk around carrying guns in places that other groups would not be allowed to do. I'd say we need to police them more. We need to stop treating them with kid gloves like they can do things that other groups can't do. At the local level where militias are being organized, we need other small groups to develop counter narratives that speak to the things that militia groups are trying to rally fear and anxiety about, but also just push back. There needs to be a counter-narrative. I mean, people are often threatened and afraid of militias, so they don't say anything, and so what tends to happen is the dominant narrative is the militia narrative, even though that dominant narrative may not be something that the majority of the population supports. This is a social movement thing, right? We need movements that are defending democracy on the ground.
13:50 CG: Another thing that's going to sound strange, but I think somebody needs to take the Republican Party over, and in the same way that far right groups took it over earlier, right? So many people, sort of mainstream Republicans, sometimes are a bemused and scratch their head like, "How did this happen?" I mean, it's been going on for 20 years, and it kind of got a lot of attention around Trump, but it was happening before that. So Republicans that don't support the far right have let this happen or have watched it happen and haven't really done a whole lot with it. It can't just be a top-down thing. People that believe in Republican ideals, in the traditional Republican party ideals, they need to say, "There's no space here for the far right."
14:40 CG: The other thing I think we need to do is stop calling these groups militias. We should not be legitimating their attempt to hijack American history for their own ends. I've sort of started taking in some cases when I write about them to calling them "so-called militias." I want people that read my work to know who I'm talking about, and most people understand them as malicious, but I want to call that into question because when we let them do that and we let them have that name, we are letting them create this form of legitimacy for what their movement is.
15:10 KS: Thank you.
15:14 KS: Carole, I want to talk a little about the 1990s, not just for nostalgia purposes. The ‘90s, as you mentioned, was a previous high water mark for coverage and conversation about militias, and you mentioned two of the most famous incidents: Ruby Ridge in '92 in the Waco siege in '93. They are believed to have motivated the Oklahoma City bombers in 1995. From what I read, Timothy McVeigh's thought to have attended meetings of the Michigan Militia, but neither McVeigh and Terry Nichols nor Randy Weaver nor David Koresh acted in concert with a militia, so why do you think these violent and tragic events are so associated with the American militia movement of the ‘90s? What was it about these, particularly Ruby Ridge and Waco,
16:00 KS: ... that sparked an organized movement?
16:03 CG: Well, I think in the Intermountain West, Ruby Ridge was a big spark because Randy Weaver was sort of in a network of far right people already. When his wife and I believe it his son were killed, it was personal for many people in Idaho and in the Intermountain West, but it also just never looks good when you're killing civilians. They didn't kill Randy Weaver. They killed his wife, and I believe it was his son. The same with Waco. I remember watching that sort of unfold and also just being horrified at the fact that the compound was on fire, that there were people in there, that there was this... I think it was a tank, some big vehicle bumping into the structure. It wasn't that I was sympathetic to them. They were clearly a cult. They were likely abusing children. I think people were there in some cases against their will, but at the end of the day, you don't want a government action to try to eliminate that end in death. It was these two sort of high profile incidents where the government seemed to be using military force against its own citizens.
17:14 KS: Do you think it had anything to do with the fact that there was a Democrat in the White House at the time or did that have nothing to do with it?
17:21 CG: This is a question that militia scholars debate I think. If you look at—the Southern Poverty Law Center tracks militia groups across the country, and they do a report every year. If you look at the data from roughly 1995 to 2019, on the Eve of the 2020 election, you see bigger militia activity under Democratic presidents than Republican ones, but you also see this other trend, which is that they are more militias now than there were in the '‘90s between the two presidencies of Clinton and Bush and then Obama and Trump.
18:02 CG: The high watermark for Bill Clinton was in, I think, 1996. It was like 858 or 59. Then under George W. Bush, the high watermark, I think, was about 158 numbers of militias in the country. The high water mark for Barack Obama was either 1,380 or 1,280—over 1,000 militias. Donald Trump's high water mark was 689. What that kind of means is the spikes happen in Democratic periods and they go down in Republican periods, but what's interesting is they were higher in Barack Obama's period than they were in Bill Clinton's period. Likewise, they've been higher—the numbers were higher when Trump was president than they were when Bush was president. You also see there's definitely a partisan element here, but there's also kind of a sense that the groups are just— they're more plentiful now.
18:58 KS: In talking about what motivates these groups, I'm always curious about the presidency of Barack Obama and how his election in 2008 seemed to spur so much of this activity. Because if you look at it kind of objectively, his policies were basically very moderate for a Democrat. This is the man who authorized the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, but there was this ground swell of anti-government sentiment and this idea that he was also espousing this New World Order that you mentioned earlier. It makes it difficult to believe that it wasn't just racism. Was there anything else about the election of Barack Obama, other than the color of his skin, that spurred that kind of vitriolic response from militias?
19:52 CG: I think that it was race definitely, although a lot of people wouldn't necessarily cop to that or acknowledge that, but Barack Obama symbolized something very different. But the other thing to keep in mind is this slow creep of anti-governmentism that actually began in the Clinton years. The Republican party has spent decades undermining legitimacy of the federal government, describing government as bad for you, wanting to join government just to muck it up.
20:23 CG: That had been percolating for a good 10 to 15 years. And of course it goes back even further, I'm thinking just from the period of Newt Gingrich and his sort of ilk, but by the time Barack Obama becomes president, the Republican party has been chipping away discursively, rhetorically at the legitimacy of the government, wanting to defund it, to take money away from it except for foreign wars. Again, that was kind of a sore spot even for some militias, but Barack Obama comes in and by the time he comes in, you just have this kind of like coalescence of things that make him different.
21:02 CG: He's Black. He's the first Black president. He's pretty young too. He hadn't been in government for a very long time. He had this multiracial coalition that scared people. The thought was, "We're going to attach this difference, what makes him different, and then we're going to attach it to our whipped up fears of the government." He kind of becomes this avatar for all of these fears and anger, things that people are angry about, suspicions of the government, distrust in the government, anger at what they think the government is doing for some people and not others.
21:40 CG: He just kind of becomes this avatar for all of these things. Again, if you ask a militia member, "What is it about Barack Obama that you don't like?" in a lot of cases, it would depend on where you're talking to someone. What someone thinks is bad about Barack Obama and his presidency in a militia group in Alabama is probably going to be very different than what is a person in Idaho or Oregon's sort of view.
22:06 KS: You talked a little bit about the chipping away of trust in the government. How have public attitudes about militias changed since the '‘90s? Have those two shifts correlated as far as how the public feels about government and how they feel about militias?
22:27 CG: They're definitely correlated in the sense that if you think government is bad, and you start to think that government is bad, and you get into a bubble where everyone tells you everything the government does is bad, then you're going to be less likely to look at an anti-government group as dangerous. You might begin to see them as your sort of friends.
22:46 CG: What I saw happening—you saw it in the '‘90s, and it kind of exploded during Barack Obama's tenure... is that militias were normalized. After the Ruby Ridge and Waco hearings, there was a Congresswoman named Helen Chenoweth. She was in Idaho, a Republican from Idaho. She held a hearing on the so-called black helicopters that people said they saw at both of these cases, Ruby Ridge and Waco, and many people thought she was crazy. She was kind of out there. "Why is she doing this?"
23:18 CG: Today, you have Republicans, sitting members of Congress, multiple members of Congress—it's not just one person that everyone's like, "Oh, the crazy person that got elected over there in Idaho or got elected wherever. It's Congresspeople from all over the country are espousing militia rhetoric as if it's become normalized. It's no big deal to say it. In fact, you need to say it.
23:41 CG: One of the things I remember seeing in the '‘90s was when I would go to these gun shows and stuff to just be in the atmosphere and to see things, you would always see militias advertising themselves with pictures, where they were in camo and they're holding guns. Think about all of the people in Congress
24:00 CG: today that do that. I mean, I'm thinking about, I think it was Lauren Boebert's Christmas card, it's herself, her husband, and I think she's got three kids, and they're all holding what looks like assault rifles. And this is on a Christmas card, like "Joy to the World, y'all." And so you look at that and it's like, this is a city member of Congress, but it's not just Boebert there. There was another guy I think in Texas that did this. And I remember seeing this because it was as though someone was trying to calculate how much money all those weapons had cost. Right? It's not just the kind of usual suspects, it's like, think about Dr. Oz who's running against John Fetterman in Pennsylvania right now.
24:39 CG: And Dr. Oz was on Oprah. He was a doctor. He was always in nice suits. He was talking about healthcare and he's got an ad out or pictures out on Twitter where he's wearing flannel and he is shooting a rifle. The militia ethos has just become so normalized. But the thing is people say, "Oh, it's just happened." This has been going on for a long time. I mean, I remember, again, going back to Kentucky, when I was doing my research there, I interviewed several people in the Militia movement and one of them told me, "Well, when the General Assembly is in session, we are there every day." I'm like, "Well, what are you doing there every day?" And they said, "We're keeping track of what they're doing. And if they have any legislation that we are scared about or worried about, we get on the phone tree and we get it organized." Right? And then they also managed to get a General Assembly member to pass a resolution in the General Assembly.
25:34 CG: It was a resolution that didn't have any particular way, but it was symbolically important that said that an area in Kentucky that the Militias thought the UN had secret troops staged there, ready for a takeover. He got this resolution passed that the UN had to get out of this area. I just remember thinking it was just weird.I don't have any evidence the UN is there and you're using government to spread conspiracy theories. This has been building. Right? So this didn't just come about the last couple of years or even with Obama. I mean, this has just been the slow drip.
26:11 KS: Carole, I do have just a little fun in my head when I picture you hanging around gun shows and just hanging out there and talking to people. And listeners who don't know you, you're very friendly and approachable. And I grew up in the South too, so I am used to you encounter folks like this, people who have these views, people who go to the grocery store wearing camo gear, and you just get used to it, becomes part of the scenery. But I'm wondering when you were doing this research, sometimes you read about a journalist, maybe, who embeds with a group that has some dangerous inclinations, and inevitably in the story there's always a moment where they don't feel quite safe or they feel like all of a sudden, everybody that they've been speaking to looks at them and remembers that they're an outsider or that they're there to report. And I'm wondering, did you ever have any moments like that where you thought, "Hmm, this is—I'm all of a sudden, a little nervous because I feel like people have pegged me as somebody whose sort of examining them."
27:19 CG: Well, I think a lot of the time it depends on when you're doing something, whether you get sort of sight lined like that. And when I was doing it, the Militia group was really trying to recruit. And so what they did is they created this umbrella group called Citizens for a Constitutional Kentucky. And they were trying to bring people in. And so they didn't call it the Kentucky State Militia or the Central Kentucky Militia. And they advertised it in the Lexington Herald Leader so that's how I found out about it. And so I went to these meetings as a member of the public, and then I would have interviews with people. I remember feeling very unsafe, but also it felt very surreal. I was interviewing this person, and I used to ask people like, "What is the new world order? Who is in it?"
28:04 CG: And this person told me, "They're people from the third dimension or the fourth dimension," I forget. They were from not from our dimension. And it sounded like something from The X Files at the time because The X Files was big. Dear millennial and Gen Z listeners, go back and check. The X Files out. And it was just, I mean, at one level I wanted to laugh because I was like, "Did he watch The X Files last night?" But the other part of me was like, "This is kind of what conspiracies look like on steroids, right?" That you're othering people to the degree that you're treating them like aliens or sort of different beings.
28:39 KS: And Carole last topic. In a 2020 essay you wrote with Jacqueline Fox, you discussed how groups within the traditional Militia movement in the US, which are associated with virulently anti-government views still became staunch supporters of Trump when he was president, and you mentioned this earlier. And I'm wondering if the Militia movement as a whole, if their anti-government approach has changed, or if it's sort of in the way that some of these groups saw Barack Obama as the avatar of all that was bad, did these groups, whatever their inclination, whether they were nationalists or people who were anti-government, did they see Trump as an avatar for all that was good? And if so, was that because he was sort of an empty vessel in terms of policy? Or what is the relationship between those groups' support of Trump and their own anti-government views?
29:36 CG: Really what we saw on January 6th with the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys was behavior that was much more akin to what we would call a paramilitary. Just to get people thinking about what I mean here, like if we think about Northern Ireland or Columbia. So in both cases, you had a conflict between a guerilla group in Northern Ireland, that would be the IRA, who wanted to get the Brits out, and the FARC in Columbia that wanted to overthrow the government. And on the other side, you had right-wing paramilitaries who were just paramilitaries, who were basically doing the dirty work of the State.
30:17 CG: They were fighting on behalf of the State or defending the State, but they weren't taking all of their orders or some of their orders from the State. They were sort of operating in parallel with the State, but keeping distance, which allows the State to claim innocence when something bad happens. And so that's really what the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys and other groups were doing. Before the election, they were going to his rallies and "offering protection." They were basically an informal presidential guard or an informal private army. That's what paramilitaries are. They weren't defending the federal government, because they still hate the federal government, but that's because they see the federal government as working against their interests. What they were defending was a regime, the Trump regime.
31:07 KS: Carole Gallaher, thank you for joining Big World to discuss Militias in America. It's been a pleasure to speak with you as always. And I know I learned a lot today.
31:15 CG: Thanks for having me.
31:17 KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like $50 bill on the sidewalk with no one else around who it could possibly belong to. Really it's an empty street, you can have the money. Our theme music is, "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.
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