Liberals are notoriously loath to take their own side in a fight. But their reticence may well be changing in an age of vigilante, white nationalist terror—openly condoned and supported by an incumbent president who has suggested that his armed devotees won’t stand for his removal from office. Increasingly, the antifa left is arguing—and training—in response. They are worried not only about an armed reckoning following a contested election, but also about rising violence from the paramilitaries loyal to President Donald Trump.
Consider the tense political climate in the Pacific Northwest, where Washington state Representative Matt Shea, a dough-faced Christian dominionist from Spokane, made news last year when his instructions on how to build a “holy army” that would kill “all males” who refused to submit to biblical law leaked to the press. “Assassination to remove tyrants is just, not murder,” he wrote. The tyrant he referred to was not Trump, of course, but the communists he imagined running the government.
Such paranoid fantasies may be familiar to heavy consumers of YouTube and Reddit, but watching them transposed on to the structures of governance is a novelty. As a result, many leftists and even some liberals are beginning to reconsider their feelings about firearms, joining a loose amalgamation of gun groups, from John Brown Gun Clubs (which take their name from the abolitionist) to the Pink Pistols (an LGBTQ group), Liberal Gun Club, and Socialist Rifle Association. Some of these organizations are moderate and traditionalist, others radical and revolutionary. But all share one implicit goal: to normalize firearms ownership and training among liberals. Some of their members hope such efforts will at least make Republicans think twice before attempting a massacre.
Whether that approach will inflame political violence—especially in hot spots like the Pacific Northwest—or deter it remains uncertain. In April, Shea spoke at an “open carry” rally in Olympia, which drew hundreds of people, many armed with AR-15s and shotguns. About ten members of the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club were also there, handing out flyers mocking Shea and another speaker, Joey Gibson of Patriot Prayer, who, they said, “attracted and embraced” rapists, pedophiles, and skinheads. “Want to defend your community from people like Matt Shea?” one flyer asked. At the moment, the Puget Sound JBGC, which was founded less than four months after Trump took office, has around 30 active members. But its firearms safety and marksmanship workshops fill up faster every time the club hosts them. Full members undergo lengthy vetting, but anyone can come learn how guns work, what the parts are, and how to handle them safely, before going to the range and learning to shoot. “We’re talking about white liberals, mostly women, who are like ‘let’s get this class going,’” the club’s founder, Duke Aaron, said. “Two years ago these people would be like ‘Guns? This is terrible.’ That’s not the reaction now.”
Trump deserves most of the blame for this particular uptick in gun sales. In March, he told Breitbart, “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people … it would be very bad, very bad,” if his followers decided to “play it tough.” In those remarks, some saw not Trumpian “swagger or machismo,” Adrian Bonenberger, an Afghanistan combat veteran, writer, and member of the Socialist Rifle Association told me, but “an incredibly thinly veiled threat.”
Not all threats these days come veiled. Former Trump adviser Roger Stone has used the Proud Boys—a group of neofascist men who describe themselves as “Western chauvinists”—as his own private security force. Border militias have been conducting vigilante operations against suspected undocumented immigrants. (One vigilante told BuzzFeed in April that his group was coordinating with border protection officials on an hourly basis.) And former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who compared American politics in 2019 to the vitriolic climate just before the Civil War, lent his name to an Italian “gladiator school” for training “culture warriors” to defend Christianity in the West.
Stories such as these have inspired a predictable response. The Puget Sound JBGC was founded after Aaron spotted hate graffiti in the park where his child plays. “People have some real fear about what the future holds for them, and some real fear about what lurks down the street,” he said. There is some talk of what would happen when Donald Trump or a more competent authoritarian successor bombs urban centers of resistance, like Seattle, but for the most part, these “community defense” groups are less concerned with doomsday scenarios than they are with immediate threats against mosques, synagogues, abortion clinics, and the like.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, most of their current members are white and male. Many are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A third of the Socialist Rifle Association’s 2,000 members identify as LGBTQ, and 8 percent are transgender. “We’ve got liberal folks, politicians and people in the media, saying, ‘the government is becoming a fascist regime,’ and then turning around and saying, ‘You can’t have your guns, we can only have guns in the hands of people we’re calling fascists,’” said Alex Tackett, the SRA’s 22-year-old president.
Of course, for pragmatic as well as public relations purposes, most of these groups insist that they merely want to promote gun safety. The Puget Sound JBGC vigorously rejects the term “militia,” noting that its members are instead merely seeking social justice. “Any police officer who wants to infiltrate us, best of luck; we’re incredibly boring, and everything we do is completely legal,” Aaron said.
Bonenberger believes it would take at least 20 years to create a force to rival the conservative militias that boast tens of thousands of members. By comparison, antifa has a combined membership in the low thousands, and even fewer people belong to armed leftist groups. They have been responsible for only a handful of attacks in recent years. (In April, the FBI announced it had thwarted a plot by a veteran who had been planning to target white nationalists in Los Angeles, but the bomb was fake; it had been supplied by FBI agents.) Polls show conservatives remain twice as likely as liberals to own guns—and that won’t change anytime soon.
Even if it did, it wouldn’t alter the underlying problems: The climate of vigilante violence on the right has elevated racist attacks, hate crimes, and terrorism in our political culture. Even veterans of leftist armies caution against forming one in America. “If people want to prepare for revolution, they should become labor organizers,” said Brace Belden, a former volunteer with a Kurdish communist militia turned factory organizer back home in San Francisco. Matriculating anyone from a “gladiator school,” in the service of any agenda, may be the sort of stress test our democracy wasn’t engineered to withstand.