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The Vigilante President

As impeachment and the 2020 election loom, Trump’s hard-core supporters are poised to unleash a wave of violence against their enemies.

President Donald Trump has often flaunted the brawn of his supporters, adding a baseline of menace to his increasingly embattled presidency. “Law enforcement, military, construction workers, Bikers for Trump ... These are tough people,” he said at a 2018 campaign event in St. Louis, Missouri. “These are great people. But they’re peaceful people, and antifa and all—they’d better hope they stay that way. I hope they stay that way.” Six months later, in an interview with Breitbart News, Trump made the threat of violence from his supporters more explicit. “I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough, until they go to a certain point,” he said. “And then it would be very bad, very bad.” 

Very bad indeed. Fast forward a year, and Trump has made the prospect of violence more palpable. Since Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry into the president’s attempts to strong-arm Ukraine’s government into targeting Joe Biden, Trump has labeled the House of Representative’s constitutionally enumerated actions “a COUP, intended to take away the Power of the People, their VOTE, their Freedoms, their Second Amendment, Religion, Military, Border Wall, and their God-given rights as a Citizen of the United States of America!” He has said that a successful impeachment would “cause a Civil War.” He has called for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, the Democrat leading the impeachment proceedings, to be arrested for treason, while reminiscing about the death penalty punishment that crime had routinely carried. During an October rally in Pittsburgh, he mock-pleaded with his supporters, “Make sure you don’t hurt them, please. Thank you.”  

Trump has, in other words, laid the groundwork for his acolytes to respond to impeachment—in his description an illegitimate, immoral, and illegal campaign to deprive patriotic Americans of their democracy, conducted by the Deep State, the “enemies of the people” in the liberal media, and Democrats who “hate our country”—with a corresponding urgency. With, if need be, brute force. 

Of course, Trump says many things, a mix of lies, half-truths, conspiracy babble, and almost comical nonsense. He sprays the public discourse with so much scattershot that it is impossible to keep track of all the spent fragments. But there is a growing sense that he considers violence a potent weapon in his political arsenal—and that his supporters will not go down without a literal fight if he is either impeached, or defeated in an election. Stuart Rhodes, the head of the right-wing militia group the Oath Keepers, for example, leapt through the door Trump had opened, declaring in a September tweet, “We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war. Like in 1859.”

Such rhetoric insinuates that there is an army of shadows milling among us—one that might one day decide to enact its own understanding of the law. And by mixing together his supporters, from military to militia, Trump has rendered even more porous the border separating those who exercise violence officially, from those doing so unofficially, or illegally. This act of elision raises the specter of a specific type of state-promoted vigilantism—the same kind of violence nurtured by autocratic leaders elsewhere to erode liberal democratic constraints on their power. Leaders like Rodrigo Duterte, who has urged Filipinos to kill drug dealers wherever they are found and has presided over a body count in the thousands; Narendra Modi, who casually fostered vigilante lynch mobs before he became India’s prime minister; Jair Bolsonaro, who defended the idea of street justice prior to his election as president of Brazil; and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who encouraged pro-state vigilante militias in the wake of the failed 2016 attempted coup d’état against him.

If it seems far-fetched for the world’s oldest democracy to follow a similar path, that may be because we have forgotten our own history. It would be reassuring to think that Trump is just an exception to the broad saga of American exceptionalism, but the United States has long been home to the same basic elements of violent tribalism that have infected politics elsewhere—and that threaten to rise again.

Invasion, gangs, criminals, illegals, aliens, killers, animals, predators, rapists. Trump’s words, usually ridiculous but often vicious, have real power in the world. We would be foolish not to heed them. For example, it is highly likely that Trump will denounce any election he loses as illegitimate. Prior to the 2016 presidential election, Trump repeatedly refused to commit to accepting its results, snarkily remarking that he would respect the outcome of the vote “if I win.” He then proceeded to contest the legitimacy of the popular vote despite his Electoral College victory, with the ludicrous and demonstrably false accusation that there had been millions of illegal votes cast. He has repeatedly indicated his desire to do away with presidential term limits, voicing his admiration for China’s Xi Jinping upon his accession to the office of “president for life” and musing about “giv[ing] that a shot someday.” 

Whether his removal comes from impeachment proceedings or from the ballot box, there is more than a good chance that Trump will not go quietly. He has what might be called a Samson option to bring the whole temple of American democracy down with him—not only by attacking its institutions and norms, but also by inciting violent resistance to a peaceful transfer of power.

Many of his supporters have already committed political violence or indicated their desire to. Sometimes this happens with Trump’s explicit approval, like his 2016 promise to pay the legal fees of supporters who “knock[ed] the crap out of” protesters. Other times, his involvement is more passive, as when his otherwise overactive Twitter account grows silent at the news of some new violent attack from right-wing vigilantes. In some instances, he’ll offer clearly pro forma and half-hearted condemnations, and attempt to disassociate himself from politically motivated acts of violence. From physical attacks on and threats against journalists, to Cesar Sayoc’s failed attempt to assassinate prominent Democrats and blow up CNN’s newsroom in 2018, to the targeted killing of Hispanics in an El Paso Wal-Mart earlier this year, the potential for continued violence from Trump supporters is real—and mounting. 

A member of the United Constitutional Patriots vigilante group, which patrols the U.S.-Mexico border, in Anapra, New Mexico.
Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty

In early October, Paul Hasson, a white nationalist Coast Guard lieutenant in possession of an extensive arsenal of high-powered weaponry, pleaded guilty to planning to kill journalists, politicians, professors, judges, and other “leftists”. And in a prime example of militias moving their activity from the periphery of the border to the center of American life, the Oath Keepers announced in both September and October their intent to “protect” Trump rallies with armed escorts.

Vigilante violence, unfortunately, is a movie we’ve seen before. In the introduction to American Violence: A Documentary History, Richard Hofstadter wrote, “What is most exceptional about the Americans is not the voluminous record of their violence, but their extraordinary ability, in the face of that record, to persuade themselves that they are among the best-behaved and best-regulated of peoples.” This historic violence, Hofstadter noted, was not initiated with a desire to subvert the state, and therefore didn’t usually result in the undermining of authority. It was violence by and for the establishment and its preservation, unleashed at different times “against abolitionists, Catholics, radicals, workers and labor organizers, Negroes, Orientals, and other ethnic or racial or ideological minorities, and has been used ostensibly to protect the American, the Southern, the white Protestant, or simply the established middle-class way of life and morals.”

This deeply American phenomenon traces back to the emergence in 1767 of the South Carolina Regulators, referred to by historian Richard Maxwell Brown as “North American’s first vigilante group.” Originally formed in response to a severe crime wave that swept the state, the Regulators eventually established a presence in North Carolina and Virginia as well, where they were led by Colonel Charles Lynch (yes, the namesake of that infamous form of killing). Along with their geographic expansion, they increased their scope, targeting not just outlaws, but “lewd” women, “vagrants, idlers, gamblers,” and the “outcasts of Virginia and North Carolina.”

Brown counted 326 distinct vigilante movements that traversed the American territory from 1767 to 1910. These movements did not limit themselves to targeting strict criminality, but rather sought to uphold anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant social mores—another reminder that extrajudicial violence in the United States has been inextricable from various forms of white nationalism.

The Texas Rangers—originally funded by the Republic of Texas, as Catherine McNicol Stock writes in Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain—exacted notorious violence on Native American tribes and Hispanics both in the run-up to and aftermath of the Mexican-American war. Other militias, like John Chivintgon’s, attacked and massacred Native American settlements that had surrendered to, and had been promised protection by, the U.S. federal government. Across the Rocky Mountain West and Southwest, vigilante groups of white farmers and miners targeted Chinese and Mexican laborers, seeking to expel from the frontier those who, as Stock notes, “threatened the control and success of their so-called white republic.” And in San Francisco, where law enforcement and the “vigilance committee” often cooperated, vigilantism became a response to the growing political power of working-class Irish Catholics.

In the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the Johnson administration convened a National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. In its final report, the Commission concluded that both frontier vigilantism and a more urban form that it dubbed “neovigilantism” had grown after the Civil War as “largely a response to the problems of an emerging urban, industrial, racially and ethnically diverse America.” These vigilante groups had chiefly targeted “Catholics, Jews, immigrants, Negroes, laboring men and labor leaders, political radicals and proponents of civil liberties.” 

Among the most infamous of these post–Civil War vigilante groups was, and remains, the Ku Klux Klan, formed by six former Confederates. The KKK went through three distinct periods. During the Reconstruction era, it presided over an epidemic of lynchings in the South. Kick-started by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, the Klan exhibited vicious anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic activity during the 1920s. During this early twentieth century revival, the KKK also became more explicitly nationalist and targeted those seen to be a threat to the nation at large, including “enemies of the people” such as socialists, anarchists, and radicals. 

Straddling the sometimes permeable border between vigilantes and the state itself, the Klan exerted extensive political power in Southern California and Indiana, and even briefly controlled state legislatures in Colorado, Oregon, Texas, and Oklahoma. Between 1915 and 1944, the Klan saw more than two million members pass through its ranks, before re-emerging in force as a backlash to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. (Among its modern sympathizers, it seems, was Donald Trump’s father, Fred.)

The overt forms of racist vigilantism as exemplified by the KKK are now seen as anathema to the American project. But other, similar forms of vigilante violence continue to share the center stage in this country’s mythology: intrepid pioneers moving West ran parallel to the forceful tearing of America from its native inhabitants, for example. The ethos of the American vigilante runs deep, tightly linked with a fear of erosion of white American identity, and crystallizing at the state’s geographic and conceptual borders.

The Ku Klux Klan remains America’s most recognizable vigilante group.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What are the political conditions that allow such violence to flourish? In the 1970s, two sociologists, H. Jon Rosenbaum and Peter Sederberg, broke vigilantism down into three types: crime control (our most common mental image of what a superhero-like vigilante is concerned with); social group control (violence meted out on behalf of the established order against those seeking a redistribution of resources, be they social, cultural, or economic); and regime control (violence on behalf of the establishment intended to make the state a more effective guardian of its “base”). All three might be expected to occur more frequently in weakened democracies.

For an illiberal, aspiring autocrat like Donald Trump, such violence can provide benefits (suppression of opponents, generalized terror) while simultaneously furnishing him arm’s-length deniability in its commission. So while vigilante violence typically takes lasting root in weak democracies, it can also be a method of intentionally weakening them—of redefining the relationship among the citizen, the state, and the norms we expect and adhere to on a broad level.

Vigilante violence can become a crucible for the politics of belonging, intensifying and starkly reinforcing social divides between in-groups and out-groups. It undermines the liberal institutional restraints on the state’s exercise of force that exist in a healthy democracy, while normalizing authoritarian behavior among its population. And in a state gone far enough down the road of autocracy, police vigilantism in particular allows an autocratic leader the chance to simulate and generate public support for a strong state. Joshua Barker, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto whose research has focused on Indonesia, notes that the Suharto regime liked having neighborhood watch groups because “it created a citizenry that thought and acted like police.”

In the 1970s, Rosenbaum and Sederberg were already identifying groups like the American Minutemen as “a potential regime control vigilante group.” (They were referring to an armed anti-communist organization formed in the 1960s. A different border militia, also known as the “Minutemen,” was founded in 2004, and various other groups currently use “Minutemen” in their name). More recently, the number of militia groups has dramatically increased. The Anti-Defamation League estimated in 2017 that there were more than 500 militia groups in the United States, doubling the figure from 2008. Among them are groups like the Oath Keepers, which ominously recruit military and police veterans, and the Three Percenters, whose name references their claim that just 3 percent of the colonial American population fought in the Revolutionary War.

And as they’ve multiplied, militia groups have greatly extended their sphere of influence. America’s militias have fired on federal agents, taken over government buildings and land, showed up heavily armed at protests, acted as self-proclaimed body guards for Republican lawmakers, and, most prominently in the Trump era, “patrolled” the southern border.

Earlier this year, a vigilante border militia called the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP) posted a video on social media of its heavily armed members dressed in military-style camouflage. They were detaining hundreds of migrants at gunpoint in New Mexico. The Daily Beast reported that Larry Hopkins, the self-titled “National Commander” of the UCP, claims to be in personal communication with Trump.

Whether that is true or not, the president’s language about the border needs little interpretation. “Illegal” immigrants have been demonized as “criminals and rapists” in the context of an established order undergoing profound demographic change. So vigilante militia groups that “patrol” the U.S.-Mexico border aren’t merely seeking to control “crime,” but to suppress certain social groups. They thus directly undermine the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy in a way that an otherwise sympathetic state authority cannot.

Indeed, the UCP and other militias appear to have a positive relationship with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), though CBP denies this. The agency is prohibited by law from accepting “help” beyond what Congress has specifically appropriated (which is the reason it gave for turning down donated supplies intended to benefit the children CBP had separated from their families and then locked away in cages). But there is strong evidence for a tacit working relationship between CBP and various militias such as UCP. “Border Patrol is certainly aware, or should be, that agents on the ground are accepting the ‘help’ of private militia members,” Deana El-Mallawany, counsel for Protect Democracy, a group that has been tracking border militias since Trump’s election, told me. 

Members of UCP have told The New York Times and Buzzfeed that CBP has never asked UCP to stand down, and that the group has a “direct line” to local CBP offices. El-Mallawany also pointed to a 2018 video uncovered by a FOIA request filed by Protect Democracy showing a CBP officer urging more Americans to follow the lead of the Three Percenters.

Fidan Elcioglu, a professor at the University of Toronto who authored a paper on two border militias in Arizona, which she pseudonymously refers to as the “Soldiers” and the “Engineers,” told me in an email that CBP unquestioningly collaborates with the militias. She prefers the term “popular sovereignty” to “vigilantism” to highlight that these militias are not operating at the fringes of society: “The ‘Soldiers’ are clearly operating at the institutional center. They’re working with Border Patrol. They are a clear form of collective policing-qua-civic-engagement,” she said. “As far as I have observed, border patrol field agents do not chastise them for carrying out armed ‘operations’ near the Arizona-Sonora border.” 

If in a functioning liberal democracy the exercise of force belongs solely to the state and is bounded by institutional restraints, “it is in defect democracies as well as in weak authoritarian systems that vigilantism is most useful,” said Peter Kreuzer, a senior researcher of intrastate conflict at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt. One way that vigilantism is useful, to those in power, as I have previously noted, is that it offers regimes deniability. Take, for example, the way that Hong Kong’s police have welcomed attacks by Triad gangs on pro-democracy protesters, a series of concerted and state-sanctioned assaults that ostensibly lets the authorities keep their hands clean.

The rise of violence in a flawed democracy, especially one headed by a would-be autocrat with no inherent respect for limits on his exercise of power, is a sign that the core function of any polity—its ability to monopolize the use of force, and maintain the trust of its citizens as an effective, legitimate, and just arbiter—is being lost. Politicians who cynically promote vigilante violence sap the strength of collective governance in order to advance their own short-term political gain. States that follow this path don’t easily come back.

If Trump were a more Machiavellian operator, rather than an egomaniacal, narcissistic, and deeply incompetent one, American democracy might already be doomed. But even if Trump is nothing more than a racist with a penchant for showmanship, who happened to be emotionally attuned to the true concerns of the Republican base, what happens with the president’s most militant supporters when he screams “COUP!” as he’s escorted from the White House?

What happens when his supporters, who, true to his claims, are numerous in law enforcement and the military, decide to act in “defense” of democracy and their polarized-reality understanding of what the legitimate state authority is? It’s an especially fraught question given that, for many of them, this moment goes beyond politics and ideology—it is existential. Trump’s blurring of reality and conspiracy, of what is legitimate and what is not, cannot be separated from the context of his support: white fears of being replaced. 

A steady stream of research has dispelled the media myth that Trumpism was somehow about economic anxiety. As academics such as Michael Tesler were already documenting before Trump’s victory in 2016, Trump’s support is an expression of the rise of white identity politics. The appeal of this politics goes well beyond the working class and even draws in many white millennials. The evidence shows that racial resentment, anti-immigrant sentiment, and belief in white vulnerability (the perception that whites are losing ground to other groups), not economic hardship, are what correlate the most closely with voting for Trump. Trump enjoys cult-like support among roughly a core 25 percent of the American population because people who strongly identify as white become more likely to support him when they are told that nonwhite groups will outnumber whites in America as soon as 2042.

At its heart, vigilantism is a fringe phenomenon, something that happens when the state, or belief in it, is weak. If a significant component of a country’s citizens and roughly half of its political class reject the legitimacy of the state’s norms and institutions, well, there’s only so much the rest of the country can do. Healthy democracies are multi-party states, where the stakeholders profess the same basic principles and debate policy from within a single shared reality; the United States has become a country with one political party, one tribal faction, and multiple competing realities.

More than anything else, impeachment provides a clear path forward. It offers a chance for Republicans to do what their country urgently requires of them. They must tell the kind of truths—that the president is corrupt and unfit for office—that can only gain wide currency within the Republican cult if they’re confirmed by those within the Trump information bubble. Other right-wing parties have done this in other nations—most recently in 2017 in France, where Les Républicains ultimately chose to form a sanitary cordon against the National Front, sacrificing their political party’s short-term prospects for the long-term health of the republic. 

Hofstadter wrote about his own era that politicians seeking to sow division and confrontation had hit upon the brilliant tactic of provoking violence, rather than committing it themselves. Most political violence in the world, he said, was ultimately the product of authority, rather than an organic upwelling. And what was true in Hofstadter’s time is all the more urgently true for ours.