Adam Fox was worried about a rat. In the dark and cluttered basement, Fox gathered the men’s phones in a bin and took them upstairs to the main floor of the nondescript vacuum store in Grand Rapids, Michigan—a measure meant to avoid surveillance. After he returned through the trap door normally hidden by a rug, the group of men began discussing how they would storm the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan, counter law enforcement who arrived on the scene, and throw Molotov cocktails at their vehicles. It was June 20. Six days earlier, Fox had explained in a call that they’d need “200 men” to storm the capitol and take hostages, including the governor. They would try her for “treason,” he said—and they would carry out their plan before the November presidential election.
The FBI arrested six men on Oct. 8—including Fox—for conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and overtake the state government. Through FBI informants and FBI agents, we know how those meetings went, spelled out in detail in an FBI affidavit. The men, in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, belonged to Wolverine Watchmen, an anti-government, anti-law enforcement militia group. Prior to the arrests, the group had surveilled Whitmer’s summer home, discussed bombing a bridge to block law enforcement response, and at another point, considered simply shooting Whitmer. On Tuesday, the FBI revealed the group had also considered kidnapping Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia.
Whitmer has been the target of extremists since she implemented a series of public health measures, including a stay-at-home order, in March, acting swiftly to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Michigan. In May, protesters and anti-government groups, some heavily armed, protested the restrictions at the state capitol, where they demanded to be let in and compared Whitmer to Hitler. Among the protesters were members of the Wolverine Watchmen.
In addressing the conspiracy to kidnap her, Whitmer was quick to point out President Donald Trump’s recent rhetoric at the first presidential debate: how he tried to skirt condemning white supremacists and then told the Proud Boys hate group to “stand back and stand by.”
“Hate groups heard the president’s words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry, as a call to action. When our leaders speak, their words matter. They carry weight,” Whitmer said.
Right Wing Watch has seen an increase of violent rhetoric across different right-wing subgroups—from conspiracy theorists and religious-right activists to white nationalists and anti-government groups. In some instances, extremists call for civil war, the use of force against Black Lives Matter protesters, and for government leaders to be tried for treason and executed.
Trump has no doubt ushered in more radical proclamations from extremists—this is the man, after all, who won’t commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election. But the right-wing media ecosystem is a two-way street, where fringe figures influence the president, and the president influences the boldness of fringe figures and their prominence in the conservative mainstream.
Conspiracy Theorists and Radical Right-Wing Commentators: Fear-Mongering, Violent Language, and Anti-Government Sentiment
On the day the arrests of the Wolverine Watchmen members were announced, Rick Wiles, a conspiracy theorist whose TruNews conspiracy outlet claims to offer news and analysis from a conservative, Christian worldview, took to his program to put the blame on Whitmer for the plot to kidnap and potentially murder her.
“Did you at all stop and think, what are you doing that drives middle class, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens to think about kidnapping you?” Wiles said. “What are you doing? Are your policies so extreme, so radical that you’re pushing people over the line to say we have to get that woman out of the governor’s office?”
While the claim is shocking, especially for an outlet that has been granted White House press credentials as recently as January, it’s in keeping with Wiles fear-mongering about government overreach—much of it anti-Semitic—which includes claiming that liberals intend to use the power of government to round up conservative Christians, place them in concentration camps, and kill them.
And it’s not surprising for the ranks of conspiracy theorists and radical right-wing commentators who distrust news reports and the government—save for Trump—and imagine a “deep state” or globalist “New World Order” that wants to take away constitutional rights, get Trump out of office, and impose their will on the people.
Wiles’ penchant for violent rhetoric is well documented by Right Wing Watch: In the past year alone, Wiles has rejoiced in Trump’s use of the military to forcefully clear protesters from a church to take a photo op with a Bible, vocalized his hope that Trump will round up liberal activists and torture them, and gleefully claimed that special op forces were going to hunt down and shoot commies—which to Wiles apparently includes Black Lives Matter, antifa, and Right Wing Watch. During the impeachment of Trump in December 2019, he claimed to have been stockpiling ammunition to prepare for a “violent civil war” between the “pagan left” and “religious right.”
While the enemies in the minds of right-wing conspiracy theorists are many, the hate directed at government officials who oppose Trump, particularly those who are women or people of color, in right-wing networks is particularly noteworthy.
Josh Bernstein, a radical right-wing commentator with a penchant for calling for people to be executed, took to his YouTube channel earlier this month to call for Rep. Ilhan Omar to be charged with treason and executed. Omar has faced racist, xenophobic attacks from right-wing activists and the president himself as recently as September. Bernstein, who has said that Omar has earned every death threat she’s received, followed up on Trump’s attacks just days later.
“I believe that the FBI and the Department of Justice should charge Ilhan [Omar] with sedition, treason, marriage fraud, voter fraud, illegal campaign contributions, immigration fraud, and aiding and abetting our enemies,” Bernstein said, adding, “this bitch should be executed.”
He’s not the only one talking about killing opponents to his extreme right-wing world view or calling for civil war. Claiming his warnings about a globalist “New World Order” takeover were coming true, radical conspiracy theorist Alex Jones told his listeners of his “Infowars” conspiracy show in August to wage war against academics and “the establishment perverts and pedophiles that run it,” adding that “the best thing to do in a defensive way is kill as many of them as quickly as possible.” In February, radical right-wing conspiracy theorist Chris McDonald declared that government officials who testified in the impeachment hearing against President Donald Trump are traitors and are “lucky they’re not hanging from nooses,” and in June during the protests against racism, McDonald and fellow QAnon conspiracy theorist Mark Taylor claimed Black men were hanging themselves to start a civil war. “They’re trying to start a civil war in this country, a race war,” Taylor said.
Among those fear-mongering and calling for violence against Black Lives Matter and antifa—shorthand for anti-fascist activists—is John Guandolo, a disgraced former FBI agent turned right-wing conspiracy theorist. In June, Guandolo, who has made a new career out of peddling anti-Muslim law enforcement trainings, said, “we should round up the leaders and execute them for trying to revolt and overthrow the government. And if this doesn’t happen soon, we will lose this.”
Religious Right Calls for Civil War
Like right-wing conspiracy theorists, some religious-right activists and pastors see the 2020 election as a civil war coming to America and warn that Christians need to wake up. They paint the current political climate as a spiritual battle, and Trump’s opponents are frequently depicted as “demonic.” Such messages have been promoted through “The Jim Bakker Show,” influential pro-Trump Pentecostal-oriented media outfit Charisma, and networks of prominent dominionist “apostles” and “prophets.”
Rick Joyner has been warning for years that civil war is coming to the United States and that the country is headed toward martial law. In September, the right-wing pastor spoke to televangelist Jim Bakker on “The Jim Bakker Show,” where he told viewers that God had seeded the country with military veterans experienced in urban warfare, citing a “prophetic” dream.
“We’re in time for war. We need to recognize that. We need to mobilize. We need to get ready. I’m talking to law enforcement, talking to people. One of the things I saw in a dream I had related to our civil war was that militias would pop up like mushrooms. And it was God. These were good militias.” Joyner, who heads up Morningstar Ministries, said. “If God’s people don’t become a part of the militia movements, the good militias, the bad people will take them over.”
Who are “the bad people”? In September, Joyner pointed to Black Lives Matter, declaring that Christians must take a stand against the organization because it’s “the KKK of this time.” And during the impeachment inquiry, Bakker and Joyner agreed that efforts to impeach Trump were satanic and treasonous.
Bakker, himself, warned in August that if Trump is not reelected, “we’re gonna have a revolution” with right-wing Christians taking to the streets.
At the 2019 American Priority Festival and Conference, an annual pro-Trump conference held at Trump National Doral Miami resort held in October, calls for civil war were loud and clear. “I need you to know that 2020 is a civil war that will change the face of America forever,” Joshua Feuerstein, a former pastor turned evangelical internet personality, said on the same stage Don Trump Jr. would later speak on. “And it’s God, ladies and gentlemen, it’s God that calls the qualified, that qualifies those that are called, that are willing to step up in the moment that matters, that has greatness thrust upon them. And tonight, together here in this place to say that we are willing to fight, we may think ourselves insignificant, but that we will stand together in 2020, and we will win the war that will change the face of America.”
Earlier in the evening at the conference (known colloquially as AMPfest), televangelist Mark Burns called for war. “We’ve come to declare war!” he yelled, with attendees in the back of the ballroom echoing his call, shouting “War! War!” in response.
This summer, Frank Pavone, a Catholic priest who runs an advocacy group committed to abolishing access to abortion in the U.S., declared that the 2020 election “is a spiritual battle and no less than a civil war.” Pavone held advisory positions in Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, only resigning in July at the direction of Roman Catholic Church authorities.
These messages from Trump’s religious-right boosters have reached the president. Days after Congress launched its formal impeachment inquiry last September, megachurch pastor and ardent Trump supporter Robert Jeffress claimed on Fox News that “removing the president” would “cause a Civil War-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.” Apparently viewing the segment was Trump, who tweeted Jeffress’ quote.
Far-Right Militant Groups: ‘Awaiting the Green Light’
When the militant group the Oath Keepers saw Trump’s tweet of Jeffress’ comments on Fox, they responded in turn. “This is the truth,” read a post from the group’s Twitter account. “We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war. Like in 1859.”
The Oath Keepers, conceived as a group of “patriots,” law enforcement officers, and former military members who would defy orders they didn’t like in opposition to a deep state members saw as conspiring to declare martial law, have now sided with Trump and see their role as ensuring law and order. Other militia groups have done the same. Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this sentiment; by forgoing a federal response, Trump has continued to receive the support of anti-government groups, while state and local governments have been left to issue piecemeal restrictions and face the ire of such groups.
It’s amid this violent rhetoric, fear-mongering about government overreach, and calls for civil war that militia groups and white supremacist organizations are feeling emboldened—and Trump’s language has given these groups tacit, if not explicit, approval.
In April, Trump sent off a series of tweets calling for states led by three Democratic governors, including Whitmer and Northam, to be liberated from supposedly draconian public health measures. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” he tweeted, followed by “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
Michael German, a former FBI agent who infiltrated neo-Nazis in the 1990s, is not surprised the Michigan governor was targeted by these groups following Trump’s message.
“These are groups that are used to listening for dog whistle affirmation among the powerful, and so when they get that affirmation spoken out loud, indirectly, it takes on a completely different meaning,” said German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program. “You know, something like ‘liberate Virginia‘ and ‘liberate Michigan‘ would be taken as ‘OK, this is a green light from the highest levels of our government. We should start planning.’”
In August, German published a report with the Brennan Center detailing the militia groups that have law enforcement and former military members, though “only a tiny percentage of law enforcement officials are likely to be active members of white supremacist groups.” An investigation in The Atlantic details these connections in the Oath Keepers, which recruited thousands of police, soldiers, and veterans.
As protests erupted in the days following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, members of extreme right-wing movements followed Trump’s lead in identifying common enemies among police and far-right militants, demonizing Black Lives Matter, anarchists, and antifa.
“We’ve been through a lot of these protests, and [police] seem to have a less antagonistic and violent response when it’s far-right militants who are engaging in protest violence,” German said. “And I think that’s because the messaging that they’re receiving about who is the enemy of state, as the president is identifying these groups as the enemy of state and suggesting that there are friendlies among the far-right, white supremacist groups. That sends a pretty clear message both to the groups and to the police about who should be the target of their violence.”
“So when these groups feel like they have the authority granted by the state to engage in this kind of behavior, they’re more likely to do it,” German said. “These groups operate on margin where their violence is reinforcing state action and state violence often, right—that the groups that the far-right militant and white supremacist groups target are the same groups that law enforcement targets disproportionately.”
In August, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who considers himself a militia member, fatally shot two demonstrators and injured a third at a protest against the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Much has been said about how, minutes prior to the shooting, police thanked the group for their presence and offered Rittenhouse water.
Creating the Justification for Right-Wing Violence
After Trump’s Proud Boy comments at the presidential debate, the hate group took to the social media platform Telegram where they took the president’s words as a command. “Standing by sir,” Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio wrote.
Two days later, Tarrio told conspiracy theorist and failed congressional candidate DeAnna Lorraine—who in June had urged conservatives to form militias while awaiting the “green light” to take back the streets—that his group had gained 2,000 to 3,000 new followers.
Violent rhetoric and civil war chatter among extremists is nothing new. But as we’ve approached the 2020 elections, the confluence of violent rhetoric among the extremists Right Wing Watch covers seems to have taken a frenzied pace, with different subgroups of the right-wing acting as an echo chamber, radicalizing each other and the president and vice versa. Trump, himself, has cultivated that echo chamber, creating a megaphone for his messaging.
Trump has refused to say whether he will step down peacefully should he lose the election. And since 2016, Trump and his team has pushed the narrative that Democrats and the deep state worked tirelessly to prevent him from becoming president in 2016 and, when they failed, conspired against him to prevent his reelection. By fear-mongering about voter fraud through mail-in voting and engaging with far-right conspiracy theories, Trump has insisted that any election he loses will have been fraudulent—creating justification for right-wing violence should he lose.