The right-wing militia movement found itself in an existential quandary after President Donald Trump’s election.
The federal government had always been the enemy of the fringe movement, but militia members generally backed Trump — who embraced some of their rhetoric during the campaign and after his election.
But the left-wing antifa movement — short for “anti-fascism” — has given them an opponent to justify their activities and help them move toward the political mainstream, according to experts.
“As for antifa, it’s a minuscule fringe of the left, just as its predecessors were,” Noam Chomsky told the Washington Examiner. “It’s a major gift to the right, including the militant right, who are exuberant.”
Chomsky spoke to the newspaper last week, after a neo-Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, killing one woman.
He said antifa’s “self-destructive” activities — such as blocking lectures and violently clashing with right-wing demonstrators — help feed the anti-government right’s agenda, which after Trump’s election has been to position themselves as defenders of constitutional law and order.
“When confrontation shifts to the arena of violence, it’s the toughest and most brutal who win – and we know who that is,” Chomsky told the newspaper. “That’s quite apart from the opportunity costs – the loss of the opportunity for education, organizing, and serious and constructive activism.”
Anti-government militias aren’t necessarily white supremacist — indeed, some of those groups have long welcomed black members — but Trump and his antifa opponents have helped draw those two groups together.
“Until Trump, the anti-government group was far larger and more dangerous than what remained of the white supremacy world,” said J.J. MacNab, an author and expert on extremist groups. “Trump reinvigorated the white supremacy world. In response to antifa clashes, the two groups are starting to merge (Unite the Right) against a common enemy.”
MacNab said militia groups are, for now, “plugging their noses” and protecting white supremacist groups from antifa activists at rallies — but she predicts they’ll eventually merge.
“If the violent clashes continue, they’ll stop plugging their noses and the white supremacy world will have a heavily armed contingency,” she warned. “To understand extremist groups, you have to look at what they hate, not what they support.”
The founder and current head of the Ohio Minutemen Militia told the Columbus Dispatch this week that “we don’t tolerate hate,” and disavowed racist and anti-Semitic groups they believe have tried to hijack the militia movement.
“That’s not what we’re about,” said Robert Cross, who founded the group in 2003. “We are about the safety and security of our community, our families, our state and our country.”
But Mark Pitcavage, a researcher for the Anti-Defamation League, told the newspaper that militia groups tried to paint themselves as outdoor enthusiasts to conceal more menacing intentions.
“Campers don’t usually do sniper training and live-fire training,” Pitcavage said. “These groups are not armed in training because they are worried about mosquitoes.”
Pitcavage agreed that militia groups weren’t inherently racist, but their conspiratorial world view sometimes overlapped with white supremacist ideology.
“By and large, the militia movement is not white supremacy,” he told the Dispatch. “But that doesn’t mean it’s better. It still is dangerous, right-wing extremism.”
He warned that violent actions by antifa groups and other left-wing activists could help legitimize militia groups — which have recently provided security for conservative groups and GOP officials — and obscure their growing ties to white supremacists.
“(Militia groups can say), ‘We’re here to protect free speech, we’re here to provide security,'” Pitcavage said. “But it’s really a way they feel they can confront the antifa without being associated with white supremacy.”
However, he told the Dispatch their claims were easily disproven.
“You don’t see the militia showing up at left-leaning events to protect free speech,” Pitcavage said.