It’s not a secret that Donald Trump has been winking and nudging his True Believers with the suggestion that maybe they should start using their guns and other kinds of violence to defend his presidency. So it probably is no surprise that terrorism experts believe some of those same people are indeed preparing to engage in domestic terrorism around the 2020 election.
“Both the anti-quarantine protests that the far-right orchestrated in April and May and the recent civil unrest have accelerated the potential for more violence,” Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security terrorism analyst, told Judy Thomas of the Associated Press. “I think it will pick up over the summer and especially into the fall as we head into the election.”
According to Johnson, much of the violence emanating from the radical right is being fueled by fears frequently promoted in right-wing media: of civil unrest, black protesters and left-wing radicals, the novel coronavirus, stay-at-home orders, and job losses.
“The fear is just feeding this radicalization and recruitment,” he said. “And that’s why they’re booming.”
Trump himself has been fanning those flames. An April 17 tweet directed at the anti-stay-at-home protesters to encourage them suggested a broader agenda: "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!; LIBERATE MINNESOTA!; LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!" he wrote.
That also was a reference to a January gun rally in Richmond, Virginia, attended by thousands of gun-toting “Patriots” protesting looming gun-control legislation in the state, and vows to revolt violently if the laws are enforced. Trump and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam have feuded on Twitter over the laws.
Trump has a history of rhetoric like this. In 2019, as impeachment proceedings were being discussed, he warned in an interview that thuggish elements might swing into action on his behalf: “I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad," Trump said.
The American far right in fact has within its ideology an embedded mythos about a civil war or race war, dating back to at least the 1980s, and in recent years has been taking such rhetoric seriously, especially when it comes to defending Trump. Cesar Sayoc, the “MAGABomber” who targeted a list of Trump critics with pipe bombs that failed, was the apotheosis of this trend.
So was Christopher Hasson, the Coast Guardsman who planned and prepared for a series of terrorist attacks against similar targets, expecting to be triggered to action in the event of a Trump impeachment.
Indeed, as impeachment approached, Trump himself again encouraged the talk by tweeting about a “civil war” if he should be removed from office. At the Twitter account of the far-right Patriot group Oath Keepers, founder Stewart Rhodes posted a long thread in support of Trump’s tweet: “We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war. Like in 1859. That’s where we are.”
Again, when impeachment itself happened, the talk among right-wing extremists became extraordinarily violent. “Lock N Load, PATRIOTS, the demonrats just told us what they want for Christmas: #CivilWar2,” wrote one. “Let’s make the demon rats live on the streets of their own districts!”
Since then, these extremists have coalesced around the concept of a civil war under the online moniker of “Boogaloo,” often merging ideologies—radical white nationalists and less extreme Patriot militiamen alike—under the Hawaiian-shirted body armor and igloo-icon banner of the so-called movement. And as the protests against COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have progressed, their efforts to make their shared violent fantasy into a reality kept spiraling upward.
The anti-police protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May have provided opportunities for the “Boogaloo” to become manifest: Vehicle rammings at protests, massive turnouts of armed militiamen responding to hoax claims of “antifa buses” arriving in small towns, “Boogaloo Bois” driving to a Floyd protest in Las Vegas with a full complement of Molotov cocktails. In Oakland, a pair of Boogaloo Bois assassinated a federal officer at a Floyd protest and wounded his partner; two days later, the same gunman killed a Santa Cruz sheriff’s deputy.
Daryl Johnson considers the spiraling rhetoric and behavior not merely ominous, but positively dangerous in the context of the November election. He urges Americans to take action to prepare for such terrorism.
“We should all be on guard and vigilant, reporting suspicious activity, contacting legislators and forming or joining citizens organizations against hate,” he told Thomas. “This is all hands on deck.”