Terrorism experts fear outbreak of violence by pro-Trump ‘Boogaloo’ fans around 2020 election

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.

LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 17, 2020

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.”

‘Boogaloo’ civil war talk takes on a life of its own as far-right extremists coalesce

The myths and conspiracy theories that fuel the radical right often take on lives of their own: Think of how the QAnon phenomenon began as a handful of conspiracy theorists making groundless claims and predictions about a coming “Storm” that metastasized first into a wildly popular body of “Patriot”/militia conspiracism, and finally into a massive submovement operating within the framework of the Trump presidency—while producing a growing record of lethal violence by its unhinged believers.

Something similar appears to be coalescing around the “boogaloo”—the vision of members of the far right of a coming civil war, which they claim is being forced upon them by liberals who want to take their guns away as the first step toward their incarceration and enslavement. In reality, of course, a number of sectors of the far right have ginned up this kind of rhetoric for decades—but now, a systematic study of its spread through social media has found that it appears to be massing into a movement of its own.

The study, conducted by the independent Network Contagion Research Institute, explores, according to its subtitle, “how domestic militants organize on memes to incite violent insurrection and terror against government and law enforcement.” It focused on the “boogaloo” in large part due its increasing popularity—particularly as a hashtag (#Boogaloo or #Boogaloo2020)—on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as the extreme and often callous expressions of violent intent that form the essence of the chatter.

YouTube Video

In its initial forms, the “civil war” talk was generated in different sectors of the radical right in different ways. Among neo-Nazis, it generally has focused on a “race war”—i.e., a genocidal conflict between whites and nonwhites—dating back to the 1980s and the classic white-supremacist blueprint, The Turner Diaries. This vein of rhetoric has produced a long record of lethal domestic terrorism, including the 1984 neo-Nazi criminal gang The Order; the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing; and more recently, the 2011 attack in Norway that killed 87 people and the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks in New Zealand that killed 51.

Among the “Patriot” movement believers who form militias in resistance to “the New World Order,” most of the rhetoric has focused on using arms against law enforcement, particularly the federal kind, as well as the mythic “blue-helmeted” United Nations soldiers about to descend on them from black helicopters. In its more recent iterations among far-right Oath Keepers and “III Percent” militiamen, the “boogaloo” talk has mostly revolved around resistance to liberal gun-control legislation.

This reached its apotheosis in January when thousands of armed “Patriots” from around the United States descended on Richmond, Virginia, to protest imminent gun safety legislation making its way through the state’s General Assembly. Before the rally, FBI agents arrested a trio of neo-Nazis who were preparing to open fire on law enforcement at the event.

However, one of the results of the broad emergence of popular “boogaloo” rhetoric has been a blurring of the lines between the anti-government extremists who foresee conflict with federal forces and the more extreme white supremacists who lust for a bloody conflict between the white and nonwhite races. While many of the latter also eagerly participate in the anti-government talk, many of the former appear to be warming up to the race-war talk.

The NCRI study found not only that the discussion of the “boogaloo” on social media had surged, but that discrete groups were coalescing around the discussion and creating the nascent forms of a movement. The “boogaloo” “topic network” produces “a coherent, multi-component and detailed conspiracy to launch an inevitable, violent, sudden, and apocalyptic war across the homeland,” it said, adding that the models created by researchers “show that the meme acts as a meaningful vector to organize seditious sentiment at large.”

The conspiracy, replete with suggestions to stockpile ammunition, may itself set the stage for massive real-world violence and sensitize enthusiasts to mobilize in mass for confrontations or charged political events. Furthermore, the meme’s emphasis on military language and culture poses a specific risk to military communities due to the similar thematic structure, fraternal organization, and reward incentives.

One of the “Boogaloo Boys” memes.

One of the “boogaloo” groups featured in the study, calling itself “Patriot Wave,” illustrated perfectly how the lines between militia “Patriots” and alt-right white nationalists were completely blurred and submerged in the larger project of fomenting a violent civil war. Its members wore alt-right “Pepe the Frog” patches with the title “Boogaloo Boys,” while others wore the skull balaclava generally associated with members of the fascist Atomwaffen Division.  

The study also pointed to a particular area of concern: namely, the ability of these extremists to simply blend into existing power structures, including law enforcement and the military. One “boogaloo” enthusiast, Coast Guardsman Christopher Hasson, was arrested with a full arms cache and a plan to assassinate liberal political leaders. A Patriot Wave member is quoted in the study: “Some of the guys we were with aren’t exactly out of the military yet, so they had to keep their faces covered.”

The spread of the “boogaloo” organizing on social media has been facilitated with the use of hashtags #Boogaloo and #Boogaloo2020, which are then accompanied by associated hashtags such as #2A, #CivilWar2, and #2ndAmendment, as well as hashtags such as #BigIgloo, intended to elude filters.

This kind of informational conflict—or what the study calls “memetic warfare”—has evolved, the study says, “from mere lone-wolf threats to the threat of an entire meme-based insurgency.”

The NCRI report was sent to members of Congress and the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice, among others. Paul Goldenberg, a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, told NBC News’ Brandy Zadrozny that the report was "a wake-up call."

"When you have people talking about and planning sedition and violence against minorities, police and public officials, we need to take their words seriously," said Goldenberg.