They call themselves ‘Patriots’: Trump’s scheme for a new third party rooted in far-right extremism

Donald Trump, the Wall Street Journal reports, is mulling the idea of forming a third party in his own political image, and calling it the “Patriot Party.” The report cites White House insiders who said the departing ex-president “discussed the matter with several aides and other people close to him last week.”

“Patriot,” however, is not just any old name. It’s a self-descriptive name that has long been used by the conspiracist Bircherite radical right, for decades a cauldron of extremist behavior ranging from Oklahoma City to the Bundy standoffs to the January 6 Capitol insurrection, spawning such movements as militias and sovereign citizens and inspiring numerous acts of violence. It’s an unmistakable dogwhistle to the American extremist right.

Trump seemed to reference his plans for a new party—not an original idea on his part, the notion of a third party with that name having been a topic of discussion in far-right chatrooms at Telegram, Parler, and elsewhere since the election—in his remarks during his closing days in the Oval Office. In his Tuesday farewell speech, Trump told his followers that “the movement we started is only just beginning. There’s never been anything like it.”

On Wednesday, departing finally from Andrews Air Force Base, he vowed: "We will be back in some form."

As the WSJ’s Andrew Restuccia observes, “It’s unclear how serious Mr. Trump is about starting a new party, which would require a significant investment of time and resources. The president has a large base of supporters, some of whom were not deeply involved in Republican politics prior to Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign.”

What has become unmistakable, however, is that Trump now identifies clearly with the Patriot movement—the far-right political movement that has been spreading its toxic influence on the American landscape since the 1990s. In suggesting “Patriots” as the name of a new right-wing political party, he is less hijacking the name than embracing it.

Trump has called his followers “patriots” for a very long time—and because the word still carries a generic meaning, journalists and other observers have failed to note the significance of his repeated and increasing use of it. What’s noteworthy is that, in the past year especially, he often applies it to a specific bandwidth of his supporters—namely, those engaging in acts of intimidation and thuggery against leftists and liberals.

When a “Trump caravan”—with the usual Trump, Gadsden “Don’t Tread On Me,” “Blue Lives Matter,” and ordinary American flags streaming from their pickups—drove through downtown Portland, Oregon, last August, amid images of his Proud Boys supporters firing paint and pellet guns at protesters, he tweeted out a video of the caravan on the move, hailing its participants as “GREAT PATRIOTS!” (A Trump supporter involved in the melees was shot later that night by an antifascist.)

It was also the term the Capitol insurrectionists called themselves. One of the attendees at the Trump rally that preceded the riot—a 55-year-old man from Chicago—told a reporter: "We're not moving on. … We are not Republicans. We are the MAGA party. We are patriots.”

Trump’s inner circle is fond of using the word as well. Donald Trump Jr. greeted the January 6 rally crowd with: "Hello, Patriots!"

After the same crowd then stormed the Capitol, his sister Ivanka then tweeted out an appeal for calm: “American Patriots—any security breach or disrespect to our law enforcement is unacceptable. The violence must stop immediately. Please be peaceful.” (She deleted the tweet later that day.)

And the people who invaded the Capitol used the word to identify themselves. “Patriots!” a number of insurrectionists were recorded shouting as they rushed to enter through broken police barricades. Inside, the “QAnon shaman” Jake Angeli—garbed in furs and a horned hat—could be heard hailing his comrades: “Hold the line, patriots!”  

In a New Yorker video taken inside, Angeli can be seen greeting other rioters inside the Senate chambers: “Heyyyy, glad to see you man. Look at you guys, you guys are fuckin’ Patriots!” Leading a prayer from the dais later, he thanked God for “filling this chamber with Patriots who love you and love Christ.”

Trump supporters elsewhere who celebrated the insurrection applied the label as well. A “Stop the Steal” protest organizer in Illinois told a local TV station: "Well, now the patriots are waking up and we're taking our country back. As you've seen in D.C., they've stormed the Capitol and they are making their voices be heard. So, that's what we'll continue to fight for."

This is not by any means a recent phenomenon. Trump supporters have been regularly identifying themselves to journalists and others as “Patriots” for several years now. A classic example is a California-based MAGA fanatic—a man previously arrested on terroristic-threatening charges—who traveled to Arizona for a “Trumpstock” event, and told a New York Times reporter: “They label us white nationalists, or white supremacists. … There’s no such thing as a white supremacist, just like there’s no such thing as a unicorn. We’re patriots.”

The use of the name originated with right-wing extremists in the mid-1980s who called themselves “Christian Patriots,” and were unabashedly racist—many of its participants could be found at annual “Aryan Congresses” assembled by the “Christian Identity” Aryan Nations near Hayden Lake, Idaho. This movement was studied in depth by sociologist James Aho in his 1990 book, The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism (University of Washington Press). Derived in many regards from the openly racist and anti-Semitic “Posse Comitatus” belief system, Christian Patriots also claimed that ordinary people could declare themselves “sovereign citizens” to free themselves from rule by the federal government (including paying taxes), and that the county sheriff was the supreme law of the land, able to countermand federal law if he deemed it unconstitutional. Civil-rights laws, public land ownership, a federal education department—these were all considered null and void in their world of radical anti-federalism.

Following the tragic outcomes of the armed federal standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, and at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in 1993, an idea that had been circulating in far-right circles for several—a strategy called “leaderless resistance” that called for forming small action-directed “cells,” along with violent acts of “lone wolf” domestic terrorism—became the consensus response among Christian Patriots. They called them “militias”—a reference intended to invoke the wording of the Second Amendment as a way to justify their existence.

Moreover, to broaden the appeal of the militias to include more secular-minded recruits, the movement dropped “Christian” and began calling itself simply the “Patriot movement.” The name stuck permanently.

At the time he blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, Timothy McVeigh self-identified as a “Patriot,” as did Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics backpack bomber. The Montana Freemen—purveyors of “sovereign citizen” pseudo-legal scams and major figures in the movement—engaged in an 81-day armed standoff with FBI agents in 1996 near Jordan, Montana.

Despite the connection to public violence, however, the Patriot movement—as I explained in my 1999 book In God’s Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest—played the strategic role as part of a campaign for ideas and agendas from the radical right to become more mainstream. The general idea was to strip their overt bigotry (especially the innate anti-Semitism and racism) from their radical localist and nativist politics and to present them wrapped in American-flag bunting and lofty-sounding “constitutionalist” rhetoric that disguised its utterly nonsensical nature with heavy doses of jingoist jargon.

Throughout the 1990s, the Patriots continually organized their vigilante paramilitaries as militia groups, and preached the “constitutionalist” approach to government to anyone who would listen, along with their never-ending web of “New World Order” conspiracy theories, peddling maps of “FEMA concentration camps” and sightings of “UN black helicopters.” The conspiracism reached a kind of fever pitch in 1999 over the supposed looming “Y2K Apocalypse,” but after that proved to be an utter non-event, it then receded into a low-level hiatus during most of the early 2000s, with conspiracists mostly devoted to the massive speculation industry that sprang out of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Among the leaders of that industry was radio host Alex Jones, a onetime John Birch Society member who began his career in Texas regurgitating conspiracy theories originally concocted by the Militia of Montana and packaging them for mass consumption. Shortly after the embarrassment of having hysterically hyped the Y2K Apocalypse, Jones seized on the 9/11 attacks as a fresh, and wildly promotable, avenue for drawing listeners into his web of fantasies. Over the years, Jones increasingly identified on-air with “the Patriots” in their “war against the globalists.”

Around 2008 and the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, the Patriot movement suddenly came roaring back to life. While the numbers of militia groups had declined to a mere 131 groups in 2007, they revived sharply over the next two years, with 512. By 2012, they had reached a record high 1,360 militia groups. However, relatively few of the movement’s leaders from the 1990s remain active to this day, many of them having subsequently died.

The Anti-Defamation League defines the Patriot movement thus:

A collective term used to describe a set of related extremist movements and groups in the United States whose ideologies center on anti-government conspiracy theories. The most important segments of the “Patriot” movement include the militia movement, the sovereign citizen movement and the tax protest movement. Though each submovement has its own beliefs and concerns, they share a conviction that part or all of the government has been infiltrated and subverted by a malignant conspiracy and is no longer legitimate. Though there is some overlap between the “Patriot” movement and the white supremacist movement, that overlap has shrunk over time; there are, in fact, people of color within the “Patriot” movement, particularly within the sovereign citizen movement.

As the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) explains, however, the presence of people of color—as well as its occasional rhetorical embrace of civil-rights ideals—is more of a conscious “we can’t be racist” façade for a movement that, at its core, is built on a foundation of white supremacist beliefs.

The origins of the Patriot movement tactics and approaches are tied up in organized racist currents. As mentioned, many of their beliefs were developed as a coherent political package by the racist Posse Comitatus. In the 1980s, one commentator described the Patriot movement as “half” racist. By the 1990s militia movement, perhaps less than a quarter of members were connected to explicitly White separatist groups; Christian Identity members still held prominent positions.

By the 2008 movement revival, connections to organized racism were hard to find in the leadership. CSPOA’s Richard Mack and Gun Owners of America’s Larry Pratt both have public histories of working with white separatists, but both are also 1990s holdovers.

Open racist expressions are more commonly found among local activists, however. For example, Malheur occupier Ryan Payne has said that slavery never really existed. In response to a post on a Facebook saying, “I’ve yet to met a white supremacist” (assumedly in Oregon Patriot movement circles), Oregon Oath Keeper Sally Telford replied, “I am a proud white/caucasian and I support and stand with all other white/Caucasians,” and elaborated that, “I stand with free white people.” Many Patriot movement activists are part of the “White Culture and Heritage” Facebook group, the content of which is a continuous stream of white supremacist propaganda.

Moreover, as the ROP notes, it’s common for Patriot movement adherents to deny the existence of structural or interpersonal racism. They typically define it narrowly as hatred of individuals purely for their race, a “conscious, vocalized action.” The Oath Keepers, for instance, instructed readers at their now-defunct website: “Realize there is no such thing as white privilege or male privilege: In reality, there is only institutionalized ‘privilege’ for victim-status groups. There is no privilege for whites, males, white males or straight white males.”

Even more acutely, the Patriot movement has long been antagonistic to a number of nonwhite ethnic groups:

  • Latino immigrants. One of its major subgroups that kept the Patriot movement alive in the early 2000s was the “Minutemen” vigilante border-watch movement of 2005-10, which organized public rallies that denigrated Hispanics and encouraged violence against them. The Minutemen eventually dissolved under the weight of the manifestations of violent criminal elements within their ranks.
  • Native Americans. Patriot movement conspiracists—many of them operating in states with Indian reservations and, consequently conflicts between tribes and nontribal residents and fishermen over land and water rights—have been highly active in organizing campaigns to attack tribal treaty rights and even decertify certain tribes, built primarily around “New World Order” conspiracy theories.
  • Muslim refugees. A number of more recent Patriot groups have been highly active in promoting Islamophobic campaigns against Muslims generally and refugees in particular. In 2015-16, “Three Percenter” militia groups organized multiple protests in Idaho against the presence of a refugee-relocation program based in the city of Twin Falls, claiming it was part of a nefarious global campaign to eventually replace the white population there.
  • Black Lives Matter. Most Patriot groups are unapologetic in their disdain and hatred for the Black Lives Matter movement. The Oath Keepers in particular have prominently attacked BLM as innately violent Marxists and a threat to the nation, as have “Three Percenter” militia groups and the Northwest-based Patriot Prayer street-brawling group. When Proud Boys marched violently through the streets of Washington, D.C., on December 14, their primary targets became African American churches adorned with Black Lives Matter banners and signs, which they tore down and burned.

Groups in the 1990s regularly adopted “Patriot” as part of their name, just as many right-wing militia and conspiracy-fueled groups include “Patriot” in their organizational titles to this day. Most of these are explicitly pro-Trump operations. Two Trump-loving Arizona groups, the Arizona Patriots and Patriot Movement AZ, have been highly active in protests against the election results the past two months. During the 2018 midterm election campaign, after pro-Trump forces repeatedly ran ads quoting his hysterical references to an “invasion” on the southern border, another group—the United Constitutional Patriots—set up camp at the New Mexico/Mexico border and tried arresting migrants, eventually resulting in prison time for the militiamen.

The revival of the Patriot movement during the Obama years primarily revolved around the tea party. By mid-2010, it had become clear that the tea party—first promoted by mainstream media as a kind of normalized right-wing populist revolt against liberal Democratic rule in the Obama era—had swiftly transformed into a massive conduit for conspiracy theories, ideas, and agendas directly from the Patriot movement. Attending a tea party gathering after that year, particularly in places like rural Montana, was indistinguishable from the scene one could have found 15 years before at a militia gathering: the same speakers, the same books, the same rhetoric, the same plenitude of paramilitary and survivalist gear for sale.

By 2010, Patriot groups like the Oath Keepers had become the primary face of the tea party. Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes boasted of his prominent role in the movement to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly: “We like the Tea Party movement a lot, we think it's great. It's a revitalization of our core Americanism and core constitutionalism.”

A Gadsden flag, right, flutters above the site of a “Minutemen” vigilante border watch operation near Blaine, Washington, in 2006.

The ultimate emblem of this ideological takeover by the Patriots was the ascendance of the Gadsden flag as the tea party’s most prominent symbol. The flag had originally been revived in the 1990s by the Patriot movement and was commonly on prominent display at their gatherings, as well as available through the Militia of Montana mail-order catalog.

It remained a standard symbol for Patriots well afterward, and was prominently used by Minutemen groups while organizing vigilante patrols on both the Mexican and Canadian U.S. borders. When a group of far-right conspiracists gathered to discuss the supposed globalist conspiracy to destroy Western civilization at the core of their worldviews, a Gadsden flag was hung above the club where they met.

But soon after the tea party began organizing rallies in the spring and summer of 2009, Gadsden flags began appearing prominently. Soon the banner became the best-known symbol of that movement—reflective of the flood of Patriot movement ideologues who seized control of the tea party agenda.

The yellow Gadsden flag and its coiled rattlesnake also made prominent appearances during the two Bundy standoffs in the West, first in Nevada in 2014, and then in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016. Two of the participants in the Nevada standoff, Jerad and Amanda Miller, went on a murder spree two months afterward in Las Vegas; after shooting two police officers to death in a pizza parlor, they covered their bodies with a Gadsden flag.

Emblematic of its core of conspiracist fearmongering, the Patriot movement (and the tea party) also was the sector of the public that most avidly embraced the utterly groundless conspiracy theories about Obama’s supposedly “fake” or “incomplete” birth certificate, known as the “Birther” theories. That’s where Donald Trump first entered the picture.

Trump built the foundations of his political career in 2011 by promoting the Birther theories avidly, creating such a broad media sensation that eventually Obama conceded and ordered Hawaii officials to publicly produce the “long form” certificate in an attempt to satisfy the conspiracists. Of course, it signally failed to do so; encouraged by Trump’s public ambivalence over whether he accepted the evidence as legitimate, the conspiracists in no time produced a fresh new round of theories claiming that the new certificate was actually fake.

Around the same time, Trump claimed the mantle of leader for the tea party, telling a Fox interviewer: “I think the people of the Tea Party like me, because I represent a lot of the ingredients of the Tea Party. What I represent very much, I think, represents the Tea Party.”

Trump enjoyed substantial support for his 2016 election from an array of radical-right organizations, notably a solid phalanx comprised of the Patriot movement. His ascension to the presidency was widely hailed by various Patriots (not to mention Jones, who had hosted Trump on his Infowars program).

In short order, the movement’s conspiracy theorists were spinning up wild claims about Marxists and “antifa” plotting to overthrow his presidency, even before he was inaugurated—and then, ten months later, they revived the same claims, but this time the conspiracy theories were picked up by Fox News and other right-wing media and broadly disseminated. The narrative that resulted—depicting a “violent left” that needed to be violently confronted by “patriots”—became intensely repeated throughout the 2020 election campaign, ardently adopted by such pro-Trump groups as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.

Throughout his tenure, Trump made regular references to “patriots” in his speeches, such as his September 2019 speech to the United Nations at which he declared: “The future belongs to patriots.” In 2020 he issued a proclamation designating September 11 as “Patriot Day.”

Indeed, Trump established a record of describing people who support him and his agenda as “patriots.” He used the word to describe people who backed his attempt at shutting down the government in 2019, and for farmers who had been devastated by his trade war with China. He has also described members of his administration as “great patriots,” as well as Republican candidates he has endorsed.

Trump’s campaign emails have also regularly used the word, encouraging donations by describing recipients as patriots, particularly for supporters who attended his rallies and purchased his MAGA merchandise. Notably, in the past year, these emails regularly capitalize “Patriot” to describe would-be donors.

The first such email appears to have been a fundraising appeal in September 2017 (“I know there’s no stopping our movement with the support of patriots like you,” it read). The references continued through 2018 and 2019 in some 800 emails, and then became intense in the past year. In 2020 alone, the campaign sent out nearly 2,000 emails containing the word “patriot.”

It’s a neat rhetorical trick for Trump, playing on neutral observers’ propensity to interpret the use of the word generically, while acting as a direct dogwhistle to his followers who identify with the Patriot movement. Even more Machiavellian is the effect its use has on non-extremist supporters by encouraging them to identify indirectly with a far-right movement.

These manipulations all came home to roost on Jan. 6, when the primary elements leading the insurrection at the Capitol included a number of Patriots. Among these were Three Percenter militiamen and Oath Keepers, whose authoritarian devotion to Trump became so intense this year that it has declared a “civil war” against “antifa and BLM.” Rhodes spoke at the December 14 pro-Trump rally and urged him to invoke the Insurrection Act and declare martial law.

Now, the FBI has arrested three Oath Keepers for their roles in the insurrection, and more arrests may be coming. Several others charged in the Capitol invasion also have connections to the group.

“The insurrectionists’ use of the term ‘patriot’ is striking,” Woden Teachout, author of Capture the Flag: A Political History of Patriotism, told the Deseret News. “It’s also powerful to see how flags are being used as literal weapons against officers at the Capitol. Neither of these is new in American history. Other groups—like anti-immigrant nativists in the 1940s and pro-Nixon forces in the Vietnam era—have used them similarly. In each case this language and the symbols are invoked to draw an ideological circle that brings some in and forces others out.

“To define certain people as patriots is to say that other people are not,” she added.

Sam Jackson, an expert on the Oath Keepers, said that many people who self-identify as patriots today see themselves as modern versions of the Founding Fathers. In their version of reality, their enemies are not British redcoats but rather the federal government, the political left or, “more generally, those who don’t support Trump,” all perceived as a threat to “the Republic” and their version of the Constitution.

Indeed, for most of the three decades that the Patriot movement has been active, it has been primarily described by experts and monitors as a “antigovernment movement.” However, given its ardent support for the government run by Trump—and its long record of antipathy directed almost solely at liberals and Democrats—as well as its revealing refrain that America is “a republic, not a democracy,” it has become apparent (particularly in the past year) that it is probably far more accurate to describe it as a fundamentally antidemocratic movement.

But while the Patriots conceive of themselves as representing a kind of real patriotism rather than the seditionist travesty that their movement has manifested itself as in action, the public may not have been fooled, at least not on January 6. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released two days after the Capitol takeover found only 5% of Americans believed the rioters to be patriots. Nine percent described them as “concerned citizens” while 79% percent said they considered participants in the uprising “criminals” or “fools.”

So while Trump prepares to split the Republican Party by creating a party designed primarily to accommodate his far-right supporters and their increasingly radicalized fellow followers, mainstream political observers are not necessarily being gulled by his dogwhistles. And if he makes clear he intends to act on the scheme, he may well give the U.S. Senate the incentive it needs to convict him of the House impeachment charges approved last week and strip him of the ability to ever again plague the nation by holding public office.