At 18 years old, knowing that it hardly mattered in the grand scheme of the Electoral College, I cast my first ever vote in an election for Donald J. Trump. I joked on social media that my vote would single-handedly swing Montana’s results and save the United States.
I was, like many Americans, glued to election night coverage and thrumming with anxiety, running to and fro between our table in a rural bar and grill on the Canadian border and the parking lot where a ghost of cell service let me check the news as votes were counted. I kept mainstream sources open in one window and 4chan’s toxic politics board in another to have one eye on the crazy people’s take. I had plenty of crazy opinions in my personal life of course, but the 4chan crowd had fewer delusions of grandeur.
“What do you think,” said Stewart after confiscating my small paycheck for answering emails for Oath Keepers to panic-buy canned goods and dog food, “if we take Oath Keepers to the Capitol to act as security, will the Left use that as an opportunity for a false-flag attack?”
Stewart had been obsessed with the specter of a Clinton presidency, terrified of the FBI unleashed to go after the militia leaders who had slipped away from Bundy Ranch. I was mainly concerned that federal agents raiding our house to arrest Stewart could end with our dogs being shot. It did, however, mark one important difference from the past: Stewart was losing his mind over this month’s potential apocalypse and I felt almost totally indifferent to the end-of-world aspect.
I had political anxiety a-plenty, sure, but I had detached myself from the cyclical fear of every headline that had ruled my life until a peak at Jade Helm ‘15. While Stewart fretted and plotted in insane megalomania, laboring under the self-gratifying delusion that the Clinton dynasty and Bilderberg Group were hinging their plans with bated breath on Stewart’s tactical decisions, the first thread in my belief had unraveled.
The bitter thought that Stewart’s decisions were putting our dogs in danger of being shot during a standoff at our home would be the beginning of the next step. My belief in The Donald had already peaked, although I did not know it.
My entanglement in Pizzagate and Clinton conspiracy theories would allow me to ignore the pointed fact that no one had been arrested as promised, but I could only ignore the advance of time for so long. This, the forever wait by the Lock Her Up contingent of Trump voters, would become what I mark as the prototype of the eternal “two more weeks” familiar to anyone who has studied QAnon. I was not down for eternally clinging to scraps of theory and inference, and so my enthusiasm for Trump dwindled to a gray indifference while others were sucked in deeper.
The second step would take longer, a slowly dawning awareness against a backdrop of childish tweets from the White House and ineffectual media circus leadership. This was largely because I started to see uncomfortable parallels between the way Trump ran his cabinet and the toxic mismanagement style Stewart brought to the Oath Keepers board of directors. Any similarity between my father and Trump was cause for concern, and being raging narcissists the similarities were many, since I was by now completely aware that my father was a psychopathic fraud. I’d begun planning my family’s escape, a process that would take nearly two years to complete, and took on myself a world’s weight of new responsibility. Online political discourse and conspiracy theory simply took a backseat.
I would jerk back to attention, however, when our country betrayed the Kurds.
Like a lot of the militia adjacent right wing, I’d become somewhat enamored with the struggle of the Kurdish people. All the conservative American cultural notes were hit: independent mountain people with a love for democratic government and personal freedom who’d been at our side since the Iraq war and had taken the brunt of the losses in combating ISIS. I’d researched the foreign volunteer regiments and decided against buying a plane ticket after reading about one fighter getting his nose broken in a headbutt by a Pirates of the Caribbean actor, which was tracked for a public relations focused outfit that would take middle-aged dads from the UK and untrained American idiots. Like a militant Groucho Marx, I realized I should be wary of joining any paramilitary that would be willing to take me as a member. Still, I had become deeply emotionally entangled in their cause and believed they represented a bright light in a dark time for the world.
Over the course of a single hour-long phone call with a foreign dictator, our president was convinced to completely abandon our most faithful regional allies in the Global War on Terror in one of the worst strategic decisions made by any president in modern history. The Kurds were added (again) to our long list of local allies betrayed in conflicts from Tripoli to Laos, and permanently set the reputation of the United States as an unreliable ally and fair-weather friend. I watched dumbfounded as a state that possibly intended genocide was given free reign to roll over the people who had done all the dying to destroy the caliphate our national failures helped create, just so that Trump could get an attaboy from an autocratic strongman. Or maybe not just an attaboy; the more I looked at the situation objectively, the more I saw that in every aspect Putin gained enormously. This decision had done us no good in any respect, but had many advantages for the strategic goals of Russia. Standing in the family kitchen, I remember jokingly telling my mother that I was ready to re-think all of those Russiagate allegations. It didn’t feel like a joke.
Almost more worrying was the way people I knew reacted, changing their own viewpoints to stay in lockstep with Trump. Later, when Trump was trying to drum up support for a war with Iran, I would have a bizarre argument with a bartender in which we circled endlessly from her insistence that we had no part in Middle Eastern “tribal conflicts” and should leave well enough alone in the entire region before immediately declaring that we needed a troop presence in the Middle East to keep hostile Muslim nations down before they posed a threat. No matter how many times I tried, she could not see the contradiction.
After the Las Vegas shooting I would see it again, in the swirl of disinformation that included one local trying to convince me that the entire shooting had been faked because a photographer with a telescopic lens couldn’t see any bullet holes in the street.
I knew people in Las Vegas who’d been there, which led to some awkward confrontations around my small town as conspiracy theory spread. In the aftermath, Trump signed a gun control bill that banned the bump stock accessory that had been used by the shooter, successfully passing more gun control in four years than Obama had in eight, and I watched in amazement as many of the hardcore Second Amendment fanatics I was surrounded by twisted themselves in knots to avoid conflicting with Trump’s actions.
One redneck youth told me that Trump had stopped all mass shootings permanently by banning bump stocks, people with Gadsden flag plates suddenly advocated for red flag laws and even confiscating all weapons from veterans on grounds of PTSD only to stay in step with Trump.
I began to worry that there was nothing Trump could do that would shake their belief.
My increasing concern with Trump’s cult status was not enough to draw me out of the right wing completely, although I was agreeing with liberal criticisms of the administration more and more, but that shock would be coming soon enough.
The Donald continued to lose me throughout the pandemic, the well studied absolute failure of the administration to act decisively or effectively, particularly striking to a lifelong prepper who’d grown up hearing dire warnings of antibiotic resistant plagues and weaponized viruses. Not only had the administration failed in the crisis, they’d politicized it. I watched in shock as a public health crisis was outright denied so that appropriate response could be turned into a wedge issue, and again as people I knew who had panicked the hardest at the first reports from Wuhan seemed to gradually forget that they’d ever believed in the virus at all.
All chaos and death was blamed again on the shadowy NWO, obviously out in the world sowing societal havoc with gremlin glee to create that ever-precious power vacuum. This frustrated me to no end, as someone who had followed news about the virus closely from the start. Conspiracy theory outlets that had milked the early downplaying of the outbreaks by health organizations, presenting themselves as champions of truth when governments claimed that all was well, turned to alleging that the entire pandemic had been a hoax or a cover for attacks by secret microwave weapons.
Oath Keepers would perform a similar 180. Stewart, scrambling to recover from an open letter to Trump asking for harsher COVID measures, would appear in a maskless photo op with a gym owner who refused to comply with lockdown orders in an attempt to salvage support from his base.
This was symptomatic of a larger shift in the militia movement, a sea change I’d been largely unaware of after gradually dropping out of militant circles. Oath Keepers presents an excellent case study, an unpublished open letter to Trump by Stewart Rhodes that “schooled” the president on the constitution in an adversarial tone. This letter would have marked a course forward for Oath Keepers as a less partisan watchdog organization looming over the shoulder of the Trump administration, on the lookout for misbehavior, a direction that was in line with the mission statement of Oath Keepers more than armed standoffs in the desert. It was, however, just one of several strategies Stewart was evidently weighing for keeping the Oath Keepers relevant after the 2016 elections.
A perennial problem in militia and conservative activist organizations is keeping members engaged and money flowing when a Republican is in office, the threat being that many members would assume that all was now well, to “go to sleep” instead of continuing to power Oath Keepers. Taking up position as he who watches the watcher would be one legitimate path to keeping Oath Keepers in circulation as an organization.
However, going full MAGA and setting itself against the shadowy leftist threat would prove to be the path of least resistance. Many militias would make this choice, aligning unquestioningly with MAGA to stay relevant and keep the numbers up despite going against their stated antiauthoritarianism and distrust of government.
If I fully understood this at the time, the events of the BLM riots would have been less of an awful surprise.
This part is going to be hard to imagine, even after getting oriented a bit on what the inside of my younger self’s brain was like, but the fact that the entire constitutionalist militia movement did not turn out in solidarity with Black Lives Matter in 2020 was a massive shock to my entire belief system.
In 2014 Ferguson, the Oath Keepers rooftop security teams had been planning an armed march in solidarity with BLM, including the loan of AR-15s to organizers, to demonstrate that the Second Amendment belonged to all Americans. It never happened, Stewart blaming local Oath Keepers’ leaders for dropping the ball. Stewart had given the green light to collaborate with the John Brown Gun Club, but simply never got around to answering emails from them. Oath Keepers had even offered to join the Standing Rock protests, and been turned down in the justifiable fear of it being co-opted into another standoff circus.
The death of EMT Breonna Taylor, shot in bed during a no-knock raid on her home, had clear parallels to the 2011 shooting death of marine veteran Jose Guerena who had similarly been killed in a SWAT raid when he was given no time to recognize the intruders in his home as police and lay down his rifle. Oath Keepers had protested his death, staying the course even when every single police officer on the Oath Keepers board of directors resigned in protest to our protest and left half the national leadership seats vacant. Our media guy assembled a touching memorial video that was instrumental in early awareness of Oath Keepers when it hit the internet, sending a loud and clear message that Oath Keepers would stand up for veterans even if it meant criticizing the police. I saw no reason why the killing of a first responder should be different from the killing of a marine vet, especially when both had been drug busts that targeted not the shooting victim, but an associate under investigation. For Guerena a family member, for Breonna a boyfriend.
In my view, Oath Keepers and many allied militias had more history of sympathy with BLM than of being antagonistic, or at least of general ideological alignment. Oath Keepers had taken great pains to boycott events that also hosted speakers from racist groups, maintained careful separation from alt-right and Identity Europa contingents at the Berkeley protests, and once kicked Randy Weaver out of an Oath Keepers parade after he refused to renounce white separatism. I saw the militia movement I had lived in as a force loyal to the idea of America, not an ethnic majority.
A lot of this I put down to the influence of 3% founder Mike Vanderboegh, whose life’s work was forging the disparate militias into an anti-racist armed civil disobedience movement that could gain political legitimacy.
I had marched in several protests he organized in my childhood, the gun rights marches drew armed crowds and police monitoring. His talks establishing a link between gun rights and racial justice drew a handful of attendants.
According to the dogma of the constitutionalist side of the militia movement, white supremacists were supposed to be the enemy. Racist groups were perhaps a lower priority to some than communists, out of a belief that radical leftists had influence in government that the Klan lacked (a hilarious irony in hindsight), but domestic enemies of the constitution nonetheless.
They were a constant presence that had to be checked, a camel with its nose perpetually creeping under the tent, attempting to advance themselves by associating with constitutionalist militias in the eyes of the media to increase conflict and puff themselves up. I’d been long since out of touch with most Oath Keepers, but I assumed that the mission remained unchanged. All enemies, foreign and domestic. It follows logically that an anti-racist, anti-government movement would turn out for racial justice protests after egregious killings by agents of the state.
What happened instead was that the militias finally got to see the black helicopters and ‘black bag’ abduction squads they’d long predicted in action, vindicated at last, and they stood aside to cheer on the state.
I was baffled when escalating police violence against peaceful protests was met by jeers from my remaining militia contacts on social media. Federal agents in plain clothes abducted protesters in unmarked rental vans without legal arrests ever being recorded, crowds were barricaded in place for mass arrests, citizens shot with less-than-lethal munitions on their own front porches, tanks rolling through neighborhoods flanked by police and soldiers in gas masks. It was a scene out of any and every paranoid antigovernment fantasy come to life, and the reaction was ‘serves you right.’
Instead of stepping up to seize the moment, even in a self-promotional move to gain legitimacy and a wider platform, the militiamen all stayed home chuckling over the schadenfreude of seeing ‘the left’ being repressed after ‘the left’ had refused to stand up for right-wing protesters and gun owners in the past.
Debatable as that is, the Teamsters Union went to bat for Cliven Bundy after all, the obvious correct response would have been to act the bigger man and march out anyway. Especially after Bundy Ranch, a lot of police violence would have been cooled by a line of backwoods paramilitary Bubbas, all with wild beards and American flag bandanas, standing between the police and protesters and simply refusing to move.
Instead, they stayed at home, laughing at ‘the left’ for finally getting their turn under the boot (in a very particular view of reality) and actively cheering the black helicopters. The use of state violence against protest movements in modern America moved toward normalization, the president threatened the deployment of US military forces to crush protests, and the anti-government freedom fighters applauded from home.
Except the ones that went to counter-protests. They turned up all right, to try to provoke queer teens into fights while strutting around in their plate carriers and tactical vests, and to unexpectedly run into the eldest son of their generalissimo on the wrong side of the crowd. They turned up waving Trump flags and the star spangled banner, as if a protest against the unlawful killing of black people was inherently a protest against Trump and America itself. I thought about that image, the defensive reflex of the militia right to any attack on racism, for a long time.
Their excuses when pressed were varied, shallow, and made little sense. The protest was ridiculous because black abortions happened and people protest that less, where was the protest for people killed by illegal immigrants, there’s ‘intelligence’ that Antifa is going to launch a terrorist attack at 7 p.m. (in which case you absolutely should be standing in the open, clearly identifiable as right wing militia and incredibly predictable in your regular movements while you patrol the venue, you go dude), the killing of George Floyd was a conspiracy because that many cops shouldn’t have shown up that quickly for a counterfeit bill call and that meant a false flag engineered to sow social chaos. On and on, bewildering bullshit and empty whataboutisms without any real concrete reasons that had more than a single sentence of depth.
The only thing that made any sense to me, later, was to wonder whether I’d always believed in a lie and the whole movement really was racist to the core. My remaining militia movement Facebook friends started referring to people by barely disguised racial epithets like ‘dindus’ and the leader of the local group, a splinter of Oath Keeper’s CPT program, told me that he’d be willing to accept white nationalist members if they didn’t rock the boat. I stopped wondering, and I severed a lot of contacts.
In all this, I sort of lost track of what Trump was doing. I’d tuned in a bit to the endless conga line of scandals and instantly burned out when the sheer volume was too much to handle. It felt like diving into a monstrous comic book series with a confusing timeline, by design, and except for when Trump wandered across the street to hold a bible upside down and tear gas reporters I hadn’t paid a lot of attention. I hadn’t yet mastered the post-2020 mindset of staying perpetually afraid and angry of and about everything, all the time.
By the time of election night I was totally apathetic, disliking Biden but completely over anything to do with Trump and disgusted by the state of the country when I saw a piece of the presidential debates. I was a bit happy when the results were called in, one eye on 4chan’s ‘/pol/’ board again to watch the endless tide of election fraud claims and denial turn into pure salt. Actual Neonazis had been cheering for Biden, tired of Trump-supporting ‘normies’ crowding their weird little online ecosystem and rooting for Joe out of pure spite. Then, the election fraud claims started getting annoyingly loud and strident in a very real-life non-4chan way.
Annoyance turned to icy fear real fast when the loyalty purge started in the Pentagon.
I again found myself flooded with anxiety and glued to election coverage, my security blanket of no longer believing in civil war and collapse gone. I saw the machinery of a coup clicking into place, the legal justifications and attempts to lever control over the military, the Blackwater pardons bringing Betsy DeVos to my attention for the first time amid consistent online rumors that mercenaries were being hired by Trump to secure essential infrastructure amid some domestic conflict.
Trump continued to meet with Mike Pillow, who from my perspective appeared from absolutely nowhere like the world’s worst magic trick, and Michael Flynn after they both floated imposing martial law to overturn the election. Stewart, who had included imposing martial law and suspending the constitution in his Oath Keepers founding list of ‘10 Orders We Will Not Obey,’ ignored this and continued pledging his undying loyalty to Trump in the midst of bizarre rants on the Oath Keepers website about J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and crossdressing. I knew by then that Stewart Rhodes was inherently cowardly and self-interested, but seeing Oath Keepers as a whole turn to effectively simping for the figurehead of a clearly evident treasonous conspiracy, one that embodied in itself every bogeyman threat to America that Oath Keepers had ever warned of, was the final death of any faith I had left in the militia right.
Somewhere in here I realized that I could no longer stand conservative news outlets, which didn’t seem to match reality at all. The only people who saw the warning signs I saw, who were paying attention to the clear and present danger, were the liberals and leftists that I’d held as a logically flawed Other at best for most of my life. I held my breath for weeks on end, even after the 6th and the inauguration, and felt almost empty when I was no longer checking political news sites for new reasons to hate the president every hour, on the hour. Obsession over impending doom can be addictive, and if you get started in childhood it’s pretty hard to break the cycle.
QAnon finally came back into my view, no longer fading into background noise, and I saw the mythology seeping into my everyday life. Even after the 6th, many in my town were waiting for the national guard on capitol hill to shout ‘surprise’ and declare that the security fences and barbed wire were because the capitol was actually being converted into a prison camp, the loyalists relocating to the new capitol at Mar-a-Lago. The newspaper was filled with Letters to the Editor calling out the capitol insurrection ‘hoax’. I began to realize that large segments of the population, my neighbors and some of my friends, would cling to the alternate reality for perhaps the rest of their lives. At this point, Trump could die and millions of Americans would refuse to ever believe it. I have had to learn to accept this.
I have had to learn to accept a lot of things, including that there is no silver bullet for deprogramming. I spent my entire youth practicing shouting down opposing views without ever really considering them, simply because I already knew I was right, and it took a series of hard hits undermining my belief system to shake me loose from ideology and preconception. The key, I think, was the causes that were important to me simply because I had empathy for people who were different from me, and the curiosity to look further when the narratives I had agreed with contradicted the facts. These are traits missing in huge parts of our population, although they can be learned, but I believe those that find themselves course-correcting when their sense of what is right diverges from what they are told are the ones that matter most. I would rather reach one thoughtful cultural conservative with facts that give them pause than get 10 rootless habitual followers to agree with me just because my views are ‘in’ right now, only one of those is a lasting change.
Above all is the will. Believing that daddy Trump will save me, that I was always on the right side and never seriously, badly wrong about the world, and that my deepest held beliefs are infallible, is easy and comforting. Coming to the conclusions that I have, tearing apart every childhood dogma and finding little I want to save, is incredibly hard and has put me at odds with large parts of my family and my community, but I cannot justify doing anything else. I cannot even justify staying quiet and dissenting only in my own mind, even though standing up publicly is a source of horrific anxiety. It would be hypocritical in the extreme to hope for someone else, everyone else, to speak up for sanity and basic human decency when the GOP primaries are running ads that double as vigilante death squad threats. Not unless I spoke up, too.