It was July 2017, a few weeks before the “Unite the Right” Charlottesville riots, when white men marched through the streets of that Virginia city protesting the planned takedown of a confederate statue and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” I was sitting at a coffee shop in my quiet town of Poulsbo in Washington state. I had set aside an hour away from my kids to do some necessary writing, while my husband, then second-in-command on a Navy ballistic missile submarine, sat suspended somewhere in the depths of the Pacific Ocean.
Our toddler and infant were home with a babysitter, offering me a rare chance to write, peacefully, amid the stressors of my life. I had a clinical social-work internship then, counseling war-traumatized veterans, and had spent months single-mothering while my spouse was at sea. To my surprise, I was suddenly jolted from my daydreams by chanting men. Glancing out the window at the usually placid waterfront of our town, I caught sight of a group of surprisingly large white men wearing animal skin loincloths, vests, and horned hats. They were also holding torches and—I kid you not—spears. They were loudly chanting, “Poulsbo! Poulsbo! Poulsbo!” And that was when I suddenly remembered that this was our annual Viking Fest in which groups of Washington residents from near and far celebrated the town’s Norwegian founders.
Cars parked more than a mile down our modest streets suggested that such gatherings were anything but local. This would be my second Viking Fest and I would be struck once again by how little I learned about how the town was actually founded, the values it stood for, and which of them might have survived to today. Poulsbo, after all, now existed in a largely militarized area, including a local submarine base, with white, privileged officer families—those fortunate enough, at least, to be dual-income ones like mine or have trust funds—purchasing and reselling homes every few years as the U.S. military moved them around the country and the world.
Even in 2017, longtime residents were starting to move away to escape the smoke that snaked into the community earlier each year from ever-fiercer wildfires in ever-longer fire seasons, part of our new climate-changed reality. Meanwhile, Poulsbo’s picturesque gingerbread house-style buildings were being replaced by larger condo complexes, as developers moved ever deeper into the town’s hillside forests that would undoubtedly someday burn.
Viking Fest, with its spectacle of white men banging spears and shouting aggressively, set my heart racing with an unnamed fear. It was, after all, a moment when the recently elected Donald Trump was already demonstrating that practically no behavior, including in Charlottesville soon (“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides”), should be considered beyond bounds. Later, talking with another military wife, a rare woman of color visiting that town, about the Viking shout-a-thon, amid an almost all-white crowd of officers and their families watching the event, she said, “It’s like there’s no point. It’s like a celebration of white people!”
Who Are They and What Do They Stand For?
Looking back now, it’s hard not to see that evening’s loud and prideful display of white masculinity, which merely disturbed the peace for stressed-out moms like me, as a harbinger of more sinister things to come. Shouting male nationalist groups like the Proud Boys that President Trump told to “stand by” at his first debate with Joe Biden and the Wolverine Watchmen, some of whom have allegedly been linked to a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, are increasingly commonplace in the news.
As a military wife who has made five different moves over the last 10 years, I’m particularly aware of how racially and ethnically diverse this country and its military actually are. Under the circumstances, it’s remarkable that much of white America lacks any understanding of just how threatening displays like Viking Fest must look to the rare person of color who happens upon them.
It should certainly be obvious in October 2020 how destructive to our democracy fraternal, pro-Trump groups have become during Donald Trump’s presidency. Take those Proud Boys. Among the founding principles their website offers are a vague set of notions that include “reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism,” “anti-political correctness,” “venerating the housewife,” “pro-gun rights” (in a pandemic-ridden country where, between March and July alone, an estimated three million more guns were purchased than usual), and—get this—“anti-racism.” For the Proud Boys to say that they reject racism and venerate housewives did little more than provide them with a veneer of social acceptability, even as they planned armed counter-rallies in progressive cities like Providence and Portland with the explicit purpose of inciting violence among Black Lives Matter protesters and their allies.
Other influences, like the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, are even more direct. For example, that site urged its followers to cyber-bully American University’s first black female student government president, Taylor Dumpson after nooses began appearing on that school’s campus in 2017. In April 2016, its founder Andrew Anglin had written, “Jews, Blacks, and lesbians will be leaving America if Trump gets elected—and he’s happy about it. This alone is enough reason to put your entire heart and soul into supporting this man.”
One thing is certain: All that matters as markers of humanity to the man who inspires and, however implicitly, endorses such groups, President Donald Trump, is white skin and political support. The other night at his town hall with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, a would-be supporter presented herself as the granddaughter of immigrants who had fled religious persecution in Eastern Europe. She asked the president about his plans to protect DACA recipients from having to return to their countries. The president responded: “DACA is somewhat different from Dreamers. You understand that… Where do you come from, by the way, originally? Where?” After the woman responded that her grandparents came from Russia and Poland, he stated, “That’s very good.” He then went on to discuss his border wall with Mexico; that is, keeping the wrong kind of immigrants out.
The Military as a Recruiting Ground for the Far Right
If there is any concept that these groups threatening to disrupt our democracy stand for, it’s a version of individual freedom—like not wearing masks—that’s akin to driving drunk and without putting on a seat belt, rather than waiting for a sober friend to drive you home. Yes, it’s more comfortable not to wear a mask or a seatbelt. The short-term benefits, like physical comfort, are tangible, as is perhaps the exhilarating sense that you can do anything you want with your body. (Ask most anti-maskers about abortion rights, however, and you’ll get quite a different perspective on the degree to which our bodies should be our own.)
Yet the most current scientific evidence is that if all Americans wore masks (and social-distanced) right now, it would potentially save tens of thousands of lives. In the age of Covid-19, however, concerns over public health restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus, including lockdowns of gyms, bars, and other public facilities, have become political firestorms. Such mandated lockdowns were the main reason various gunmen collaborated with the Wolverine Watchmen in a plot—fortunately foiled—to kidnap the governor of Michigan and considered a similar plot against Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia.
Perhaps not coincidentally, people of color—Blacks and Latinos—die from Covid-19 at a rate about a third higher than their share of the population. In other words, it couldn’t be clearer whose bodily freedoms are really considered at stake in these far-right struggles and whose are expendable.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these groups is that they take a significant part of their manpower and know-how from the United States military with the tacit support of a Republican Senate. As a military spouse as well as the co-founder of Brown University’s Costs of War Project, it’s been no secret to me that our military’s support for bigotry of all kinds is endemic. Racist and sexist remarks are commonplace both on the boats where my husband has served and in gatherings with officer colleagues and their families. Little more than brief reprimands (if that) are handed out in return.
In a country where gun ownership and firearms training are seen by the far right as inalienable, all-American freedoms, the military is a ripe breeding ground for disaffected men looking for individual empowerment, a sense of belonging, and just such training. In fact, a recent New York Times investigation claims that veterans and active-duty military members make up more than a fifth of the membership of America’s 300 anti-government, pro-Trump “militia” groups. According to a 2019 survey by the Military Times, about a quarter of active-duty service members reported witnessing signs of white nationalist ideology among their fellow soldiers, including racist and anti-Semitic slurs and homemade explosives shaped like swastikas.
Nothing is more disturbing, when it comes to white nationalist–style hate, than the way the Republicans in Congress have implicitly sanctioned it. In 2019, after the Democratic-controlled House introduced a clause into the Defense Authorization Act to have recruits screened for white nationalist ideology, the Republican Senate nixed the provision. What more need be said?
How did an institution that should be about service to the nation become a petri dish for people who stand for nothing of collective significance? Even one of the favorite and abiding principles of far-right actors (and many Republicans in Congress), the right to bear arms, seems eerily decontextualized from history in a country that leads the world by far in armed citizens (many with distinctly military-style weaponry).
Let’s remember that this right was grounded in the idea of organizing the revolutionary army against a colonial power that taxed people without representing them and forcibly billeted its military in their homes. The colonists, while rife with their own history of human-rights violations, were not a bunch of disaffected, irrationally angry individual crusaders with an urge to use weapons to threaten civilians.
Two and a half centuries later, the party that regularly signals its support for the far right’s armed tactics still controls the presidency, the upper chamber of Congress, and will soon control the Supreme Court as well. And yet it and its right-wing supporters eternally act as if they were the victims in our world and, from that position of victimization, are now threatening others (and not just Gretchen Whitmer either.)
Many among them still see themselves as subjugated by this country’s ruling elite, which may represent a kind of projection or, psychologically speaking, seeing in others the thoughts and feelings one actually harbors in oneself. And as a therapist who has worked with significant numbers of veterans and military service members, I can warn them: Don’t do it. As I know from some military service members who have told me of their time in distant lands, when they used guns against civilians, it shook to the core their belief in the principle of service to country, leaving them distrustful of the homeland they had been fighting for.
Of course, an increasingly armed far right has responded by creating a world of symbols that are deeply comforting to them. Yet do they really stand for anything?
I was recently appalled by a bumper sticker on a minivan featuring two large guns and three smaller ones aligned together like those stickers that show heterosexual nuclear families. Its tagline: “My guns are my family.” At the wheel was a young woman with several children. I balk similarly at pictures on people’s lawns that feature Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” flag—how did he get a separate flag?—and the word “Jesus” in all-capital letters.
Guns and small children? A separate Trump state and Jesus? Never before has sociologist Émile Durkheim’s idea that religious groups are less in need of a cohesive ideology than symbols to which they can all bow down in unison made more sense to me. Amid such incoherence (and symbolic violence), such an inability to justify their place in this democracy, it might be fairest to say that, as this election campaign heads toward its chaotic climax, Trump and the far right worship little more than one another.
“At Least He Hasn’t Started Another War”
In October, the United States passed its 19-year mark in its second Afghan War of the last four decades. In many ways, that war and the dregs of the conflict in Iraq, which the United States invaded in the spring of 2003, have become as empty as the war that far-right groups wage in this country. The hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, the flourishing of terrorist groups far deadlier and angrier than those the United States originally sought to defeat, the degradation of basic human rights including the rights to life and health—the carnage has been significant indeed. As these wars enter or near their third decade, I often hear friends say about President Trump, “At least he hasn’t started another war.”
Oh, but he has! This time, though, the war is at home. Even the Wolverine Watchmen and their co-collaborators in recent kidnapping plots saw themselves as initiating a civil war, or a boogaloo (to use far-right terminology). Not since the Jim Crow South years have we had to worry about people’s physical safety as they approach the polls to cast their vote—and the “Four More Years” folks and other gun-toting Trump supporters have, I fear, just gotten started. Never would it have been thinkable for a sitting president to overlook, or even implicitly endorse, plots to kidnap and possibly kill elected officials, but Trump has even gone so far as to respond to his supporters at a recent rally in Michigan chanting “Lock her up!” by saying “Lock them all up!” (a play both on his Hillary Clinton chants in the last election and on Governor Whitmer’s pandemic lockdown orders).
Twenty years later, our health care resources (never sufficient) are further depleted. A pandemic is again spiking across the country. Those who run for office and try to govern with dignity are being challenged in all too threatening ways. Think of it, whether in political or health terms, as our new war zone. I hope that those who appear to vote in person under pandemic conditions and increasing threats of voter intimidation will not come under attack next by far-right groups. To anyone who is listening in elected office anywhere in America: I hope you have a plan for a peaceful transition of power, since the “law-and-order” president is, of course, anything but that when it comes to sustaining our democracy, rather than his presidency.