Two years after Charlottesville, this Republican prosecutor is pioneering a new approach to convicting racist rioters
On June 28, in the main courtroom of Charlottesville’s federal courthouse, U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen rose to his feet. It had been nearly two years since white supremacists brawled with counterprotesters at a violence-filled rally nearby; now, standing still and stoic, the tall, lean Cullen addressed the court regarding the sentencing of James Fields Jr. At the rally in August 2017, Fields, 22, had driven his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of peaceful protesters, maiming many and killing one. Having been convicted on federal hate crimes charges, Fields deserved nothing less than life in prison, Cullen argued.
From the courtroom’s wooden benches, Fields’s victims — who had come to testify about their broken bones, broken spirits and broken marriages; their lasting fear of cars, loud noises and even the light of day — listened intently. Never mind the defendant’s age and appeal for mercy, Cullen said. Hadn’t he described those who disagreed with his views as “monkeys,” “subspecies,” “kikes” and more on his social media accounts? Never mind his claim that he’d acted on impulse and without premeditation, that he’d had mental health problems. “We all face mental health issues,” Cullen pointed out, “but troubled people don’t just commit acts of mass murder or domestic terrorism.”
U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski agreed. Fields stared blankly before him as his sentence was handed down: life in prison without parole. At the prosecution table, Cullen, his face set in its resting scowl, nodded briefly but didn’t look up from the notes he was jotting on his legal pad.
It was a win, but only a first step. Cullen, 15 months into his job as the chief federal prosecutor for the Western District of Virginia, is on a mission: to use the federal judiciary to strike a blow against mounting white nationalist violence. And nailing James Fields was arguably the easy part. The bigger challenge was the organized groups of white supremacists who had planned the massive rally with the intent to threaten and physically assault counterprotesters: How could they be held responsible?
Cullen and his prosecutors have set their sights on a white supremacist group called the Rise Above Movement, based in Southern California, charging four of its members with conspiracy to commit violence and crossing state lines to riot in Charlottesville. The prosecutors’ ironic weapon of choice against the extreme-right group: an anti-riot statute passed in the 1960s to rein in leftist Vietnam War protesters.
The case is the first time federal authorities have tried to disrupt a violent white supremacist terrorist organization on charges other than drug- or gun-dealing or murder. And it’s remarkable not just for the legal tactics involved, but because of the person carrying them out: Thomas Cullen, a Trump-appointed conservative prosecutor from a prominent Republican Virginia family. While the president and others in the GOP have mostly averted their gaze and refused to confront the phenomenon of white supremacy, Cullen is choosing to stare it down. “I could care less about politics,” he says. “Hate crimes and violence by white supremacist organizations that qualify as domestic terrorism are way up. Prosecuting them is common sense. It’s the right thing to do.”
A few weeks before the Fields sentencing, I met Cullen in a small, unadorned conference room on the first floor of the federal courthouse in Charlottesville. At 42, Cullen is easygoing and straightforward, with none of the bravado that many federal prosecutors display. He took office as the top federal lawman for the 46 counties and 17 cities of western Virginia on March 30, 2018. Except for a stint in private practice, he had served as an assistant U.S. attorney and deputy criminal chief in the Roanoke-headquartered office for the previous three years. “I felt pretty comfortable coming into this role,” he told me. “I certainly understood how the office worked.”
On his plate when he took over were
- opioid pill mills along the Interstate 81 corridor;
- organized gangs of Crips and Bloods in Danville, near the North Carolina line;
- drug dealers in the Shenandoah Valley; and the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Cullen was away from Virginia on vacation when the rally and subsequent violence took place, but from the moment he was nominated for the top job, he knew that the issue was “one I need to be involved in.”
Within 24 hours, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh, who lives in Charlottesville and works out of the branch office there, briefed Cullen on the evidence and possible charges. Fields had already been indicted on murder charges by the state, but to send a message, the office wanted him to face federal charges as well. Based on video, Fields’s vile social media feeds and witness testimony, prosecutors believed they had a clear shot at building a hate crime case against Fields under federal civil rights laws.
But there had to be more. “It was too big an event, too awful an event, for the federal government to have that one homicide case,” Kavanaugh told me. “We asked ourselves: What other prosecutions could come of this?”
He found an answer in the more than 5,000 hours of rally video turned over to federal law enforcement by bystanders, participants and journalists. Front and center in much of the action, assaulting and beating counterprotesters including women and clergy, were four men. “This one group of guys kept sticking out,” Kavanaugh says. “They acted in lockstep. Their hands were taped. They were more equipped to fight. They were involved when violence first broke out.” He wondered, “Who are these guys?”
A detailed October 2017 article by the nonprofit investigative news service ProPublica provided crucial information. It identified members of the Rise Above Movement, a virulent neo-Nazi white supremacist group. Founded in California in 2017, RAM had grown to about 20 members by the time of the Charlottesville rally, according to court documents. Its promotional videos show members fitness training, kickboxing and occasionally throwing copies of Anne Frank’s diary into bonfires on the beach. They aimed to build up members’ physical strength in order to punish “Jews,” RAM’s catchall word for anyone it considers an enemy. “Their whole mantra is going in the opposite direction of the image of the basement-dwelling chubby guy spewing hate on his laptop,” says Kavanaugh. “They were masculine, fit, sober, respectful. They had a certain look.”
The four men prosecutors zeroed in on included RAM co-founder Benjamin Daley, a wiry 25-year-old tree trimmer from Redondo Beach, Calif., who routinely bashed “Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook Jew police” for taking down his anti-Muslim posts. Daley had hooked up with another ardent RAM member, Michael Miselis, a 30-year-old aerospace engineering doctoral candidate at UCLA who was working as a systems engineer for defense contractor Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach. (Miselis lost his job — and his U.S. government security clearance — after he was named in a July 2018 ProPublica article.)
The problem for the U.S. attorney’s team was finding a federal statute they could charge the men under. According to Cullen and Kavanaugh, there are precious few laws available to federal law enforcement agencies and lawyers for investigating and prosecuting domestic terrorist groups for violent rhetoric — or even outright violence. Local and state police and courts can charge crimes of assault, robbery, threats and all manner of person-to-person violence, but the federal criminal code limits the FBI and all federal agencies to investigating broader conspiracies, fraud, gun and drug trafficking, and civil rights violations — which now includes hate crimes. In many cases, defendants must cross state lines to be found in violation of federal law.
Investigating domestic terrorism can put federal agents in even more disputed terrain. Academics, lawyers and judges contest the line where First Amendment rights of free speech end and conspiring to commit violence begins. Federal law enforcement agencies have long had to navigate that line, even as the demand to rein in domestic terrorist groups grows. “The FBI is under pressure to do something it can’t do something about,” says Adam Lee, former head of the FBI’s Richmond office and now head of security for Dominion Energy. “The FBI cannot target domestic terrorist groups like an international threat. The First Amendment absolutely forbids it.” (Progressive advocates, such as the Brennan Center for Justice, dispute this, arguing that the FBI readily investigates groups on the left that it views as subversive, including environmental groups, Black Lives Matter and others.)
Prosecutors were committed to bringing the RAM four to justice, but they did not believe proving a hate crime under federal statutes was their strongest possible case. Instead, digging into federal criminal laws, they found the 1968 Anti-Riot Act, passed by Congress to punish antiwar protesters who crossed state lines to incite a riot. “If we could prove,” says Kavanaugh, that the RAM members “had intent to commit violence and they traveled across state lines, we could build a case.” Cullen didn’t need a lot of persuading. He told his prosecutors to dust off the little-used law and charge the four RAM members with conspiracy to riot. It was, Cullen told me, “our only viable option.”
In the months after he took office, Cullen gradually came to the conclusion that white supremacists and far-right domestic terrorist groups like RAM are “grave threats” to the country — and are stepping up their violence. He interviewed victims, reviewed hundreds of hours of tape, read about the radical far right, and attended domestic terrorism meetings at the Justice Department. “The cumulative weight of the evidence opened my eyes,” he says. “I felt an obligation to protect the public, to take them off the street.”
That sense of obligation may come from his upbringing. Cullen was the eldest of four children in a conservative Republican family from Richmond. Public service was drilled in by his father, Richard Cullen, a former attorney general of Virginia and former U.S. attorney for Virginia’s Eastern District. “He’s my mentor and role model,” says Cullen. “A benefit and a burden.”
By many accounts, the elder Cullen, 71, is one of the most sought-after defense lawyers in the nation for powerful Republicans in need. (He recently represented Vice President Pence in Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into possible Trump-Russia collusion.) But the self-described “small government, individual liberty-type Republican” also had close ties to former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder; in 1993, he worked with the Democrat to pass a law limiting handgun purchases in Virginia to one a month. “Thomas was always around people in public life,” Richard says. “But I did not try to shape his career.”
Thomas, for his part, had no particular yearning to follow in his father’s footsteps. After graduating from Furman University in South Carolina, he enrolled in William & Mary Law School. On his second day he phoned his father. “I’ve decided not to continue here,” he said. Cullen had looked around at his fellow students at orientation and was “scared out of my mind. I didn’t feel ready.”
A year of teaching English at a military prep school, however, convinced him that he was ready. He returned to William & Mary, earning a law degree in 2004. After graduating near the top of his class, he clerked for Roger Gregory, the first African American to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
For his first job as federal prosecutor, Cullen headed to North Carolina. Four years later, in 2010, Tim Heaphy, the U.S. attorney for Virginia’s Western District, recruited him to run his criminal division. Heaphy, as it happened, was Richard Cullen’s former law partner. Cullen knew that his colleagues might be suspicious of his hiring. “I felt the pressure,” he says. “I just worked harder to establish myself.”
In July 2017 Cullen was working in private practice in Roanoke when the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, floated his name for the job as top federal prosecutor in the Western District. Trump nominated him in February 2018, and the Senate confirmed him the next month. The president had already declared that “there were fine people on both sides” of the violence in Charlottesville, a statement that seemed to bless violent white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Cullen would look to disprove that contention in court.
Afederal grand jury indicted James Fields on June 27, 2018. Fields was already in custody on state murder charges, but the RAM four were still out there, celebrated on white nationalist websites and gloating about their fighting prowess. “We had the[m] completely surrounded,” Daley wrote on his Facebook page of the torch-lit march on the U-Va. campus, according to court documents. “I hit like 5 people.” In the spring of 2018, Daley and Miselis traveled to Germany to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday at the white supremacist Shield and Sword Festival.
On Aug. 27, 2018, Cullen and his team filed arrest warrants for Daley, Miselis, Gillen and White, supporting the complaints with photos and screen shots:
- White head-butting a clergyman, then
- cracking heads with a female counterprotester, leaving her with blood streaming down her face; Miselis, wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat turned backward,
- kicking a man as he’s falling;
- Daley grabbing a woman and body-slamming her to the ground.
Cullen asked the judge to keep the warrants sealed until prosecutors could organize the arrests. Then, in the early morning hours of Oct. 2, 2018, federal agents in Southern California raided the homes of Daley, Miselis and Gillen, and brought the men to federal court in Los Angeles. White was grabbed in San Francisco.
Kavanaugh went to California to help guide the arrests. “It was important to show our presence out there,” Cullen says. “It was our case. They were coming back here.” The four suspects, facing 10 years in prison — five for each of two federal rioting charges — were taken to the Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange.
At a news conference in Roanoke, Cullen recognized ProPublica for providing a “starting point” for the federal investigation. But “we’re not finished,” he declared. “I commit as the U.S. attorney that we’re going to follow every lead until we’re satisfied that we’ve done all we can do.” He wanted to “send a message” to white supremacists, he said, putting them on notice that they could face federal criminal charges for violent actions.
Earlier this year, in a New York Times essay, Cullen decried the rise in far right extremism as “among the greatest domestic-security threats facing the United States” and lamented that “law enforcement, at both the federal and state levels, has been slow to respond.” Federal prosecutors, he wrote, needed additional tools, such as “a domestic-terrorism statute that would allow for the terrorism prosecution of people who commit acts of violence, threats and other criminal activities aimed at intimidating or coercing civilians.”
Cullen’s outspokenness risked rebuke from a White House, a president and a political party that have tended to avoid calling out white supremacists. He allows that he put himself “out on a limb,” but he got no negative feedback — and he has no regrets. “Violent domestic terrorism is becoming tragically more frequent,” he says. “We have to respond.”
Federal public defender Lisa Lorish immediately rebutted Cullen’s case against the RAM four. On behalf of Ben Daley, she filed a motion to dismiss. Calling the federal Anti-Riot Act “overbroad” and “unconstitutionally vague,” she argued that “it seeks to punish defendants for engaging in protected First Amendment freedoms of speech and peaceable assembly.”
Cullen fired back on March 8: “The First Amendment does not, and has never, protected incitement to violence or violent actions.” And: “Participation in a political rally does not grant individuals license to engage in mayhem.” On April 19, Cole White was freed after pleading guilty and agreeing to cooperate with the prosecution. On May 2, U.S. District Judge Norman Moon denied Lorish’s motion to dismiss. With the case proceeding and video evidence stacked against them, the three remaining RAM defendants pleaded guilty the next day. (Not long after, a California judge threw out a similar case based on the Anti-Riot Act for violating the First Amendment. If appealed, the two cases could wind up before the Supreme Court.)
Three months after pleading guilty, Daley, Miselis and Gillen shuffled into court for their sentencing, dressed in orange prison suits, their hands and feet in shackles. (White would be sentenced separately.) Several days earlier, Cullen had upped the ante, asking Moon to elevate their actions to hate crimes, which would add many months to their time behind bars. “It’s crucial that we send a message of deterrence for other militant white supremacists,” he told the court.
Many of their members wore matching uniforms, marched in military-style formations, openly chanted white-supremacist slogans, and invited confrontation with counterprotesters and law enforcement. In some cases, their gear and maneuvers imitated those used by armies of the past, and their weapons, whether firearms or cruder instruments such as shields, bats, batons and flagpoles, were deployed in coordination to intimidate and signal that they were, as they put it, “ready to crack skulls.” The day’s fateful events culminated in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, for which one marcher has been charged with first-degree murder and two federal hate crimes.
.. Most states have constitutional language, criminal statutes or both barring unauthorized paramilitary activity. Every state except New York and Georgia has a constitutional provision, akin to Virginia’s, requiring that “in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.” In other words, private armies are proscribed in 48 states. You can’t legally organize with others into battalions to fight those with whom you disagree.
.. 28 states have criminal statutes that prohibit individuals from forming rogue military units and parading or drilling publicly with firearms, while 25 states have criminal statutes that bar two or more people from engaging in “paramilitary” activity, including using firearms or other “techniques” capable of causing injury or death in a civil disorder.
.. By restricting paramilitary activity and the usurpation of military and police powers by private groups, the court orders sought by the lawsuit would restore the long-standing public-private equilibrium disrupted by those who descended on Charlottesville last August.
All around the world, strongmen are seizing power and subverting liberal norms.
fascism came out of particular historical circumstances that do not obtain today—
- a devastating world war,
- drastic economic upheaval, the
- fear of Bolshevism.
.. When Naomi Wolf and others insisted that George W. Bush was taking us down the path of 1930s Germany, I thought they were being histrionic. The essence of fascism after all was the obliteration of democracy. Did anyone seriously believe that Bush would cancel elections and refuse to exit the White House?
.. So maybe fascism isn’t the right term for where we are heading. Fascism, after all, was all about big government—grandiose public works, jobs jobs jobs, state benefits of all kinds, government control of every area of life. It wasn’t just about looting the state on behalf of yourself and your cronies, although there was plenty of that too. Seeing Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the press conference following their private meeting in Helsinki, though, I think maybe I’ve been a bit pedantic. Watching those two thuggish, immensely wealthy, corrupt bullies, I felt as if I was glimpsing a new world order—not even at its birth but already in its toddler phase. The two men are different versions of an increasingly common type of leader:
- elected strongmen ‘who exploit weak spots in procedural democracy to come to power, and
- once ensconced do everything they can to weaken democracy further,
- while inflaming powerful popular currents of
- reactionary religion,
- homophobia, and
- resentments of all kinds.
.. At the press conference Putin said that associates of the billionaire businessman Bill Browder gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign $400 million, a claim Politifact rates “pants on fire” and about which The New York Times’ Kenneth Vogel tweeted, “it was so completely without evidence that there were no pants to light on fire, so I hereby deem it ‘WITHOUT PANTS.’”
.. A Freudian might say that his obsession with the imaginary sins of Clinton suggests he’s hiding something. Why else, almost two years later, is he still trying to prove he deserved to win? At no point in the press conference did he say or do anything incompatible with the popular theory that he is Putin’s tool and fool.
.. These pantsless overlords are not alone. All over the world, antidemocratic forces are winning elections—sometimes fairly, sometimes not—and then using their power to subvert democratic procedures.
There’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—remember how when he first took office, back in 2014, he was seen as a harmless moderate, his Justice and Development Party the Muslim equivalent of Germany’s Christian Democrats? Now he’s shackling the press, imprisoning his opponents, trashing the universities, and trying to take away women’s rights and push them into having at least three, and possibly even five, kids because there just aren’t enough Turks.
.. Then there’s Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe these elected authoritarian regimes, now busily shaping the government to his own xenophobic ends, and
.. Poland’s Andrzej Duda, doing much the same—packing the courts, banning abortion, promoting the interests of the Catholic church.
Before World War II Poland was a multiethnic country, with large minorities of Jews, Roma, Ukrainians, and other peoples. Now it boasts of its (fictional) ethnic purity and, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, bars the door to Muslim refugees in the name of Christian nationalism.
One could mention
- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte,
- Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,
- Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and
- India’s Narendra Modi as well.
Pushed by anti-immigrant feeling, which is promoted by
- unemployment and
right-wing “populist” parties are surging in
- the Netherlands,
- Austria, and even
- Sweden and
And don’t forget Brexit—boosted by pie-in-the-sky lies about the bounty that would flow from leaving the European Union but emotionally fueled by racism, nativism, and sheer stupidity.
.. At home, Donald Trump energizes similarly antidemocratic and nativist forces. Last year, outright neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, and Trump called them “very fine people.” This year, Nazis and Holocaust deniers are running in elections as Republicans, and far-right misogynist hate groups like the Proud Boys are meeting in ordinary bars and cafés.
.. The worst of it is that once the leaders get into power, they create their own reality, just as Karl Rove said they would:
- They control the media,
- pack the courts
- .. lay waste to regulatory agencies,
- “reform” education,
- abolish long-standing precedents, and
- use outright cruelty—of which the family separations on the border are just one example—to create fear.
While everybody was fixated on the spectacle in Helsinki, Trump’s IRS announced new rules that let dark-money groups like the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity keep their donors secret.
.. American democracy might not be in its death throes yet, but every week brings a thousand paper cuts.
.. There’s nothing inevitable about liberal democracy, religious pluralism, acceptance of ethnic diversity, gender and racial equality, and the other elements of what we think of as contemporary progress.
.. He has consolidated a bloc of voters united in their grievances and their fantasies of redress. The
- fundamentalist stay-home moms, the
- MAGA-hat wearing toughs, the
- Fox-addicted retirees, the
- hedge-fund multimillionaires and the
- gun nuts have found one another.
.. Why would they retreat and go their separate ways just because they lost an election or even two? Around the world it may be the same story: Democracy is easy to destroy and hard to repair, even if people want to do so, and it’s not so clear that enough of them do.
you write that people don’t get into these kinds of groups or other kinds of terrorist groups so much because of ideology, but out of a personal need for community, identity, some kind of fulfillment. You didn’t come from a broken or abusive home. Where do you think your need came from?
PICCIOLINI: I felt abandoned by my parents, not understanding at that age that my parents as immigrants had to work seven days a week, 14 hours a day to survive in a foreign country. And as a young person, I just wondered what I had done to push them away and why they weren’t there. And I went in search of a new family. But you’re right. I don’t believe that ideology nor dogma are what drive people to extremism. I believe it’s a broken search for three very fundamental human needs of identity, community and purpose.
.. It was really the driving beats and the edginess of – and the angst that I was able to release through the music that was very appealing to me. I had already been a part of the punk rock subculture so I was already searching for something to express my anger. And when I heard Skrewdriver, when I heard this music that was coming over from England at the time, it allowed me to be angry because the lyrics gave me license to do that. And I very effectively then used lyrics myself when I started one of America’s first white-power bands to both recruit young people, encourage them into acts of violence and speak to the vulnerabilities and the grievances that they were feeling so that I could draw them in with promises of paradise even through my lyrics.
DAVIES: But when you were getting into this and you were hearing that Jews and blacks and Mexicans were the enemy, I mean, to what extent did that square with any of your own experience or opinions?
PICCIOLINI: Well, it didn’t start that way. It started out with Clark and several of the older skinheads in this group appealing to my sense of pride of being European, of being Italian. And then it would move on to instilling fear that I would lose that pride and that somebody would take that away from me if I wasn’t careful. And then it went on to name specific groups through conspiracy theories that were bent on taking that pride or that privilege away from me. So it was the fear rhetoric.
.. But I can tell you that every single person that I recruited or that was recruited around the same time that I did up to now, up to what we’re seeing today, is recruited through vulnerabilities and not through ideology.
.. There were disparate groups all around the country popping up after it started in Chicago, and the goal was to try and unify everybody. But that was the first time that I felt a sort of energy flow through me that I had never felt before, as if I was a part of something greater than myself. Even at 14 years old when I was desperately searching for that purpose, this seemed to fill it. And I certainly bought in.
DAVIES: And at this point, you had shaved your head and started wearing boots and took on the skinhead look?
PICCIOLINI: I did. And I noticed a change in my environment very quickly. The bullies who had marginalized me prior now would cross the street when they saw me coming because they feared me, and then I would begin to recruit them. And I noticed a very stark change in how people treated me, and I mistook that as respect when in reality it was fear and really not wanting to be involved with what I was involved in.
.. DAVIES: You know, the music has a lot of energy and a lot of anger to it. I mean, I – you know, it’s – how much of a connection is there that – between this kind of – the emotion of that kind of music and the violence of the movement, do you think?
PICCIOLINI: I think it’s very connected. At least, it was during the ’80s and ’90s. Music was the vehicle for propaganda. It was the incitement to encourage people to commit acts of violence, and it was a social movement. People would come in for the very few concerts that were held every year from all over the country or all over the world. And it was a way to gather. And still today, I believe that music is a very powerful tool that the movement uses to inspire vulnerable young people into a very hateful social movement.
.. You went to Germany and toured there with the band with some groups there. And there’s a point where you give a really evocative description of the skinhead rally where you say, it begins with speeches, and there’s lots and lots of beer-drinking throughout and then, you know, frenzied, you know, music and then eventually, sooner or later, fights break out among different groups who are in attendance or because someone was jealous over a romantic approach to somebody’s girlfriend. It doesn’t exactly sound like people were trying to put together a strategy for change, right? Either winning elections, or armed revolt or much of anything other than coming together and having these moments with each other which often ended in violence.
.. PICCIOLINI: Well, I don’t think that that’s correct. I do think that there were a lot of concerted strategies in the ’80s and ’90s that we’re seeing take hold today. We recognized in the mid ’80s that our edginess, our look, even our language was turning away the average American white racist, people we wanted to recruit. So we decided then to grow our hair out, to stop getting tattoos that would identify us, to trade in our boots for suits and to go to college campuses and recruit there and enroll to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to even run for office.
And here we are 30 years later and we’re using terms like white nationalist and alt-right, terms that they came up with, by the way, that they sat around and said, how can we identify ourselves to make us seem less hateful? Back in my day when I was involved, we used terms like white separatists or white pride. But it certainly was neither one of those. It was white supremacy and – as is white nationalism or the alt-right today.
.. we ran businesses. We ran record labels. We ran record stores. We ran magazines that were glossy. We made videos before the Internet. I mean, it was for all intent and purpose a global movement that was highly organized but lacked a, you know, a very charismatic central figure.
.. Well, aside from just the indiscriminate violence that, you know, the acts that we committed on almost a daily basis against anybody – it didn’t really matter, there really wasn’t a reason – there were also times where we were involved in, you know, in planning armored car robberies, where we talked about that. There was a point in 1991 where I was approached by somebody representing Muammar Gaddafi, from Libya, who wanted to bring me to Tripoli to meet with him and accept some money to fund a revolution against the Jews in the United States.
And that’s something that’s always scared me because that set a precedent that I think that we will see more of in the future where we start to see some of these Islamist terror groups start to partner with these far-right groups.
And while that may sound crazy because they hate each other, unfortunately, their enemy, their number-one enemy is what they would consider the Jew. So I think it’s only a matter of time before we start to see these organizations begin to work with each other and start to spread their terror more globally.
The president doesn’t pretend to represent all citizens—just his most hardcore supporters.
.. Trump has carved out for himself a uniquely agonistic and tribalistic persona. He’s polarizing, and proud of it.
.. To win the presidency, you first need to win the support of a major political party, which means having a partisan identity. But once in power, the commander in chief is supposed to preside over the whole nation, not just those who voted for him.
.. But Trump has decided to forgo any attempt at conciliation. Instead, he’s run a bluntly partisan presidency, where his rhetoric is geared toward pleasing fanatical Fox News viewers more than creating a broad coalition. It’s a peculiarity of Trump’s behavior that he talks openly about his base, not even pretending to be the president of all Americans.
.. “The ugly truth is that white nationalists, the KKK, neo-Nazis and other bigots are indeed part of the Trump base,” columnist Brent Budowsky argued at The Hill. “Trump should throw these bigots out of his base. He should say he does not want their support. He should name names and name hate groups, loudly and repeatedly, and say he does not want their votes, their support, their praise and that he believes they are a stain on America.”
.. Rather than heeding such advice, Trump is moving in the opposite direction—and paying a political price for it.
.. As the president is increasingly criticized from outside his base, he’ll increasingly use his passionate fans as a political shield. And as Charlottesville proves, if those fans end up killing someone, the president will defend them. Caught in the closed loop of fan-servicing, Trump is setting the nation on a path toward further radicalization and further violence.
He did not come to the White House with any moral authority. And unlike some other presidents, such as J.F.K. and Ronald Reagan, he did not embody our aspirations.
He was simply a rough instrument to smash the capital. Republican nihilism and Democratic neglect and arrogance had bred a virulent strain of nihilism in the electorate. Many voters wanted to tear down the house.
There will be a lot of pain while this president is in office and the clock will turn back on many things. But we will come out stronger, once this last shriek of white supremacy and grievance and fear of the future is out of the system. Every day, President Trump teaches us what values we cherish — and they’re the opposite of his.
.. When Trump buoyed the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis who had marched in Charlottesville with Tiki torches, Confederate flags, Nazi slogans, swastikas and banners reading “Jews will not replace us” — even as one of their leaders told a Vice News reporter how disgusting it was that Trump’s “beautiful” blond daughter was married to a Jewish man— the president made it clear which category he is in.
.. For all the things he thinks make him a tough guy — his macho posturing, his Twitter bullying, his swaggering and leering talk, his vulgar references to his anatomy — he’s no tough guy if he can’t stand up to the scum of the earth.
While US counter-terrorism efforts remain locked on Islamist extremism, the growing threat from homegrown, rightwing extremists is even more pressing
the “Patriot” movement, a spectrum of groups who believe the US government has become a totalitarian and repressive force.
.. Although the Trump administration is reportedly planning to restructure the Department of Homeland Security’s countering violent extremism (CVE) program to focus exclusively on radical Islam, a 2014 national survey of 175 law enforcement agencies ranked sovereign citizens, not Islamic terrorists, as the most pressing terrorist threat.
The survey ranked Islamic terrorists a close second, with the following top three threats all domestic in origin and sometimes overlapping: the militia movement, racist skinheads, and the neo-Nazi movement.
Though the federal CVE program already devotes almost the entirety of its resources to organizations combatting jihadism, the White House feels that the current name is “needlessly ‘politically correct’”, an anonymous government source told CNN.
.. “Many of [the people attracted to such movements] are guys my age, middle-aged white guys. They’re seeing profound change and seeing that they have been left behind by the economic success of others and they want to return to a never-existent idyllic age when everyone was happy and everyone was white and everyone was self-sufficient.”
.. Today’s sovereign citizen movement can be traced in part to two popular Patriot ideologies:
- the Posse Comitatus movement, built around the theory that elected county sheriffs are the highest legitimate law officers, and the
- Freemen-on-the-Land movement, a fringe ideology whose adherents believe themselves subject only to their own convoluted, conspiratorial, and selective interpretation of common law.
.. One of the movement’s foundational texts was The Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel by the white supremacist William Luther Pierce that describes a near future in which a small group of patriots fighting the extinction of the white race work to bring about a race war and the eventual genocide of non-white peoples.
The rise of sovereign citizens is linked to home foreclosures
not all sovereign citizens are white: Gavin Long, a black sovereign citizen, killed three law enforcement officers in Louisiana last year. An increasing number of black Americans are coming to the sovereign movement from the Moorish Science Temple, a black Muslim church that believes African Americans are the descendants of ancient Moors.
.. “There is still racism and bigotry,” she said. “Some of this is situational. If there are two members of your 12-person militia who are black, who are conservatives, military veterans, whatever – they are your brothers. You would kill for them and you would die for them. But two black guys in Ferguson, on the other side of the political spectrum – if there is a hierarchy of hatred, they are as low as you can get, lower than animals.”
.. “Their only agenda is they are anti-government.” Paudert believes that in some ways, sovereign citizens are better understood as an extreme left or anarchist movement than an extreme right movement.
.. “I call them rightwing anarchists … So perhaps it is almost a full circle, if you have that continuum.”
.. “The sovereign citizens really got big in the late 2000s because people were losing their houses to foreclosure.” Many are house-squatters
.. Financial crime is rampant among sovereign citizens, who are also well-known for harassing their enemies with fraudulent liens. “There are a lot of people scamming each other.”
.. Many come from a cluster of amorphous internet communities, MacNab noted, including far-right trolls, the hacking collective Anonymous, and Copwatch, whose supporters upload critical videos of police on YouTube.
.. Younger and older sovereigns get an overwhelming share of their news from Infowars, the media channel of the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and RT, the propaganda network known for pushing negative stories about the American government.
.. Among some of the anti-government groups MacNab tracks, Trump has enjoyed something of a honeymoon since the election, she said. But she believes that it won’t last: when they realize Trump is not the panacea they thought he was, they will feel used, and turn against him.