Undated FBI photo showing a cache of guns seized from an extremist militia group. (FBI.gov)

Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times in Kenosha, Wisconsin, partially paralyzing him.  The shooting prompted protests.  During one night of protests, Kyle Rittenhouse was roaming the streets of Kenosha with an AR-15 strapped across his chest. The 17-year-old Rittenhouse was there to protect property and face off with Black Lives Matter protesters. He was reportedly in the company of the “Boogaloo Bois,” a right-wing militia. Boogaloo is what white supremacists and militia members call the projected upcoming civil war.  For some, it is explicitly a race war. For others, it’s a war against the “deep state.”  

By the time the night was over, the teenager had shot Anthony Huber, Joseph Rosenbaum, and Gaige Grosskreutz. Mr. Grosskreutz was wounded, and Mr. Huber and Mr. Rosenbaum were killed.  Police let Rittenhouse go home but later arrested him for first degree murder.  

Just prior to the shooting, the police virtually glad-handed the militia, throwing them water bottles and telling them how appreciative they were that their group was there.  In some cases, like Kenosha, police treat right-wing militias like allies and partners in a worldview. Or, perhaps, they see them as a force they are unable to control.  Regardless, militias are sometimes seen as allies. And protesters are seen as the enemy, especially BLM protesters and, it seems, anyone left of Alex Jones. 

The militia movement is a hodgepodge of ideologies, but it is predominantly a movement on the right. The number of militia groups exploded after Barack Obama was elected president. Their tenets include a rabid belief in the Second Amendment; a feigned love and knowledge of the US Constitution; a romantic notion of our history; a lithe ability to incorporate conspiracy theories; an unwavering belief in the American free market system — even in the face of an economic system that only benefits a few; and a distrust of the federal government, especially when a Democrat is in the Oval Office. But chief among their beliefs is the efficacy of violence.  

Gavin McInnes, the leader of a militia group called the Proud Boys, summed up his organization succinctly by saying, “We will kill you. That’s the Proud Boys in a nutshell. We will kill you.”  When President Trump tweeted a quote from the Rev. Robert Jeffress concerning the impeachment process that said, “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office, it will cause a Civil War-like fracture in this nation from which our country will never heal.” A militia called the Oath Keepers tweeted, “We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war. Like in 1859. That’s where we are. And the Right has ZERO trust or respect for anything the left is doing. We see THEM as illegitimate too.”  

What should frighten us is that the right’s reality is as malleable as margarine.  It’s a reality shaped by the words of people like Donald Trump, Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson. Trump’s dog whistle to the Proud Boys during the first presidential debate has energized militias.  From their perspective, his order to “stand back and stand by” is both a validation and a call to action.  

It’s a human tendency to want to mistake a symptom for the disease.  Trump and the militias are symptoms of a more profound problem: Many Americans can’t come to terms with the horrors and hypocrisy that seeded the foundations of this country and the continual horrors and hypocrisy that it takes to maintain it.  They have hardened their hearts into a flint, immune to even the most undeniable or humane appeals.  

The president is a glorious ringmaster for enthusiasts craving his brand of circus. So when the media marvels at right-wing folk’s capacity to digest the wildest lies, it’s because the talking heads don’t realize that the lies are essential to maintaining their façade.  In North Carolina, “patriots” are cruising around in flag-draped trucks yelling “White Power!”  At a Minnesota rally, Trump played Eugenicist-In-Chief by complimenting the crowd on their “good genes.”  Clearly, they think of themselves with such self-adulation that any honest reckoning with history is a threat to their self-image as a people set apart by history and God.  

In recent years, our country has been sobering up from the mint juleps and magnolias of the Old South.  Black Lives Matter and leftist politics have confronted Trump’s horror show and spoiled the militia movement’s national romanticism. To many, they are an affront to the right’s sentimental view of our history.  It is perfectly understandable that a country would want to view itself in a positive light. We are, undoubtedly, a great country in our power and wealth.  But that is entirely different from saying we are a good country.  Removing monuments and the other fetishes that honor the Lost Cause and glorify racism is a step toward goodness.  But even that symbolic step is too large a threat for some.

In our state, like-minded people have reacted to this by forming the Louisiana Cajun Militia in order “to oppose the removal of Confederate monuments.”   An internet search reveals a description of the militia’s defunct Facebook page that says they “are a group of Constitutionist [sic] that will fight to preserve our Constitution and Bill of Rights. We train so we can be ready when the time comes. MILITIA.”  Well, that time has come in Lafayette. 

In late August, Lafayette Police officers pursued Trayford Pellerin, and shot him 10 times while he was entering a convenience store.  He was allegedly carrying a knife.  In the aftermath of the shooting, Black Lives Matter protesters organized a demonstration at Lafayette City Hall.  Representative Clay Higgins, under the impression that a black militia named the “Not Fucking Around Coalition” was on its way to Lafayette, posted a rant on Facebook claiming, “I wouldn’t even spill my beer. I’d drop any 10 of you where you stand.”  Higgins went on to mouth such rhetorical finery about his gun slinging prowess, that The Advocate called him an “idiot.”  

Around the time Congressman Higgins posted his tantrum on Facebook, the Louisiana Cajun Militia showed up armed at the BLM protest, as if on cue.  The commander of the militia, exhibiting a kind of mind that’s imbued with a startling gift for unintended irony, told a reporter that they were not going to let the protesters “go around burning flags and intimidating.”  According to all the reports, the protesters had no intention of burning any flags, which is a citizen’s  constitutional right. You can even burn a Confederate Battle Flag as an act of protected speech under the First Amendment. However, when 50 locked and loaded white vigilantes show up at a BLM protest, their very purpose is to intimidate.

If what the “commander” said was, in earnest, that they really intended to combat intimidation, it’s sad that their dainty brains were deaf and dumb to the threats their AR-15’s were shouting.  It’s sadder still, that those loud rifles poured another layer of menace on people protesting the menace they face every day. Menace inflicted by men who have no authority to exert their will on other citizens, other than the authority given by their guns.   

In response, John Jay Fitzgerald Johnson, leader of the aforementioned NFAC militia, has taken exception to Rep. Higgins’ threats and insults.  He has demanded an apology from Higgins and has decided to take his militia to Lafayette to protest if he doesn’t get one.  The more rootin’-tootin’ our rhetoric gets, the closer we get to a bloody ecstasy so many desire.

The “patriots” seem to be praying for that ecstasy of violence — one that rids “their” country of political opposition. Our cockered sense of American Exceptionalism must not prevent us from admitting, as Sinclair Lewis elucidated in It Can’t Happen Here, that it can, in fact, happen here.

About the author: Leo Lindner taught English composition for three years at Nicholls State University until the extravagant riches lavished upon him by the University of Louisiana System weighed on his conscience so heavily it encouraged him to take a position as a “mud engineer” in the oilfield. He worked on the Deepwater Horizon for 5 years with some of the finest people he will ever know. He is now retired and lives with his excellent wife, Sue.

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at astelly@thelensnola.org.