Patriot Movement

Illustration by Stephanie Daltan Cowan

The antigovernment “Patriot” movement has experienced a resurgence, growing quickly since 2008, when President Obama was elected to office. Factors fueling the antigovernment movement in recent years include changing demographics driven by immigration, the struggling economy and the election of the first African-American president. In 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 1,274 anti-government “Patriot” groups that were active the prior year. Of these groups, 334 were militias and the remainder includes “common-law” courts, publishers, ministries and citizens’ groups.

Generally, Patriot groups define themselves as opposed to the “New World Order,” engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing, or advocate or adhere to extreme antigovernment doctrines. Antigovernment groups do not necessarily advocate or engage in violence or other criminal activities, though some have. Many warn of impending government violence or the need to prepare for a coming revolution. Many antigovernment groups are not racist.

A particularly prominent conspiracy in the antigovernment movement is that the United Nations, which is usually seen as spearheading the “New World Order,” is imposing a global plan, called Agenda 21, to take away citizens’ property rights. There is a UN program with that name to develop sustainable communities across the globe. Agenda 21 was agreed to by political leaders from dozens of countries, including the first President Bush. But in typical fashion, these antigovernment activists have twisted it into a global conspiracy.

Other notable conspiracies found in the antigovernment movement include the idea that the government is secretly planning to round up citizens and place them in concentration camps run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. Another conspiracy alleges that there are plans to merge the United States, Canada and Mexico into a single country. Fears of impending gun control or weapons confiscations, either by the government or international agencies, also run rampant in antigovernment circles. As a result, many antigovernment activists believe that being well armed is a must. The militia movement engages in paramilitary training aimed at protecting citizens from this feared impending government crackdown.

The antigovernment movement hit its previous high of 858 groups in 1996, the year after the Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was motivated by extreme antigovernment beliefs then circulating in the militia movement. He was also inspired by the racist novel, The Turner Diaries, modeling his attack on a scene from the book.

The antigovernment movement of the 1990s, typified by the proliferation of militias, was fueled by a string of incidents, including the 1993 government assault on the Branch Davidian compound, that were seen as evidence of an out-of-control government willing to attack citizens. Other factors included the struggling economy in the early 1990s, particularly in Western states, and the election of President Clinton, who was perceived by these activists as a liberal intent on seizing their weapons.

A subset of the antigovernment movement—sovereign citizens—is a growing force. Sovereign citizens believe that they, not judges, juries, law enforcement or elected officials, get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and they don't think they should have to pay taxes. Sovereign citizen ideology is complex and bizarre and they are best known for clogging up the courts with indecipherable filings and liens targeting public officials. When cornered, many have lashed out in rage, frustration and, in the most extreme cases, acts of deadly violence, usually directed against government officials. In May 2010, for example, a father-son team of sovereigns murdered two police officers with an assault rifle when they were pulled over on the interstate while traveling through West Memphis, Ark.

The sovereign citizens movement is rooted in racism and anti-Semitism, though most sovereigns, many of whom are African American, are unaware of their beliefs' origins. In the early 1980s, the sovereign citizens movement attracted primarily white supremacists and anti-Semites, mainly because sovereign theories originated in groups that saw Jews as working behind the scenes to manipulate financial institutions and control the government. Most early sovereigns, and some of those who are still on the scene, believed that being white was a prerequisite to becoming a sovereign citizen. They argued that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed citizenship to African Americans and everyone else born on U.S. soil, also made black Americans permanently subject to federal and state governments, unlike themselves.