Once Popular Patriot Leader John Trochmann Now Leads ‘Mail Order Militia’
With the planned execution of Timothy McVeigh, a movement that roiled the 1990s comes symbolically to a close
The first was the 1992 federal siege of white supremacist Randy Weaver, whose wife and son were killed at their Ruby Ridge, Idaho, home. It was in response to this that extremists convened at a key meeting — the "Rocky Mountain Rendezvous," held in Estes Park, Colo. —and laid out the contours of the militia movement.
But what really ignited the militia movement was the federal siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, which ended in a conflagration that left some 80 Davidians dead.
Consider the Oklahoma bombers. McVeigh, as he told the authors of the just-released book American Terrorist, was animated by Waco, and in fact blew up the federal building on the second anniversary of the fiery end of that standoff.
McVeigh also had a foot in the neo-Nazi world, using the racist novel The Turner Diaries as the blueprint for his attack. Co-conspirator Terry Nichols, too, had deep roots in the radical right, renouncing his U.S. citizenship in 1992 and endorsing an array of Patriot theories first popularized by the racist Posse Comitatus in the 1980s.
Today, the state of the Patriot movement can be discerned in many ways. Patriot periodicals have almost all lost circulation. Former colleagues are finding themselves on opposite sides as some militias adopt Identity theology and others try to maintain a "moderate" image.
Virtually every week, more people involved in the movement are sent to prison for crimes ranging from illegal gun possession to such common-law tactics as filing false property liens and passing fake checks. Official crackdowns have militiamen and other Patriots in constant fear of informers.
The Movement 'Abandoned'
For years, Patriot heavyweights gathered twice a year in Shepherdsville, Ky., for the nearby Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot. Members of militia coalitions like the Third Continental Congress and the Southeastern States Alliance set up tents there and filled meeting halls. But divisions persisted and worsened.
In the end, even the best-laid plans for pulling together a national or even regional coalition of Patriot groups could not survive the pettiness and power plays of the would-be rebels.
Thousands still attend the Kentucky gun events. But at the most recent "shoot," there was virtually no antigovernment sentiment on display other than a sticker on a backpack that proclaimed its owner a "Militia Sniper" — a sticker that may well have been meant as a rhetorical jab rather than a boast.
In a similar way, what were once billed as Preparedness Expos — events where survivalist goods were sold to Patriots fearful of "Y2K" disasters — are seeing far fewer Patriots. Reflecting the change in audience, the fairs were recently renamed Lifeline Expos.
To some, it all amounts to a sad state of affairs.
Norm Olson, a Michigan gun shop owner who began one of the earliest and largest militias, was spurned recently when he offered to bring armed Patriots to help defend Indianapolis Baptist Temple (IBT), which was about to be seized by officials for refusing to pay withholding taxes (see Church vs. State).
"All day long I've heard reports that the IBT was seized," Olson wrote bitterly after federal agents finally moved in last February. "This is not true. The IBT was not seized or taken, it was given away... . [I]t was abandoned by people who once swore that they would stand."
Clearly, the Patriot movement is not what it once was; in fact, this particular expression of the American radical right is almost certainly fizzling. But that does not mean that radical antigovernment sentiment is going away. Antigovernment ideology has been with the United States since its founding, and it is certain to remain a permanent fixture in our culture.
The only question is precisely what form the antigovernment extremist right will take in the decades to come.