More than seven years after it began, the antigovernment "Patriot" movement is a shadow of its former self. The scheduled execution of Timothy McVeigh may well mark the fading of this particular form of the radical right.
John Trochmann, a Militia of Montana leader who once claimed a following in the thousands, today leads a tiny organization that is derisively referred to as the "Mail Order Militia."
Donald Beauregard, a Florida militiaman who asserted in 1995 that a map on a Trix cereal box revealed secret government plans, is now serving a five-year sentence for trying to blow up power stations.
Jeff Randall, co-founder of an Alabama militia group and the man who embarrassed federal agents by exposing a racist event they'd attended, has left the "Patriot" movement and apologized.
More than seven years after it began, the so-called Patriot movement, characterized by gun-toting militiamen angry at the federal government, is a shadow of its former self. The scheduled May 16 execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh may well serve as a bookend to the militia phenomenon, marking the dying gasps of a movement that has dwindled away in favor of other groups.
In its latest annual count, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project identified 194 antigovernment Patriot groups that were active in 2000 — a drop of almost 9% from the year before, and the fourth consecutive decline since the Patriot movement peaked with 858 groups in 1996.
The count marked the lowest ebb of a movement that throughout much of the 1990s captured the attention of the nation — and which was shoved into the international limelight with the 1995 attack that left 168 people dead in Oklahoma City.
People have left the militia movement for a variety of reasons. They have gone home, disillusioned and tired of waiting for the revolution that never seems to come. They have been scared off, frightened by the arrests of thousands of comrades for engaging in illegal "common-law" court tactics, weapons violations and even terrorist plots.
And they have, in great numbers, left the relatively non-racist Patriot world for the harder-line groups that now make up most of the radical right.
"Although militia activity continues at a low level, the antigovernment Patriot movement is running out of steam," said Joe Roy, director of the Intelligence Project. "But at the same time, racist and anti-Semitic hate groups have been growing, thanks to former militiamen and others who have joined up."
Less Outreach from a Harder Core
Patriot outreach has shrunk, too. Although there have been recent efforts to expand Patriot short-wave radio programming, the number of Patriot sites on the Internet — the principal propaganda venue for most Patriot groups — has plummeted. The Intelligence Project identified just 155 Patriot sites on the World Wide Web in early 2001, a drop of 41% from the 263 Web sites counted a year earlier.
What remains of the Patriot scene today is generally harder core, with an increasing number of groups influenced by the racist and anti-Semitic Christian Identity theology favored by some American neo-Nazi groups. Many others have embraced another radical theology, Christian Reconstructionism.
Typical of declining movements, the Patriot world is also increasingly dominated by profiteers — men and women who play on the conspiracy theories that characterize Patriot thinking to rip off their supposed brethren in the movement.
The life stories of many well-known Patriots help illustrate the changing shape of the radical right (see False Patriots). Linda Thompson, a Patriot who once called for an armed march on Washington, D.C., and created a key propaganda film about Waco, has disappeared into obscurity in North Carolina.
J.J. Johnson, at one time the militias' favorite African-American, now says he doesn't want to be black any more; he'd rather be a rebel, and so has taken up with "pro-South" groups.
Behind the Fears
It would be easy to dismiss the Patriot movement, with its outlandish conspiracy theories and childish fascination with guns, as a collection of nuts, people lacking basic reasoning skills whose arguments were naïve at best. But that would be too easy. In fact, America's militiamen embodied real grievances and fears.
In many ways, the movement represented an alienated and distrustful response to a rapidly changing world — a rejection of the vision of the post-Communist world that was summarized in then-President Bush's "New World Order" speech in 1990. In the heartland, Americans were not so quick as their country's elites to endorse the drawing together of economies, races and cultures that globalism represents.
Instead, they saw globalism as robbing America of its independence and culture, and threatening farmers, industrial workers and others economically.
Their anger, aimed at the government and all international bodies, was seen both in the "Republican Revolution" of 1994 — when a large number of candidates were elected on explicitly antigovernment platforms — and in polls which showed that more than half of Americans saw the federal government as an imminent threat to their civil liberties. Governmental power in general was under attack.
In particular, many in the West and Midwest mightily resented attempts to impose gun control — few actions helped spur the militia movement more than the 1993 Brady Bill — and to regulate the environment.
They were also deeply angered by international trade agreements that seemed to be facilitating the transfer of jobs from America to cheap Third World labor markets.
And they were infuriated by two events that seemed to show how the federal government treated dissenters.
Government as Villain
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.