By Freddy Cruz
The Southern Poverty Law Center identified 61 active militia groups throughout the United States in 2022. This is a decline from the 92 active militia groups identified in 2021. This decrease in active paramilitary groups took place at a time when several antigovernment militants face charges for their roles in multiple high-profile incidents including the Jan. 6 insurrection, foiled kidnapping plots and the stockpiling of dangerous weapons.
The Southern Poverty Law Center defines the antigovernment movement as a conspiratorial movement focused on curtailing the powers of both state and federal governments. This movement is composed of sub-ideologies, with each propping up a different tactic to challenge government officialdom. The American militia movement acts as the paramilitary arm of the antigovernment movement.
The Militia Movement on Jan. 6
Of the major incidents that have stained the concept of unregulated militias, one of the most notable in recent history is the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. It was then that several antigovernment militants stood side by side with radicalized citizens to take part in what was an attempt to stop the certification of electoral votes that would cement Joe Biden’s position as the 46th president. Included in this mob of insurrectionists was Stewart Rhodes, leader and founder of the Oath Keepers, along with other members of his organization.
Since its founding in 2009, the Oath Keepers have peddled wild conspiracy theories that allege the federal government will confiscate firearms from law abiding citizens, force the American population into concentration camps, attempt to control the population through forced vaccinations and help usher in what Rhodes deemed the next “civil war.” Rhodes and the Oath Keepers have backed their extreme rhetoric with real-world demonstrations, often facing off against law enforcement agencies or antiracist activists.
After the attempt to overthrow the government, the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack took on the responsibility of investigating all parties involved in the assault. Following a law enforcement investigation and eight-day trial, on Nov. 29, 2022, a federal jury found Rhodes, along with the Florida chapter leader of the Oath Keepers, Kelly Meggs, guilty of seditious conspiracy. The jury convicted a total of five Oath Keepers, Rhodes, Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell of obstruction of an official proceeding.
As Rhodes and some of the Oath Keepers deal with ramifications for storming the Capitol, the overall size of the organization has dwindled. Over the past three years, the number of active Oath Keepers chapters has declined to 15 chapters in 2021 from approximately 79 active chapters in 2020, to just 5 active groups in 2022. Although there has been a decline in active Oath Keepers chapters, according to the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, threats from white supremacists and antigovernment extremists have increased in recent years.
When it comes to the Jan 6. insurrection, many of those facing legal charges had ties to various antigovernment militia groups and movements. Days after the insurrection, the FBI identified Guy Wesley Reffitt as a Jan. 6 participant and linked him to the Texas-based militia extremist group, This is Texas Freedom Force. As Texas Public Radio later confirmed, Reffitt was a dues-paying member of This is Texas Freedom Force, although the organization members distanced themselves from Reffitt, saying he did not attend meetings or events.
On August 1, 2022, Reffitt was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for his role in the insurrection. In a news release, the Department of Justice highlighted Reffitt’s trial from March 2022, where a jury found him guilty on two counts of civil disorder, one count of obstruction of an official proceeding, one count of entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds with a firearm and one count of obstruction of justice.
Michigan Fights Back
This past year, high-profile legal battles did not revolve around the insurrection only. In October 2020, local Michigan law enforcement and the FBI teamed up to arrest 14 individuals who were allegedly planning to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The men were allegedly members of the Wolverine Watchmen, an antigovernment militia group hell-bent on overthrowing the state government.
In 2022, three of the Wolverine Watchmen were sentenced to multi-year teams in state prison for their material support for the individuals conspiring to kidnap Whitmer. Of the 14 individuals arrested in connection with the plot, six of the men faced charges in federal court and eight in state court. The three men, Joseph Morrison, Paul Bellar and Pete Musico, were charged under Michigan’s Anti-Terrorism Act of 2022. Adam Fox, Barry Croft Jr., Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta were alleged to be the six core members of the group. In early 2022, both Kaleb Franks and Ty Gabin pleaded guilty and took a plea deal agreeing to cooperate with the government as it built a case against others in the group. Gabin was eventually handed a reduced sentence of 2 ½ years for his assistance while Franks, who has faced up to life in prison, was handed four years in federal prison with an additional three years of court supervision upon his release.
Following mistrials resulting from a deadlocked jury, Fox and Croft were convicted in federal court in August of kidnapping conspiracy and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. In late December, a court sentenced Fox to 16 years in prison for his role in the attempted kidnapping. Days later, it sentenced Croft. to 19 ½-year in prison, labeling him the “ideas guy” of the plot.
Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta were found not guilty of federal charges in April 2022.
Dismantling the New Mexico Civil Guard
Since the early 90’s antigovernment militia groups have marketed the idea that organizing as a private military force is a protected right under the U.S. Constitution. The case against the New Mexico Civil Guard (NMCG) is an example of how existing laws can be used to hold militias accountable for their dangerous and often illegal activities.
During the 2020 protests that broke out in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the antigovernment group dubbed the New Mexico Civil Guard, showed up to an antiracist protest with the intent to police protestors near Old Town in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After protestors clashed with antiracist demonstrators, a scuffle ensued leaving one person shot. Although the shooter was not part of the NMCG, in the initial complaint filed by the state, the NMCG was described as having “exacerbated” the situation.
The complaint also highlighted some of the links between NMCG members and known white supremacist and neo-Confederate organizations. A point of concern was NMCG’s history of showing up to try and police events as a private paramilitary force. In October 2022, Second Judicial District Court Judge Elaine Lujan ruled the NMCG broke the law by organizing and trying to police the 2020 protestors in Old Town. Lujan’s ruling also barred the group from publicly organizing as a militia and ordered NMCG to cover $8,350 in legal fees incurred by the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office in its attempt to obtain relevant court documents.
The district attorney’s office viewed the ruling as a substantial victory. The impact is expected to extend beyond on the New Mexico Civil Guard and anticipated to prevent other militia groups in the future from organizing in a coordinated capacity to threaten and intimidate the public.
In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, both the justice system and big tech companies have had to reevaluate their roles in helping curtail the growing threat posed by antigovernment militia groups and their ardent supporters. As legal cases run their courses through the justice system, militia groups have had to go underground to reorganize and recruit. In 2022, these efforts to hold militia groups accountable for their vigilante activities have resulted in stifled growth and a decline in active militia organizations. As antigovernment ideas bleed into other extremist movements, the decline in militia groups is not representative of the entire landscape of organizationally unaffiliated but hard-right inspired extremists activated over the past year.
Recommendations for positive change
As law enforcement and military agencies explore new ways to deal with the threat posed by antigovernment militias, the SPLC has drafted several policy recommendations that will aid in dismantling this organized threat to democracy.
In order to confront militia violence and intimidation, federal and state authorities – including state attorneys – can actively support existing laws that make it illegal to form private militias. They should also work to educate agents on how to enforce those laws and put policies in place that prevent law enforcement agents from engaging in paramilitary training and participating in political intimidation.
To prevent antigovernment militia members and their sympathizers from infiltrating branches of the government, the Department of Homeland Security along with state and local law enforcement can make a greater effort to adopt policies that prevent the hiring, retention and promotion of personnel who actively promote white supremacy, violence or other bias against persons based on those person’s personal characteristics.
In searching for policies that could help mitigate political violence, states should restrict firearms in and around state capitol and government buildings and near polling locations. In the fight against hate and extremism, the SPLC offers these recommendations as just a few of the ways that both lawmakers and law enforcement can adopt changes to continue to mitigate the growth of antigovernment militia and other extremist sentiment at both the national and local level.
By Joe Wiinikka-Lydon, Emerson Hodges and R.G. Cravens
White Christian nationalism is a key ideology that inspired the failed Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and fueled multiple failed political campaigns in 2022. Even with these major public losses, however, white Christian nationalism remains a persistent and growing threat to U.S. democracy.
The principles and values that animate white Christian nationalism are not novel. Extremist and antigovernment organizations have mobilized around the ideology before, and in 2022 many claimed the label as a badge of honor. However, white Christian nationalism threatens democracy and human rights for all.
White Christian nationalism generally refers to a political ideology and identity that fuses white supremacy, Christianity and American nationalism, and whose proponents claim that the United States is a “Christian nation.” Their ideology’s end goal is power for “true Americans” who hold their specific political and religious views. In this paradigm, the nation’s foundational separation of church and state contradict their conception of God’s plan, and U.S. laws, policies, leaders and even culture should reflect adherents’ extremely narrow interpretation of biblical values.
Anthea Butler wrote in a report compiled by Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Christians Against Christian Nationalism: “The scene in the Senate chamber at the [Jan 6] insurrection is the best physical description of the phenomenon. Their prayer in the chamber – in which they began “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name” – hints at the rot at the core of religious nationalism: the assumption that Christ is at the core of efforts to establish and promote white protestant Christianity in the service of white male autocratic authority.”
White Christian nationalism is exclusionary and antidemocratic. Adherents view large segments of the U.S. population as un-American and often ascribe labels such as Marxists, communists and even pedophiles to civil rights advocates who champion a pluralistic, multiracial, equitable democracy.
For decades white Christian nationalist ideas were a foundation that linked the far-right antigovernment and “religious right” movements in the U.S. In the 1990s, the antigovernment movement self-identified as the “Christian Patriot” movement and combined support for militias, conspiracies, and “constitutionalist” reasoning with a belief in Christian prophecy applied to the U.S.
Meanwhile, the early “religious right” movement was fronted by the efforts of Jerry Falwell’s so-called Moral Majority Republican politics that skirted the edges of the more blatant white Christian nationalism of R.J. Rushdoony. Both factions of the religious right were harbingers of present-day anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim and male supremacist efforts. Today’s white Christian nationalism has brought together these movements in its crusade against secularism and sees diversity as a problem that undermines the country’s integrity and viability.
White Christian nationalism is expressed as the original form of identity politics that validates only one identity, the white Christian nationalist, as the true inheritor of the white “Founders’” nation.
Adherents of white Christian nationalism are also some of the biggest drivers of antidemocratic conspiracy theories and election denialism. Like a political rally with a splash of baptismal water, white Christian nationalism is on exhibit at the ReAwaken America Tour – a series of rallies led by Clay Clark and Michael Flynn, former national security adviser in the Trump administration. What began as a protest against COVID-19 mandates rebranded shortly after the Jan. 6 insurrection into a touring MAGA Christian revival.
Over the last two years, ReAwaken America has visited over 15 cities and engaged thousands of people, offering participants conspiracies and baptisms, extremist sermons and misinformation, and becoming a singular force propagating the “Big Lie” that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election – against all evidence to the contrary. This tour’s messages reinforce the idea that there is no separation between church and state. In 2022, SPLC polling of a nationally representative sample of people in the U.S. found that nearly two-thirds of people disagree with the tour’s promoters and strongly support the separation of church and state.
The problem with this view is not Christianity. Indeed, this white Christian Nationalism is laced with inherently stark contradictions. Many mainstream Christians in communities across the country deeply value diversity, and the historical foundation of the separation of church and state. The problem, instead, is how reactionary and exclusive this ideology is.
As Jemar Tisby, an activist and scholar whose early Christian faith was shaped by his experience in a white evangelical environment has said, “This ideology's narrow conception of who is ‘truly’ American and what constitutes Christianity is diametrically opposed to the free, equitable and multiracial society that we need to construct.”
The ReAwaken tour, and white Christian nationalists, present politics as an apocalyptic fight between “good and evil,” making it hard to imagine any possibility for the kind of political compromise that is so necessary for a functional democracy. Speakers such as Flynn cast progressives and other Americans as “globalists,” “communists” and un-American. He and others rail against antiracism curriculum and denigrate trans people.
Flynn has said, “Our children’s lives and futures are at risk when our schoolboards ... shove [critical race theory] and transgender nonsense down their throats.” He has also said publicly, “So, if we are going to have ‘one nation under God,’ which we must, we have to have one religion, one nation under God, and one religion under God.”
Groups like the ReAwaken America Tour claim that their exclusive ideology is meant to protect children and the nation, even as they scapegoat trans children and their families, demonize neighbors with different political views and help erode democratic norms and institutions.
That same exclusionary ideology is present in anti-LGBTQ extremist groups monitored by the SPLC. For example, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has claimed “The homosexual agenda will destroy Christianity and society,” contended that LGBTQ people are more likely to be pedophiles, and the organization defended laws forcing sterilization of transgender individuals.
Family Research Council (FRC) claims to advocate for “religious liberty,” yet the organization’s work to make the Bible the authoritative text of American governance would legalize discrimination, not just against LGBTQ people but also against multiple marginalized groups, and eventually drive them from public life.
FRC President Tony Perkins has called on public school teachers to proselytize children, has advocated restrictive school curricula and has claimed “Christian nationalism“ is a term invented to persecute Christians. At the same time, Perkins, FRC and other anti-LGBTQ hate groups reject the idea that LGBTQ people can be full participants in American society. Indeed, Perkins called LGBTQ people the “zenith of man’s rebellion against God” and regularly claims that extending civil rights protections to LGBTQ people comes at the cost of “religious liberty,” a term often used as a cover to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals.
In 2022, these old bigotries melded with new conspiracies to become a burgeoning white Christian nationalist ideology that produced an especially toxic environment for marginalized and vulnerable people in the United States.
The renewed usage of “groomer” rhetoric fueled a moral panic in 2022 that contributed to violence against LGBTQ people. Five people were murdered in the Club Q mass shooting in Colorado Springs, Colorado, simply because they were in an LGBTQ nightclub. In addition, anti-transgender rhetoric led extremists continue to target children's hospitals and libraries – spaces that are integral to American civil society.
The groups who promote these views claim to protect children. In reality, they target children’s events, placing kids in harm’s way. Further, their attempts to eliminate accurate and inclusive public education reflect their desire to shape the next generation of Americans in the image of white Christian nationalism.
Christian scholars and laypersons across denominations have decried the white supremacy, heterosexism, antisemitism and nationalism espoused by white Christian nationalists. Such scholars and writers as Anthea Butler, Obery Hendricks, Jennifer Butler and networks including Christians Against Christian Nationalism and Faithful America demonstrate that white Christian nationalism is also an attack on values held by millions of Christians in the United States.
Jemar Tisby is a historian, New York Times bestselling author of The Color of Compromise and founder of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, a multimedia platform where he writes about race, religion and culture. In Tisby’s podcast for The Witness, he explores white Christian nationalism and anti-racism research and work. This production offers resources and opportunities that can help communities and individuals locally push back against white Christian nationalism.
Resources for Countering White Christian Nationalism
- Amanda Tyler, Christians against Christian Nationalism
- Faithful America
- Jemar Tisby, The Witness: A Black Christian Collective
By Alon Milwicki and Rachael Fugardi
Antisemitism is a constant in American history; 2022 was no different.
Throughout the year, celebrities, politicians and other public figures have promoted and embraced antisemitic rhetoric. This normalization of antisemitism has boosted the profile of many extremist groups and has resulted in direct threats to the Jewish community.
In 2022, Jewish people and spaces were regularly harassed, assaulted, vandalized and threatened. The beginning of the year was marked by an armed standoff outside a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, when a gunman disrupted Sabbath services and took four people hostage. In December, a man shot a pellet gun at a Jewish man and his son outside of a kosher supermarket in Staten Island, New York.
In the weeks following the takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk, the platform saw a 61% increase in discriminatory posts about Jews and Judaism according to a collective of non-profits. While reports of violence and nakedly antisemitic rhetoric this year made the country’s problem with antisemitism clear, the problem is far from new, and the consequences we now see were unfortunately predictable.
In 2022, the growth of overtly antisemitic groups, including those that ascribe to Christian Identity theology, remained relatively stagnant. However, key elements and beliefs were evident in the white nationalist hate group actions and rhetoric.
In a November livestream white nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes laughed about the history of violence targeting Jewish people around the world and warned, “The Jews had better start being nice to people like us because what comes out of this is going to be a lot uglier and a lot worse for them than anything that’s been said on this show.” On the ground, hate groups like Goyim Defense League targeted communities across the country with antisemitic flyers, more than tripling their propaganda efforts from 2021, according to Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt.
The total number of Holocaust denial groups did not grow significantly, however, new documented activity by Clemens and Blair publishing in 2022 further clarifies how interconnected Holocaust deniers and Holocaust revisionist organizations are in the U.S. These groups and publishing companies claim to be centered on open discussion, but they often blame Jewish forces for suppressing their revisionist history of Nazi Germany and for controlling the U.S. understanding of the horrors of Nazi Germany.
Throughout the 2022 election cycle, no name was invoked more in association with dirty money, control of media and politics or the existence of shadow government and "deep state" than George Soros, the Hungarian-American Jewish businessman and philanthropist. Right-wing media and politicians have consistently positioned Soros as a boogeyman whose influence and ideas will destroy American democracy and replace it with a Marxist communist society. These attacks bare all the hallmarks of standard and persistent antisemitic tropes, including that Jews control the media and government and that a small cadre of Jewish leaders is in control of all world affairs. Soros’ name serves as a basis for the normalization of antisemitism and acts as a stand-in for more explicitly bigoted statements.
In partnership with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and CASM Technology, the SPLC found a noticeable peak in online social media posts about “Soros and Warnock” and “Jew and Warnock” when analyzing social media trends regarding the midterm runoff election in Georgia. Antisemitic activists and groups spread false ideas about Jewish influence in elections in order to discredit the powerful, difficult and successful work of African American people and the multiracial coalition working for voting rights and representation in the South.
In early October, Ye – formerly known as Kanye West – launched into an antisemitic tirade that garnered national attention. In an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Ye made several hateful statements about Jewish control and greed and subsequently doubled down on social media, threatening to go “death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.” He eventually joined far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for an interview during which Ye claimed, “I like Hitler” and went on to add, “They did good things too. We have got to stop dissing the Nazis all the time.”
Ye has nearly 18.5 million followers on Instagram – a number that far exceeds the global Jewish population. This is a sizable audience that extremists are eager to tap. In mid-October, the hate group Goyim Defense League leveraged the media attention brought on by Ye’s remarks by hanging banners in Los Angeles that read “Kanye is right about the Jews.”
Ye’s online threats also appear to have had real-world consequences. In November, dozens of headstones in a Jewish cemetery outside of Chicago, Illinois, were vandalized with swastikas and the message “Kanye Was Rite.” The following month, a man was assaulted in Central Park by someone who allegedly shouted “Kanye 2024” during the attack in addition to antisemitic comments.
Similarly, when neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin’s Twitter account was reinstated, he immediately expressed his support, posting, “I am Officially endorsing Ye For President Of America.” This support was not limited to white supremacists. In a November webcast, notorious antisemite and leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, reiterated antisemitic tropes about Jewish power and influence. Farrakhan praised a film and his own book which falsely promote the antisemitic conspiracy that Jewish people initiated the transatlantic slave trade and continue to exert control over Black people.
In the lead-up to the 2022 general election, Minnesota Secretary of State candidate Kim Crockett used Soros’ image to display a consistent and abhorrent antisemitic trope in a video played at the state GOP convention. The footage showed Soros acting as the puppet master behind the scenes and pulling the strings behind her Democratic opponents. Jews as the heads of a shadow government controlling world events is a trope traced back to World War II and earlier.
When public figures use their large platforms to endorse antisemitism, the consequences are not confined to online spaces or extremist circles; this rhetoric threatens the safety of the Jewish community. The Soros-related conspiracy theories that were popular in political advertisements this year were the same ones that Cesar Sayoc shared online prior to his conviction for sending 16 pipe bombs to 13 public figures including Soros in 2018.
On December 7, second gentleman Doug Emhoff convened a meeting in response to the increase in antisemitic rhetoric. Invited to the meeting were several prominent Jewish leaders of notable organizations dedicated to monitoring and combating antisemitism and the “epidemic of hate facing” the country. This sentiment was later echoed by White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who stated that President Biden believed antisemitism is an issue all Americans need to acknowledge, adding that he called on “all Americans” to “forcefully reject antisemitism.” While administrations in the past have appealed for a more robust examination of antisemitism and anti-Jewish sentiments and hate groups in America, President Biden has put words into action.
At a conference on December 16, Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the Biden-appointed special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, reflected on Emhoff’s meeting, asserting, “Antisemitism is not a niche issue” and that it cannot be fought in silos. Lipstadt’s point is supported by recent demographic estimates that 12-15% of American Jews are people of color, 10% are immigrants and 20% are children of immigrants. The recognition that anti-Jewish hatred represents a core facet of other bigoted ideologies emphasizes the need for a more robust and intersectional approach to combating antisemitism in America.
As the executive director of the Atlanta-based nonprofit SOJOURN, Rebecca Stapel-Wax seeks to dismantle silos among civil and human rights groups and build inclusion for LGBTQ communities in harmony with her Jewish faith. “We are grounded in a faith that really uplifts and encourages and supports all community members,” Stapel-Wax said of her organization’s guiding beliefs. “We empower communities to advance and celebrate gender and sexual diversity across the South,” Stapel-Wax explained. “You’ll notice that there’s no ‘Jewish’ involved in that particular [mission] statement because our Jewish values are really the foundation.”
In SOJOURN’s work to build a collective movement for equality and to celebrate the multifaceted nature of people’s identities, the organization has created comprehensive and queer-inclusive sex education programs for teens, as well as materials that dismantle rigid and regressive gender stereotypes for children. SOJOURN also advocates on behalf of Jewish and LGBTQ individuals seeking to adopt and provides resources and support to parents of gender-expansive children.
SOJOURN also has become a hub for both regional and national collaboration through its partnership with Keshet to “work with Jewish organizations in the South to build or support an LGBTQ+ equality working group.” Joining with such established organizations and networks is an effective way to counter hate and build inclusive spaces in all communities. “Connect through social media,” Stapel-Wax recommends. “Get like-minded people … people who are active [and] find the passion that you have in a formed group.”
However, such intersectional movements for inclusion will not always be flawless, Stapel-Wax said. “When we get pushback from the folks that we’re trying to support, we listen, and we try to do it differently.” Tikkun olam – a concept in Judaism referring to various forms of action intended to repair the world – she explained, “is a constant journey of learning and humility.”
By Rachel Goldwasser
A smattering of county sheriffs across the U.S. tested the limits of democracy in 2022, with an assist from extremist law enforcement groups.
These constitutional sheriffs are devoted members of an antigovernment extremist movement that believes sheriffs are the highest authority in the country, above even the president. They usurp the duties of the Supreme Court by personally deciding which U.S. laws are legitimate and whether to enforce them.
These sheriffs are actively damaging the nation’s rule of law and attempting to shape the U.S. into a country where fringe law enforcement officers determine what human, civil and property rights they will enforce.
In the U.S., where the justice system already perpetuates great inequities that disproportionately effect people of color, these members of law enforcement further undermine equal justice under the law.
In 2022, constitutional sheriffs’ ideology intruded into another facet of democracy: elections. Members melded their extremist positions with their law enforcement authority to investigate rogue, conspiratorial allegations of fraud in the 2020 presidential election and brought doubt into the legitimacy of the 2022 midterm elections.
Two extremist law enforcement groups, Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) and Protect America Now (PAN), led these efforts.
CSPOA radicalizes sheriffs and the public through law enforcement training, presentations to lawmakers and civilians, online media and books written by the group’s founder Richard Mack. The organization is linked to extremists, including Oath Keepers, sovereign citizens, neo-confederates and white nationalists.
PAN was founded by political operatives and is less outspoken about their constitutional sheriff beliefs, but most of their advisory board and members are constitutional sheriffs whose ideology has shaped the organization at large. PAN has focused its attention on immigration issues, supporting the anti-immigrant hate group Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR) in its efforts to demonize migrants and lobby for policies that reflect this.
Beginning in the summer of 2022, both organizations worked with election conspiracy group True the Vote, whose founders participated in the film 2000 Mules, which promotes the “Big Lie,” the conspiracy theory parroted by former President Trump that the 2020 presidential election was rigged.
The Sheriffs Alliance Interfering with U.S. Elections
CSPOA posted a press release to its website on May 24, 2022, calling on local law enforcement agencies to investigate the 2020 election. The organization’s leaders and member sheriffs repeated the claim on July 12 at a CSPOA press conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. Sheriffs that were investigating and those considering it spoke publicly about their efforts and repeated themselves a day later at the Libertarian Freedom Fest in Las Vegas.
True the Vote announced its partnership with PAN on June 22, calling it ProtectAmerica.Vote. The group advertised that the effort was intended to teach sheriffs about their state election laws and provide them with grants to investigate alleged voting violations. The partnership included a plan to build a “National Election Integrity Voter Hotline” that would be linked to sheriffs’ offices and promote their cause in an informational campaign starting Aug. 1.
Multiple sheriffs affiliated with CSPOA and PAN spent the year attempting to investigate the 2020 election or interfering in the 2022 midterm elections. A group of devout constitutional sheriffs from Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin were the most egregious.
Arizona’s Constitutional Sheriff Problem
Mark Lamb, sheriff of Pinal County, Arizona, and PAN leader acted as the face of the PAN True the Vote partnership. In an interview published in the right-wing media source American Greatness on July 20, Lamb claimed that he was “disturbed” by talk of a law enforcement focus on domestic violence threats, that the feds had no jurisdiction over his county and that if they tried to push what he called unconstitutional mandates, “We would stop them,” Lamb said.
David Rhodes, Sheriff of Yavapai County, Arizona, has been linked to CSPOA and the Oath Keepers, and most recently an Oath Keepers offshoot organization, the Yavapai County Preparedness Team (YCPT). YCPT and the group Lions of Liberty formulated a plan to stake out and film Arizona ballot drop boxes for cases of fraud. At a July 23 YCPT meeting, group leader Jim Arroyo told members, “We have already coordinated with Sheriff Rhodes, and he told us if we see somebody stuffing a ballot box, and we get a license plate, they will make an arrest, and there will be a prosecution. Bottom line.” YCPT and Lions of Liberty eventually halted monitoring after a lawsuit was filed against them by Protect Democracy on behalf of the League of Women Voters asserting the group was engaging in voter intimidation.
Militias, Elections and Plots in Midwest
Dar Leaf, Sheriff of Barry County, Michigan, is a lifetime member of CSPOA. He received the group’s Sheriff of the Year award in 2017. On May 18, 2020, Leaf appeared at a protest alongside members of the Michigan Liberty Militia (MLM), whose members were found guilty in 2022 of a 2020 plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Leaf was asked if he regretted having shared a stage with MLM members, and he replied, “It’s just a charge, and they say a ‘plot to kidnap,’ and you got to remember that. Are they trying to kidnap? Because a lot of people are angry with the governor, and they want her arrested. So, are they trying to arrest or was it a kidnap attempt? Because you can still in Michigan if it is a felony, make a felony arrest.”
In December 2020, Leaf began his investigation into the presidential election. Leaf’s attorney Carson Tucker reached out to Trump allies, including conspiracy theorist and former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn, attorney Sidney Powell and Lin Wood’s Fight Back Foundation asking for information regarding "counties that have been potentially compromised.” Leaf tried to seize the voting machines from those counties to run his own investigation. In 2021 Leaf also worked with a private investigator who partnered with a sheriff’s deputy to question county clerks in six Michigan townships. After learning that the state was investigating his own investigation, on June 3, 2022, Leaf sued the Michigan attorney general, secretary of state and members of the state troopers for illegal interference. His claims in his lawsuit were dismissed by a Michigan judge on Aug. 29, 2022.
Leaf’s extremist election denial continued through 2022 as he made claims of voter fraud at the July CSPOA True the Vote press conference, FreedomFest in Las Vegas and to CSPOA members after the midterms. Leaf has gone so far as to call for sheriffs to host common law grand juries on the 2018 “stolen election” conspiracy. This type of grand jury is promoted by the National Liberty Alliance, a sovereign citizen group Leaf has worked with.
Christopher Schmaling, Sheriff of Racine County, Wisconsin, has also closely affiliated with CSPOA. He has appeared on Sheriff Mack’s online show and presented with CSPOA at 2022 FreedomFest. Schmaling, who was once the keynote speaker at a Trump rally, launched his own investigation into alleged 2020 voter fraud.
In 2021, Sheriff Schmaling tried to have nursing home staff and the majority of the Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC) arrested. He claimed they committed voter fraud after the WEC changed a policy during the pandemic that allowed nursing home staff to assist residents with their ballots in 2020. The Racine County District Attorney’s office declined to prosecute.
Ironically, in 2022, Schmaling refused to charge Harry Wait, leader of the group H.O.T. Government, who requested multiple absentee ballots using false information. When asked about it, Wait said, “Basically, I committed a crime when I ordered them. I emailed Sheriff Schmaling, asked if he was going to arrest me, and he said, ‘hell no.’ ” The Wisconsin attorney general’s office began an investigation July 29, 2022.
Schmaling also presented at 2022 FreedomFest, alongside other election denying sheriffs.
Unfortunately, these men have made a significant impact, using their power as law enforcement officials to make and investigate spurious allegations and gotten their ideas in front of a wide audience. Fortunately, these men represent a fringe movement, one many law enforcement officers still refuse to participate in.
While multiple Arizona sheriffs including Sheriffs Lamb and Rhodes joined the constitutional sheriff’s movement and meddled in U.S. elections, making the process more fraught for voters, another Arizona sheriff, Paul Penzone of Maricopa County, Arizona, exemplified the legitimate role of sheriffs: He chose to denounce the same extremist ideology and support democracy rather than participate in actions or groups working to damage it.
In in the run-up to the 2020 election, Penzone said in a press release, “With the same conviction we display when taking the oath of office, we must commit to practice impartial and nonpolitical actions during the course of our duties.” He continued, “Denying, ignoring or refusing to recognize and apply the laws as they are written is not within the authority of law enforcement professionals. Terms such as ‘Sanctuary’ county become an excuse to circumvent the law and defy due process and democracy.”
Then again on Nov 12, 2022, when speaking to the groups and politicians targeting elections and voting facilities, Penzone told the press he would not stand for any threat to voting, voting facilities or election workers.
“We are seeing a radical movement, including some local law enforcement, of people who are committed to destroying trust in our system for their own selfish gain,” Penzone told the press in August as the 2022 midterm elections heated up. “We must fight against it, or our nation will no longer be the democratic standard.”
Rejecting constitutional sheriffs in policy
All law enforcement can play a role in minimizing the harm from the constitutional sheriff movement. They can resist disinformation and conspiracy theories. They can resist recruitment into extremist groups like CSPOA, PAN and the Oath Keepers that actively prey on them. County sheriffs and police chiefs can push back on the notion that their function is to interpret the law rather than enforce it. The National Sheriffs Association can finally decide that there is no place for extremism among their ranks and refuse membership to sheriffs who actively promote antigovernment ideologies, including constitutional sheriffs.
State leaders can ensure that board members of their state police officer trainings and certification programs (POST) are not constitutional sheriffs or affiliated with extremists. These same boards can also create rules that prevent extremists from conducting official law enforcement training in their state.
States should limit the role of sheriffs’ posse members or deputized private citizens to core law enforcement functions – not election administration. And federal and state authorities should ensure that constitutional sheriffs do not engage in voter intimidation or intervene or interfere in election administration in any way.
Congress can ensure no federal funds are used for training that promotes CSPOA propaganda. Congress should investigate all law enforcement departments’ links to extremism. Law enforcement officials who self-identify as constitutional sheriffs, engage in election interference or otherwise violate the Department of Justice’s new Title VI protocols prohibiting discriminatory conduct, should be ineligible to receive federal funds.
Every level of government from national, state, and local law enforcement organizations should publicly reject the views and practices of constitutional sheriffs – and should not permit these individuals to serve in leadership positions.