The idealization of an imaginary past and a longing for “simpler” times is giving rise to deadly activities.
“Is this Field Day?” I asked through my car window on a chilly, rainy April morning in central Michigan in 2008. A lone man dressed in head-to-toe camouflage, whose hand was casually resting on an AK-47 rifle strapped across his chest, nodded and stepped aside on the narrow road. I drove ahead to a parking area next to an old, red brick farmhouse and several acres of soybeans. About 50 people were gathering at a spot where the fields met a wooded bog. I was outside the village of Bancroft, at what was indeed the Michigan Militia’s annual Field Day event. The group described it as a family and public outreach opportunity, held on private land that was owned by a World War II veteran.
Wood smoke drifted through the air from a campfire; some members were already loudly joking about the unpleasantness of the weathered, tarp-covered outhouse at the site, good-naturedly bemoaning the decision to not rent portable toilets as they had done the year before. A few of the men were already tearing open MREs—meals ready to eat that are packaged, high-calorie food typically issued to soldiers but also available at military surplus stores and on eBay.
Almost all the men were wearing some degree of camouflage and were laughing as they showed off new firearms, tactical vests or other equipment and told stories about past training events. The comparatively few women and children in attendance were more subdued and usually dressed in casual clothes rather than camo. Still, most of them participated in target shooting and other activities of the day.
This was the third militia event I had attended. I am a sociologist, and at that time I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan just beginning in-depth fieldwork and interview research about the militia movement in the U.S. I had approached members of this group a month earlier during a public meeting at a strip mall diner because I wanted to understand why people join civilian groups that prepare for armed combat, and I planned to examine whether militias propagate racism and violence. My fieldwork in Michigan, as well as in-depth interviews that included groups in other states, continued through 2013. Since then, I have maintained regular contact with militia members, especially in Michigan, and they update me with their activities and responses to political and social events. We regularly speak about their values and their motivations. I follow their online posts. Last summer I conducted a survey asking members what they thought about protests related to COVID social restrictions and George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota.
I have learned that there is important variation across militia groups. They fall on a spectrum. At one end are units whose activities are largely limited to outings for “grown-up Boy Scouts,” as several members described themselves at the Field Day event I went to years ago. At the other end are units that are openly angry, whose members plot violence against government officials and advocate overt white supremacy. Some of the latter stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. The more extremist militia bands tote guns in public, wear military garb and endorse various conspiracy fantasies. They have confronted racial justice activists and protested pandemic public health measures in many states. In Michigan, people in one militia splinter group were arrested in 2020 and charged with plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer in retaliation for a perceived failure to uphold individual liberties.
Across this spectrum, however, militia groups share certain similarities. Their members are almost exclusively white men, and they espouse values of nationalism as well as yearnings to restore “better times” from this country’s past. I and other sociologists refer to them as nostalgic groups. Their values are often entwined with racist and sexist attitudes, in part because they deny or disregard the hostility directed at minority groups and women during that idealized history. A metaphor I like to use to explain the connection across these groups is that it is like having multiple trees on the same small plot of land. They are separate entities, but their roots grow in the same soil. Their branches intermingle when the wind blows just right, occasionally getting close enough so that you cannot tell where one tree stops and another begins.