They believe the federal government is tyrannical and they traffic in wild conspiracy theories.
The Intelligence Project identified 488 extreme antigovernment groups that were active in 2021, down from 566 in 2020. Of these groups, 92 were militias, 75 sovereign citizen, three constitutional sheriff, and 52 conspiracy propagandist groups. The number of antigovernment groups peaked in the 2010s and has declined since, but the current decrease in organized group numbers is not reflective of a lack of broad support or activity. In 2021, the conspiratorial and permanently dubious view of government was pervasive, as evidence by the movement’s popularity on such issues as COVID-19 regulations, local school curriculum, the “Big Lie” voter fraud, border security and various technological advances such as 5G cell service. Antigovernment imagery, such as the Gadsden flag and the Three Percenter logo, was commonly displayed by adherents across the country. Antigovernment groups were linked up with other hard-right groups in 2021, as they often targeted the same marginalized communities and engaged in actual or threats of political violence.
The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and attempt to stop the democratic transfer of power through the formalized counting of electoral votes was the most public moment for the antigovernment movement since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Of the over 700 people charged with offenses ranging from trespassing to seditious conspiracy for the actions on Jan. 6, at least 25 were members of identified antigovernment organizations.
Faced with greater scrutiny and deplatforming, antigovernment groups reorganized and were dispersed in communities focused on localized activities – a mainstay tactic of the antigovernment movement. Some local chapters of national organizations disbanded or unaffiliated, including chapters of Oath Keepers, the American Patriots Three Percent, III% United Patriots, the Three Percenters/III%ers, and the State of Jefferson Formation.
Ammon Bundy’s People’s Rights activists held a variety of small-scale demonstrations for individual grievances and organized a series of stunts disobeying COVID-19 public health measures, one resulting in Bundy’s arrest, throughout 2021.
In the Southwest, militias and other extremists set up camps in the desert engaging in vigilante activities including harassing migrants and humanitarian aid groups and coordinating with border patrol agents.
Conspiracy propagandists, including the John Birch Society, found a niche audience with COVID-19 vaccine skeptics, using existing antigovernment mistrust and a historical relationship with the natural-health sector to push the conspiracies around population and government control. Likewise, constitutional sheriff organizations promoted COVID-19 conspiracy theories and refused to enforce health guidelines enacted by their lawmakers. Some of these sheriffs teamed up at events alongside QAnon adherents, antisemites and sovereign citizens.
The coalescing of QAnon adherents with sovereign citizens, constitutional sheriffs and militia members, along with conspiracy minded anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, has produced an environment where groups can openly recruit and market their ideas to each other and the general public.
- John Birch Society (JBS) founded, 1958: The organization is dedicated to opposing communism.
- Ruby Ridge Standoff, August 1992: An 11-day standoff with the Weaver family and law enforcement occurred in Boundary County, Idaho. United States Marshals moved to arrest Randy Weaver under a warrant, Weaver refused and a standoff insured. Weaver’s son and wife, and a Deputy U.S. Marshall were all killed.
- Oklahoma City Bombing, April 19, 1995: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The bombing killed at least 168 people and injured at least 680 additional individuals.
- Conspiracy website WorldNetDaily (WND) is founded in 1997.
- Printz v. U.S., June 27, 1997: The U.S. Supreme Court sides with Sheriff Mack and Ravalli County Sheriff/Coroner Jay Printz in their case against a provision of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.
- Infowars founded, 1999: Infowars is founded, and with antigovernment conspiracy theorist and supplement salesman Alex Jones it goes on to craft and nurture the conspiracy theories that animate the antigovernment movement.
- Cliven Bundy’s Battle at Bunkerville, July 10, 2014: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department engaged in a four-day standoff against Cliven Bundy and his antigovernment followers over unpaid cattle grazing fees. The standoff ended when the BLM withdrew to avoid a violent clash with antigovernment supporters.
- Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Occupation, Jan. 2, 2016: Antigovernment adherents, including Ammon Bundy, and militia members descended onto the Malheur National wildlife refuge for a 41-day standoff with law enforcement in an attempt to get the Federal Government to hand over public lands to states.
- Arivaca murders, May 30, 2009: Shawna Forde, leader of the militant group Minutemen American Defense (MAD), coordinated an attempted home invasion turned double homicide when members of the group killed Raul Flores and his 9-year-old daughter Brisenia. Forde and one other member were sentenced to death while a third member was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killings.
- The Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL) Rally in Richmond, January 2020: The event brought together extreme antigovernment militia groups alongside other Second Amendment absolutists. Joining nearly 400 localities in 20 states, 120 localities in Virginia declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries.”
- Rally hosted in part by American Patriot Council’s Ryan Kelley in Michigan’s capitol, April 30, 2020: Attendees stormed the statehouse, many of them armed. Brothers William and Michael Null, members of the Wolverine Watchmen militia, were there.
- Shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, August 2020: Black Lives Matter protests occur throughout the state. Militias came out to counter them. Kyle Rittenhouse is accused of shooting three people, killing two. He received an outpouring of support from the far right.
- Michigan Kidnapping Plot, Oct. 8, 2020: Members of the Wolverine Watchmen, along with members of the Michigan Militia, were arrested by the FBI and Michigan State Police after plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
- Jan. 6 Insurrection, Jan. 6, 2021: Violent domestic extremists, including antigovernment militias such as the Oath Keepers, stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to stop the certification of the results from the 2020 general election. Members of the group face multiple federal charges. At least five people died in connection with the attack. Among those arrested were members of the Proud Boys, the Three Percenter movement and the Oath Keepers. Attacks by antigovernment militia groups also took place at state Capitol buildings in Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
- Red Pill Festivals in Montana and South Dakota, June and July 2021: Conspiracy theorists and lawmakers gather for regional events. Organizations represented include John Birch Society, Redoubt News, Connecting the Dots, and Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers. Speakers include Alex Newman, Caleb Collier, Bill Jasper, Matt Shea, Idaho Rep. Heather Scott, Joey Gibson, John Jacob Schmidt, G. Edward Griffin, Dan Happel and Richard Mack.
- Throughout summer 2021, Ammon Bundy’s People’s Rights Network threatens a standoff in Klamath Falls in Dan Nielsen and Grant Knoll protest water rights with The Klamath Tribes (Klamath-Modoc-Yahooskin).
- Arise USA: Faith, Family, Freedom, May-Sept. 2021: Arise USA claims they made an 85-stop tour promoting the “Big Lie,” QAnon, COVID-19 conspiracies, 9/11 antisemitic conspiracies, and County Supremacy. The tour is organized by Robert David Steele who died from COVID-19 in fall 2021. Speakers included Richard Mackand Kevin Jenkins. Steele was a former CIA agent, 2016 Libertarian candidate for president, and holocaust denier.
- Patriot Network Summit, July 30-Aug. 1, 2021: In Dugspur, Virginia,John Pierce, attorney for Jan. 6 Defendantsjoins Jeanette Finicum and health conspiracy theorists for an event focused on the Malheur standoff, while introducing the additional martyrdom of the Jan. 6 arrestees and opposition to national COVID-19 health efforts.
- ReAwaken America Health and Freedom Tour, July-Oct. 2021: QAnon conspiracy theorists gather with other antigovernment activists in Michigan, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and California. Speakers include Clay Clark, Mike Flynn, Roger Stone, Gene Hoe, Richard Mack, (Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association), Joe Oltmann, (FEC United) and Artur Pawlowski (Canadian Black Robe Regiment pastor).
- Sanctuary Church’s Rod of Iron Freedom Festival, October 2021: Antigovernment and hard-right leaders came together in Greeley, Pennsylvania,to promote guns and conspiracies. Speakers included Steve Bannon, Joey Gibson, Rep. Rick Saccone, and Dan Fisher and Gary Haskell of the “Black Robed Regiment.”
- For God & Country Patriot Double Down 2021, October 2021: In Las Vegas Nevada antigovernment activists hold a rally promoting QAnon and other conspiracies. Speakers include Amy and John Sabal, Mike Flynn, Ron Watkins, Gene Ho, Jordan Sather, Zak Paine, Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, Arizona state Sen. Mark Finchem and former Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, Sheriff David Clarke.
The antigovernment movement will look to expand upon the broad popularity of foundational ideas related to guns, government distrust and conspiracy theories. They will continue to capitalize on the current issues related to public health guidance, local school curriculum and practices, control of natural resources, claims of election fraud, immigration and national security. They will particularly seek to further mainstream their ideas and operationalize their power by running for office in large numbers from the local to federal level.
The movement will also seek to mitigate the damage to their brand in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Particularly, movement leaders will want to shift the media narrative and deflect legal, law-enforcement and public scrutiny. If historical trends are a guide, the movement could also see growth in response to federal government expansion and policy shifts under Biden.
Antigovernment groups are part of the antidemocratic hard-right movement. They believe the federal government is tyrannical and they traffic in conspiracy theories about an illegitimate government of leftist elites seeking a “New World Order.” Adherents and critics have in the past referred to this movement as the “Patriot” movement.
A particularly prominent conspiracy in the antigovernment movement – and one conspiracy propagandist groups often push – involves an effort to create a New World Order through a One World Government, often facilitated by the United Nations in order to institute communism/socialism and take away private property rights. Another conspiracy alleges that there are plans to merge the United States, Canada and Mexico into a single country. Other notable conspiracies include the idea that the federal government is secretly planning to round up citizens and place them in concentration camps run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Fears of impending gun control or weapons confiscations, either by the government or international agencies, also run rampant in antigovernment circles.
These conspiracy theories identify grievances, both real and imagined, and demonize groups they deem responsible for them. Conspiracy propagandists offer simple answers to complex problems, but often stop short of offering a specific solution to the threats, instead hinting at actions to be taken by movement members while being careful to maintain plausible deniability. Groups including The John Birch Society, WorldNetDaily (WND) and InfoWars are crucial to the antigovernment extremist movement in that they help craft and nurture the very conspiracy theories that animate the movement’s activists.
The antigovernment movement has experienced waves of popularity, including the 1990s. In 1996, the year after the Oklahoma City bombing, 858 groups were documented active in the U.S. Timothy McVeigh, one of the Oklahoma City bombers, 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 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff, the 1993 Branch Davidian Waco compound siege and the 1996 Montana Freemen standoff. Other factors included the struggling economy in the early 1990s, particularly in Western states, and the election of President Bill Clinton, who was characterized by antigovernment activists as a liberal intent on seizing their weapons. Similarly, the in the last 2000s and 2010s the antigovernment was animated by the Tea Party movement, with both national and local groups mobilizing resentment around the economic challenges of the great recession and in opposition to the presidency of Barack Obama.
The militia movement engages in paramilitary training aimed at protecting citizens from this feared impending government crackdown. Militia groups often engage in firearm and field training, maintain an internal hierarchical command structure, are obsessed with guns and the Second Amendment, and are often opposed to immigration. Notable groups have included the Wolverine Watchman, Ohio Defense Force; Hutaree Militia, Oath Keepers, Minutemen American Defense, Militia of Montana and various Three Percenter-affiliated groups. The Wolverine Watchman were charged in connection to the 2020 plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Both Oath Keepers and Three Percenter group members have been arrested for charges relating to the Jan. 6 insurrection. Three Percenter groups adhere to the dubious historical claim that only 3% of American colonists fought against the British during the War of Independence.
The Oath Keepers were founded in 2009 by Elmer Stewart Rhodes, a veteran army paratrooper, law school graduate and former Ron Paul congressional staffer. Like some antigovernment groups and activists such as Jack McLamb’s Police Against the New World Order, Oath Keepers primarily recruits current and former law enforcement, military and first-responder personnel, though they also accept civilians. Unlike many other militia groups that are local, geographically-based groups, Oath Keepers has a centralized hierarchical leadership and tiered structure at national, state and local levels.
A small but influential and foundational segment of the antigovernment movement is the constitutional sheriff movement. These groups adhere to the concept of county supremacy and the idea that the county sheriff as the ultimate law enforcement authority in the United States. This idea was pioneered in the 1970s and described as Posse Comitatus. The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association is the largest and oldest national constitutional sheriff organization. The second tenet of county supremacy centers on the idea that county government should have control of all the land within its borders, taking this power away from the state and federal government. Antigovernment groups who focus on this tenet are often active in the anti-public lands movement popular in the Western U.S., also known as the Sagebrush Rebellion or Wise Use movement in previous decades.
Sovereign citizens, a subset of the antigovernment movement, believe that they, not judges, juries, law enforcement or elected officials, get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and they think they shouldn’t have to pay taxes. Sovereign citizen ideology is highly conspiratorial, and they are best known for clogging up the courts with indecipherable filings and liens targeting public officials. Sovereign citizens are frequently engaged in criminal activity and have been violent when confronted, particularly against government officials such as police officers. Some concerning groups are part of a subset of sovereign citizens termed Moorish sovereign citizens.
The antigovernment movement has also included groups whose focus was on tax protest and survivalism. While groups associated with both segments still exist, their prevalence has diminished in recent years. As the antigovernment movement has changed in the last 50 years, different segments have either grown or shrunk, but the key conspiracies and ideas are always taken up by other antigovernment groups and often reemerge later.
ThreePercenters and Oath Keepers
Percenterism is one of three core components within the antigovernment militia movement, along with the Oath Keepers and traditional militia groups. The reference to 3% stems from the dubious historical claim that only 3% of American colonists fought against the British during the War of Independence.
The Oath Keepers, another core component of the militia movement, was founded in 2009 by Elmer Stewart Rhodes, a veteran army paratrooper, Yale Law School graduate and former Ron Paul congressional staffer. It primarily recruits current and former law enforcement, military and first-responder personnel, though it also accepts civilians. Unlike Three Percenterism, Oath Keepers was conceived as an organization with hierarchical leadership at national, state and local levels, one committed to establishing a network of activists it hopes will lay the groundwork for the creation of state militias.
The John Birch Society, World Net Daily and InfoWars are crucial to the antigovernment extremist movement in that they help craft and nurture the very conspiracy theories that animate the movement’s activists, such as Oath Keepers and Three Percenters. These conspiracy theories identify grievances, both real and imagined, and demonize groups they deem responsible for them. Conspiracy propagandists often stop just short of offering a solution to the threats, instead leaving action up to movement members while being careful to maintain plausible deniability. These conspiracy theories generate a sense of urgency in the “Patriot” movement that can lead to criminal activity, including terrorism.