Far-right militia promoter Josh Ellis can reach more than 20,000 members across the country in a matter of keystrokes. Many followers believe, like him, that the presidential election could be hijacked by leftists, a Trump defeat would plunge the nation into tyrannical rule, and the United States is lurching toward a violent civil war.
Ellis, who operates MyMilitia.com and goes by “AR2,” for “American Revolution 2.0,” has advised like-minded citizens to stand guard at voting stations Tuesday as part of President Trump’s “army” of poll watchers — and, if necessary, to use force.
“They are to be out there as patriots, not militias,” Ellis, of suburban Chicago, said in a phone interview before he addressed an “American Patriot Rally” last Saturday in Florida.
“But if they see immediate danger of physical harm to someone,” he said, “they need to intercede and stop it.”
The country is on high alert in the countdown to Election Day. In a hair-trigger time of guns and grievances, anarchists and vigilantes, COVID-19 restrictions and conspiracy theories, the nation’s law enforcement agencies, election protection specialists, and watchdog groups are closely monitoring militant extremists on the right and left while bracing for rogue acts of violence.
"There is a serious threat that militias and armed vigilantes will be at polling places and will pose a danger to voters,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremists and hate groups.
The Department of Homeland Security issued a report Oct. 6 warning that violent domestic extremists “might target events related to the 2020 presidential campaigns, the election itself, election results, or the post-election period.”
Two days later, the danger was crystalized when the FBI foiled an alleged plot by 14 suspects tied to the paramilitary Wolverine Watchmen militia to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat sharply criticized by Trump, and try her for treason over her pandemic-driven shutdowns.
Ellis, a 40-year-old Army veteran, dismissed the suspects as anarchists unfit for right-wing militias. But he stopped short of denouncing their goal.
“In the loosest sense, we kind of want the same things,” he said. “We do not want tyrannical rule from a governor.”
Self-styled militia members generally portray themselves as modern-day patriots, poised to combat what they perceive as an imminent threat of domestic repression. They view the Black Lives Matter and antifascist, or antifa, movements as forces aligned with Democrats to create a socialist state that would strip them of their freedoms.
The groups seize on references to militias in the Constitution, but every state bans “private, unauthorized groups from engaging in activities reserved for the state militia, including law enforcement activities,” according to the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University’s law school.
The modern militia movement gained traction in the early 1990s as far-right groups organized in response to federal law enforcement officers killing women and children in confrontations with a self-proclaimed white supremacist in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and a religious sect in Waco, Texas. The movement ebbed after Timothy McVeigh, who had ties to the Michigan Militia, blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, but it was reenergized during President Barack Obama’s tenure amid right-wing concerns over gun control measures, illegal immigration, and health insurance mandates, among other issues.
In 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 181 militia groups across the country.
In Massachusetts, federal, state, and municipal law enforcement officials said they are prepared for potential trouble. The threat in New England is considered less severe than in states where the presidential election is hotly contested and where violence already has erupted around Black Lives Matter demonstrations and protests over COVID-19 shutdowns, but analysts said no region is immune to danger.
MyMilitia.com claims ties to units across New England. Watchdog organizations say armed national groups such as the Oath Keepers, the American Guard, and the Three Percenters, whose name derives from the idea that only 3 percent of the colonists fought in the American Revolution, also are active in the region.
Jesse Schultz, of Rehoboth, a 44-year-old union carpenter, said in an interview that he was denied membership in his local Three Percenters branch because he was deemed too militant. He has since searched for another group to join on MyMilitia.com, which Ellis describes as ``a dating service" for prospective militia members.
Meanwhile, Schultz said, he has ties to an informal network of armed citizens in his area that is ready to mobilize if it feels threatened by left-wing extremists. Should Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden win the election, Schultz said, ``I see tyranny getting ready to steal our constitutional freedoms." He vowed to stand his ground.
“Me and my son shoot all the time,” Schultz said. “I’ve educated myself on military tactics. I’ve read `The Art of War,' `The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual,' and a book about Caesar’s battle tactics. Wherever I have to go to defend our police officers and fellow citizens, I’ll go.”
The far-right Proud Boys are out there, too, emboldened by Trump, who in a September debate declined to forcefully rebuke militia groups and white supremacists, instead advising the Proud Boys “to stand back and stand by.”
The Proud Boys have a New England chapter that has organized or participated in right-wing rallies on Boston Common and the Minuteman National Historical Park in Concord, among other activities.
A report this month by Militia Watch and the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project rated the Proud Boys' potential for violence as ``very high." And analysts said many other extremist groups bear watching.
FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before Congress in February that nearly 4,500 law enforcement officers across all 50 states are working more than 1,000 investigations into homegrown violent extremists.
Chuck Wexler, a former senior adviser to the Boston police who serves as executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank, said the high threat of violence on Election Day “is totally unprecedented.”
Wexler said many agencies across the country are gearing up by, among other strategies, canceling time off for officers.
“Typically, Election Day is not a high intensity affair,” he said. “But that’s not the case this year for all sorts of reasons, including concerns about COVID and social distancing, voter fraud, and some of these militias showing up with rifles.”
Signs of trouble already have surfaced. In St. Petersburg, Fla., voters reported feeling intimidated by armed Trump supporters wearing private security uniforms outside an early voting site. And Trump supporters in the battleground state of Pennsylvania have said they intend to stand watch, while armed, at the polls.
Many voting rights advocates recoiled at Trump describing partisan poll monitors as an “army.”
The word “suggests they are engaged in something more ominous than civil poll watching,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of the voting rights election program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.
Indeed, some armed civilian groups have appeared to be preparing for action. Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes tweeted in September, “We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war.”
Those prepared to take up arms include former Oath Keeper Jeff Roy, a 53-year-old heavy equipment operator in Ashburnham who said he also has served in the American Sentinel Militia and New Hampshire State Militia. Roy is now lieutenant commander of the Patriot Mutual Assistance Program, which he described as a volunteer service organization whose duties range from responding to natural disasters to using force if necessary to defend communities.
“When someone says `militia' to me, I see a bunch of guys who are willing to come together when bad things happen, no matter what those bad things are,” Roy said.
He predicted leftists will try to steal the election and, if they fail, rise up violently. And should they threaten his group’s area in north-central Massachusetts, Roy said, “We are going to defend our neighbors and make sure they live in a free United States of America.”
There should be no question, he said, about their proficiency.
“Our group has spent a lot of money to make sure we are all legally and professionally trained to use our firearms,” he said.
As evidence of a potential threat, Roy cited the fatal shooting of a far-right Trump supporter in Portland, Ore., in August by a self-avowed adherent of antifa. Law enforcement authorities and watchdog groups, however, said right-wing extremists pose a greater threat of deadly violence.
A study by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism found that right-wing extremists committed 38 of the nation’s 42 domestic extremist-related murders in 2019 and have been responsible for about three-quarters of the 435 domestic extremist-related homicides over the last decade.
“We’re very mindful that some extremists may seek to exploit the divisive political atmosphere across the country right now‚” Robert Trestan, executive director of the ADL’s Boston office, said. “It’s important that everyone be prepared.”
Trestan cited violence that erupted at a right-wing rally in Copley Square Oct. 18 when counterprotesters clashed with police who were positioned between the factions.
“What should have been two opposing groups expressing their views turned into confrontations, and that’s dangerous,” Trestan said. “We want to make sure those kinds of confrontations do not happen at polling places.”
The ADL, along with a broad coalition of about 200 voting rights groups, has mobilized staff in anticipation of possible trouble at the polls.
“We’ve already had reports of people who are afraid to put out political signs at their homes because they are afraid they might be targeted,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston, a member of the coalition.
In Massachusetts, the alliance is training more than 2,000 volunteers to monitor polling places and will be prepared to seek court orders ``if there is any kind of armed militia present or disruption on Election Day," Espinoza-Madrigal said.
Damon Hewitt, executive vice president of the Washington-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the national election protection hot line — 866-OUR-VOTE — has already received more than 100,000 calls and is logging more than 7,000 daily. The hot line is serviced by nearly 34,000 volunteer attorneys.
The vast majority of polling stations are expected to be free of danger, but Hewitt and other voting rights specialists said the threat of armed civilians and other forms of intimidation cannot be discounted. Should trouble arise, they said, people trying to vote should alert police or official poll workers.
“But if you are physically safe, do not leave,” Hewitt said. “Do not let intimidation have its desired effect.”
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.