We’ll never know for certain whether accused domestic-terrorist-in-the-making Christopher Hasson ever would have acted on the desire to spark a racial civil war for white supremacy by committing the assassinations and mass killing for which he had so thoroughly prepared and about which he endlessly fantasized. We do know, however, exactly what might have been the spark to send the 49-year-old Coast Guardsman from Baltimore off on a killing rampage, though: the impeachment of President Trump.
Buried in Hasson’s deleted emails, along with correspondence to neo-Nazi leaders and ruminations on his admiration for Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik, were his working notes for events around which he was planning actions, notably: “what if trump illegally impeached” and “civil war if trump impeached”.
As Chris Hayes adroitly observed, it’s not hard to find where Hasson might have obtained the belief that civil war would erupt if President Trump were to face impeachment: Civil war has become an endemic talking point and source of speculation among right-wing pundits. Only this week, longtime Republican operative Joseph diGenova went on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show and warned:
We are in a civil war in this country. There’s two standards of justice, one for Democrats, one for Republicans. The press is all Democrat, all liberal, all progressive, all left—they hate Republicans, they hate Trump. So the suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future in this country is over. It’s not going to be. It’s going to be total war. And as I say to my friends, I do two things—I vote and I buy guns.
This seemingly hysterical pronouncement, in fact, is fast becoming a commonplace among right-wing pundits. (Watch for it to become a permanent talking point at Fox.) That’s because it has been circulating on the right for a good long while now, and is now being whipped up to new heights—notably, well into the mainstream of conservative-movement discourse.
Before he was indicted in the Mueller investigation, Roger Stone was fond of warning that civil war lay around the corner if any attempt were made to remove Donald Trump from office. Televangelist and Trump ally Jim Bakker made similar warnings only a few months into the presidency. Far-right pundits like Kurt Schlichter have pondered what a civil war might look like—concluding, naturally, that the right will kick their asses.
Even before Trump’s election, talk of civil war was bubbling up with great frequency among far-right militiamen who believed a Hillary Clinton presidency would bring about a fresh kind of “tyranny,” many of whom prepared for armed resistance in the event she won. Indeed, the talk has cropped up in other recent domestic-terrorism incidents: Three Kansas militiamen arrested in October 2016 for plotting the truck bombing of a rural community of Somali refugees were acting under the assumption that Clinton would win, and were planning to act the day after the November election as an opening act of resistance to her administration.
And like so many components of right-wing Republicanism in the age of Trump, the idea of civil war—indeed, the agitation and outright fantasizing in hopes of one—has its origins in the racist radical Right of the 1980s and ‘90s. Those roots remain embedded in the violent reactionarism fueling the militias and hate groups that sprang to life during the Obama years as a backlash to the election of America’s first black president. And they are very much alive in the pro-Trump authoritarianism of the president’s most rabid and violent defenders, people such as Cesar Sayoc and Christopher Hasson.
I’ve been following the strands of right-wing civil war rhetoric since those 1980s origins, having been involved in coverage of the Aryan Nations and The Order in northern Idaho at the time. I’ve written whole books on the subject. However, rather than explaining the dynamics in text alone, I thought it might be better to show people this history rather than simply to tell it. After all, so much of the spread of the radical Right—and particularly the post-Obama alt-right—has occurred in the video realm.
Most, if not all, of the conspiracy theories that fuel the radical Right today have been spread in videos viewed online, by increasingly younger audiences. The progenitors of these videos have successfully created an epistemological bubble, a kind of alternative universe that has taken on a life of its own. (I call that bubble Alt-America.)
And so, here are four videos that present the history of the American Right’s agitation for a civil war.
The first iterations of right-wing agitation for a modern-day civil war came from the most vicious and extreme corners of the racist Right that took root in the mid-1970s and came to life in the 1980s in places like northern Idaho, where the Aryan Nations operated for more than two decades, producing a wave of hate crimes and domestic terrorism that left a scar in the Pacific Northwest, the place where many of these racists dreamed of creating a “white homeland”—and where many still do.
Commingled with the separatism behind the AN was a revolutionary fervor that was embodied by the novel The Turner Diaries, a badly written racial screed about a gang of fascist thugs whose terroristic acts spark a civil war that results in the mass hanging of white “race traitors” in America and the government’s overthrow. Its author was William Pierce, the leader of the neo-Nazi hate group the National Alliance, for many years one of the favorite affiliations of skinhead thugs.
Pierce’s book was popular among the Aryan Nations, particularly with a group of “action-oriented” racists who met there, led by a youthful militant named Robert Mathews. Following the blueprint in Pierce’s book, they dubbed themselves “The Order” and set out to finance the racist Right’s “revolution” with robberies and counterfeiting, with an assassination agenda on the side. Their eight-month criminal rampage ended in December 1984.
However, Pierce’s novel continued to inspire mass murder. In 1995, a devotee of The Turner Diaries named Timothy McVeigh followed the recipe for making a truck bomb laid out in the book to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in retaliation for failed federal gun raids at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas.
McVeigh’s terrorism was fueled by the same far-right anger at the federal government that was the meat and potatoes of the “Patriot” militia movement in whose meetings he sometimes participated. Even after the Oklahoma bombing, militias kept organizing, and domestic terrorists continued to strike. But the movement went into hiatus after 9/11 and remained on pause during most of the Bush years.
The Patriot/militia movement and its attendant “civil war” rhetoric began to re-emerge in late 2008 and early 2009, fueled primarily by right-wing backlash to the election of a liberal black president. The so-called tea party—though usually portrayed in right-wing media as a wholesome collection of devoted, patriotic Americans—in short order became a major conduit for far-right extremists to promulgate their ideas and agendas within the mainstream of Republican discourse—including, of course, their revived warnings of a looming civil war, even as they were buying up guns and ammo by the Humvee-load.
Pretty soon, we were seeing nutty conspiracy theories showing up on our mainstream cable teevee, particularly Glenn Beck’s Fox News show, which warned that America would look like a Mad Max hellscape by 2014—run by “independent militias” and biker gangs. Then there were people like ex-Marine Charles Dyer popping up on YouTube wearing death’s-head masks and threatening civil war under Obama—that is, until he was arrested and imprisoned for molesting his own daughter. And even more classically, there was Tyler Smith, the would-be “marauder” doomsday prepper who schemed about doing post-apocalyptic home invasions, and was busted by authorities after appearing on Nat Geo toting numerous guns in spite of a felony conviction.
As the Obama presidency continued and then wound down, the talk about civil war became louder, especially in the conspiracy-theory world led by Infowars host Alex Jones, who held forth on the idea of race war on his show during the height of the racial unrest in Ferguson, MO. Meanwhile, Klansmen in West Virginia were telling their recruits that returning military veterans would be prime recruits for their white-nationalist cause.
In between, there were rabid-right talk radio hosts like Michael Savage, an early supporter of the idea of a Donald Trump presidency (dating back to 2011). Savage published a book about how to Stop the Coming Civil War. His answer: elect far-right Republicans to every office. Otherwise you might as well get your guns ready.
That came home to roost late in the Obama administration, when far-right militiamen held extended armed standoffs, led by Cliven Bundy and his sons, in Nevada in 2014 and then in Oregon in 2016, claiming the federal government had no right to ownership of public lands.
Then, as Donald Trump’s campaign for election to the presidency—and with it, most of the far Right’s most fervent hopes and dreams—wound down to its final stages, the militiamen became active, warning that they were preparing for armed resistance to any Hillary Clinton administration. And Trump’s supporters at campaign events were just as explicit, warning that if Clinton won, they would not accept the results and would be “going to rebellion.”
After Trump’s election, the radical Right’s focus turned to his rabid defense, vowing to protect him from any kind of attempts to impeach or otherwise remove him from office with force of arms. Moreover, this meant inventing an insidious, evil force known as “antifa” that was the face of a Communist plot to remove Trump—and of course, right from Trump’s inauguration, small groups of anti-Trump protesters became the embodiment of this paranoid fear. Leading the paranoia parade, as always, was Alex Jones, who leveraged his considerable history of promoting the idea of civil into a remarkable yearlong run pushing the idea after Trump was elected, and is still doing so today. So was Michael Savage, who warned in the summer of 2017 that impeachment would mean civil war.
Jones became especially frantic in the fall of 2017, first warning after the Las Vegas massacre that Democrats were going to begin mowing down Republicans soon, then hyping a nonsensical claim that, just like at Inauguration Day, evil Antifa/Communist/Satanic Mars Colony Pedophilia forces were plotting a nationwide strike that would paralyze the country and create the opportunity for a coup on Nov. 4, 2017. As with all of his previous completely bizarre failed predictions, Jones never really acknowledged that such a coup attempt never came even close to manifesting itself in the real world.
This is, in fact, almost certainly the only way that all the far-right talk of civil war ever will manifest itself in reality: as the random acts of deranged and violent men radicalized online and by decades of toxic right-wing propaganda about vulnerable minorities—small in number now, but potentially growing in numbers as we speak.
That doesn’t mean they’re harmless. Far from it. Their own fantasies about their ability to bring American democracy to its knees are so dangerous that, inevitably, many people will be hurt by the violence these men bring to the political landscape, even if the likelihood of their success is remote to nonexistent.
Making fun of their fantasies is a bad idea. Yes, they’re pathetic recipes for raging, inchoate impotence. But the people who are hurt when right-wing extremists try to make their disinformation-fueled civil war a reality—with the explicit support of mainstream conservatives—are themselves all too real, as is their suffering. The far Right is not capable of an actual war, but they’re very capable of hurting people.