How real is the threat of extremist forces disrupting the U.S. election and stirring unrest in the aftermath?
Very real. At a time of already profound political polarization in the United States, the conduct and outcome of this year’s elections has understandably provoked intense concern. President Donald J. Trump has done little to allay these concerns. Long before voting even began, last spring, Trump was already questioning the election’s integrity. At a campaign rally in Nevada last month, he declared, “The Democrats are trying to rig this election because that’s the only way they’re going to win.”
It is not surprising, therefore, that some of the president’s most zealous supporters in conspiracy-minded movements such as QAnon and heavily armed militias including the Oath Keepers have pledged to resort to violence in the event Trump loses the election. The plot by anti-government extremists to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer less than a month before Election Day demonstrates that the potential for related violence must be taken very seriously.
Which groups pose the most significant threats?
The problem is that we are not talking about a monolithic or even coherent movement but myriad national, state, and local groups, cells, collectives, and other entities with varying degrees of organization and cohesion. Many of them are heavily armed and espouse a spectrum of white-supremacist, anti-government, pro-Second-Amendment, and anarchist views. According to one estimate, there are some three hundred different militia groups, with perhaps as many as fifteen thousand to twenty-thousand well-armed and often military-trained members, active in every state of the union.
Even more worrisome are the open calls for revolution and outright sedition by the so-called Boogaloo Bois. Incongruously attired in brightly colored, Aloha shirts with combat webbing, ammunition pouches, and assault weapons, these radicals await or actively plan for what they call the coming “big luau” or “big igloo”—a new American civil war. Between February and April this year, there was 60 percent growth of Facebook pages and groups advocating sedition. The number of groups peaked at 125, with over seventy-three thousand followers, before Facebook banned these pages.
Is the threat more serious now than it was months ago?
Yes. Seven months of pandemic lockdowns across the United States—coupled with the nearly 13,500 demonstrations and protests that have occurred throughout the country since the killing of George Floyd, the overwhelming majority of which have been peaceful—have exacerbated tensions and polarized political positions to an extent not seen perhaps since the 1960s. However, incidents such as the torching of the Minneapolis Police Department’s building last June; the fires set in downtown Washington, DC, that same month near the White House; and the shootings in Kenosha, WI, and Portland, OR, along with disturbances in other cities, have arguably dominated the news and social media. Anticipation of a bitterly contested presidential election has thus resulted in a parlous situation that in the United States is without precedent—at least as far as many can recall.
How concerned are you about these groups’ activities online and offline—in the streets?
I am very concerned. Words matter. This unrelenting volume of vituperative posts, tweets, and messages is deliberately conceived to engage and enrage, radicalize and motivate, and ultimately animate their audiences to action. The result is a highly volatile and unpredictable atmosphere that both the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have expressed deep concern about in warnings to law enforcement agencies across the country. In May, for instance, the FBI cited channels on the encrypted communications application Telegram that intended to foment chaos to trigger the “boogaloo”—another term for a second U.S. civil war. Two days later, a DHS advisory cautioned state and local authorities about “incidents of domestic terrorists exploiting First Amendment-protected events” within the context of the boogaloo movement.
How protected will polling places be? What type of official security presence is required or expected to ensure a free and fair vote?
Frankly, it’s unclear. A federal law enforcement official recently explained that the FBI and Justice Department are actively planning for “the possibility of violence leading up to the election and occurring at polling places.” At the same time, it isn’t clear what the tens of thousands of local election boards and state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies and departments will do if armed persons or self-appointed vigilantes show up at polling places to menace or intimidate voters. It’s unknown how these extremist entities will react if the election result is delayed or contested, or if the president is not reelected. In sum, this is a national election unlike any Americans have experienced in their lifetimes. The certitude of an orderly electoral process and transfer of power that Americans long took for granted is now increasingly in question.