Before Americans began voting in the Midterm election, militia groups had organized, collected their rifles and guns, their night-vision goggles, their bedrolls, food and other supplies. And about 200 unregulated armed militia members traveled to Texas to link up with the troops Trump had sent to the U.S. southern border. Armed groups from Indiana, Oregon, and even from Canada were among them. They were motivated by Trump’s fear mongering about “caravans” of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador ready to “invade” the United States. So the citizen militia were hell bent on preventing the asylum-seeking migrants, who are still hundreds of miles away, from coming across the border.
Citizen militia are often armed extremist groups and have no legal authority to apprehend migrants. In 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 689 anti-government groups in the United States, and 273 of them were unregulated militia—armed militants usually with far-right political views. Unregulated militia are not part of the legitimate state militia or the National Guard, organized to serve in state or national emergencies.
Private militia have formed since ancient times, and in America they were organized during the colonial period to fight along with the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War against British control. However, before and after the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787, there were intense debates on how militias should function. States had the authority to train and appoint officers for the militia, and by 1903 the militia was organized as the National Guard. The National Defense Act of 1916 mandated that the U.S. Army consist of the regular army, the reserves, and the National Guard. Currently, the National Guard consists of the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard. In addition, each branch of the military includes a Reserve—Army, Marine, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard Reserves—that are deployed when needed.
Nevertheless, throughout U.S. history, paramilitary extremist groups have also formed. Some have engaged in destructive episodes. One example from the 1930s was the Christian Front, headed by Father Charles E. Coughlin who believed that Christianity would be overtaken by Jewish-supported communism. In a weekly radio program, Coughlin urged his listeners to arm, train, and organize Christian Front units to oppose the Red Front. Many units formed in the East and Midwest, and attacked Jews and Jewish-owned businesses. The Christian Front is just one of numerous extremist groups that flourished into the 1940s.
Over the following decades, similar groups organized, especially during the 1990s when the Patriot membership grew. (Those who call themselves Patriots have a common cause: a deep distrust of government and a conviction that federal and state officials are conspiring to take away their guns.) Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were connected to the Patriot movement and plotted to use a truck bomb to blow up the Alfred P. Murah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The bomb killed 169 people and injured hundreds. McVeigh and Nichols were soon identified, arrested, and convicted of the horrendous crime. McVeigh was executed in 2001. Nichols was sentenced to life in prison.
No one knows what militant militias will do in the weeks and months ahead. They are and will be fueled by Trump’s fear-mongering, nationalism, and racial hatred, which will likely continue. But hopefully the new Democrat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives will counteract some of Trump’s lies and white nationalist rhetoric. Also there are watchdog organizations like the SPLC, Anti-Defamation League, American Civil Liberties Union, and other civil rights groups who keep track of unregulated militia groups and issue warnings of possible threats. Still it is up to local government authorities and police to restrain and jail unregulated militia that break state and federal laws.