Trump’s call for the Proud Boys and other armed far-right paramilitaries to “stand by” has finally shed light on the real threat of physical intimidation around the election, to add to the threats of cyberattacks and abuses of the legal system. His call to arms is also a reminder why calling far-right domestic terrorists merely “vigilantes” minimizes and even trivializes the threat, for several reasons.
A vigilante can be defined as “a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate),” or more broadly “a self-appointed doer of justice.” This very definition does not cover the threat or use of violence which does not uphold “justice” against “crime,” but actually targets people based on how they were born or what they believe.
The concept of vigilantism evokes a spontaneous community response to the failures of law enforcement, or “taking the law into one’s own hands” But far-right paramilitary groups in recent years have functioned more as armed wings of fascist social movements, often with sophisticated weapons, training, and online propaganda. Defining them as “vigilantes” overlooks the organized, serious nature of the threat, even if they are so-called “lone wolves” inspired by these far-right networks.
Vigilantism also has many different faces. It has historically included white mobs who have lynched African Americans, the armed men who murdered Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery, and the McCloskey couple who brandished weapons against Black Lives Matter protesters. But the concept is so loose that it can also be weaponized against Black neighborhood residents who shut down a drug house that the cops have done nothing about, or for that matter who defend themselves against armed far-right groups that the cops have done nothing about.
Vigilantism has strong positive backing in Hollywood popular culture, focused on “heroes” who decide that their personal moral code is stronger than government bureaucracies that overlook or encourage wrongdoing. To apply that romantic image to armed fascist groups is to do them a favor, fitting into their self-image as defenders of righteousness from marauding outsiders and do-nothing politicians. Department of Homeland Security internal documents, for example, have made the outrageous claim that the killer Kyle Rittenhouse was in Kenosha only "to help defend small business owners.”
But Trump’s statement highlights the main problem of criticizing armed far-right groups as vigilantes “operating outside of the law.” Namely, that criticism crumbles when they receive a blessing from the authorities, whether from law enforcement that enforces a biased double standard against left-wing protesters over right-wing goons, from the police in Kenosha, Portland, Albuquerque, and many other cities and counties who actively collude with armed far-right paramilitaries, or from the White House itself.
What happens when a right-wing county sheriff deputizes a group of militiamen, and they start setting up checkpoints and checking IDs with a quasi-governmental stamp of approval (as began to happen during the Oregon wildfires)? What happens if the police themselves are infiltrated by far-right groups, as the fascist Golden Dawn party has done in Greece, and far-right militias have attempted here? In other words, what if they begin to claim that they are operating within public officials’ version of “the law”? Whether or not a paramilitary group acts illegally or legally is beside the point, when they are intimidating or terrorizing civilians exercising democratic rights.
Far-right paramilitaries are one of the foremost threats to the upcoming election, particularly where police minimize or collude with them, and to any peaceful transfer of power. Posing as “poll watchers,” armed open-carry activists could intimidate voters in some communities by their very presence (the recent Trump caravans in some cities could be a dress rehearsal for such an operation). The threat of shootings could be used to suppress the Black vote in cities such as Milwaukee, Detroit, and Philadelphia, in an attempt to repeat Trump’s close 2016 victories in key swing states. University of Chicago researcher Kathleen Balew even warns of “mass casualties” like in the Oklahoma City, Pittsburgh, El Paso, and Christchurch massacres.
Whatever the election scenarios, far-right paramilitaries should not be seen merely as “vigilantes” who “take the law into their own hands.” They remind me more of the ultranationalist clubs that trained in the woods and morphed into armed militias before the civil wars in Bosnia and Ukraine. Ordinary people in those countries were surprised when the groups emerged to take advantage of crisis, and started to target civilians, but by then it was too late.
What is the best term to apply to these groups? In the U.S., the term “militia” has a constitutional veneer welcomed by (unregulated) armed groups, but at least that term identifies their militant nature. The term “white supremacist” is not always accurate, because some far-right groups love to showcase token people of color who share their anti-immigrant, anti-leftist, misogynist, transphobic, or Christian supremacist beliefs (against Muslims or Jews).
The term “paramilitary” accurately conveys their status as “semi-militarized forces” outside the regular military, but not their menacing use of fear. The most appropriate term for these groups is the same one they love to apply to their enemies: “domestic terrorists.”
In the upcoming election, we need to be “vigilant” not so much against unorganized “vigilantes,” but against organized domestic terrorists who could intimidate voters before, on, or after Election Day. Voting by mail is not only good protection against the virus of COVID-19, but against the virus of fascist violence.