I met Gordon Baird at a militia training this fall. We spoke briefly about a charity cookout he said his group had held and his suspicion that Joe Biden is a pedophile. His zip ties, though, were what stuck out. Baird was kitted out with his tactical gear and rifle, but he also had half a dozen sets of plastic cuffs strapped to his body armor.
I thought about the zip ties during the Capitol riot, when I saw a photo of a man carrying some through the Senate chamber while decked in his own battle-rattle. It made me wonder: How far was he really willing to go? It’s the same question most of the country is asking about militant groups this week, with government buildings on lockdown and the FBI issuing arrest warrants for those who allegedly entered the Capitol. So I reconnected with people like Baird, to see if they knew the answer.
Baird, 30, heads a group called the North Carolina Minuteman Coalition. He was in Washington, D.C., on January 6 but insisted he didn’t go into the Capitol. “I went,” he said, “to hear my commander in chief.” He told me this on Saturday, when he and his 10-year-old son, dressed in matching fatigues, met me at the training site he built on his 6-acre property in Lawndale, North Carolina. A handful of men were walking through lightly organized drills as Baird explained that local police had visited once or twice to make sure everyone was shooting safely. He said the cops sometimes give a whoop of the siren when they pass, “just to say hey.” The pride with which he recounted these details speaks to the dilemma many militant groups are now facing: They might be pro-Trump. But often they are also pro-cop and dream of being seen as community protection forces, a sort of law enforcement auxiliary. Storming government buildings and trying to overturn an election flies in the face of that. At the end of the day, it’s also illegal. It’s the same contradiction conveyed by the plastic cuffs: Taking the law into your own hands also means breaking it.
These militant groups have arrived at a moment of truth. In meetings and conversations over the last week, I found members struggling with it. Behind all the rhetoric and threats and Trumpian claims about the election is a choice about what side of law and order they really want to be on. Where they land will say a lot about whether the political violence we saw on January 6 remains relatively isolated or metastasizes into a wider uprising.
Some may have already made their choice, like the three veterans with alleged ties to militant groups whom the FBI has charged with conspiracy, saying that they planned and executed an incursion into the Capitol amid talk of making a “citizen’s arrest” of lawmakers for “acts of treason” and “election fraud.” And then there are people like Baird. He was still trying to make up his mind about the riot. He said it was wrong and anyone who entered the Capitol made a “fatal mistake,” while also echoing the talking point that the assault might have been a leftist ploy. It had exposed protesters to the same accusations of insurrection and domestic terrorism that many of them had spent the summer lobbing at Black Lives Matter and antifa. “I can tell you right now: I’m not a terrorist. I’m a patriot,” he said.
He stressed several times that he still believes in working through the system and within the rule of law. Yet he was gratified by the message the riot had delivered to politicians in the Capitol: “At the end of the day, it put the fear of God back in them, and I think that might be just what they needed.”
“At the end of the day, it put the fear of God back in them, and I think that might be just what they needed.”
His group is small — about 20 active members, he said, and less than half that number were on hand for the relaxed weekly training I attended. Everyone seemed to agree that further violence would be a mistake. They were against the idea of storming state Capitols or other government buildings.
Later, Baird told me word had been spreading among militia groups that the FBI was on the hunt: “Everybody keeps saying the FBI is out there coming to see you. I’m expecting the FBI to come see me. I’ve got nothing to hide. I welcome them.”
He wouldn’t have a problem with people getting arrested if they’d been part of the riot, he added. “If someone stormed the Capitol and was actually inside the Capitol, then by all means,” he said. “If you’ve got proof that you can show me that they were in the Capitol, then I wash my hands of it.”
When I asked what he’d do if he caught word of militant groups planning violence, he replied, “I carry flexi-cuffs in my truck for a reason.”
He added: “When you take it to the extreme, when you’re trying to kick off a civil war — at that point, you become part of the problem.”
So that’s one possibility: Militant groups cool down and even do some self-policing. There are others, though. Some group somewhere could start something with real momentum that more groups decide to get behind. Or Trump could spotlight calls for a specific push or protest and incite people, as he did on January 6. (Baird and others noted that part of the reason they were standing down was because Trump had said to.) Then there’s the chance that the government response to the riot will inflame people.
Many militant groups have been relatively open about their membership, with formal chapters and people affiliating on social media. There are myriad outfits with thousands of members who are sometimes involved only casually. The authorities have mostly tolerated them — I can’t say if Baird’s account of his interactions with police is accurate, for example, but a big wooden sign for his group and training center marks his roadside property. Police are sometimes sympathetic to militant groups and even involved in them, and it may be only now that they’re considering the extent to which those groups can be threatening. Overnight, federal authorities have begun scrambling to monitor them, social media bans have jumped, and politicians have embraced terms like “insurrectionists” and “domestic terrorists.” Meanwhile, these are often people who spent years immersed in conspiratorial fears about a coming tyranny, only to have Trump and many Republicans tell them it’s finally about to happen.
I asked Baird what he’d do if it started to seem that groups like his were being targeted.
“At that point, that’s when we would start scurrying and getting ready.”
It helps to come back to people over time if you’re trying to keep track of a national breakdown. I first met Joe Klemm at a militia muster in Virginia in July. He stepped onto a flatbed truck and addressed the hundred or so people there with a speech so aggressive in its call to uprising that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
From there I watched him get pulled ever deeper into the conspiracy world Trump had created around the election. I was with him at a training before the election, the same one where I met Baird, as Klemm echoed Trump’s claims that there’d be massive voter fraud. And again on November 3, as he and his men drove around to polling stations in southwestern Virginia, patrolling. Klemm is convinced that the election was stolen and considered coming down to the Capitol in that short window when it seemed possible the people inside could hold their ground. So I wondered if I’d find him itching for action when I met him at his home last week. Instead, he seemed content to sit back and wait.
“It’s business as usual,” he told me. “We’re just following the orders of the president to stay away from any protests or uprisings that are at the capitals.”
We drank whiskey at his kitchen table, discussing Q theories. Klemm, who’s 29, was with a friend named Andrew, a sweet-mannered ICU nurse who had nothing to do with militias but told me Klemm made him feel safe. (He asked me to use only his first name because he feared being harassed online for his views.) Maybe Trump would find a way to stay in power, and the senators and members of Congress who’d voted to accept the Electoral College results would be tried for treason. Maybe Trump would only appear to step down before being inaugurated on March 4, the day presidents were sworn in until 1933. Maybe Michael Flynn would step in to lead the militias before that. “If he were to put the call out for the militias to assemble for whatever reason — it’s been discussed before — we would get behind Flynn and support his orders,” Klemm said.
“I mean, word on the street is he’s going to be vice president,” Andrew added.
“Mhmm,” Klemm agreed.
“I mean, these are crazy times,” Andrew told me. “I don’t fully believe it, but I just know that anything is possible. Would anything shock you at this point?”
People can stay lost in their theories, or the theories can start to crash against reality. Long before QAnon, many Americans had convinced themselves that socialism and tyranny were coming and centered those fears on the specter of agents from a budding globalist-Marxist regime showing up at their homes. Now federal agents may indeed find themselves door-knocking as they search for people who took part in the riot. That simple act could also bring the national conflict home for militia members who have so far mainly viewed their involvement as local. On Friday night, I joined an Iraq War veteran named Will as he had dinner at a restaurant in a shopping center in rural Virginia. He’d helped to organize the summer muster where I first encountered Klemm; the idea was to raise a self-styled militia for his county. Will told me he hadn’t been in D.C. and that the violence had been an unequivocal mistake, but he thought the national response had “turned into a witch hunt for patriots. It’s like we’re the bad guys.”
“I’m a moderate motherfucker. We’re more the ‘We just want to be left alone’ types.”
He turned his hands into two scales and weighed them as if an outcome were hanging in the balance: civil war or not civil war. “I know I’m going to be in Virginia watching,” he said. “I’m a moderate motherfucker. We’re more the ‘We just want to be left alone’ types.”
“This place,” he said, knocking on the table, “is not important. It’s not D.C. It’s not Richmond. The main thing protecting us right now is our complete and total lack of importance.”
I asked what he’d think if militant groups pushed for more violence or tried to storm more government buildings in D.C. or elsewhere. “What is there to gain by that?” he asked. “Either it gets us nothing or it might be the spark that ends it all, and you’ll have kids and old people dying for no reason. It’s fucking pointless.”
I believed that people wanted to stay away from violence when they said so but also knew that they, like everyone involved in this, were trying to make sense of things as they went. Nobody really speaks frankly if they think they’re in a war anyway. When I pressed one person about what might happen next, he reminded me that the FBI had been calling around and said he’d only speak in generalities. Even those who’ve been involved with militant groups for a long time are wondering what to make of the new reality. I spoke to a man who’s among the cooler heads I know in the movement, someone who has never bought into the conspiracies and who I can’t name because he’s a U.S. military reservist. He worried that some of the people furthest down the rabbit hole of the conspiratorial mindset might turn their fears into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The people he knows are dropping off social media, closing Facebook and Twitter accounts, and going dark, he said. “There are people who are genuinely scared.”
Most likely, he said, people are simply worried about being targeted for their affiliations or losing access to their accounts. But what if the feds come knocking on a door and “someone fights back and a cop gets killed, heavens forbid, or [the shooter] gets killed,” he said. “It’s going to entrench the mindset that now they’re sending out the death squads. They’re going to literally make their own worst dreams come true.”
He said people might not realize how much the strains of the last year are clouding their thinking. “It doesn’t help that you have all the stuff from Covid coming on,” he said. “We’re one year into this. That year has put a lot of stress on people, the businesses going under, being forced to wear masks and being forced to stay home, and then you add the elections on top of that. It’s just stacking and stacking and stacking. They don’t have the mental resiliency.”
When the training at Baird’s was over and most people had gone home, a member who’d been outside the Capitol recounted how the moment the crowd broke through felt like the climax of something. The man, who asked to be called Anthony because he feared repercussions for his involvement, was near the steps when word came down that the building had been breached and said he didn’t push inside only because the sea of people was so thick. “We were so fucking live and emotional in that moment, man,” he said. When he heard that requests to call in the National Guard had been delayed, it seemed like fate: “It was like they were giving us an opportunity to give the people in the Capitol one good lick.”
He said they had sent lawmakers a message: “You’re not fucking immortal.”
He cried as he recounted how things had seemed to keep stacking against him until that point, as he lost his job to coronavirus pandemic conditions and tried to support his family on an unemployment check of less than $150 a week. Then Baird had raised money from his social media followers to pay for the gas to drive down to the protest, and Anthony had joined him. “That was one of the most powerful things that I was ever a part of and will ever be a part of,” he said. “We only live once. We’re going to tell our grandkids about this one day.”
It was all over quickly, and for Anthony, it was enough. He and Baird were out of D.C. by nightfall. On the way back, he said, he got messages from militiamen back home who were vowing to follow them back into the Capitol with weapons. He brushed it off, telling them it was a ludicrous idea. He doesn’t think they’d have come anyway. He sensed the momentum sapping from the militia crowd and predicted a period of indecision and infighting. That was the mood, at least, on the eve of Biden’s inauguration.