In the wake of the riot at the U.S. Capitol in January, a former CIA official named Robert Grenier published an article in the New York Times titled “How to Defeat America’s Homegrown Insurgency.” His recommendations were mild when it came down to the specifics: finding and prosecuting those who carry out violence, engaging in a national dialogue, and holding Donald Trump accountable politically. Grenier, though, had once run the CIA’s counterterrorism center and played key roles in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. His article invoked those conflicts. Before the riot, he wrote, “it would have been unthinkable that the United States might be a candidate for a comprehensive counterinsurgency program. But this is where we are.”
After the article was published, I received a message from a longtime U.S. soldier. He had once belonged to one of the right-wing militant groups that Grenier’s proposed counterinsurgency program would target and remained well-connected among them. “Mike, this is making the rounds,” the message read. “It’s stories like this that set folks on edge.”
The soldier — whom I’ll refer to as Hawkeye, an echo of the nickname he uses in militant circles — served in the same conflicts Grenier was referencing and has scars from injuries sustained along the way. When I called, he was at a military base, training troops ahead of their deployments. Grenier wasn’t alone in comparing right-wing Americans to foreign adversaries; an onrush of commentary has applied the familiar terms of the global war on terror to the types of people who stormed the Capitol. Sometimes, the discussion ties violent extremists together with a broader segment of society. Former CIA Director John Brennan, in one of his frequent TV appearances, warned of “an unholy alliance” of undesirables, including racists and fascists as well as “religious extremists” and “even libertarians,” that “looks very similar to insurgency movements that we’ve seen overseas.” Domestic terrorism is a newly popular term.
To Hawkeye, the implications were apparent: Calling someone an insurgent or terrorist implied permission to marginalize him, strip him of his rights, detain him, hunt him, and kill him. He’d done this himself to people tagged with those labels overseas. “When I think terrorist,” he told me, “I think, take your ass to Gitmo, and that’s where you belong.”
Now he was finding himself on the other end of it. “America has always had a boogeyman,” he said. “At one point it was Germany, then it became Korea, then it became Russia, and then all of a sudden it’s Middle Easterners.” As he sensed the government’s sights turning his way, he was stripping his social media accounts of political references and being careful about what he said. “I’m posting nothing but cat videos and family reunions. I’m trying to mitigate as much as possible.” More than three dozen active and retired members of the military allegedly took part in the Capitol riot; the following month, Lloyd Austin, the new defense secretary, ordered a military-wide “stand down” to address extremism in the ranks, pledging zero tolerance for “actions associated with extremist or dissident ideologies,” and he later urged service members to report encounters with extremists. Military officials also circulated a list of symbols that ranged from the Nazi swastika to the logos of the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, two militant groups that were implicated in the riot.
Hawkeye wasn’t the only soldier wondering how far the definition of extremist might extend, he said. One of the men he was training had a Three Percenter tattoo and was talking about getting it removed. (He has since had it overlaid with a different design, Hawkeye told me recently, though “you can still see it if you know what you’re looking for.”) Others wondered whether T-shirt slogans like “Trump Is Still My President” could get them flagged. “It’s scary, because that’s my entire life I have invested,” Hawkeye said. “That’s kind of my version of a 401k, making sure I can retire and live my life happily.” All of that could be at risk, he worried, “just because the current administration says you’re a violent extremist.”
Yet he still believed the aggressive measures America had deployed in the name of combating violent extremism overseas — and in many cases, against Muslims at home — were justified. He was no advocate for closing Guantánamo Bay. “It’s very hypocritical,” he acknowledged. “But if we knew they were an extremist and fit the profile, or knew these people were being turned into extremists — if all the target indicators were there — I don’t have a problem with it. If you want to keep America safe, you have to find out who the bad guys are.”
“We’ve always needed an enemy, and that’s the good part and the bad part about us.”
I remarked that, by his own standard, he was someone who should be investigated. He had watched the Capitol riot on TV, was against the violence, and was unconvinced by claims that the election had been stolen. He wasn’t a white supremacist, or even white. But he’d been an active member of the Oath Keepers, a group known for recruiting in the police and military and at the center of FBI investigations into January 6. “Would I consider myself fair game? I guess the honest answer would be yeah, I guess I would. That’s a harsh fact to admit, but yeah,” he said. “How do you square the hypocrisy? I honestly wish I knew. In today’s society, where everything seems to be upside down and backwards, is there even a right answer anymore?”
“Like I was saying before,” he continued, “we’ve always needed an enemy, and that’s the good part and the bad part about us. It pushes us to be better and come up with new ways to defeat a potential enemy. But at the same time, this hysteria and paranoia kind of fucks us over.”
It’s not so much that a new national security complex is building up around right-wing extremism. It’s more that the one that already exists around Islamist extremism is adaptable. The country has legions of analysts, experts, journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, contractors, and current and former government officials who know how to rally around an extremist threat. Regular citizens, too, are used to being swept up in their fears of it. This is not the first time, of course, that such fears have turned inward. Muslim Americans have been caught in this trap for two decades. They’ve had their mosques infiltrated by federal agents; their political and charitable donations closely tracked; their social media posts monitored; their allegiances questioned. They’ve seen what it means when violent extremists are grouped with a wider swath of society. The difference, in this polarized moment, is that so many Americans on either half of the political divide seem so willing to turn this machine against the other side.
I spent the year leading up to the Capitol attack listening to people on the militant right discuss their opponents on the left in the language of counterinsurgency. They called antifa and Black Lives Matter activists domestic terrorists. They cheered when federal agents in Portland, Oregon, pulled left-wing protesters into unmarked vans and called on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act. In the months since January 6, many liberals have seized on the opportunity to return the favor. For those on the right who’ve served in the military since 9/11, and whose militant leanings predispose them to see elements of the left as dangerously extreme, this experience has been especially disorienting.
“You don’t think I have stuff on my Facebook account that they could consider insurrectionist because I’m very conservative, and just because I work for the government, doesn’t mean I trust it?”
I spoke to a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army Reserve who asked not to be named, like others in this story, because, as he put it, “We’re literally talking about the military doing a loyalty test.” He’d never been in a militant group but sympathized with the ideology of the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers and was lamenting that “there’s no separation between an opinion and a human being anymore” as he worried about all the Trumpy posts and memes he’d put online. “You don’t think I have stuff on my Facebook account that they could consider insurrectionist because I’m very conservative, and just because I work for the government, doesn’t mean I trust it?” he asked. “There’s my question. I don’t know.”
One fear for the forever wars has always been that the systems America deploys overseas, in places where its laws and Constitution don’t apply, will eventually come home, in the name of fighting not only foreign threats on U.S. soil, but also domestic ones. More Americans seem to be getting a small sense of what this might feel like. “The government is not tyrannical yet. It’s just a pain in the dick,” the reservist said. But he sympathized with an argument, common on the militant right, that the path is paved with incremental steps: “the idea,” he said, “that you can get to a bad place very slowly.” This is the space where complaints about social media censorship and cancel culture can accelerate into talk of Soviet gulags and Nazi Germany; with the hunt supposedly on for extremists in the military, some service members are feeling the anxiety more acutely. “Look at it like this,” he said. “Let’s say you are a guy [in the military] who’s involved with the Oath Keepers in your time off, and you’re on their rolls, and you have no plans of overthrowing the government … and then one day, your commander shows up and you’re being forced out because you’re with this group. You’re out of a job. What did the government just do? They created the thing that they’re afraid of, because now that guy is pissed, and if he didn’t already think the government was coming after people, he sure does now. And he’s been at war for 20 years. You think he knows something [about how to fight]?”
As much as I’ve heard such talk from people in and around right-wing militant groups since January 6, though, I’ve also heard resignation. I got a call last month from a Marine veteran and former private military contractor who was in a mood to vent. He’d waited to get involved with the Oath Keepers and similar groups until he was done working overseas. Then, eventually, he’d stepped away from them, deciding that their threats of political violence were both dangerous and dumb. He mocked those who talked about insurrection and then stormed the Capitol without guns. “If you look at what a real insurgency looks like, that wasn’t it. Granted, that doesn’t justify what they did,” he told me. “If your words are one thing and your actions are another, then you have a consistency crisis. If the course of action is not legitimate, why even talk about it? You’re just a blowhard, because people in the end — and the right is no exception to this — are not willing to make sacrifices.”
“I think the right is probably just going to walk away with a whimper,” he continued, and he really didn’t see a better choice. If they’d been serious about what he called “preserving” the country, he said, they should have spent more time engaging in the political process instead of threatening to overthrow it if it didn’t go their way. “We’re stuck in this position now where we can’t really do much,” he said, “because no sane person wants revolution.”
The former contractor, the reservist, and Hawkeye are the sorts of people who might get involved in civil violence if there were ever a serious and sustained outbreak of it, but are also sensible enough to see that this path is highly undesirable. If they caught wind of someone planning an attack, they’d likely inform the authorities. (“I would try first to dissuade them of it,” Hawkeye told me, adding that if he couldn’t, he’d call the FBI.) The fever dream of the most radical-minded militants, and of so-called accelerationists, meanwhile, is to provoke either a massive government overreaction or a general societal breakdown that could push these more serious-minded people, along with a larger segment of the country, to get involved in a civil conflict. It’s part of their obsession with America’s founding generation, the ultimate provocateurs. You could call trying to understand and manage the various currents within right-wing militancy a counterinsurgency strategy, or you could call it law enforcement. “It’s a form of community policing,” Tom O’Connor, who was an expert on militant groups in the FBI and the head of its agents’ association before retiring in 2019, told me. “It’s getting out and getting to know people and sitting down with them. Because when things start going to the extreme, not everyone who signs up is actually down with that. There are going to be those who are stepping out [and alerting authorities]. And that’s what you need.”
The forever wars have helped make Americans more militant and infused their terms and zero-sum mindset into our politics.
He worried that conflating the problem with America’s overseas conflicts would confuse the response to it. “There are a lot of international terrorism experts who aren’t getting the same attention they got years ago and are going to be [moving over to] this,” he said. “It’s going to become a cottage industry.”
A more useful discussion of America’s post-9/11 expeditionary wars might revolve around their failings. In a recent article for War on the Rocks, Nate Rosenblatt, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, and Jason Blazakis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, cautioned that taking a “reductionist approach” to the kind of political violence that erupted on January 6 and the people who took part in it “risks creating more enemies rather than fewer, and threatens to make the same mistakes at home as the country has made in twenty years of combatting terrorism abroad.” These include failing to understand the true nature of the threat; driving people into the arms of extremist groups with overly broad and aggressive policies; and alienating potential allies. The authors urge the Biden administration to “overcome the national crisis in political violence by separating moderates from those ideologically extreme enough to commit political violence.”
In the end, the authors are still embracing a counterinsurgency framework: The recommendation above is in line with doctrine developed by U.S. military strategists such as David Petraeus. But talking about U.S. efforts at counterinsurgency overseas in a domestic context can be misleading. Even when these efforts have had some success, as in the war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, they’ve revolved around arming indigenous forces to kill the enemy and airstrikes. The entire discussion is also centered on a fallacy. It assumes a U.S. government endowed with hegemonic power seeking to enforce its will in weaker countries. What we’re really talking about with domestic political violence, however, is an America beginning to turn on itself at home. To me, the most relevant way to consider the forever wars here is to grapple with the ways they’ve helped to make Americans more militant and infused the terms and zero-sum mindset of those conflicts into our politics.
The problem of right-wing militancy, meanwhile, is especially fraught because of the degree to which militant groups have incorporated themselves into mainstream conservatism. Oath Keepers, for example, recruited at tea party rallies in the group’s early days and gave speeches at local Republican events. The party has since embraced the charged rhetoric about socialism, tyranny, and international conspiracies that militant groups espoused long before it became politically fashionable under Trump. At the same time, militant groups have worked to co-opt the ethos of the police and military. The black-and-gold Oath Keepers logo is modeled on the Army Rangers seal. The group defines itself on the oaths members of the police and military swear to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic — which it often portrays as antifa, Black Lives Matter, and Democrats. Even members of self-styled militias who never served will talk with pride about the similar oaths they swear when they join their outfits. The founding myth of the Three Percenters, that only this small percentage of the population took part in the Revolutionary War, can appeal to soldiers who sign up to fight in the long-running conflicts most Americans ignore. Militant groups portray themselves as champions of small government and gun rights. They’ve blended into the back-the-blue, kneel-for-the-cross-and-stand-for-the-flag brand of patriotism that has come to define the Republican Party.
I received an email recently from a woman named Joneen Flemings in North Carolina. She has no affiliation with militant groups and wasn’t defending them, but worried that my focus on the subject plays into a larger effort to demonize all conservatives. “I am acquainted with some in the military who are currently under investigation after outrageous allegations in the press for attending the Jan 6 rally in DC, possible poster children or fall guys for the [military’s stand-down],” she wrote. She saw the response to January 6 as a potential bridge to an attack on her own identity and politics. “I am a conservative, voted for Donald Trump, and a devout Roman Catholic. All those ‘extremes’ that I now understand make me such a potential public enemy number one.”
People on the militant right often paint elements of the left as violent extremists and terrorists even as they decry being targeted with these same terms themselves.
She was so troubled by the national dialogue that she couldn’t sleep, she wrote, and was composing her message at 2 a.m. “‘Civil war,’ ‘treason,’ ‘insurrection,’ ‘coup,’ ‘sedition’ and ‘execution’ are all terms thrown around in social media parlance, not in the least propagated by the media without any attempt at moderation or de-escalation. This is totally out of bounds on all sides, no doubt — and yeah, conservatives are as bad as liberals and probably always have been,” she wrote. “But the current course set by what you choose to emphasize in the press, instead of providing or proposing a solution or even just shining something of an objective light on the whole of the problem, is blanket characterizing conservatives as extremist, irrational, and volatile.”
Her message was both a plea for empathy and a call for the other side to be targeted too. “I am wondering why you did not write about Antifa at all, or the Black Lives Matter movement,” she wrote, adding that she could find nothing in my work about alleged violence by left-wing protesters.
This is a common theme among conservatives that also runs through my conversations with people on the militant right, who often paint elements of the left as violent extremists and terrorists even as they decry being targeted with these same terms themselves. “The whole antifa movement, personally, I see that as literally about as domestic terrorism as you can get,” Hawkeye told me. I remarked that people on both the left and right seemed to be growing more comfortable applying that label to the other side. “I think a lot of it is the escalation of force from both sides,” he replied. “At what point does that escalation stop, you know? Is it all-out war on the streets? Or is someone going to actually have the good idea to say let’s work it out somehow?”
But can you work it out with people you’ve written off as terrorists? “It’s not good,” he conceded. “And then you have to ask yourself, once we start rolling down that slope, where do we stop?”