The growing militia scene in the US is, I am increasingly convinced, one of the gravest threats to democratic life here. It will require a reckoning eventually and a firm political willingness to counter it, bar the open carry of weapons in certain public contexts, and (dare I say it) revisit the Second Amendment. It’s time we recognized that militias, like any weapons, are a double-edged sword, potentially used to institute tyranny just as readily as throw it off. Our safeguard against tyranny cannot be arms, but democratic institutions.
I got Volker Ullrich’s recent biography of Adolf Hitler recently for the same reasons everyone is reading about pre-War Germany: I was interested in possible parallels and divergences between Hitler and Trump. After all, I’ve often reassured myself recently with the unexamined thought that “At least Trump is just a political opportunist with no ideology apart from self-worship and aggrandizement. He would be much more dangerous as an ideological zealot like Hitler.” But was it true that Hitler was not such an opportunist? This question of to what extent Hitler simply isolated and amplified ambient political frequencies in order to ride their waves to power, versus articulating a personal ideology that happened to resonate with those ambient frequencies, has been debated back and forth in all of the five major biographies of his life. And while I was surprised to what an extent Hitler seems to have adapted his thinking to his political advantage in his early years — not ever expressing his characteristic antisemitism during his early years as a struggling artist in Vienna — my basic contention about him being an ideological zealot appears to be fairly accurate from early on in his Munich years after WWI… even when he wasn’t at all convinced that he himself was Germany’s “messiah”, but rather just a spokesperson for the eventual incumbent.
More importantly, though, this biography really struck me with its descriptions of the political climate in Munich, and Bavaria more generally, in the 20s — descriptions that have clear parallels to the US political climate today, especially in the South. Frustration with a seemingly feckless, elite-serving Weimar government in cosmopolitan, internationalized Berlin burned among many of the young struggling in a stalled, hyperinflating economy. A long history of administrative separation from the north leading many to think that a unified Germany either implied that Berlin would eventually march on Munich, or Munich would march on Berlin. Conspiracy theories, including those about international Jewery, were being flogged by inflammatory publishing houses with tight, behind-the-scenes connections to right-wing political parties, including the early DAP or German Workers’ Party that Hitler would join and transform into the NSDAP, and which took its swastika symbol from the Münchener Beobachter (later the Volkischer Beobachter) publication. There were heated arguments among the dizzying array of right wing groups flirting with National Socialism as to whether they were socialist first (though never Communist of course, for that was associated with international Jewish hegemony and the Russian revolution — socialist was rather used as a shorthand for non-democratic and ostensibly unified, or basically fascist) or ethno-nationalist first — and here Hitler was unequivocal and unwilling to give an inch in his contention that no socialist project would be possible until the German people were purified.
But, importantly, a shocking array of militia groups, often illegally armed with military stockpiles and whose ranks were filled by former — or sometimes even current — military with traumatic experiences from WWI. I had known about the Sturmabteilung, but not just how common such militias were (e.g. other Freikorps groups like the Bund Oberland and Reichsflagge). They ruled the streets of Bavarian cities, often terrorizing people at will, and Hitler was then called the King of Munich. The SA under Hitler made a famous display of armed force during Labor Day festivities in 1923 — essentially trolling and threatening the Communist Left — but had their weapons removed by Bavarian police. This defeat was essentially what drove Hitler to realize that a putsch against the Bavarian government itself was necessary, and he then took advantage of a pre-existing effort to unite the militias under a single umbrella organization.
It is this rhetoric around “uniting the right” (by which they mean the violent alt-right) that worries me here, too, particularly if that unification then facilitates an “annexation” of the umbrella organization into the apparatus of government. There’s clearly an effort underway to find a figure capable of uniting the ultra right. Trump is not that — rising as he did so quickly to a position where he has to moderate his tone to appeal multiple constituencies — though he’s doing a great job of sending not-so-subtle signs to Southern state and municipal governments that they needn’t crackdown on violent militias too much if they don’t want to.
Probably the single greatest resource to unite such groups from a data perspective is the membership database of the NRA. It is likely to be able to distinguish moderate from extreme views of its members, and may have a decent sense of who owns the most guns. This, after all, is one of the cruxes of of the power struggle: of the 300+ million guns in private hands in the US (over one per person), half are owned by just three percent of the population — so-called “super owners”. The ability to send tailored messages to disparate cohorts of gun owners based on political leaning, geographic location, and other demographic factors could make Wayne La Pierre a potentially critical tool for someone who wanted to follow the Nazi blueprint for a power grab.