Right Wing Militias Are Prone to Crazy Drama
Bundy ranch militias are a danger to each other
Originally published on May 4, 2014.
You’re right if you think a bunch of armed men playing war in the desert is a recipe for a giant drama bomb.
It all started with the armed standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and militia supporters of rancher Cliven Bundy regarding unpaid grazing fees in Nevada.
Bundy, who briefly attracted support from prominent Republicans before uttering racist comments about slavery, has spent weeks entertaining the militias—a loose confederation of different groups with some very itchy trigger fingers.
But since the drama at the Bundy ranch receded from the headlines, the drama inside the ranch escalated to the point of rival militiamen drawing guns on each other.
The breaking point appears to have been when the Oath Keepers—the most prominent militia group—withdrew after rumors emerged of an impending drone strike. This caused other militiamen at the ranch to call the Oath Keepers a bunch of traitors.
In a video statement, the Oath Keepers responded by calling their rival militiamen “nutcases.”
“Sane armed people with a disagreement might be able to find common ground; crazy unarmed people might, too,” Gawker’s Adam Weinstein summed up. “But disagreements among crazy armed people have a weird way of not ending in a vocal consensus.”
Aside from the guns, there was also some pushing and shoving. “That’s why we told them to get out of there,” Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers’ founder and leader, said. “We knew the situation was this close from being a gunfight, right there inside the camp.”
Ryan Payne, a militia spokesman who stayed at the ranch, described the Oath Keepers as engaging in an act of “desertion” by leaving.
“You’re lucky you’re not getting shot in the back because that’s what happens to deserters on the battlefield,” said Payne, who appears in the video below.
Payne is wrong about the military shooting deserters. But what’s interesting is how quickly the movement around Bundy descended into mutual suspicion and internecine conflict between his very supporters.
Also, none of this is particularly surprising.
The militiamen see themselves as pseudo-military insurgents—although ones who are not actively engaged in armed conflict. And like insurgents, they are almost as likely to train guns on each other as they are the government. For example, any active conflict in the world.
There’s a reason for this. It doesn’t have much to do with disputes over ideology. Instead, these groups are highly prone to fighting over their relative positions of influence within the larger movement. According to Peter Krause, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this is a major predictor of insurgent behavior.
“Groups care more about their own position of power within their movement than the movement’s collective success, because greater power increases their chances to survive and capture private benefits,” Krause wrote at the wonky conflict blog Political Violence at a Glance.
These militias make a good case study. Founded in 2009, the Oath Keepers quickly emerged as one of the most prominent paramilitary organizations in the United States.
Its membership is also bolstered by military veterans—military service is a condition for signing up. Rhodes, the group’s leader, is a regular voice on far right radio programs, and his group has branched out to the mainstream. Last year, it sponsored a NASCAR car driven by Jeffrey Earnhardt, racing legend Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s grandson.
Not surprisingly, the Oath Keepers withdrew from the ranch, claiming the other militiamen were the really crazy ones. The truth is that the Oath Keepers have more to lose.
“Weaker challenging groups are therefore more likely to initiate escalatory violence that they hope will change the game and whose costs others are more likely to pay, whereas the leading group has strong incentives to restrain escalatory violence and focus on strategic victory,” Krause notes.
Of course, all this militia drama could also be macho tough-guy talk.
But the Oath Keepers and other militia groups do see themselves as preparing for insurgent-style conflict with the government. That includes recruiting members and building up stockpiles of weapons and ammunition. It stands to reason these groups would prioritize jockeying for position within the larger movement, if they stand to gain in the aftermath of a coming conflict.
Whether that’s ever going to happen—or whether the militias pose much of a threat—is a different question. The fact that these groups see a conflict with the government as on the horizon means those beliefs will influence their behavior, regardless of its likelihood. The good news is that these groups largely act in a self-defensive manner.
The most recent case involving a militia terror plot—regarding the Michigan Hutaree militia—saw most of the government’s charges dropped by a federal court. Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were mixed up with militias, but left before carrying out their attack.
It’s best not to over-hype the threat. Still, that doesn’t stop the militias from feuding with each other. Put them all together and give them guns, it’s no wonder they almost opened fire … on themselves.