The intrusions of white supremacist militias into cities to intimidate and attack protestors from the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement highlights the possibility of rural insurgency. Rural insurgencies range from week-long armed rebellions against local governments, law enforcement, and the wealthy to decades-long ones against subnational and national-level security forces, which seek to impose new revolutionary regimes. Many African, Asian, and Latin American countries have faced such insurgencies, which have slowed economic growth, caused mass internal migration to more secure urban areas, as well as undermined democratic politics locally and nationally. While the U.S. is not currently at the point of a full-blown insurgency, such insurgencies exist across a spectrum rather than being characterized by the crossing of a line, and consequently, it behooves us to worry now rather than when we get to “there.”
Although culture, economic or political grievances underlie such rebellions, a successful rebellion must overcome collective action barriers because the rewards of victory cannot be restricted to rebels who risk their lives and liberty, thus, encouraging people to free-ride. Resources that lower the collective action barriers of rebellion include availability of weapons, rebel organizations that provide leadership and training, as well as funding from wealthy allies. Opportunities that reduce these barriers include inaccessible terrain, weak and complicit law enforcement, as well as uncertainty or weakness in the repressive capacity of state security forces. Currently, these factors are present in the United States.
Ideologies of Rebellion
In her book on white supremacist groups, Bring the War Home, Professor Kathleen Belew shows that the grievances of rural white militia groups center on threats to white racial supremacy that date back to the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War. These have recently combined with fears of becoming a minority group due to changing demographics. The targets of such fears have shifted from primarily African Americans to include non-White immigrants. In conjunction with racial fears, other causes include anti-Semitism as well as perceived threats to Christianity from Muslims, who have replaced Catholics as antagonists. Some scholars have observed, however, that the militias do not constitute a cohesive movement, but have many groups with varied beliefs, broadly classifiable as anti-federal government control of lands, guns, speech, and other liberties.
With regards to political alignments, many such groups were formed after Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election. Although racial animus played a factor, their official positions were similar to that of the conservative Tea Party movement’s demand for low taxes and reduction in government. These militias became associated with President Donald Trump partly due to his rhetoric during the 2016 campaign, which emphasized anti-immigrant nativism, proposed banning Muslims from coming to the United States, and supported fundamentalist Christian beliefs. After he assumed office, in addition to his equivocation about deadly white supremacist attacks against protestors, his administration’s policies also appeared to favor militia groups by reducing monitoring by federal law enforcement. Trump may accept pre- and post-electoral violence by such militias during the 2020 elections, as indicated by his statements about the white supremacist Proud Boys during the first presidential debate.
Rebel Resources: Available Weapons, Access to Funding, Existing Organizations, and Military Training
Unlike insurgencies in countries evaluated in RAND’s seminal How Insurgencies End study, the wealth and freely available weapons in the United States may obviate the need for foreign assistance—in terms of funds, personnel, and material—as the critical determinant of the fate of such insurgencies.
In most countries, insurgent groups must smuggle quantities of small arms, offered by willing foreign sponsors or bought in black markets, across international borders. In the United States, however, per capita gun ownership is the highest in the world, while gun laws are some of the least restrictive. Thus, militias can legally acquire vast quantities of small arms. Although eight out of the top 10 states with the highest percentage of gun ownership relative to their population voted for Trump in 2016, the problem is not just a state-level one. Guns from states with lax gun-ownership laws can also be easily transported to states with stricter laws. For example, of the guns used for criminal activities in Chicago and its suburbs under the purview of the eighth strictest gun laws of Illinois, 21 percent are brought in from Indiana (with the 28th strictest gun laws), 5.1 percent from Mississippi (with the 50th strictest gun laws) and 4 percent from Wisconsin (with the 21st strictest gun laws).
Although foreign funding may not be accessible to American militias, they can acquire funds to buy weapons, ammunition, and logistics, from food and blankets to vehicles, via a network of associated organizations. Akin to the use of mosques by Islamic terror groups in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, militias can use sympathetic churches to seek donations. Also racist but peaceful allied organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens can act as fronts to sell products and accept donations via websites like Amazon, DonorBox, and Stripe. For example, a Christian crowdfunding website called GiveSendGo has collected more than $ 500,000 for the defense fund of Kyle Rittenhouse who shot three protestors in August, 2020 during the BLM protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
By comparing insurgent groups in South and Southeast Asia, Professor Paul Staniland’s book The Networks of Rebellion reveals that militia organizations also need leaders who are both internally united and embedded within pre-conflict social networks in order to successfully challenge the national government in multi-year confrontations. Despite ideological similarities, militia groups in the United States lack cohesive regional and national-level organizations. Rather, disparate groups communicate and coordinate via social media sites like Facebook. Thus, while such fragmentation may prevent a civil war that seeks to topple the federal government, loosely tied groups of small organizations may be sufficiently powerful to prevent state and federal authorities from controlling rural areas. A phenomenon that has occurred in parts of India, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Although training is critical for insurgent success, levels of training among militia groups can vary contingent on the presence of veterans and active-duty members of the military and National Guard. Reports suggest that a number of veterans and currently serving members of the armed forces have joined these groups, although the former are more numerous. With the military’s increasing proficiency in counter-insurgency tactics, training, and experience, veterans and active-duty troops could introduce exactly the type of small-unit, small-arms focused training that militias would need to fight against the government.
Rebel Opportunities: Inaccessible Terrain, Weak and Complicit Law Enforcement and Security Forces
Militias will also benefit from geography, the nature of local law enforcement, and the makeup of the U.S. military. The large size and difficult terrain in parts of rural America, exemplified by states like Montana and Arizona, would both slow counter-insurgency efforts by security forces and deliver the advantage to insurgents because of their local knowledge and civilian sympathizers who can provide food and shelter.
The other major advantage for militias is the nature of local law enforcement agencies and national-level military and security forces. Local police forces in many states have a history of being either sympathetic to white supremacists and/or being infiltrated by these groups. More importantly, geographical recruitment patterns in the U.S. military show that the representation ratio is the highest in states like Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas that are conservative in cultural and political orientation, have significant presence of militias, and are reliable supporters of the Trump administration. Thus, deploying troops to quell rebellions would have to account for the unwillingness of some troops to fire upon ideological sympathizers or possibly their kith and kin.
Conclusion: The Threat and Promise of Inevitable Urbanization
Mao Zedong allegedly remarked that rebels should inhabit their environment as fish in the sea, which was the case in mid-20th Century China with its rural hinterland where the vast majority of the population resided. In the past 50 years, rural insurgencies from Vietnam and India, to Colombia and Guatemala, have followed this dictum of garnering local sympathy for both recruitment and logistical support with varied success.
Twenty-first Century United States, however, has a mostly urban population. In a social media interaction with me, Professor Doug Thompson of the University of South Carolina mentioned that less than 2 percent of the American population lives in 100 percent rural countries, while most states have “roughly the same spatial distribution of partisanship,” which neither overlaps with traditional regions like the North, South, Midwest, etc. nor with urban/rural divides. Rather, what he terms the “new sectional conflict,” in a reference to antebellum regional divisions, could be centered in the exurban and suburban areas. In which case, the nearness to urban centers may mitigate conflict by facilitating pacification efforts, which may even deter insurgencies from breaking out, or worsen insurgencies because of the accessibility to high-value urban targets and populations.
Despite how the political geography of the United States ultimately shapes the nature of such insurgencies, however, the above-mentioned grievances, resources, and opportunities indicate that the preconditions for insurgencies are already present. Consequently, militia groups deserve more scrutiny from security forces and a unified political consensus to deter and suppress them in order to maintain peace and stability.