Guardrails Down, What to do With Trump’s Militia Legacies?

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Image: Wikimedia

What Republicans – the never Trumpers at least – are up against in reestablishing some semblance of the pre-Trump version of their party is a problem likely far tougher than finding a leader at least visibly free of authoritarian dreams and clearly enough restrained by the “guardrails,” the norms, of American politics to ensure that all the super-rich family donors and business monies are reliably back on board for the 2022 midterms. The problem is the militias – the Proud Boys, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers and more than 150 armed militia groups in the U.S. identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center – along with their fellow travelers in conspiracy theories. These are the legacy of Donald Trump.

Enough has been written about how Trump captured certain kinds of voters, those with simmering emotions, often resentments, over being left behind economically or losing power and status in a swirl of demographic and values changes. And, of course, he offered himself as a Republican and millions of voters just stuck with the brand. Why not? But it was – and is – with the status-threatened, outsider and alienated groups where Trump likely has left us with unusually lasting damage. Trump brought them into politics, a place they hadn’t – at least in an organized way – been before. He gave them a role.

Trump, in violation of the norms, slipping outside the “guardrails” of political expectations, gave voice to white supremacists, religious nationalists, anti-Semites and a host of other biases always present in the American bloodstream. He let loose normally constrained and fringe group armed militias. He gave them a role, permission to threaten – often by display of arms—politicians or governments whose actions they deemed by their own judgements inimical to American freedoms. (Recall his “LIBERATE MICHIGAN, LIBERATE WISCONSON tweets.) Trump raised them from the shadows and made the militias part of politics.

That is the genie Republicans – some of them, anyway – should want to put back in the bottle. The militias are now part of the party’s base, among the groups Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley were playing to Jan. 6.

What arises from the swirling controversies over the thankfully ineffective coup/invasion of the U.S. Capitol? It’s hard to imagine how the Republican Party can move away from the values – not so much values, really, as hatreds – with which Trump has tattooed the brand. Maybe the party will really split, one part Trump cult, another the never-Trumpers.

At any rate, for the next few days, there won’t be an answer. Powered by social media, the Trump cult is calling for demonstrations, protests, maybe riots in D.C. and all state capitals Sunday and inauguration day. In many places, the militias will be there with guns and elected officials will be scared. After all, the invasion of the Capitol could have been much worse. Washington, D.C., has strong gun control regulations. What if they didn’t? I saw more assault rifles ready-strapped across chests in video from Olympia last week than in the pictures from the other Washington.

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Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered local government from the neighborhoods to City Hall and Seattle Public Schools. He later served as a public information officer and planner for Seattle Public Utilities, with a stint in the mayor’s office as press secretary for Mayor Paul Schell. He has written on politics for Crosscut.com and the Seattle Times as well as Post Alley.

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