An overview of right-wing extremism in Michigan, including hate groups, militias, and anti-government groups that have recently made the news.
The events of recent years, including the January 6, 2021, insurrection at our nation’s Capitol, and the alleged plot to kidnap and potentially execute Governor Gretchen Whitmer, have made it more apparent than ever that right-wing extremism is on the rise in Michigan. The answers for how we got to this point in our country and our state are multi-faceted, extremely complex, and would require far more exploration than the basics we’re going to cover in this blog.
This overview is designed to quickly get you up to speed on right-wing extremism in Michigan and the groups you may have seen in the news in recent years. We will regularly update it as new information becomes available.
What’s the difference between a hate group and a militia?
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) defines a “hate group” as an organization with beliefs or practices that malign an entire class of people. The SPLC differentiates between hate groups and armed militias. They also often use the term “anti-government group,” which has a lot of crossover with militias, as militias are often focused on dismantling federal institutions.
The term “militia” is legally defined as “able-bodied residents who may be called forth by the government to defend the United States or an individual state.” However, militias that “activate” themselves for their own purposes are considered illegal and not protected by the Second Amendment.
While these groups have a variety of different core ideologies and are made up of members with differing views, common threads you’ll find weaving them all together include: white supremacy and white nationalism, antisemitism and neo-Nazi ideology, anti-LGBTQ views and misogny, enthusiam around firearms, and conspiracy theories and anti-government views.
In recent years there has been a blurring of boundaries between hate groups, militias, and anti-government groups. Cassie Miller, a senior researcher at the SPLC, has said, “the far-right is not simply a collection of groups, but it’s really a widespread movement.” People who are associated with this right-wing extremist movement have given up on accomplishing their goals through our current democratic system and can see violence as a way to remedy what they believe are threats to our country.
The January 6 insurrection is a prime example of multiple right-wing groups, along with those who have become radicalized but may not have joined a particular group, coming together around conspiracy theories and disinformation and being driven to violence.
While there is usually a decrease in membership of these groups during Republican administrations, researchers saw the opposite under former President Trump, who often played up the conspiracy theories and fears that say white men (who make up the majority of these groups) should be taking action. In recent years militias have stepped into the public eye more and more, attending pandemic protests, countering Black Lives Matter rallies, and being part of “Stop the Steal” rallies. Hampton Stall, a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict and Event Location Data Project said this revitalization of militias coincides with how conservatives are embracing “a politics of expressing disaffection.”
It is undeniable that the Republican Party and right-wing political movements have become drivers of right-wing extremism. The SPLC’s recently released The Year in Hate and Extremism 2021 report reveals that “our democracy is now under threat from a hard-right, anti-democratic movement made up of hate and extremist groups, Trump loyalists, the Republican Party, right-wing think tanks, media organizations, and committed activists with institutional power.”
Michigan’s Right-Wing Extremist Groups
As of 2021, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) found 18 separate hate groups that exist in Michigan. It’s becoming more difficult to track participation in the groups as social media makes it easier to become radicalized—and for all intents and purposes a part of the movement—without explicitly joining a specific group. It is also difficult to track participation in militias, as the groups rise and fade, and often split into many groups over differences of personality or ideology.
There are an estimated two to three dozen active militia groups in Michigan, which include some crossover with the SPLC’s 18 hate groups. According to experts, Michigan is a “hotbed” for militias and our militias have “always been the kind to which other states’ militias look up to.” While not all militia groups are considered a threat, militias across the country have been involved in violence over the past several decades. Michigan militias have made the national news before, perhaps most notably, when Lapeer native Terry Nichols worked with Timothy McVeigh on the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City that killed nearly 200 people.
White supremacist propaganda campaigns have greatly increased during the Trump era, and are accompanied by a rise in hate crimes. In Michigan, hate crimes rose 40 percent from 2015 to 2019. A 2021 report from the Anti-Defamation League found a 36 percent increase in incidents of white supremacist propaganda in Michigan as compared to 2019.
The prevalence of conspiracy theories such as QAnon that have spread like wildfire online and gained a cult-like following—including among Republican members of Congress, Michigan Republican lawmakers, and Michigan Republican candidates for office—can be partly credited with the rise in militias. And, of course, we would be remiss not to mention how the right’s continued push of the Big Lie and near-religious reverence for former President Trump have continued to radicalize more and more people into the right-wing extremist movement.
The list below includes only a handful of the right-wing extremist groups active in Michigan, focusing on those who have made news in recent years. If you want to learn more about the many, many active Michigan militias and hate groups, go here and here and here.
Michigan’s Active Right-Wing Extremist Groups
Founded in 2018 by Rinaldo Nazzaro, a neo-Nazi who reportedly worked with U.S. special forces in the Middle East, The Base is an international white supremacist hate group that believes society should be pushed to collapse so a white ethnostate can take over. Nazzaro advertised his group as a “survivalist network” preparing for the fall of society, rather than an organization attempting an insurgency against the U.S. government and preparing for a race war.
They frequently discussed how they looked forward to a race war and the killing it would involve, plotted killing antifascists and journalists, and also praised right-wing violence such as the New Zealand Christchurch mass shooting in 2019. While many members of his group were arrested on charges of conspiring against the rights of minorities, vandalism, and conspiracy to commit murder in late 2019 and early 2020, Nazzaro’s whereabouts are currently unknown, although it is suspected he’s in Russia. Nine members of The Base have been arrested for crimes ranging from making ghost-guns to a mass shooting.
A Michigan leader of The Base, Justen Watkins, was arrested in early 2021 and charged with gang membership and using computers to commit a felony. Watkins was planning to create an all-white, fortified compound in the Upper Peninsula. Base group trainings have also been held in Michigan. Michigan members of The Base helped a fellow member, a Canadian fugitive, evade the law in 2019. A 2019 vandalization of Temple Jacob in Hancock, MI, is also connected to The Base. Not all members of The Base have been arrested, but the group itself is thought to be largely defunct at this stage.
Boogaloo Boys or “Bois”
This national anti-government extremist movement formed in 2019. The term “boogaloo” is a slang reference to a future civil war, which members of this movement anticipate and even look forward to. They often signal their membership in this movement by wearing Hawaiian shirts and have been seen at multiple right-wing rallies both large and small across the state for the last several years.
They gathered at the Michigan Capitol along with Trump supporters, watched over by police and the Michigan National Guard, on January 17, 2021. In June of 2021, at a pro-gunrights rally in Lansing, several members of the alleged plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer were interviewed while wearing Hawaiian shirts. This was the day Fox, the alleged ringleader, allegedly recruited more members to his plot.
Michigan Home Guard
They claim to be the biggest and most active militia in Michigan. Their website describes them as a “homeland defense force training to protect the Constitution and the people of the United States of America and the State of Michigan.” The alleged ringleader of the plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer was formerly a member of the Michigan Home Guard.
The Oath Keepers are a large, loosely organized collection of right-wing, anti-government extremists who believe the federal government has been co-opted in a conspiracy to strip American citizens of their rights. They focus on recruiting current and former military and law enforcement. At least 25 Oath Keepers are facing charges in connection with their actions on January 6, 2021, and their founder has been arrested—along with multiple other members—on charges of seditious conspiracy for planning and coordinating armed teams prepared to use force to prevent the transfer of presidential power.
A co-founder of Audit MI, a group pushing a ballot initiative to take the authority to audit elections away from the Secretary of State, has previously been affiliated with the Oath Keepers.
Labeled a white nationalist hate group by the SPLC, Patriot Front is considered one of the most active white supremacist organizations operating in the U.S. today. They broke off from the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, in 2017. They did some public relations work, using patriotism as a front for Vanguard America’s fascist agenda to make it palatable to more people in the wake of widespread condemnation of the antisemitism and violence seen in Charlottesville. Nearly all of the group’s activities—protests, posting flyers, public graffiti, public appearances—are used for the propaganda value.
A recent data leak exposing the group’s private communications shows their mission to organize “acts of racial hatred” while indoctrinating teenagers into neo-Nazi ideology. While they make an effort to avoid obvious Nazism in public, their communications show regular use of Nazi symbols and language, as well as praise for historical fascist and Nazi leaders, and blatant antisemitism.
Despite the leadership’s claims that they are non-violent, the membership has a history of physically assaulting people of color and an affinity for guns. One in five applicants to Patriot Front say they have ties to the military. Patriot Front is currently known to be active in 48 states.
In Michigan, Patriot Front members have targeted historic civil rights murals in Detroit, vandalized Black Lives Matter murals, and stolen LGBTQ+ flags and Black Lives Matter signs and flags. They recruit members and spread propaganda at Michigan colleges and universities. If you see stickers or flyers saying “Reclaim America,” or “Keep America American,” they’re probably from Patriot Front.
Designated as a hate group by the SPLC, the Proud Boys are an all-male movement of Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, mysogynists, and self-described “Western chauvinists” known for violence during their “rallies” and perhaps most notably known for the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. A Proud Boys rally in Kalamazoo in August of 2020 became violent when members of the Proud Boys attacked counter-protesters. They also volunteered as “security” at an Antrim County event hosting perennial Republican candidate John James in 2020.
For years, they used Trump rallies as a vehicle to get their message out into the world and cozy up to the Republican Party. Fox News personalities Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity have repeatedly given the group a platform. When coronavirus hit, they found a new messaging venue: anti-lockdown protests organized by right-wing groups like the Michigan Freedom Fund. Their participation in these pandemic rallies further cemented their relationship with Michigan’s Republican Party.
In December of 2019, a recently-appointed Fennville City commissioner, Morgan Bolles, was outed as a member of the Proud Boys. He continued to serve on the Commission until April of 2021, when he resigned, saying he was moving out of the city. The group claimed that although Michigan was the only state where a Proud Boy openly served in public office, they have a lot of members secretly serving across the country. Members of the group also spoke at a 2020 Grand Traverse County Commission meeting in favor of making the county a 2nd Amendment Sanctuary County.
This is not necessarily a specific group but an ideology commonly found in anti-government militia movements. Their belief is that only three percent of American colonists fought against the British during the American Revolution (which has never been proven). They argue the current U.S. government is tyrannical, mirroring the British government in the 1700s, and can be overthrown by a small force of armed individuals. The alleged ringleader of the plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer was allegedly president of the Michigan Three Percenters.
A Michigan militia group that was first reported to the FBI in March of 2020 by a local police department after they learned the group was looking for the home addresses of police officers. The founders, leaders, and members of this group were allegedly heavily involved in the plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer.