MIKE “WOMPUS” NIEZNANY is a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran who walks with a cane from the combat wounds he received during his service. That disability doesn’t keep Nieznany from making a living selling custom motorcycle luggage racks from his home in Gainesville, Georgia. Neither will it slow him down when it’s time to visit Washington, D.C.—heavily armed and ready to do his part in overthrowing the U.S. government.
Millions of fellow would-be insurrectionists will be there, too, Nieznany says, “a ticking time-bomb” targeting the Capitol. “There are lots of fully armed people wondering what’s happening to this country,” he says. “Are we going to let Biden keep destroying it? Or do we need to get rid of him? We’re only going to take so much before we fight back.” The 2024 election, he adds, may well be the trigger.
Nieznany is no loner. His political comments on the social-media site Quora received 44,000 views in the first two weeks of November and more than 4 million overall. He is one of many rank-and-file Republicans who own guns and in recent months have talked openly of the need to take down—by force, if necessary—a federal government they see as illegitimate, overreaching and corrosive to American freedom.
The phenomenon goes well beyond the growth of militias, which have been a feature of American life at least since the Ku Klux Klan rose to power after the Civil War. Groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, which took part in the January 6th riot at the Capitol and may have played organizational roles, have grown in membership. Law enforcement has long tracked and often infiltrated these groups. What Nieznany represents is something else entirely: a much larger and more diffuse movement of more or-less ordinary people, stoked by misinformation, knitted together by social media and well-armed. In 2020, 17 million Americans bought 40 million guns and in 2021 were on track to add another 20 million. If historical trends hold, the buyers will be overwhelmingly white, Republican and southern or rural.
America’s massive and mostly Republican gunrights movement dovetails with a growing belief among many Republicans that the federal government is an illegitimate tyranny that must be overthrown by any means necessary. That combustible formula raises the threat of armed, large-scale attacks around the 2024 presidential election—attacks that could make the January 6 insurrection look like a toothless stunt by comparison. “The idea that people would take up arms against an American election has gone from completely farfetched to something we have to start planning for and preparing for,” says University of California, Los Angeles law professor Adam Winkler, an expert on gun policy and constitutional law.
Both Democrats and Republicans are rapidly losing faith in the integrity of U.S. elections. Democrats worry that voter suppression and election interference from Republican state officials will deny millions of Americans their say at the polling booths. A PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll in early November reported that 55 percent of Democrats saw voter suppression as the biggest threat to U.S. elections. Republicans claim, contrary to the evidence, that Democrats have already manipulated vote counts through fraud to steal a presidential election. An October CNN poll found that more than three-quarters of Republicans falsely believe Joe Biden’s 2020 election win was fraudulent.
“I HOPE IT’S JUST TOO CRAZY TO HAPPEN HERE. BUT IT’S NOW IN THE REALM OF THE PLAUSIBLE.”
According to the Constitution, Congress and the Supreme Court are supposed to settle those sorts of dueling claims. Given the growing intensity and polarization of political life, would either side accept a decision that handed a contested 2024 election result to the other?
Such a decision would more likely bring tens of millions of protesters and counterprotesters into the streets, especially around the U.S. Capitol and possibly many state capitols, plunging the country into chaos. Although many Democrats might be inclined to demonstrate, a larger percentage of Republican protesters would almost certainly be carrying guns. If the Supreme Court ruling, expected in mid-2022, on New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen establishes an unrestricted right to carry a gun anywhere in the country, bringing firearms to the Capitol in Washington, D.C., could be perfectly legal. Says Winkler: “The Supreme Court may be close to issuing the ruling that leads to the overthrow of the U.S. government.”
If armed violence erupts the 2024 elections, quelling it could fall to the U.S. military, which may be reluctant to take arms against U.S. citizens. In that case, the fate of the nation might well be decided by a simple fact: a big subset of one of the two parties has for years been systemically arming itself for this very reason.
“I hope it’s just too crazy to happen here,” says Erica De Bruin, an assistant professor of government at Hamilton College, who studies coups around the world. “But it’s now in the realm of the plausible.”
Enemy at the Gates
MANY REPUBLICANS ARE INCREASINGLY COMING TO see themselves less as citizens represented by the federal government, and more as tyrannized victims of that government. More than three-quarters of Republicans reported “low trust” in the federal government in a Grinnell College national poll in October; only a minority of Democrats agreed. From this point of view, peaceful elections will not save the day. More than two out of three Republicans think democracy is under attack, according to the Grinnell poll, which echoes the results of a CNN poll in September. Half as many Democrats say the same.
Mainstream news publications are filled with howls of protest over political outrages by Republican leaders, who are reflecting the beliefs of the party mainstream. But the small newspapers in the rural, red-state areas that are the core of the Republican party’s rank and file are giving voice to a simpler picture: Politics are dead; it’s time to fight. “Wake up America!” reads a September opinion piece excoriating Democrats in The Gaston Gazette, based in Gastonia, North Carolina. “The enemy is at our gates, God willing it is not too late to turn back the rushing tide of this dark regime.” It goes on to quote Thomas Paine’s exhortation to colonists to take up arms against the British. “We are in a civil war,” a letter published in September in The New Mexico Sun likewise warns Republicans, “between the traditional Americans and those who want to impose socialism in this country and thus obtain complete government control of its citizens.”
“WE’RE ONLY GOING TO TAKE SO MUCH BEFORE WE FIGHT BACK.”
Evidence that a significant portion of Republicans are increasingly likely to resort to violence against the government and political opponents is growing. More than 100 violent threats, many of them death threats, were leveled at poll workers and election officials in battleground states in 2020, according to an investigation by Reuters published in September—all those threat-makers whom Reuters could contact identified as Trump supporters. In October 2020, 13 men were charged with plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat; all of them were aligned with the political right. Nearly a third of Republicans agree that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,” according to a September poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan group. That’s three times as many as the number of Democrats who felt the same way.
Guns are becoming an essential part of the equation. “Americans are increasingly wielding guns in public spaces, roused by persons they politically oppose or public decisions with which they disagree,” concludes an August article in the Northwestern University Law Review. Guns were plentiful when hundreds of anti-COVID-precaution protesters gathered at the Michigan State Capitol in May 2020. Some of the armed protesters tried to enter the Capitol chamber.
Those who carry arms to a political protest may in theory have peaceful intentions, but there’s plenty of reason to think otherwise. An October study from Everytown for Gun Safety and the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) looked at 560 protests involving armed participants over an 18-month period through mid-2021, and found that a sixth of them turned violent, and some involved fatalities.
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