More bark than bite.

Photographer: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

This Militia Won't Take Up Arms If Clinton Wins

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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About 20 people gathered this weekend in a small house on the outskirts of Jacksonville, Florida, to fill vacuum-sealed bags with rice, beans and pasta and load them into white plastic buckets. Before the presidential election is decided, the buckets will be buried at a "bug-out location" 16 miles down a forest trail -- just in case, as the group fears, something happens. 

The people who assembled at Tim Peacock's house are members of a pro-Second Amendment militia -- the kind that, I have read many times in recent weeks, might revolt if Donald Trump loses the election. Although some of these groups have made headlines with their gun-toting antics, the militiamen I met in Florida were more afraid and disoriented than fearsome. 

Q&A: Clinton vs. Trump on Guns

Peacock, a Navy veteran and former corrections officer who owns a small home-improvement business, is state co-leader of a national organization called III Percent United Patriots. It unites pro-Second Amendment militias around the notion that the army that fought the Revolutionary War made up just 3 percent of the country's population at the time. Today, the movement is much smaller than 3 percent of the U.S. population: Peacock says it has about 1,500 members in Florida and about 30,000 nationwide. But he says it's growing fast. Since 2008, when the III Percent movement went public, the number of militias that reject what they see as an excessive, anti-constitutional government interference has grown to 276 from 43, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which does an annual count.

It's no coincidence that the movement, which had a first peak and decline in the 1990s, had a resurgence during President Barack Obama's first term in office. According to Peacock, its founders were concerned with what they saw as a sustained attack on gun rights and the overreach of Obamacare. "The government shouldn't force people to purchase anything," Peacock says.

The III Percenters' dislike of Obama also has to do with something its members don't spell out as clearly. They share a feeling that the president is too sympathetic toward the Black Lives Matter movement. "Every time the police shoot a black person, it's racism to him," says Jesse Wilkes of Wellborn, Florida, one of the local group's founders who is now a recruiter.

"The government labels us worse than BLM," says Mike Ubriaco, a local leader of the III Percent organization I met in Naples, Florida, where he makes a living installing air-conditioning systems.

Even though members say the group accepts people regardless of race and background, there was only one Hispanic among those assembled at Peacock's house.

"We have a couple of black members down south," Wilkes told me, meaning South Florida -- which is practically another country from Wellborn, up north and close to the Georgia state line. Unlike cosmopolitan Miami and its environs, this area is poor and predominantly white with Trump signs adorning the entrances to trailer parks and peeling, tiny homes.

There's a third reason for the explosive growth in membership, no less important than the other two. "The social networks weren't so big before 2008," Ubriaco says. The networks, primarily Facebook, have allowed right-wingers to share information not found in the mainstream press. They are also the III Percent movement's main recruiting tool: Before a prospective member can join, he or she must spend some time on a Facebook group moderated by one of the recruiters. 

Florida has an anti-paramilitary law, so the local chapter of the movement de-emphasizes guns, billing itself instead as more of a survivalist and community-outreach group that collects clothes and blankets for the homeless and teaches self-defense courses for women. "We're defenders, we're just protecting our families and prepping to provide help to the people of the state of Florida in case of natural disasters, like hurricanes," Ubriaco says. 

The organization is also a support group for its members, many of whom are former servicemen, first responders and law enforcement officers. "It's like an extended family," Ubriaco says.

The guns are ever-present, though: Conversation inevitably turns to them, and Peacock wears a handgun on his belt, even in his house. Peacock says potential group members are painstakingly vetted. "We don't want any troublemakers," he says. "We will kick out people who talk about attacking a mosque in their town." Nonetheless, Wilkes said, "If there's an emergency, others in our organization have more guns than they can use."

The group is intensely political. Its members all agree on some basic principles:

  • Hillary Clinton is corrupt, as are most career politicians. Trump, by contrast, is a businessman who has created jobs, and though he's not perfect, he's preferable to her.
  • The government shouldn't spend money on immigrants and refugees while veterans are homeless and Americans are struggling.
  • The U.S. shouldn't be part of the United Nations or engage in regime change in foreign countries.
  • The country is broke and printing Monopoly money to pay for things it doesn't need.
  • Global warming is, as Peacock puts it, a "gimmick" to waste taxpayers' money: There's nothing anyone can can do to stop it even if it's happening.
  • Social aid programs put working people at a disadvantage, providing an equal income to do-nothings.
  • Obamacare is evil, and so is Common Core.
  • Natural cures are preferable to pharmaceuticals.
  • Life was better in the days when the husband worked and the wife could afford to stay at home.

Belief in the most extreme theories -- Clinton is a creature of international bankers such as the Rothschilds and George Soros, or Obama is trying to turn the U.S. into an Islamic caliphate and will try to hang on to power after the election -- is optional and not universally shared. The same is true of admiration for Trump, though an overwhelming majority of group members plan to vote for him.

Ubriaco says he flies a Trump flag at his Naples condo. Peacock says he backed Senator Ted Cruz but is willing to accept Trump as the lesser evil in the contest with Clinton. Wilkes only decided to vote for Trump after the Republican nominee called for term limits.

III Percenters all believe the Nov. 8 vote may be rigged, just as Trump says. "Did you know there's a $15 device you can hook up to the voting machine and vote 15 times?" Ubriaco asked me. They also believe accounts of Democrats busing people around to vote multiple times and of Republican votes being discounted. Wilkes told me that both of his parents had mailed in their ballots only to have them returned because their signatures allegedly didn't match those on record.

Yet, unlike an ideologically similar group, the Oath Keepers, the III Percenters decided they wouldn't try to patrol polling stations to prevent fraud. "If BLM tried to patrol polling locations, it would be an attempt to intimidate voters," Peacock says. "If we did it, it could be seen that way, too."

It's hard to imagine the people I met taking up arms for Trump if he loses and refuses to concede defeat. One reason is that they are not die-hard Trump fans. Another is that they're realistic about how much power they have.

"I was in the military and I know what it can do," Peacock says. "One cannot fight the government." Besides, he adds, "How can we go against the government if many of us have served it for most of our lives?"

The III Percenters agree, though, that the election presents a danger. They've read on the internet that there might be a terrorist attack, perhaps an attempt to bring down the U.S. electric grid. There could also be civil unrest, regardless of who wins. "If it's Trump, the BLM people might riot," Peacock says. "If it's Hillary, some bad apples on our side might do something."

To these militia members, such scenarios mean that Obama might introduce martial law, and they would need to retreat to their bug-out location with their 72-hour bags full of medical supplies and survival equipment. What about defending the community, then? The military and the National Guard will do that while they are able; the III Percenters would only step in if government failed, Peacock says.

Even though they say they have no plans to rise up, their fears about what could come after the election have a disturbing origin. They are curious about the world and events in the U.S., but they have consciously excluded the mainstream media from their information diet, because they feel it is deeply partisan. That leaves them with unreliable sources, social media rumors and, not surprisingly, Russian propaganda outlets such as the RT channel that profess to report news ignored by the mainstream. That may explain their universal respect for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, seen as a patriotic defender of his country's sovereignty -- just the kind of leader the U.S. needs.

"Obama says Americans are no better and no worse than any other nation," Peacock says. "Can you imagine Putin telling Russians they are just like everybody else?"

These people would hate living in Putin's Russia, where the state is far more invasive than in the U.S. and gun rights are nonexistent. Confronted with a wealth of information on the internet and the social networks, they don't just appease their confirmation biases -- they are easy prey for those who'd like to exploit them, including Trump and Putin.

The mainstream media may share some of the blame. These people seek eyewitness accounts, credible reporting, ordinary people's voices and stories. Yet too often we push highbrow commentary. Our own confirmation biases affect what we report. We don't have these readers in mind when we make editorial decisions, adding to their feeling of being maligned and ignored. The free Russian press, while it still existed, made the same mistake, limiting its readership to a narrow circle of intellectuals. That allowed Putin's propaganda machine to take over without much of a fight.

I'm afraid the government and the major U.S. parties err in a similar way: They look down on a large swathe of voters whose values, lifestyle and skills appear obsolete, the people Clinton dubbed "deplorables." It's easy to see why they think it might soon be time to hide out in the woods. Working out a language of communication that will eliminate that sense of danger must be a priority after this decidedly scary election.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net