What a Right-Wing Militia Sounds Like, from the Inside

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How worried should we be about right-wing militias? If we could eavesdrop on them, what would we hear? Three recent podcasts listen in, with intriguing results. The new season of Jon Ronson’s “Things Fell Apart,” from BBC Radio 4, which does an admirable job of presenting deeply reported, non-exhausting stories about the so-called culture wars, has two excellent episodes involving armed mobs. “If All Else Fails,” from North Country Public Radio, investigates the rise of extremist right-wing groups, some connected with sheriffs, in upstate New York. And the most mind-blowing of the three, “Chameleon: The Michigan Plot,” by the investigative reporters Ken Bensinger and Jessica Garrison, tells the story of the Michigan group accused of planning to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020. All three podcasts involve anxiety, paranoia, and the tensions between the government and the governed, but “The Michigan Plot” delves into a truly tangled web of it all, revealing how F.B.I. informants trained, encouraged, and befriended militia members, helping to enable the kidnapping plot. The show’s seven episodes contain a novel’s worth of character development and intrigue. However ethically murky the F.B.I.’s methods were, they make for a very good podcast.

Bensinger is now at the Times, Garrison at the L.A. Times, but in 2020, when this story begins, they worked together at BuzzFeed News. (The series was produced by Campside Media and Sony Music Entertainment.) The podcast emerged from three years of their reporting on right-wing extremism. In April, 2020, armed constituents held an anti-lockdown protest at Michigan’s state capitol; a few months later, in October, Bensinger and Garrison reported on the revelation of the kidnapping plot. After the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, they reëxamined the Michigan story, which seemed like a precursor of sorts. In reading court documents, they were stunned to learn about the high number of F.B.I. informants in the case, who had not only helped organize and connect potential domestic terrorists but had secretly taped hundreds of hours of meetings, conversations, and training sessions. “The Michigan Plot” makes excellent use of these tapes, and also of masterly reporting and narration, with a tone that balances seriousness and wry amazement.

In the first episode, Amanda Keller, the former fiancée of one of the plotters, is at her apartment in Kalamazoo, Michigan, showing Garrison and the podcast’s producer, Ryan Sweikert, her “bugout bag.” It’s a prepper’s kit crammed with survival gear: a gas mask; wound dressing for bullet holes; seeds, for starting over after the shit hits the fan; flex cuffs, for dealing with prisoners after an enemy invasion. “Who would be invading?” Sweikert asks. “United Nations,” Keller says. “China.”

Garrison says that this “generalized paranoia is a big part of how Amanda met a guy, fell in love, and briefly became a target of a massive terrorism probe.” In 2019, Keller, a single mother who got her news primarily from TikTok, was rattled by reports of civil unrest; hoping to protect her family, she went on Facebook, searched for “Michigan militia,” and joined one. At a group gathering, she met Adam Fox, a disgruntled vacuum-cleaner-store clerk, hothead, weed smoker, and gym enthusiast who had recently been kicked out of his grandfather’s house. (What appealed? “His ass.”) They began seeing each other, usually meeting up in the basement where he lived, beneath a trapdoor at the vacuum-cleaner shop. They ended up getting kicked out of their first militia—hothead incident—but stayed together.

Their lives would soon intertwine with another Michigan militia, the Wolverine Watchmen, which was coming together online. The group had been founded in 2019, by members of a rural family with similar prepper concerns, and at some point Dan Chappel, an Iraq War veteran who wanted to keep his army skills sharp, joined it on Facebook. Chappel wasn’t an anti-government conspiracist, though, and when he discovered that members wanted to commit violent acts against the police and other officials, he contacted law enforcement. Soon, he was an F.B.I. informant.

This all happened during an unusually tense time. When the pandemic hit, in March, 2020, preppers and militia members tended to see the government’s responses to it, especially stay-at-home orders, as the dark harbinger that they’d been waiting for. Keller, who distrusted mainstream news and its “scare tactics,” believed that the whole situation was “bullshit”—“all about control.” “Nobody was dropping like flies,” she tells Sweikert. “We realized none of it was true.” He wants clarification: What wasn’t true? The virus?

“Obviously, the virus is true,” Keller says, amused. “I don’t have that much of a tinfoil hat on. I got a tiara, not a hat.” Keller was fine with staying home, but isolation further frayed Fox’s nerves. He missed going to the gym, and spent hours on Facebook talking to other people who felt betrayed by the government, including members of the Boogaloo movement, who opined with wired anticipation about a coming civil war. “Who else is ready for the boogaloo?” Fox says in a video that he posted to social media in 2020. “I’m ready to boog-the-fuckin’-loo home, man. I’m sick of this shit. We just gonna let them keep passing laws, keep fuckin’ violatin’ our God-given rights? Who’s going to fire the first shot? Y’all ready? I am!”

In “The Michigan Plot,” the line between fantasy and reality, thinking and doing, comes constantly into question. On the one hand, much of the subjects’ rhetoric, and even their trainings and meetings, can seem like cosplay—big talk about tyranny, treason, and constitutionality, and posturing that’s largely symbolic. Militia members seem at greatest risk of injuring themselves or their loved ones. (During the first real-life meeting of the Wolverine Watchmen, guys are giggling and shooting at cans; they fell two trees after “lighting them up” too hard, and passing motorists near the target practice are an afterthought.) Many of the militia members smoke a ton of weed. When they begin to brainstorm, it sounds like venting, mere bullshit.

On the other hand, militias’ plans do occasionally come together—and go bad quickly. Many of the kidnapping plotters attended the armed protest at the Michigan state capitol. We hear audio of it in the podcast, and it’s a spectacle of pure rage. “This is my house! You work for me!” a man screams. (Also: chants, inevitably, of “Lock her up!”) The protesters wave assault rifles near lawmakers; it seems incredible that no one got hurt. Afterward, Whitmer extended the stay-at-home directive, which Keller reflects on with incredulity. “I was hoping we would get our rights back, but she just took them out from under us,” she says. “What the hell do rallies do?”

For the F.B.I., of course, the line between fantasy and reality is critical. The First Amendment gives everyone leeway to say many crazy, awful, violent things but not to do most of them. We hear about cases where the F.B.I. monitored suspected terrorists—such as the Tsarnaev brothers, before the Boston Marathon bombing—and had insufficient evidence to arrest them. Here, the strategy seems to be to observe the plotters taking concrete steps to commit a crime, and then to nab them when they do. The government might also try to help them get their act together, which is where things get hairy.

“The Michigan Plot” deftly shows how alluring social connection was to the militia members—and how routinely the F.B.I. encouraged such connection. Fox, who has trouble making friends, is especially vulnerable. In the spring of 2020, he hears from a Facebook contact, Barry Croft, a wild-eyed truck driver who wears a tricornered hat, and whose zealous shit-talking is so extreme that he keeps getting banned from the platform—he really wants to boog the fuckin’ loo. (He says things like, “There is not one motherfucker serving in this bullshit government that I don’t want to stick to a motherfucking tree and dangle until they fucking tongue hang out they mouth.” Also, “God bless the constitutional Republic!”) Croft, an adherent of the Three Percenters extremist group, invites Fox to a “national militia summit” at a hotel in Dublin, Ohio. The conference, we learn, was organized by the F.B.I.—and, as hoped, it cajoles various types of extremists to plan some sort of action. Fox, who suggests taking “tyrants as hostages,” impresses other attendees. Croft connects him with the Wolverine Watchmen, who had been too wary to attend the summit, and soon Fox is sharing his ideas with the group’s new star member, Dan Chappel.

Adam is “a follower,” Keller tells Garrison. “He just wanted to be accepted. He just wanted to feel a part of something.” Fox’s friendship with Chappel is perhaps the most poignant story line in the series. Among the extremists, Chappel stands out for his sanity and modesty; in one episode, the Watchmen try to elect him as their commander, and he awkwardly demurs. (A judge ruled that Chappel, and the F.B.I. more broadly, did not “escalate” the kidnapping plot.) We hear Chappel take Fox under his wing, patiently planning meetings, joking with him, teaching him how to shoot and efficiently reload. Fox is grateful and excited to have a mentor; though he is an unsympathetic character—he wants to “hog-tie” the governor and pose with her, as in a drug-raid photo—it’s easy to imagine how he could have been helped, or at least been better grounded in reality, by such friendships. (In Ronson’s podcast, another accused plotter talks about feeling adrift, reading Jordan Peterson books, and joining the Wolverine Watchmen—where he quickly sees that Chappel has something to teach him.)

Here, though, friendship and brotherhood don’t prevent the kidnapping plot; they help spark it. It’s fascinating to listen to the members get high and try to hash out a plan, politely encouraging or rejecting one harebrained scheme after another, involving boats, Blackhawk helicopters, hackers, and demolition experts. By the time they decide to grab Whitmer at her lakeside vacation house, it sounds almost reasonable, even though they still don’t really know what they’ll do with her. It all began to remind me of “Fargo,” with Whitmer as its unsuspecting Jean Lundegaard.

The podcast memorably evokes several ironies that resonate beyond the scope of the kidnapping plot. One is that participating in regular society—going to the gym, going to work, and so on—was essential to keeping the plotters, like the rest of us, somewhat sane, and that, without it, during lockdown, they tried to attack the government: the structure, however imperfect, that keeps our society running. Another irony is that anti-government paranoia led to the plotters being infiltrated and surveilled by government agents, busted in an action-movie-style scene, and, in some cases, incarcerated. (More than a dozen plotters were charged with various state and federal crimes, with five acquitted; Fox, Croft, and others were found guilty and are currently in prison.) From its first scene, when Chappel drives his giddy new “friends” to meet their fate, “The Michigan Plot,” by letting us hear these dynamics from within, captures the dark tragicomedy of how the desire for community, and even for connection, can sometimes lead to the destruction of both. ♦

An earlier version of this article misidentified one of the journalists who interviewed Amanda Keller in the first episode of “The Michigan Plot.”

Sourse: newyorker.com

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