One problem with defining extremism in America today is how many people think the U.S. government is what’s extreme. In his 1995 essay “The Militia in Me,” Denis Johnson describes meeting two men campaigning for the 1992 presidential candidate Bo Gritz, a far-right former Special Forces officer. “Both men believed that somebody had shanghaied the United States, that pirates had seized the helm of the ship of state and now steered it toward some completely foreign berth where it could be plundered at leisure.”
This fall, I set out to meet today’s version of such alienated activists, who were looking for solace in a civilian defense group. On a street corner in West Covina, just outside Los Angeles, one of them, Vincent Tsai, told me: “We need to be armed and ready. We need to be our own self-defense.” After being suspended from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department for refusing to comply with mask and vaccine mandates, he was running for State Senate in November’s elections. (He didn’t win.)
In Friday-afternoon traffic, wearing yellow shorts, he stood with his 7-year-old son at the intersection of two congested thoroughfares, handing out flyers. His wife, Gigi, who teaches a free weekly exercise class called Patriot Pilates, was with him, collecting signatures on a clipboard for his campaign.
Tsai told me that the globalists and the Chinese Communist Party were taking over the U.S., and he lamented the erosion of American masculinity and fighting spirit. “If our Founding Fathers were like these soy boys nowadays, we wouldn’t have America,” he said. Tsai, suspicious of the government yet hopeful it could be reformed, offered to protect me if that ever became necessary. In the meantime, he suggested that I train in jiu-jitsu and learn to grow my own food.
Tsai is one of nearly a thousand California members of People’s Rights, a civilian defense group established by the anti-government activist Ammon Bundy in rural Idaho. Known for his involvement in armed standoffs with federal officers at his father’s Nevada ranch in 2014 and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016, Bundy created People’s Rights in early 2020. He called it neighborhood watch on steroids—a group that will mobilize to respond to a range of threats, “from your business being looted downtown to [Child Protective Services] trying to take your child.” The arrival of the pandemic was a catalyst for the growth of People’s Rights, which found a large, receptive constituency in those who saw their liberty threatened by public-health mandates they deemed unconstitutional.
At its first meeting, in a warehouse in the town of Emmett, Idaho, some 60 people gathered to plan an Easter service in defiance of the local government’s COVID-19 restrictions. During the coronavirus pandemic, Bundy was arrested for trespassing when he and several followers protested inside a hospital in Idaho. In Montana, a member offered a $100 bounty for the address of Kalispell’s mayor, so he could make a citizen’s arrest on grounds that the municipality’s shelter-in-place order was unconstitutional. These confrontations were not violent per se; the hostility was more on an emotional and performative plane—as when an anti-government activist stood outside a health commissioner’s house for several days with a turkey on a leash, filming the official as he came and went. In the Klamath Basin, in southern Oregon, a People’s Rights branch gathered to support some farmers who planned to break into federal property to release water for their ranches and farms.
Several members active in the group, however, have instigated violence. Sean Anderson, an area assistant for People’s Rights in Idaho who was one of the last holdouts at the Malheur occupation, exchanged fire with police officers after a pursuit for a traffic violation. When Anderson, who is also a member of the Three Percenters anti-government militia, was convicted of felony aggravated assault, People’s Rights held a rally in support of him. But the purposely decentralized nature of People’s Rights enables Bundy and the group to avoid being held responsible for this type of action.
“The pandemic was a wonderful time for extreme patriot groups, and People’s Rights fit very easily into that patriot militia setting,” Travis McAdam, an official of the Montana Human Rights Network, told me. “You have people who were scared, looking for answers, angry at the government, and people like Ammon look around and see a target-rich environment to co-opt and direct that anger in the ways they want to.”
I’d wanted to meet Tsai because I’d heard People’s Rights described as “the Uber of militias”—summon them via app if you feel that your rights are under attack—and I wondered how this plays out in Southern California, a part of the country one might not immediately associate with anti-government militias. “You get a text on the Bat Phone, and they’ll come to your defense,” Tsai told me. The local chapter meeting of People’s Rights was 10 minutes from my apartment on the east side of Los Angeles; it was led by a Hollywood voice-over actor and a crane operator from a beachside town. By this fall, the group had a presence in every state, and claimed to have a national membership of more than 50,000.
When I went to a series of weekly People’s Rights meetings, I was struck by the dissonance of how innocuous an organization labeled as an extremist group can appear. It was mired in the same sort of procedural tedium that accompanies any meeting of political activists. At my first meeting, a petition to recall a judge was going around; a man who signed it told me he worked for the city’s Department of Water and Power.
In particular, it was difficult to square a measured and sober-seeming activist and candidate for office like Tsai with a human-rights group’s report on People’s Rights that described it as “a dangerous new network of militia members, anti-maskers, conspiracists, preppers, and anti-vaxxers.” Tsai hosted firearm trainings for members of the group so that they could learn self-defense. “Forming a militia, like a nationwide militia, and then taking over by force, sounds great on paper,” he told me. “But most people don’t understand the reality of war … Bloodshed should always be the last resort.”
So how to make sense of this Venn diagram of political activism with its apparently overlapping circles of people who simply want to participate in civic life at a grassroots level and those willing to take up arms against government tyranny?
At People’s Rights meetings, I met members who passed out pocket Constitutions and studies about the dangers of the Pfizer vaccine, and advised me to start learning how to use ham radio. A man in a fedora gave me a leaflet on propaganda and asked me if I’d read Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent. Another man, wearing a People’s Convoy hat, showed me photos of a send-off gathering he’d attended for Californians heading to the Canadian truckers protest earlier this year. Later, he texted me a link to an infrared-light device that he said healed his knee injury. We met for coffee one afternoon near where we both live, and he told me that the fancy new housing developments going up around L.A. will be used for a forced relocation of rural people into cities so the powers that be can have their land.
“We need strong people willing to lose their lives—like our Founding Fathers,” a woman in a red tank top told the assembly of about 20 people in a public park just outside Los Angeles, on a Sunday afternoon. “Republicans are weak,” she went on. “We need to start our own, parallel society.” People mingled around a potluck of brownies and tacos; in the foreground, kids played pickup soccer and badminton, and a woman lay in the grass with her corgi. Attached to a tree was a banner for the group, featuring a stock photo of a blond family: Uniting Neighbors to Defend Their Families, Faith, Freedom, and Future. “We have to have our own police force, so to speak,” the meeting leader said. “People have to defend themselves these days.” A man wearing an ALEX JONES WAS RIGHT T-shirt applauded from his lawn chair.
I got the impression that some members came to meetings just looking for people to talk with—the camaraderie of the group seemed for some their last, flimsy connection to society. “If it weren’t for my strong Slavic roots, I’d be dead by now,” said one attendee, describing his depression to anyone who’d chat with him, and who each week handed out leaflets about all the people who wanted to ruin his life. What united People’s Rights activists was a sense that society had lost its bearings: Traditional policing was no longer reliable for maintaining freedom, and a continuum of government overreach now threatened them—they believed that what had started with mask mandates would end in concentration camps. Because of this, they reasoned, an armed standoff between citizens and anyone denying their liberty might be necessary.
“COVID created an environment that Ammon took advantage of. The militia idea became appealing to people because it gave them a step to take. A lot of these people just felt desperate and anxious and wanted to feel like they had a mission,” Betsy Gaines Quammen, a historian and the author of American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God, and Public Lands in the West, told me. “It was a group of people who wanted to feel empowered,” she said. “And then there are people in the movement that see engaging in an act of violence as a way of participating—it’s the idea that lawlessness is justified because there’s been an infringement on their rights.”
At one Sunday meeting in the park, a semicircle of firefighters in turnout gear were standing near the picnic tables when I arrived, and I thought, at first, that there must have been a medical call or some other minor emergency—but I found out that People’s Rights had invited the Pasadena Fire Department to give a presentation on disaster preparation. “How could a group like ours help you?” one of the leaders asked the firefighters. “How do we contact you guys if the communication systems go down?” A family sitting on a picnic blanket listened in.
I called Tasha Adams, the estranged ex-wife of the Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, to ask about the interplay between these regular members and the group’s more extreme fringe. (Rhodes has recently been convicted of seditious-conspiracy charges relating to his part in fomenting the January 6 Capitol riot.) She told me how the Oath Keepers, whose membership includes many veterans and former law-enforcement officers, had attracted a lot of new, less militant members after all the publicity of the Bundy family’s armed standoffs with the FBI.
“Stewart started purchasing billboards in the D.C. metro and sponsoring NASCAR—totally harmless,” Adams said. “That was the level of membership most people wanted; you know, regular NRA people who want that level of involvement because they feel lost or whatever. People wanted to feel like they belonged to something, had an avenue to use some of the skills that are useless after you get back from the war—you know, get the chainsaw out and cut down trees that are falling down, suddenly people are thanking them for their service again, and they feel good.”
As we talked, I thought of Tsai, whom I’d seen speaking to the group in the park, dressed in his sheriff’s uniform. His speech and his firearms trainings bolstered the group’s morale, but Adams’s analysis was darker. “All the while, these members are just fueling and giving cover to someone like Stewart, who literally is just waiting for that opportunity to become a dictator.” She went on to share her view that “it seems for sure like a pattern where Ammon is doing the same thing.” I reached out to both Bundy and Rhodes, through his lawyer, for comment on Adams’s remarks; neither responded.
Tsai’s campaign was one of many by People’s Rights activists this fall, as the group’s focus turned to electoral politics. Anti-government figures running for office might seem counterintuitive, but it’s not a new phenomenon—the Militia of Montana, a paramilitary group active in the 1990s, said it would fight first at the ballot box, then with the cartridge box. In the November midterms, Bundy came in third in Idaho’s gubernatorial race, winning 100,000 votes—17 percent of Idaho’s voters—with QAnon-esque campaign ads and a far-right agenda that included paying liberals to move to California.
I asked McAdam, of the Montana Human Rights Network, about this seeming contradiction. “They’re saying, ‘It’s not that we hate government—it’s that we hate illegitimate governments that are trying to take things away from us,’” he told me. “It’s not as sexy as an armed standoff, but inspiring people to run for office is an important part of the militia movement: It became a natural progression to say, ‘What we need is to have our people take over all these institutions.’”
Across Southern California, People’s Rights members were promoting candidates like Tsai. At a campaign event Tsai convened in Pomona, Daniel Bocic Martinez, a Republican candidate for U.S. Congress, told the group about how the pandemic was part of a larger conspiracy “organized by a small group of elites who want as many dead bodies as possible.” Other candidates, such as Ryan Maye, a full-time plumber running for state assembly, mingled with a small crowd. Martinez explained how encouraging people to get electric vehicles was a deadly ruse, so that “they” could control people by switching off the grid. “It’s a war against us,” he said. (Martinez lost to his Democratic opponent in November.)
“My influence only goes so far: I can ensure the peace, I can protect people, but I can’t stop the people that are behind this,” Tsai said. “To do that, I need to be part of that system. I need to be in office.”
In the 1970s, Reverend William Potter Gale created the Posse Comitatus paramilitary group, named after a Latin phrase that means “power of the county,” referring to a sheriff’s supreme authority to impose law and order. “While the historic role of a posse comitatus had been to aid civil authorities in suppressing violence and vigilantism, Bill Gale’s revision stood this ancient practice on its head—his posse was devoted to promoting armed insurrection,” Daniel Levitas writes in The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right. After two lethal standoffs in 1992—at Ruby Ridge, in Idaho, and Waco, in Texas—followed by the passage of federal gun legislation in 1993 and 1994, many right-wing citizens’ militias were formed under the auspices of patriotic constitutional vigilantism.
In People’s Rights, lawlessness in response to mandates was justified through the idea of the posse comitatus. Many in the group told me that L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva—who has since lost a bid for reelection—should have declared himself a constitutional sheriff in order to lock up the board of supervisors. Several People’s Rights members wore T-shirts bearing the name of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officer Association—a group that believes sheriffs should assume supreme authority whenever liberty is being threatened. Former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack, who has been tied to extremists and militias for decades, now leads the association, which promotes resisting state and federal authority on guns, mandates, and election results.
Tsai was undeterred by his lack of success with voters. “We can never comply our way out of tyranny. It’s always been a small group of warriors that risked everything—their families, their lives, their property—and fought back against tyranny to create a better country, a new world for people to live in,” he told me.
Failure at the ballot box didn’t bring him to the cartridge box. He planned to keep going to board-of-supervisors meetings—even though, he told me, most of the patriots he knows don’t show up. He felt let down by their apathy. “I’m still canvassing door to door and teaching people skills,” he said. “People should journal and spend time in nature. Modern society is too weak for an actual insurrection. People are fat, lazy, untrained, and unmotivated.” He invited me to come shooting with him in the desert the next weekend. “The globalist plan is accelerating,” he said. “Things are going to be chaos by next year.”
The paranoid certainty of chaos-to-come is retread so frequently in American life that it’s practically one of the country’s myths. In the face of powerlessness, this seemed to offer People’s Rights members the reassurance of being the few prepared to understand and defend against what’s next—wishful thinking that gave them a sense of purpose to anticipate the future.