Inside the Greensboro Coliseum on June 14, 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump unleashed one of his more memorably over-the-top campaign promises: "We are going to start winning again. We're gonna win at every single level. We're gonna win so much that you're gonna beg me: 'Please, Mr. President, we're winning so much. We cannot stand it. Please, a little less winning, Mr. President.'"
The speech, coming two days after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, dripped with menace.
The candidate veered abruptly from his theme—jobs and trade—to read from a Washington Times report connecting shooter Omar Mateen and Islamic extremism in Afghanistan. Later, Trump read a poem called "The Snake," which he used as an allegory for treacherous outsiders who exploit the kindness of benefactors.
"Now, you have to think of this in terms of Islamic terror," he said. "You have to think of it in terms of our border. You have to think of it in terms of all the people that are crossing, that are criminals, that are killing people and hurting people."
Outside the coliseum, protesters held signs reading, "Trump makes America hate again," and, "A vote for Trump is a vote for fear, bigotry, racism, and fascism," while supporters waved Confederate and Gadsden flags. Right-wing militias interposed themselves between Trump supporters and protesters, and hundreds of police officers stood ready in case of a disturbance. A dozen protesters were arrested, both for disrupting the rally inside and for misdemeanors like disorderly conduct, although the event remained largely peaceful.
As the rally was winding down, Rod Webber, a documentary filmmaker from Boston, intercepted Jason Passmore, a militia activist from Browns Summit. A video of the encounter posted on YouTube begins with Passmore giving a perfunctory after-report.
"We're happy it turned out peaceful, and no violence as of yet, so hopefully we can all go home and see our families," said Passmore, sunglasses propped on the camouflage bill of his hat. "And that's all that matters."
Passmore's friend, Manuel Luxton, with wraparound shades and a walrus mustache, stood on the sidewalk holding a Gadsden flag.
"You got anything?" Webber asked Luxton.
"End the Fed," Luxton responded. "Stop the war crimes against the people of Novorossiya."
Trump's seeming admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of many threads in the campaign, but the term Novorossiya is still unfamiliar to most Americans. Mostly that's because it's not a real country, but a relic of imperial Russia. Situated north of the Black Sea, the territory was seized from the Ottoman Empire by Russia in the late eighteenth century, then became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic under the Soviet Union and remained part of independent Ukraine after the Cold War.
Before Luxton could expand on his sympathetic view toward Russia's expansionist aims, someone caught Passmore's eyes—a man he thought was a federal agent.
"Ports, forts, and ten square miles, you son of a bitch!" Passmore yelled.
For far-right militia activists, this phrase is foundational doctrine. The Constitution grants Congress the power "to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such district (not exceeding 10 miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of government of the United States." The Tenth Amendment, reserving "all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution" to the states, in turn, invalidates the authority of the FBI and other federal agencies, according to the logic of far-right constitutionalists.
"Anything else is violation of the U.S. Constitution and is a tyrannical act of the federal government," Passmore said. "And, uh, it should be dealt with appropriately."
As the militia activists took leave of the filmmaker, Passmore, a former military contractor in Afghanistan, issued a parting shot at a cluster of protesters who'd been arguing against Trump's stance toward Syrian refugees.
"Muslims don't coexist!" Passmore shouted.
A debate ensued, drawing the militia activists back into the fray. Luxton fell into a rant stitched out of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
"They're trying to start a war against Russia, who's never done anything against us, despite numerous provocations," he said. "Despite U.S. and London bankers backing the non-Russian Bolsheviks, who murdered more than a hundred million Russians, mostly Christians, that's just swept under the rug of history."
Trump's paeans to "the forgotten people" and disparagement of "globalists" resonate with this alt-right view of Jewish people as a powerful, manipulative force shaping the course of history to undermine the white, Christian homeland. Fear of Muslims, refugees, and migrants, coupled with resentment of a supposed globalist elite, would build the foundation of Trumpism and supply themes that would reverberate back and forth between a future president who rails against the "Deep State" and a right-wing militia movement already prone to conspiratorial views of federal government.
Three days after the Trump rally, Passmore posted a photo of himself on Facebook with Luxton and other friends outside the Greensboro Coliseum, writing, "This will be the start of something great." He elaborated in a separate comment: "GCM (Guilford County Militia). How does that sound to everyone?"
Wth Trump's election, the aspirations of newly emboldened white nationalists transitioning from internet trolls to street fighters would soon collide with a re-energized antifascist resistance, culminating in fierce clashes and a deadly car-ramming attack after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.
The new alt-right shares an activist ecosystem with the older far-right militia movement, which emerged in the nineties in response to federal agencies' enforcement actions at Ruby Ridge in northern Idaho and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. From an ideological standpoint, militia activists identify as patriots, constitutionalists, and "Three Percenters"—an allusion to the idea that only a select few colonists took up arms to overthrow British rule.
It's easy for those on the outside to paint the militia movement with a broad brush—that they're all animated by racism or white supremacy. The truth is more complex. Militia groups aren't monolithic. Some, for example, have disavowed white nationalism and struck up conversations with antifascists in hopes of maintaining public safety, protecting property, and upholding the First Amendment.
But while it claims to be open to all races, there's no denying that the broader militia movement has provided a haven for violent white supremacists. Many militia groups have embraced the same causes as white nationalists, including the veneration of Confederate monuments and hostility toward Muslims. They also tend to share a hostility toward antifascists, which is usually repackaged in the rhetoric of anticommunism.
Passmore and his associates have formed a cohesive set. Many of the individuals who showed up to the 2016 Trump rally also went to Unite the Right a year later, as well as other events focused on preserving the legacy of the Confederacy and promoting Islamophobia. A close look at their activism reveals how far-right activists can choose from a buffet of ideologies and esoteric interests—neo-Confederate, anti-Muslim, anti-migrant, anti-Semitic, conspiratorial anti-globalist, extreme libertarian, Second Amendment absolutist, anti-modernity, male chauvinist, even flat-earth—that every member may not share.
Many of these views, particularly neo-Confederate and anti-Muslim, share currency with the patriot movement. And for that reason, these self-styled patriots, even those who denounce white supremacy, may not recognize—or may be willfully blind to—white nationalism within their ranks, allowing resurgent white supremacists to organize and recruit from within the larger far-right universe.
Jason Passmore's fluid stance on white nationalism can often be found among the hardened warriors of the militia movement. Paradoxically, as the father of biracial children, Passmore embraces a vision of racial enclaves, while professing a willingness to fight alongside both David Duke and Louis Farrakhan against a "tyrannical government."
Despite his disavowal of racism, Passmore has literally weaponized white nationalism by conducting firearms training with white racialist activists, including Luxton, who calls himself a national socialist, and Cody Beachy, who has publicly expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler and Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, whose bloody war on drugs has claimed more than twelve thousand lives.
And Passmore has insinuated that he would be willing to use violence against federal authorities. Five days before the 2016 Trump rally, he posted on Facebook: "Anyone that feels we should just talk on Facebook and have meetings without shooting and training for a fight is not on my sheet of music. ... When it comes to a fight, we will stop the blood or shoot the people that shoot at you."
Beachy, who could not be reached for comment for this story, responded, "I got your six."
Passmore says that shortly after the Trump rally, he received a visit from a Joint Terrorism Task Force comprised of elements of the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.
"They knocked on my door and wanted to talk, accused me of being a terrorist," Passmore recalls. "They asked me if I would turn in anyone who tried to coerce me or involve me in a terrorist act. I politely told them no, I wouldn't because they don't have no jurisdiction."
Passmore says he was radicalized by the Ruby Ridge siege, a 1992 incident in which U.S. marshals scouted the homestead of a loner named Randy Weaver, who was wanted on gun charges in a remote corner of northern Idaho. A deadly shootout set in motion an eleven-day siege that resulted in the death of Weaver's wife by FBI sniper fire. Now thirty-three, he met Weaver at age fifteen.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Passmore has an inherent distrust of U.S. foreign policy. He believes the 9/11 attacks were an inside job. And, even though he went to Afghanistan as a contractor—he did so strictly for financial reasons, he says, as his business struggled when the recession hit—he believes the military has no business in the Middle East. He even marched in Greensboro to protest the impending invasion of Iraq.
"I protested the war before I went to Afghanistan," Passmore says. "I don't think we should be in Afghanistan or Iraq. It's a waste of money and lives. We shouldn't be involved in Israel or Syria. I can say firsthand I've seen our government play both sides."
Passmore says he'd been conducting firearms training with four to seven Three Percenters from across the state at the time at the 2016 Trump rally. He'd met Luxton four years prior at a training with a group of North Carolina Three Percenters and invited him to join him for rifle practice. Passmore says he met Beachy after the Trump rally. Following a background check to ensure that he wasn't an undercover agent, Passmore says Beachy joined the Guilford County Militia for a couple of trainings.
On June 30, 2016, Passmore posted a call for "open recruiting" for GCM on his Facebook page. The post indicated the group was open to all, regardless of "age, sex, creed, color, religion." The newly minted militia appropriated the Guilford Courthouse flag, the banner flown by patriots during the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781.
On Independence Day 2016, Passmore posted a photo of himself and his crew practicing riflery from a shed roof, commenting, "God, please grant us the strength and protection we will soon need. Please ... protect our family from the storm they will surely be exposed to. We know this fight is righteous. Please keep us brave in the face of evil. May our bullets fly true and our friends keep us well supplied."
Casey Becknell, a forty-three-year-old Civil War re-enactor from Lexington, commented, "And may God bless Dixie thru it all."