After the FBI raided former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort on August 9 as part of an investigation into the alleged mishandling of classified documents, right-wing candidates for state office across the country took to their fringe social media pages. They posted that the federal government needs to be reined in and even called for the FBI to be abolished.
Kari Lake, a gubernatorial candidate in Arizona who won the GOP primary in August after being endorsed by Trump, issued a statement on Telegram and TruthSocial, Trump’s new social media platform, calling the federal government “tyrants” and an “illegitimate, corrupt Regime” that hates America. “If we accept it, America is dead,” Lake wrote. “We will not accept it.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray called the surge in death threats to law enforcement “deplorable and dangerous.” Two days later, Ricky Shiffer, a 42-year-old Navy veteran, attempted to breach an FBI office in Cincinnati and was shot and killed by police after an hours-long standoff. Only four days after Shiffer’s attack in Cincinnati, NBC reported that a man in Pennsylvania was arrested for making threats against the FBI on the far-right social media site Gab.
GOP candidates in Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, among a slew of others, are major influencers in this fringe ecosystem. And they are making connections between the 2020 election — which they claim was stolen — Christian nationalism, and gun rights.
The Trace reviewed their campaign platforms, public appearances, posts on fringe websites and social media, analyzed engagement with their supporters, followed their newsletters, and closely tracked right-wing events and media. We found that their rhetoric mixes Christian nationalism with armed rebellion — presenting a threat that extremism experts do not take lightly.
The groups that participate most in these spaces, which include The Proud Boys, Stop the Steal, and Christian nationalists, draw attention to a stew of political issues including supposed election fraud, abortion, school curricula, and COVID-19 restrictions. Most of these groups “prioritize Second Amendment rights, and will continue to do so, especially as things seem increasingly urgent to them,” said Dr. Amy Cooter, a senior research fellow at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at Middlebury College, where she focuses on anti-government sentiment, militias, and Christian nationalism. “There’s distrust in the system and a sense of unfairness that will all feed into each other and make a perfect storm of factors headed into the next election cycles.”
Last month, a poll by the University of Chicago found that nearly one third of surveyed Americans believe that they may soon have to “take up arms” against the U.S. government. Of the participants, 37 percent already have guns at home and agree with this view. Breitbart, a far-right news site that incorrectly claims the 2020 election was fraudulent, picked up on the poll, and followers quickly voiced their expectations of civil war. “It means there’s no political solution to entrenched corruption when elections are clearly rigged and the existing parasite class is clearly corrupt,” one comment read. Another said: “So Asymmetrical warfare and guerrilla warfare is the Patriot response! Must be!”
Guns, largely because of their ubiquity in America, are the weapon of choice of domestic extremists, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress. “Radicalized individuals who are emboldened by the gun lobby and far-right politicians often have far too easy access to firearms and greatly contribute to the rise in domestic extremism,” the report states.
Candidates for governor, secretary of state, and other state-level offices — many of whom emerged in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, when Stop the Steal provided something of a unifying principle for the far right — are using moral, religious language, and campaigning on issues that resonate with their base.
“They flesh out what messages are going to be appealing to a mass audience,” said Cooter.
The Christian nationalist movement does not take an inherently anti-government, anarchist position, but rather espouses an unwillingness to accept an elected administration that, as adherents see it, betrays their Christian values, in terms of abortion, sex education in schools, and guns. While Christian nationalism has existed for generations in the U.S., the 2020 election has so far proven to be a catalyst for far-right ideologies to seep into mainstream GOP thinking.
“All of this is about a sense of loss and unfairness, and it’s really easy to paint a target on a specific agency or individual who is seen as promoting if not causing that kind of threat,” Cooter added. “There’s still a tendency for pundits or others to talk about this as an issue of the fringe or a handful of extremists. I’m afraid that the more we simplify it in that direction, the more we’re going to miss the scope of the problem.”
The nexus between these issues has been apparent in the ReAwaken America tour, which launched in the spring of 2021. It has held events in 12 states so far, with several more stops planned in October, just weeks before the midterm elections.
Headlined by former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, the ex-Army general who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in 2017 about contacts with a Russian ambassador, the tour brings together Christianity, antipathy toward COVID-19 restrictions, claims of election fraud, and other hot-button conservative issues. Speakers may vary in their focus, but many of them call on audience members to reject the legitimacy of the current federal government.
Frequent speakers include Mark Finchem, Kari Lake, Kristina Karamo, and Doug Mastriano, who are all Trump-endorsed, right-wing politicians running for offices that control state and local elections. All claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, and some have ties to extremism. Finchem previously associated himself with the Oath Keepers militia. Mastriano spent $5,000 of campaign funds paying Gab, the alternative social media network known as a hotbed of racism and the alt right, for “consulting.” Local news media recently reported that Mastriano’s security team is armed and not certified with state authorities, and one member was listed as a regional leader of the Oath Keepers.
The Trace reached out to each political candidate to ask about their ties to extremism, why they are participating in events that spread misinformation, and if they could clarify their views on Christian nationalism. None responded to requests for comment.
The tour takes place in churches and features at least 14 pastors, including one who has called for President Joe Biden’s to be held for “treason.” Other speakers include January 6 participants, Eric Trump, and several financiers of election fraud claims who have been subpoenaed by the House January 6 Select Committee, like Patrick Byrne, Mike Lindell, and Roger Stone. New York State Attorney General Letitia James wrote a letter to Flynn and the tour’s founder, Clay Clark, saying the August event in Batavia, New York, could “could spur extremist or racially motivated violence.” The letter referred specifically to speakers’ promotion of “white nationalist ideals” linked to the Great Replacement Theory, which James noted had inspired a mass shooting this past May in Buffalo, where 10 people were killed and three more were injured.
The Reverend Nathan Empsall, executive director and head of campaigns at Faithful America, an online community of Christians organizing for social justice causes, started a petition denouncing the ReAwaken America Tour as promoting Christian nationalism and asking churches not to participate in any events. It got more than 20,000 signatures.
“Christian nationalism isn’t a religion, it’s a political worldview,” Empsall told The Trace. Events like the ReAwaken America tour, he said, play on people’s sense of fear and distort religion to fit their messaging.
An earlier statement from a grassroots initiative called Christians Against Christian Nationalism, signed by over 25,000 people, criticized the ideology underlining the ReAwaken America Tour. “Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State,” read the statement, “and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.”
Candidates including Kristina Karamo and Mark Finchem also appeared alongside priests, ‘researchers’, and ‘fighters’ at another event that took place in August, in Detroit, called the Church Militant Convention, organized by a far-right website espousing Catholicism alongside highly politicized news, videos, and articles. (The Southern Poverty Law Center designated the website as a hate group for its anti-LGBTQ language.)
They spoke to “freedom fighters and patriots,” according to the event page. “This is for Catholics who reject the woke, the satanic, the lukewarm, the anti-Christian, the modernist and the ungodly,” the event description reads.
Michael Voris, the president and founder of St. Michael’s media, Church Militant’s mother company, moderated the convention.
Although Church Militant brands itself as “serving Catholics,” the Archdiocese of Detroit released a statement back when the group called itself RealCatholicTV.com as not being authorized to use the word “Catholic.” On Church Militant’s website, there are news articles about resisting the current national political leadership and how Catholicism is under attack nationwide. President Biden is always referred to as “unelected.” There are countless articles and videos claiming that Catholic doctrine protects Second Amendment rights and firearms possession.
Voris also hosts a web talk show in which he presents monologues for viewers. In one episode about guns, Voris begins by claiming that Democrats misrepresent religion and gender, and lack a “belief in God,” then transitions to a four-minute rant about how “Democrats and Marxist socialists” are eager to take guns away.
“Whoever has the guns, rules the country,” Voris says. “The forces of the so-called Great Reset have gathered, conspired, and laid out their plan.” The Great Reset was the World Economic Forum’s 2020 response to the global economic hardship brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. It quickly morphed into a viral conspiracy theory that held that “global elites” would use the health crisis to destroy American influence and wealth.
At the end of his message, Voris asserts: “The bad guys hate God, and they hate you having guns for the exact same reason. It’s all about destroying your human dignity.”
But Empsall vehemently rejects that guns and Christianity are tied. “America is awash in guns and individualism, and that’s certainly not in the Bible or the gospel,” he said. “They started with the guns and they brought in the religion, not the other way around.”
The Trace contacted Voris to understand why Church Militant invited candidates spreading election misinformation to its August convention. “In my view your questions aren’t really inquiries in the true sense of an inquiry,” he wrote back. “They are preceded by ASSERTIONS which are then designed to gain a reaction from me, rather than an ACTUAL journalistic understanding.”
Philip Gorski, a professor of sociology at Yale who studies Christian nationalism, religion, and political violence, said that while the origins of the political ideology can be traced as far back as the late 17th century, how Christian nationalism is unfolding today is unprecedented. This includes the political alliance between Catholics and conservative Protestants and the rise in Pentecostalism, which views spiritual warfare as a main tenet.
“There is a very strong belief that people and places can be demonically possessed. Your political enemies are not just your political enemies, they’re your spiritual enemies,” explained Gorski. “They’re not just people who disagree with you, they are instruments of Satan.”
According to Gorski, this rhetoric edges close to advocating political violence. Earlier this year, Church Militant promoted an online platform, CozyTV, belonging to Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist streamer whom the Southern Poverty Law Center described as “an outspoken admirer of fascists such as Mussolini.” Fuentes has compared himself to Hitler, attended and defended the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and became a core figure in the Stop the Steal movement which sought to overturn the 2020 election.
Salon described the CozyTV feature as a growing collaboration between Catholics and the Groyper movement, a group of Fuentes fans who are mostly young white nationalists with racist and anti-Semitic views aiming to bring far-right politics into mainstream conservatism.
The mishmash of election fraud, Second Amendment rights, and Christian nationalism currently circulating in fringe chatrooms has created an unprecedented gray area in which online groups can co-opt current events to further fuel anti-government sentiment. It has also created an opportunity for the gun industry and lobby to profit from extremism, according to Everytown for Gun Safety (which provides grants to The Trace. See more about our funding).
“They believe they’re facing an existential threat, and the electoral process can no longer remedy that threat,” Justin Wagner, senior director of investigations at Everytown, said. “As a result, some conclude that violence is either inevitable or even justified, and that guns are the most efficient tool of violence available to the public.”
“Extremists embrace conspiracy theories which depict them as under threat and look for a tool outside the democratic process to respond to that threat or advance their political ideology,” Wagner added. “Many on the far right see guns as practical and strategic tools, for tactical violence but also organizing principles through which to recruit new members.”
The Trace reached out to the FBI to understand how it is responding to growing threats of violence, including to their own offices, but the bureau declined to respond. The Department of Justice also declined to answer questions about what the federal government is doing to prevent far-right violence.
Meanwhile, in a national, televised address on September 1, President Biden said: “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic. They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they’re working right now, as I speak, in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.”
The White House hosted a United We Stand Summit on September 15 to highlight these dangers. Gun violence prevention leaders, among others, led panels and conversations about “preventing radicalization and mobilization to violence.”
Biden once again called for more action, including developing more sensitive threat detection among law enforcement and better regulation of social media platforms. He said: “Domestic terrorism, rooted in white supremacy, is the greatest threat to our homeland today. I never thought I’d hear that or say that.”