It can be tempting to see Biden’s victory as a return to “normalcy” — an opportunity to put the anger and vitriol of the past four years behind us. But while Trump may have lost, Trumpism isn’t going anywhere. A recent poll showed that over 50 percent of Republicans think Trump is the rightful winner of the election, and for far-right outlets like NewsMax and One America News Network, the election hasn’t even ended yet. Meanwhile, the growth of far-right extremist groups has become a leading domestic terror threat, with some pro-Trump militia groups vowing civil war and the FBI recently breaking up a militia plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. For many of the Americans who have spent the past four years (or longer) being radicalized by far-right propaganda, there’s no going back. The swell of hatred and resentment that brought Trump to power isn’t going away just because we have a new president. A New York woman whose brother joined a far-right militia group after Trump was elected in 2016 shared her thoughts with the Cut on why calls for people to “come together” won’t be enough to heal the wounds dividing the country.
The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
I grew up in rural Missouri. There’s about a ten-year age gap between my brother and myself. I’m in my 30s, he’s in his 40s. We weren’t necessarily super close growing up, but we were the only siblings in the family, and especially as I got older, we had a bond for sure. Our family was basically a really big mess, very tumultuous. We had this great couple of years where it was us in this weird family. We really got each other and we really clicked. He’s super smart and he will learn anything in the world about something that he focuses on. He is very no-nonsense, but he has this wicked sense of humor. It’s this kind of thing where he and I can look at each other across the room at an awkward family dinner and just give each other a knowing look.
He became more conservative over time. We grew up in a household where you don’t talk about money, politics, or religion, though I feel like my family was more conservative because of the area we grew up in. But it wasn’t a really big factor until my brother began working as a long-distance truck driver for a while. He started listening to a lot of conservative radio, like Rush Limbaugh. I noticed things creeping into conversation with him where it felt like it was getting a little bit more passionate. Obama really set him off. It seemed he didn’t love a Black man being so powerful. He was really in the “but her emails” camp regarding Hillary Clinton and her candidacy. He was certain she and her family were total criminals and would ruin the country. Anytime I tried to defend Barack Obama or Hillary, he also started to ramp up this knowing tone, like, Do you really believe what the liberal media tells you? Implying that I was brainwashed, but he knew the real truth because Alex Jones told him so. He also started buying a lot of survival gear — backpacks, rations, that kind of thing.
Meanwhile, I became more liberal. We didn’t agree on things like abortion, that was always an issue that came up a lot. He could poke fun at me because I had moved to Europe for a year after college, and then I moved to New York. He’s like, Oh, you’re a liberal media elite. But it was still friendly banter at that point, around 2010. We still had great conversations, hours-long phone conversations.
Then he started using substances again. Basically like every five to ten years there would be a bad period. It happened off and on since as young as I can remember. His preferred substances used to be meth and cocaine, but he also had phases with heroin. He went through a period around the time that I moved to New York where he was really downward spiraling.
Where it started to just go hog wild was a little bit after Trump. Back in 2016, he described himself as a Trump supporter, although he did not vote. But he continued to develop progressively more extreme viewpoints. He has three young kids, and one blatantly racist thing that came up over and over is that he didn’t want them even being around Black kids. I remember he told his kids that they couldn’t go to a certain swimming pool near where they lived, because in his words, Black people go there, and that makes the water dirty. Gradually, he started getting back into substances and drinking more again, and our conversations really tapered off.
Around 2017 or 2018 I heard from my mom that he joined [a far-right militia group]. My mom babysat and started noticing a lot of guns around his house. She was disturbed by it, but apparently not disturbed enough to not go over to his place. She would tell me about it on the phone in the vein of, “Oh my gosh, he has more now …” and I finally had to have her stop telling me about it because it was too disturbing.
Eventually she asked him about it. And he’s like, Oh, I’m in this group now, just matter of fact. I looked it up. And I was almost scared to go to their website. Like, are they going to be tracking me somehow? I read their statements about what they’re all about and read about them on Wikipedia. They think immigrants and liberals and BLM are coming to take away their rights and that they need to take up arms to defend themselves. And I’m like, wow, these people love guns, and they love them a lot. They went to Charlottesville. It scared me. I was like, Oh my God, he’s gone off the deep end. This is not just listening to a radio show anymore, this is a lifestyle, he’s into it.
Last I heard he had risen to middle management of this armed militia group. On Facebook, I just started to see all of these logos of this group that he’s in, taking over his page. And he’s talking about regional meetups that they’re having, or why it’s so valiant to join this group. It shocked me and it honestly kind of hurt to see, because it’s like, whatever I think about you, and whatever boundary I’ve set with you because of your substance use, this is not okay, what you are promoting is hateful, and you are a man with young children. You’re having these crazy people come over, you’re having people with God knows how many guns in your house, you’re espousing more and more racist ideas to them, and it did hurt a little bit, even though we were sort of estranged at this point, to see him getting sucked into this thing.
His mind is very much like “We are the defenders.” Things are so crazy right now, but don’t worry, because we’re here and we’ll step in and save the day. And by the way, we have a lot of guns. Saving the day if there’s a race war, or if the liberals go crazy and there’s another Civil War. Reading between the lines, I think it gives him a place where he feels like he can belong. He kind of always seemed to have an inferiority complex growing up. He had body-image issues and he was known as kind of a bad kid in a small town. People spoke negatively about him. And as he grew older, anyone that would accept him, he would latch on to that. And so I think, to him, he also gets a sense of belonging, that these are just really cool people that happen to have the same views as him.
He and his wife moved to somewhere in the Southwest, I don’t even know where he is. I feel like drugs are kind of a big priority for him right now. He doesn’t have a lot of options left. He’s run through any money he might have. I don’t think he’s happy in his relationship. In my assumption he’s probably looking at this country like, Wow, this is really going to hell. I think you combine that with drugs and you get a potentially very scary outcome. He’s so paranoid about what could happen in this country. I don’t know what to do about him at this point.
Even though Trump lost, it’s not over. I don’t have him on social media anymore and my mom hasn’t heard from him in a month either. He’s gone off the grid, so I don’t know what he’s saying about the election. All I do know is that leading up to the election, a member of my family figured out where he was and visited him and said he was just drunk and hard to talk to and not making a lot of sense. He wasn’t in a good mental state.
There’s still a lot of seething anger among people who feel like the country is not going their way. Having Biden in office is not going to fix this. My brother and I grew up exactly the same way. My own brother who grew up in the same environment and had the same chances — or the same lack of chances sometimes — he grew up exactly the opposite of me. I think that for anyone who would think that it’s over, I would say that you need to be looking at who your neighbors are.
It makes me angry whenever I see news commentators and celebrities being like, we just need to have empathy with the other side. That makes me upset, not because I don’t like the idea of empathy, and not because I don’t want to heal, but we haven’t addressed the root of this yet. And until we do, we’re still going to get something like this. Unless you have a brother who has guns in every room of his house, and who is in a hate group, and who is ruining his family and his children’s lives, then don’t tell me about having empathy for people.
I feel like I can see the path for him, and if I had to plot it out on a piece of paper, there’s kind of a narrative of like: this led to that led to that, drugs and missed opportunity and losing money and not having good job opportunities — it leads you down a dark path. I think in general, we need to watch out for people who don’t feel like they have a place in society. Because some people who feel like outsiders take it in really dark directions. But when I lose empathy is when it comes to the point of joining something like this, because so many people have troubling things that happen in their life to one degree or another, and if we all just acted out on them, and joined hate groups, all of us would be dead.
I do feel guilty over it. I feel like all he ever wanted was someone to listen to him and be like, I see you, you’re okay, you’re worthy. He didn’t get that in our very dysfunctional family. He didn’t get that in our community. And so it turns out his only notion of getting that was either through drugs or destructive groups. I wish that as I had gotten a little bit older I had nurtured that relationship a little bit more. But I don’t think I’m so powerful that I could have prevented this from happening, or that I’m so special that I could change the course of his life. His choices are his own.
I hate what he’s doing. If he needed money to bail him out of jail, I would not do that. But he is still my brother, he is someone who’s gone through a lot — our family history is quite dark. I turned into the goody two-shoes and he went the other way. I can feel that sense of brokenness in him. I just wish that it had gone another way.