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After Covering Civil War Overseas, Journalist Examines U.S. Militia Movement

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Police departments are preparing for the possibility of violence on Election Day. Some pro-Trump, far-right militants are preparing for the possibility of civil war. My guest Mike Giglio writes about one such militant group, the Oath Keepers, that he says has tapped into a deep current of anxiety that could cause a surprisingly large contingent of people with real police and military experience to consider armed, political violence. Giglio got access to a leaked database of the Oath Keepers membership from 2009 to 2015. Nearly 25,000 people were on that list. About two-thirds of them had a background in the military or law enforcement. About 10% was active duty.

Giglio spent several months interviewing current and former members of the group, trying to understand their motivations and how serious they were about taking up arms. He also interviewed the group's founder and leader Stewart Rhodes, who has warned crowds to be ready for war. This is a prospect that Giglio finds especially disturbing because he's covered civil wars in Syria, Ukraine and Iraq and has witnessed the suffering they've caused. He's also the author of a book about ISIS called "Shatter The Nations." His article about the Oath Keepers is in the November issue of The Atlantic.

Mike Giglio, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MIKE GIGLIO: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: You spoke to many current and former members of the Oath Keepers. Are they preparing in case there is a civil war? Or do they want to start a civil war?

GIGLIO: It's more the former. So they believe that there's a very strong likelihood of civil violence in America. And, you know, they've been prepping for this in their minds, in some cases, since the group started in 2009. And all the events of the Trump presidency, you know, over the last year, for a lot of them, have made them feel like it's more likely that there's going to be some form of conflict. All of them said that they don't want it to happen. But they're at the point where they feel like they might not have a choice. And so preparations is really the kind of - embracing was the dominant mood of these people when I spoke to them.

GROSS: Who do they think is going to start the civil war?

GIGLIO: In their view, the political left, antifa, leftist agitators. If you speak with some of them, they have a very dire view that says that maybe it already started on a smaller scale. So they are casting themselves as defensive even as they use this very aggressive rhetoric.

GROSS: So some of them see signs that a civil war is inevitable. What are some of the other signs?

GIGLIO: If you think about their worldview, it holds that the federal government and state governments will seek to use almost tyrannical power to control the population. So the mandates that came down from the coronavirus, the lockdowns, that reinforce that worldview. The fear of protests from the political left and of riots is very prevalent in their worldview. It's something that they talk about for years. And when they saw the protests against police brutality take place this summer and when they saw the riots that were connected to some of those, that reinforced the idea that there is some sort of unrest coming or even already here.

And, you know, they really listen to the way that President Trump portrays these events. So if you listen to Trump's own comments, it's - you know, he's portraying the governor of Michigan, for example, as almost tyrannical. He's portraying the protesters as leftist insurrectionists who are bent on looting and destruction. It really feeds into their worldview. And so that's why over the course of the year that I was talking to them, they became more and more convinced that these events were actually playing out.

GROSS: It's interesting that they're so pro-Trump in the sense that you think of the far-right, militant groups as being anti-government. But this group is so pro-Trump, and he's the president.

GIGLIO: It's actually an important point. This is the first time that militant groups like this have had someone in the White House that they fully support. They were really skeptical of the first George Bush administration, for example, and even George H.W. Bush - not as much as they've been skeptical of Democrats, but they really never felt like they had an ally in the White House.

And from the beginning of Trump's presidential campaign in 2015, they were almost fully on board. And, you know, he speaks their language. And, you know, they are very passionately Trump supporters. And it really is a change for these groups. And I think - you know, what I detected is that they still haven't quite figured out how to square what they used to say about the power of the government and being a check on that with the fact that they're just, you know, full-fledged behind the president right now. And I think that's a big contradiction.

GROSS: Why is a relatively large percentage of the group comprised of current and former members of the police and the military?

GIGLIO: The Oath Keepers are unique - and this is the reason that I decided to focus on them - in that they expressly recruit and focus on people with military and police experience. They - that's how they build themselves. And I think what their founder has been very successful at doing is tying the idea that there is this sort of movement on the political left that is anti-police, anti-military, and making this into an idea that what this militant movement is is actually some version of patriotic. And it's a place for Trump supporters and gun rights advocates and military and police professionals and the people who very, wholeheartedly support them. He calls it the warrior class.

And this has sort of been a dream for him, to try to channel that into some sort of political force. And he told me even in February of this year, the first time I spoke with him, that he was using the - what he called a drumbeat of police demonization on the left to help his efforts of outreach to these communities. And as the year progressed, you know, I saw him taking that and really trying to hammer it home.

GROSS: So how did Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, go about recruiting current and former members of the police and military?

GIGLIO: I think the most effective thing that he did was when he founded the group, you know, it started out as just a blog campaign. He's a - he was a very prolific blogger beforehand, a libertarian blogger. And he tied the group's purpose to defending the oath that police and military members take when they swear in, the oath to defend the Constitution and to protect it against enemies, foreign and domestic. And that's a way to say, hey, we're just appealing to the oath that you already took. We're asking you to reaffirm it - and putting the group more middle-of-the-road than some of these more extreme militant groups are in their rhetoric.

I think it's important when we think about the Oath Keepers, and what the files that I have show, is the idea that it's not so much the group itself that we're - that we can understand through the files as much as a mindset. There is something in America and in this mindset that says, hey, I would at least be willing to consider this, you know? There's something about the Oath Keepers that can draw people in no matter how long they stay, but at least get them to consider the idea that armed, political violence might be necessary.

GROSS: I'm trying to think about whether the fact that there are a lot of current and former people from the military and law enforcement who believe this, that there might be a civil war, they might have to take up arms - do you think that they would have more control because they were professionals or that they would be more zealous because they really - they're trained to use weapons.

GIGLIO: You know, there is a stereotype of the regular, let's say, militia member in America - someone who's an armchair warrior, probably has no experience in the military. They talk about civil war because they've seen movies about it, and they think it's this amazing, glorious thing. I was interested in the Oath Keepers because they advertise it. They actually had people who were veterans of police and military in their ranks and who understood what violence really means and how ugly it is.

And what I found was - I did connect with some members who had actually seen combat and, because of that, were actually among those who were most afraid of violence and trying to be - in this context at least, trying to be most careful about whether they might provoke it through what they were doing. A lot of those people, I should note, had left the group by now because it has - the founder has become more radical in the things that he says.

And then there are people who served in the military but never saw combat or who didn't serve at all, and I think they were a little bit more immature about really understanding what it means when they talk about violence and may be more inclined to be more aggressive in their posturing.

GROSS: It's interesting because what you just said about the people who didn't see combat, that holds true for the founder of the group, Stewart Rhodes. He wanted to be in the Special Forces. He wanted to be a Green Beret. But in a parachute exercise, he injured his spine and couldn't serve any longer. So he - would you put him in that category as somebody who never saw combat but wanted to and was frustrated by that?

GIGLIO: You know, it's true. He never did see combat. And he wanted to be in the Special Forces, which is this elite part of the U.S. military that goes overseas. And one of their core missions is actually going out among local populations and training Indigenous forces and getting populations ready to support U.S. intervention or foreign policy. And, actually, that's how he sees himself with the Oath Keepers. He says, like, they're on a Special Forces mission but just in America. They want to train the population. They want to go out and bring people into their ideology.

So I do think he's found a way to live out what his military dreams used to be when he was younger in the American context. And I think that that's a thread that is really common in this movement. And I do think it raises questions. Like, you know, we as Americans are so comfortable with the idea of sending people out into foreign wars, and now they're starting to look at America itself as part of that battle space.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike Giglio. His article about the Oath Keepers is in the November issue of The Atlantic. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mike Giglio about his article in the current issue of The Atlantic on the Oath Keepers, a far-right militant group that supports Trump and is preparing for the possibility of civil war. Many current and former members of the group have experience in the military or police. The group was founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes.

So we've talked a little bit about what the Oath Keepers believe in and the possibility of civil war that they're preparing for. What are some of the things the group has actually done so far?

GIGLIO: They are most famous for having a team of people who went to the protests in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown's killing. And they went with their AR-15-style rifles, and they patrolled the crowds, and they stood guard on the roofs of - the rooftops of local businesses. And, you know, to them, they were protecting businesses from looting and arson and rioting. To the protesters, it was a provocation. You know, it was portrayed as, you know, them being there to intimidate the protesters. But, really, you know, this - it was also kind of like a coming-out party for the group. It was all over the media.

And, actually, I was overseas at the time, but that was the first that I ever heard of the Oath Keepers. I remember seeing a news image of an Oath Keeper standing on a rooftop with his rifle and kind of staring out into the distance and just the hair on the back of my neck standing up and just wondering, what is happening in America? You know, it was interesting for me actually to, over the course of reporting this story, connect with that same person and talk with him about, you know, what he saw, you know, through his own eyes while he was doing that.

GROSS: So what did he see through his eyes?

GIGLIO: He thought that he was there for the public good. He thought - you know, he's been defined by that photo, and I think he struggled with that. But in his mind, they were protecting the community. And, you know, the way I describe it in the article and the way I saw it is, you know, whatever they had in mind, that photo became an image of a country that was starting to turn on itself.

GROSS: What are some of the ways that you think President Trump has enabled militant far-right groups like the Oath Keepers?

GIGLIO: I think what the president says and what his allies say really means a lot. And one thing I found is that the Oath Keepers and the part of the militant right that they represent are listening very closely to what the president is saying. And they believe him. You know, they think he's a truth teller. And, you know, one example of that is I asked - I spoke to dozens of people over the course of reporting this article this year, and I asked almost every single one of them, what will you do if the president says that the vote was stolen, if he's declared the loser of the election, but he says that there was fraud and it was stolen? And almost every one of them said, well, we all know that there was massive fraud by Democrats in 2016. They just take that as fact. And it's because Trump has been saying it for four years and also because parts of the conservative media establishment and Republican politicians have in different ways been supporting him and that idea, that voter fraud is this real problem and that maybe it did happen in some massive way, like the president says, in 2016. But they're very attuned to that. And they're listening very closely when he's saying it's already happening for 2020.

GROSS: When Trump calls Biden a socialist, does that feed the far-right narrative? Because I think one of the things - one of the signs that the militant groups are looking for is, like, is America becoming a socialist country? And if it is, it's time to take up arms.

GIGLIO: That's a good point. You know, since they were founded in 2009, that's been what they've been talking about. Socialism is coming and, with that, tyranny. That's been what they say. That's how they see the world. That's how they cast Barack Obama. They were part of the Tea Party wave. You know, there's a - I don't mention this in the article, but there's a question in the files that asked members when they signed up, how did you hear about the Oath Keepers? And dozens of people had just signed up at Tea Party rallies or been referred by local Republican politicians. And so they were very embedded in the Tea Party wave in 2009. But if you think about Trump, he just - he - you know, where that was at one point seen as sort of a fringe of the party, Trump just speaks that way, you know. So the way I would answer the question is the Oath Keepers and people in this part of the political spectrum, they already were dominated by talk of socialism, and they probably would have seen Biden that way anyway. Trump is just speaking their language. And I think it magnifies it and it gives it additional credibility to hear the president of the United States and the leader of the Republican Party saying it so relentlessly, so clearly.

GROSS: You know, I find this so interesting because Trump's - as you say, Trump speaks their language. How does Trump know their language? Trump was not, like, a politically ideological person, as far as I know, before he started campaigning. And his concerns were his - you know, related to his business and to winning and to making money and getting ratings, you know, not dog whistles to the far right. So do you think he's - do you think he understands the code that he's speaking in? And do you think he learned it from somebody who serves as an adviser to him or writes speeches for him?

GIGLIO: I think it's a good question, and I think that there are elements of Trump's politics that overlap with what the militant right was saying even years ago. So Trump was - almost made his political name on the idea of the birther theory that President Obama wasn't actually born in America. And, you know, the Oath Keepers and parts of the Tea Party and parts of the militant right, they were very much into that whole theory. And so he was speaking in these conspiratorial frames, you know, at the same time that they were before it was mainstream. And he cast himself as an outsider, someone who is attacking the political elite, Democrat and Republican alike. And for the Oath Keepers and for this part of the political right, that is essential, that part of Trump's message. The fact that he took on Jeb Bush before he took on Hillary Clinton - I mean, the Clintons and the Bushes, these are two names that in this world view are synonymous with the U.S. political elite. And they really talk about the idea that the elite is undermining America. It wants to weaken the country. This is their world view. And Trump just casts himself as that outsider anti-elite candidate from the beginning. So I think the overlap is just natural. And I don't know the answer to the rest of the question, you know, whether he's trying to appeal to these groups specifically. But it is a very natural alliance at least.

GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike Giglio. His article about the Oath Keepers is in the November issue of The Atlantic. We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE EASTWOOD'S "SONG FOR YOU")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Mike Giglio about his article in the current issue of The Atlantic - also online, of course - on the Oath Keepers, a far-right militant group that supports Trump and is preparing for the possibility of civil war. Many current and former members of the group have experience in the military or police. The group was founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes. Let's talk about the Oath Keepers founder, Stewart Rhodes. What is his background?

GIGLIO: He joined the military right out of high school in the 1980s, and he wanted to be a Green Beret, which is the most elite - one of the most elite branches of the U.S. military. But he never made it there. He was training, doing a parachute jump. And the way he tells it, at least, it was a night jump. His parachute got caught in a tree. He fell, and he fractured his spine. And after that, he was sort of drifting. So he was in Las Vegas. He did some training in mixed martial arts. He was parking cars as a valet. He was a firearms instructor. And he started at that time getting involved in or at least interested in politics and specifically libertarian politics. You know, he was working at gun shows and places like that where politics were pretty frequently discussed. And at one point, he had an accident actually with a loaded handgun, and he dropped it and it discharged and shot him in the face and blinded him in one eye. And I found he doesn't like to talk much about this part of his life.

But I found his wife is - also was a very prolific blogger. And I found some of her old blog posts. And she described that as, like, really a turning point for him. Like, he almost died and he wanted to rededicate himself and he had this kind of crisis of what am I going to do with my life after that? And so he ended up enrolling in community college, and then he did well and he transferred to UNLV. And then he graduated summa cum laude from there. And he actually went to Yale Law School, and he graduated from Yale Law, you know, older than most of the other graduates shortly before the 2008 race and was involved with Ron Paul's campaign. And then something happened, you know, when Ron Paul lost to John McCain and then McCain lost to Obama and he really veered off the path that he was on, you know, trying to work as a lawyer. And he ended up, you know, starting this militant group instead, just taking a whole different tack.

GROSS: So he - you know, he blinds himself in a gun accident in 1993 and doesn't start becoming an activist for gun safety. He becomes an activist preparing for armed civil war. His own life experience almost contradicts what he's about because, you know, one of the basic precepts of his group is that - is gun rights.

GIGLIO: In a way, it shows how committed he is to the idea of gun rights, that it didn't make him question his work with firearms.

GROSS: Oh, I see. So you say he sees it as a sign of his strength as a believer in the Second Amendment.

GIGLIO: I actually - no, it's a good question that you're raising. I haven't actually asked him, you know, whether he considered moving away from guns after that. Just my own interpretation of it is, you know, it shows that he's really committed to this idea. And he - I mean, I was really insistent on meeting with him. You know, I contacted him initially earlier this year, let him know that I was writing this story and I had these files and that it was going to be an article that was critically minded. And I had a hard time nailing him down to actually meet. It took months before we were actually able to connect in person. One thing I wanted to find out for myself that I feel like I can get a better sense of in person is, you know, how much he believes what he puts out there. You know, how committed is he really on a personal level to his ideology? And really on the guns thing, like, my impression was that he means what he says. Having a firearm to him is fundamental to what it means to be his version of an American. And it's central to his political worldview. You know, he carries a firearm wherever he goes. He will talk to just regular people at rallies and things like that just about why you should be armed and what kind of weapons you should have. Like, it's just central to who he is.

GROSS: Rhodes doesn't want the Oath Keepers to be called a militia or to have its members be called white nationalists. He doesn't want to be labeled as racist. In reality, is the group white nationalist and racist? Are they a militia?

GIGLIO: I had a number of conversations with Stewart and with members of the Oath Keepers about the white nationalism label, and they didn't just reject the label, they criticized white nationalism. They said that they're part of the problem. They like to say that white supremacists and leftists are all part of the same basket. They're all part of the problem. And so the way that they see themselves at least is that they are very much not white nationalists. Rhodes actually - and I put this in the article - he considers it to be a smear to be called a white nationalist. It's a very difficult issue to say, like, every member of the group and what they believe. And, you know, the vice president of the Oath Keepers, for example, is African American. And they have from the beginning put a disavowal of racism on their site and banned racism officially. And the introductory video, even on their website is of a Black member. Like, they really want to push back against this. I end up deciding that the best way to position them is just Trumpist in their views about race. They are aligned with the president when it comes to Black Lives Matter. So to them, at least the leadership level, Black Lives Matter is a Marxist group, which I would note is a foreign enemy. You know, so we're talking about enemies, foreign and domestic. This is a foreign enemy on domestic soil if they're calling the Marxist. But President Trump says that as well.

GROSS: So by using the word Marxist for some of these groups, some of the individuals in the groups, it's a way of saying they're not even American, so we have a right to take up arms. They're not us. They're others. They're embracing a foreign ideology. Therefore, they're foreign, too.

GIGLIO: If you look at the way that Stewart Rhodes presents the protesters, at least the leaders of the protesters, he's saying this is part of an insurrection and we need to be part of putting down that insurrection. And he's saying that they're Marxists. And this - it feeds the idea that the stakes of the election and of these political battles are not just domestic, but also part of this struggle where foreign enemies and American politicians who are aligned with these foreign interests are undermining the country. And I think that's part of the framing.

And, also, you know, I think it's important just to remember, like, America as a country has been at war for two decades now, continuously. And we think we can just put this - these wars out of mind for the most part, aside from those, obviously, who serve in them and their families. But I think when a country is at war for this long, it does something to our collective psyche, where we're just - whether we realize it or not, we're used to the idea of being at war with sort of amorphous foreign enemies, and we have this idea of unbounded conflict that we're all just - we've all grown comfortable with in a foreign context.

And I think what I noticed in Stewart's rhetoric and the speeches that he gave that I attended is that these frames that we usually apply to foreign wars are now part of our political dialogue at home. And one example of this I put in the story - I attended a meeting that he hosted in Tennessee where he tried to bring people from the community and different groups together. So a militia group called the Three Percenters was there, and some Oath Keepers were there. And he wanted to start a new organizing effort and unite everyone.

And while I was waiting for him to get there, I was sitting with an Iraq War veteran who had recently joined the Oath Keepers. And he just started talking, you know, kind of about his experience overseas. And one thing that he started talking about was the - something that he seemed like he was still grappling with this in his own mind, like, the idea that U.S. soldiers in Iraq had been forced to confront the possibility of killing kids and just sort of the ugly chaos of war, where a child might run up to a soldier strapped with an IED and the soldier might be forced to kill the child. This is what's on his mind.

And Rhodes eventually arrives, and he's giving a talk, and he's really being inflammatory, and he's talking about the protesters and antifa and - it's an insurrection. And he actually at one point says, at some point, they're going to be using IEDs. And then after that, he says, you know what? Unless we find some miracle way to avoid this, at some point we're going to have to kill these kids. Us older veterans and these younger ones, too, we're going to have to kill these kids in the streets, and they're going to die believing that they were fighting Nazis.

And to me, it was just a very jarring example of how the sort of things that happen overseas that even - all Americans have been thinking about and dealing with and just accepting for years now are now part of what people are talking about when they think about the potential for conflict here at home.

GROSS: That is a very disturbing statement. And I think it was at a recruiting rally that he made that statement about how, at some point, we're going to have to kill these kids.

GIGLIO: Right. At the same meeting where he was trying to say, we need to organize to defend against this insurrection and push back against the protests and the riots and antifa and Black Lives Matter.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike Giglio. His article about the Oath Keepers is in the November issue of The Atlantic. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mike Giglio about his article in The Atlantic on the Oath Keepers, a far-right militant group that supports Trump and is preparing for the possibility of a civil war. Many current and former members of the group have experience in the military or police. The group was founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes.

It sounds like the Oath Keepers might be in disarray. They've lost some members. People who know Rhodes told you that his behavior had become erratic. He was disbarred, I think, in 2015. In 2018, his wife petitioned for an order of protection during divorce proceedings, alleging he'd once grabbed their daughter by the throat and had a habit during marital arguments of waving a pistol in the air before putting it to his head. So what's the state of the Oath Keepers now?

GIGLIO: I spoke to a number of people who had left who told me that there was just a great deal of dysfunction in the way that the group was run. And I think, you know, one thing I tried to make clear in the article - because I know it's pretty eye-popping when we say, hey, I've got these files that were leaked. They show everyone that signed up to be a member of the Oath Keepers over a six-year period. And it's 25,000 names, and I think you can run with that and say, oh, my goodness, like, they have a 25,000-person army at their ready. But that definitely wasn't the case.

You know, I spoke to so many people who had left for various reasons. You know, in some cases, it was the idea of, like, hey, I thought it was - I saw - I thought it was about gun rights. You know, I signed up, and then I went into their forums and it was way more, you know, extreme than I thought it would be, and so I left or - you know, people had all kinds of ideological differences with the group.

And so, you know, I really think the way to see it is - it's a mindset that is very - way more prevalent than we might expect and that is subscribed to by regular citizens. These are not, you know, wild-eyed militiamen off in the woods somewhere. These are people who go to work every day. These are current or former police officers, people who hold regular jobs, members of the community. I think the idea that so many people from regular society have at least considered going down this path is very jarring and says a lot about the kind of anxieties that exist in the country right now.

GROSS: What do you think some of those anxieties are that are attracting people to militant groups and to the belief that civil war is a possibility and maybe it's time to prepare?

GIGLIO: One thing that I learned overseas covering civil wars is that the first step down that path is convincing yourself that the other side is bent on your destruction, is convincing yourself that they do not have good intentions, that the arguments that you have with your neighbors are not political alone, that they're also existential. And, you know, I only moved back to America a few years ago. And I was just really struck by the fact that that is how people in America are portraying the political divide right now to a large degree - just the level of polarization and division. And, you know, actually, on all sides of the political spectrum right now, you know, the level to which people are convinced that the other side is out to destroy them is really jarring to me.

And I think that's the fundamental anxiety that I - you know, that I really honed in on while I was reporting this piece. And if you look at how President Trump portrays his reelection bid, how - even look at the first speech he gave when he announced that he was running for reelection. It's the other side is out to destroy you and your way of life. These are the stakes. And I'm the last thing that's standing in their way. You know, he's obviously tapped into a very deep-seeded anxiety that he's able to exist politically while and gain traction while speaking in really dire terms like that.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike Giglio. His article about the Oath Keepers is in the November issue of The Atlantic. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIE KNODEL'S "MIT DER 42ER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mike Giglio about his article in The Atlantic on the Oath Keepers, a far-right, militant group that supports Trump and is preparing for the possibility of civil war. Many current and former members of the group have experience in the military or police. The group was founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes.

Are there other parallels you see between your reporting on ISIS and civil wars in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine?

GIGLIO: You know, I keep thinking back to when I was in eastern Ukraine before a war broke out there. And I was really, like, embedded with these protesters who were on the side of Russia. You know, they speak Russian. They have links to Russia. And they're very tuned into Russian media. And they, at first, were just protesting and taking over local government businesses peacefully because they were convinced that the government in Kyiv was out to get them, was going to take away their ability to speak Russian in schools, take away their way of life.

And, eventually, that - you know, over months, as I knew these people, they went from that to they are sending people here to kill us. They're going to put us - arrest us en masse. They're going to - like, Nazis are coming to attack and kill us. And it wasn't true, but they convinced themselves that it was. And, you know, eventually, that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You know, it meant that they started taking up weapons defensively. And they started - you know, after they took over government buildings, they started defending them. And then, you know, there were standoffs with government forces. And then there were small outbreaks of violence. And then there were calls for revenge. And then it just kind of spiraled from there.

Not that I think that would happen in America, necessarily - I think we're a ways off from that. But just the way that people have convinced themselves that their very existence is at stake and that the other side is just bent on not just winning politically, but destroying them and that it will be a final destruction, that they won't be able to win the election again in four years or fight back through other political means is very chilling to me.

GROSS: When you were covering Ukraine, you were kidnapped by pro-Soviet rebels. What do you think you learned about militants from that experience? And you were kidnapped because you were a journalist. And there were other journalists who were being held, too. Fortunately, you were released. But did you feel like you learned anything about the mindset of militants and especially militants who think that journalists are evil?

GIGLIO: So I was kidnapped at a checkpoint. And I was put in a bus - I think it was a school bus - and blindfolded. And there were a number of these rebels around on the bus. And they were driving me and some other journalists who had been kidnapped to a place where they planned to interrogate us. And I remember just listening, because I couldn't see anything, and feeling the bus slow down to go through a checkpoint that I knew was on the road - and it was a rebel checkpoint - and then hearing them cock their weapons.

Like, they were so scared themselves and so clueless as to what was going on, even though they were the ones kidnapping us and, supposedly, in charge, that they were cocking their weapons even as they rolled through their own checkpoints. And it was just, like, a reminder of the fact that when a war breaks out, and especially a civil conflict, like, it is just confusion. It is just people running blindly around and, really, not knowing what to do and just that chaos itself sort of perpetuating.

And I think that that's fundamental to understanding, like, what civil conflict really is. It's just - it is not directed clearly. Whatever side you think you're on, you might end up, you know, shooting them by accident, shooting them on purpose. It's just chaos. I can't - it's just suffering and confusion.

And, you know, that is what ended up playing out. That was at the very beginning of that war, and, I mean, that's what ended up playing out. Like, it's just a senseless war that's gone on for years where everyone suffers. There's no clear political end. And I'm sure if you went back and reinterviewed every single one of those people that I was with back at the early days when they were starting the war, they would say in a second that they wish that they never had done it.

GROSS: Do you think about that a lot when you hear people talk about preparing for civil war in the U.S.?

GIGLIO: I wish I could take them with me to Iraq or to a place that's actually in a real war and hold their eyes, you know, open and have them just really see what it is that they're talking about. I just - I don't think they know.

You know, when people talk about civil war, like, you know, Stewart Rhodes talks about Lexington Green like it's like the glory of the American Revolution, and I want to say, like, no, it's just suffering. It's not the redcoats versus the patriots. It's like - it's nonlinear. It's civilians dying for no reason. It's not, you know, tales of heroism. It's tales of people being afraid and sort of causing destruction that they can't make any sense of in the end.

GROSS: So let's talk about where we are now. Just recently, there was a plan to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a report just a few days ago that white supremacists and other like-minded groups have committed a majority of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. this year. Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security warned that violent white supremacy was the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.

So when you look ahead to Election Day and the days soon after, what do you see?

GIGLIO: You know, if you had asked me in January when I started working on the story what are, like, my worst-case scenarios for the election, I would've said confusion, people from different sides coming out into the streets and bloodshed erupting just in the confusion of that and in the charged political climate that we're in. And that's what happened, actually, over the summer. You know, that's what happened in Kenosha. That's what happened in Portland, where there were these confused, muddled standoffs between people fighting from various sides at protests and bloodshed - deadly bloodshed because of it.

And, you know, I think when I look at, like, worst-case scenarios for the election, that's still what's in my mind - just random, confused unrest like we saw over the summer, maybe on a larger scale, depending on how things go.

GROSS: Which could be very dangerous.

GIGLIO: It is dangerous. And, you know, when we talk about people preparing for a civil war, like, I don't want to get just stuck imagining some kind of distant conflict, you know, worst-case scenario. Like, the steps, you know, well short of civil war are still really bad. Street violence is not something that we should be dealing with here in America. Shootings and confused plots and just chaos like this, I mean, that's bad enough, and all this talk in preparation for violence I think can help to fuel that and is part of what makes it so dangerous.

GROSS: Mike Giglio, thank you so much for your reporting and for joining us on the show today.

GIGLIO: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Mike Giglio's article about the Oath Keepers is in the current issue of The Atlantic and on The Atlantic website. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the profound and enduring impact of the coronavirus on the way we live. It's the subject of the new book "Apollo's Arrow" by Dr. Nicholas Christakis, who will be our guest. He's a professor at Yale, where he directs the Human Nature Lab. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "TROCANDO EM MIUDOS")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "TROCANDO EM MIUDOS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.