We’ll never know for certain whether accused domestic-terrorist-in-the-making Christopher Hasson would have ever acted on his desire to spark a racial civil war by committing the assassinations and mass killings for which he had so thoroughly prepared and about which he endlessly fantasized.
We do know, however, exactly what might have been the spark to send the forty-nine-year-old Coast Guardsman from Baltimore off on a killing rampage, though: the impeachment of President Trump.
Hasson was arrested in February 2019 after an investigation into his illicit drug transactions on a Coast Guard base uncovered evidence that he had been plotting a massive domestic-terrorist attack, including a series of planned assassinations. Foremost among his targets were leading media and Democratic Party figures, including MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, Ari Melber, and Chris Hayes; CNN’s Van Jones and Don Lemon; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; and Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker.
To carry out these assassinations, Hasson had amassed an armory in his basement, including fifteen weapons and one thousand rounds of ammunition. In his deleted emails, investigators found Hasson musing about carrying out a “two-pronged attack” using bioterror weapons and a sniper attack.
Inspired in large part by Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik—and in particular by Breivik’s ardent belief in the white-nationalist hoax theory called cultural Marxism—Hasson wrote: “I am dreaming of a way to kill almost every last person on earth.”
He also was a fanatical white nationalist. In addition to his admiration for Breivik, Hasson corresponded with other neo-Nazis. He was particularly keen on the work of white supremacist Harold Covington, who promoted creating a “white homeland” in the Pacific Northwest, but who died in 2018.
“How long can we hold out there and prevent niggerization of the Northwest until whites wake up on their own or are forcibly made to make a decision whether to roll over and die or wake up on their own remains to be seen,” Hasson wrote Covington in a 2017 draft letter.
Buried in Hasson’s deleted emails were his working notes for events around which he was planning actions, notably: “what if trump illegally impeached” and “civil war if trump impeached.”
It’s not hard to find the source of Hasson’s belief that civil war would erupt if President Trump were to face impeachment: By early 2019, civil war had become an endemic talking point and source of speculation among right-wing pundits. The same week as Hasson’s arrest, longtime Republican operative Joseph diGenova went on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show and warned:
We are in a civil war in this country. There’s two standards of justice, one for Democrats, one for Republicans. The press is all Democrat, all liberal, all progressive, all left—they hate Republicans, they hate Trump. So the suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future in this country is over. It’s not going to be. It’s going to be total war. And as I say to my friends, I do two things—I vote and I buy guns.
This was now a commonplace among right-wing pundits and political figures. Longtime Trump aide Roger Stone was fond of warning that civil war lay around the corner if any attempt were made to remove Donald Trump from office. Televangelist and Trump ally Jim Bakker made similar warnings only a few months into the presidency: “If it happens, there will be a civil war in the United States of America. The Christians will finally come out of the shadows because we are going to be shut up permanently if we’re not careful.”
Far-right pundits like Kurt Schlichter have pondered what a civil war might look like—concluding, naturally, that the right will kick the left’s asses:
There are two Civil War II scenarios, and the left is poorly positioned to prevail in either one. The first scenario is that the Democrats take power and violate the Constitution in order to use the apparatus of the federal government to suppress and oppress Normal Americans. In that scenario, red Americans are the insurgents. In the second scenario, which we can even now see the stirrings of in California’s campaign to nullify federal immigration law, it is the blue states that are the insurgents.
The Democrats lose both wars. Big time.
Even before Trump’s election, talk of civil war was bubbling up with great frequency among far-right militiamen who believed a Hillary Clinton presidency would bring about a fresh kind of “tyranny,” many of whom prepared for armed resistance in the event she won. Indeed, the talk cropped up in domestic-terrorism incidents: three Kansas militiamen arrested in October 2016 for plotting the truck bombing of a rural community of Somali refugees were acting under the assumption that Clinton would win, and were planning to attack the day after the November election as an opening act of resistance to her administration.
But the prospect of Trump’s premature removal from office had always sent his supporters on the extremist right into rhetorical frenzies and fueled their frequently violent action in street protests. That particularly became the case once Trump had, in fact, been impeached by the House in December 2019 for abuse of power involving his attempts to withhold aid from Ukraine as a means to pressure the nation’s president into opening an investigation into Joe Biden.
After the House voted to impeach him on December 18, the fanatical MAGA supporters became even more unhinged.
“He’s not gonna be removed. He’s not gonna be removed. He’s not gonna be removed,” one attendee at a Trump rally told a CBS reporter. When the reporter asked, “Do you feel confident in that?” he responded, “My .357 Magnum is comfortable with that. End of story.”
Texas representative Louie Gohmert—who had talked up civil war on several previous occasions—went ballistic on the floor of the House, warning that impeachment meant the end of America: “This is a travesty. We’re in big trouble,” Gohmert huffed, adding, “Now it’s lowered even further, the bar. [Impeachment] will be used for political battles and this country’s end is now in sight. I hope I don’t live to see it. This is an outrage.”
Louisiana congressman Clay Higgins was even more unhinged: “They fear the true will of we the people. They are deep established D.C. They fear, they call this Republican map flyover country. They call us deplorables. They fear our faith, they fear our strength, they fear our unity, they fear our vote, and they fear our president. We will never surrender our nation to career establishment D.C. politicians and bureaucrats. Our republic shall survive this threat from within. American patriots shall prevail.”
The real action, however, was on social media, where Facebook and Twitter posts eagerly anticipating the violent uprising to preserve Trump’s presidency became as common as houseflies.
Ex–Navy SEAL Jonathan Gilliam, for instance, used Gohmert’s comments as a springboard on Twitter for open discussion of a shooting civil war in which conservatives begin killing liberals for attempting to remove Trump: “Like so many, I see exactly what he sees. Therefor [sic] it is time we begin considering the possibility of civil war.”
A fairly typical response among far-right extremists was to pledge utter fealty to Trump, even unto death. Rene Hollan, a Monroe, Washington, man who was a regular participant in far-right street events organized by Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys in the Pacific Northwest, posted a screed (later removed by Facebook) vowing that he would even detonate a nuclear bomb in a major liberal city:
As a naturalized U.S. citizen who swore the Oath of Allegiance, if President Trump orders me to drive a truck with a nuke into a city with Facebook offices or an illegal sanctuary city, and detonate it, killing myself, everyone in the city, and rendering it a sheet of glass, it would be my honor to comply.
Social scientist Caroline Orr collected a large tranche of these kinds of comments on Twitter, noting, “It’s easy to laugh at the keyboard warriors in the mix, but there are definitely extremists using this opportunity to try to bring about social and political upheaval by issuing calls for violence.”
“Lock N Load, PATRIOTS, the demonrats just told us what they want for Christmas: #CivilWar2,” wrote one. “Let’s make the demon rats live on the streets of their own districts!”
“ALERT!! If the Democrats impeach OUR PRESIDENT WE NEED TO HAVE A CIVIL WAR,” tweeted another. “America as we have known it will be gone and the squad will be in charge of us. I shiver thinking of it. A civil war will be the only way to get America back as we remember it.”
This kind of rhetoric isn’t being introduced to the discourse by mere accident. The “civil war” talking point, in fact, has been deliberately promoted by Russian intelligence agencies as part of their campaign to undermine American democracy. A Justice Department affidavit released in 2018 noted that the “civil war” meme is being directly encouraged by Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian-financed disinformation agency that purchased 3,500 ads on Facebook during the 2016 campaign with the intent of undermining American political consensus. The affidavit describes directions given to IRA’s writers:
Forcefully support Michael Savage’s point of view with competence and honesty. Savage made it clear that any attempt to remove Trump is a direct path to a civil war in the United States. Name those who oppose the president and those who impede his efforts to implement his pre-election promises. Focus on the fact that the Anti-Trump Republicans: a) drag their feet with regard to financing the construction of the border wall; b) are not lowering taxes; c) slander Trump and harm his reputation (bring up McCain); d) do not want to cancel Obamacare; e) are not in a hurry to adopt laws that oppose the refugees coming from Middle Eastern countries entering this country. Summarize that in case Republicans will not stop acting as traitors, they will bring upon themselves forces of civil retribution during the 2018 elections.
Over at Trump-friendly Russia Today, op-ed writer Robert Bridge bolstered the civil war talk with a piece headlined “Democrats’ Push to Impeach Trump Is Just the Latest Chapter of US Civil War 2.0,” in which he concluded, “What is happening now in Washington DC between the Republicans and Democrats is just mere dress rehearsal for far more disasters down the road. I just hope the costumes don’t end up being blue and gray, once again.”
The far-right eagerness for civil war eventually took on a life of its own, particularly on white-nationalist-friendly chat forums like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit, where discussions of extraordinary violence were frequently cloaked in cartoonish jocularity and black irony. That was where they came up with a name for their new-age conflict: the Boogaloo.
It appears to have been coined in a June 2018 Reddit thread titled “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo”—an ironic reference to a cheesy 1984 breakdancing film, Breakin’ 2; Electric Boogalo—devoted to a discussion of the belief that liberal government officials were “coming for their guns.” The usage spread among gun owners throughout 2019 in their online chats about how they would respond to any government attempt to confiscate their weapons.
One Twitter user urged readers to obtain whatever guns and ammo they might need for the future because their ability to do so would soon be “severely curtailed,” adding, “Button up for the #boogaloo. Now.” There were a range of Boogaloo-related hashtags—#Boogaloo2020, #BoogalooBois, and #Boojahideen—as well as popular phrases: “boogaloo ready,” “bring on the boogaloo,” “showing up for the boogaloo,” and “when the boogaloo hits.” One tweet with the Boogaloo hashtag warned about one hundred million “active shooter” situations “when the cops try to do nationwide gun confiscations.”
As the name became familiar, the people promoting it began to fear that using the term would eventually result in their removal by the larger social media platforms—particularly Facebook and Twitter—where Boogaloo talk gained wider traction, largely because the violence underlying the discussions clearly violated their terms of service. (This was, in fact, eventually the case, though both platforms were initially sluggish in responding to the matter.) Anticipating the crackdown, they began devising alternative phrases to refer to the same thing, mainly mnemonic variations on Boogaloo, such as Big Igloo and Big Luau.Even before Trump’s election, talk of civil war was bubbling up with great frequency among far-right militiamen.
Soon enough, there were not only hashtags and memes using the terms spreading on social media, but even concrete uses of the alternative names in their imagery: a logo featuring a large igloo soon became the official banner of the movement. At the same time, Boogaloo adherents began showing up at public demonstrations wearing Hawaiian shirts (referencing the “Big Luau”) along with their body armor and, frequently, their weapons.
The Boogaloo concept reached a kind of early zenith in January 2020, when thousands of gun owners descended on Richmond, Virginia, to protest the imminent passage of a raft of mostly moderate gun-control measures advocated by then-governor Ralph Northam. In the month preceding the rally organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, “Patriot” militia groups angrily organized an effort to bring their followers to the Virginia Capitol to protest; they called it the Boogaloo.
A favorite component of the social media chatter was a New World Order conspiracy theory claiming that Northam intended to call in blue-helmeted troops from the United Nations to quell the uprising. One Twitter account featured a photo of a UN vehicle transport on Interstate 81 in western Virginia, declaiming: “As predicted! UN vehicles in Virginia to assist with shock-troop gun control! Are you ready! Photo captured yesterday! Foreign troops!”
Another account urged participants: “Buy a gripful of pistols and rifles. Train Train Train. Aim for the blue helmets and black hoodies.”
The conspiracy theory spread like kudzu among militiamen. The leader of Washington state’s Three Percent militia organization posted on Facebook an extension of the theory: namely, that a job posting on the United Nations website suggested a plan to incarcerate protesters. He titled it “Boogaloo is coming.”
Northam announced a “state of emergency” less than a week before the planned gun protest, ordering the area around the Capitol shut down, and banning any kind of weapons in the area. “No weapons will be allowed on Capitol grounds,” said Northam at a press conference. “Everything from sticks and bats to chains and projectiles….The list also includes firearms. It makes no sense to ban every other weapon but allow firearms when intelligence shows that armed militia groups plan to storm the Capitol.”
Many of the would-be participants and their supporters remained defiant after Northam’s announcement. “Carry your weapons anyway. Northam is trying to suppress turnout,” one posted on Twitter. “I encourage all brothers and sisters to BRING THEIR WEAPONS and DEFY Gov. Blackface this week!” posted another.
The Richmond rally four days later—rife with men wearing Hawaiian Boogaloo shirts, as well as a full complement of Three Percent militiamen and Oath Keepers—was raucous but generally nonviolent. However, its organizers made clear that their frequently seditionist rhetoric was not going away. Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes—who eventually played a key role in the Capitol insurrection—told protest supporters that the momentum was building for a civil war:
So yes, it could come down to a standoff. That’s why it’s important for, like I said, we want to reach out to the state police and National Guard as part of our mission when we go to Virginia, is reach out to them and encourage them to stand down because if they do act under the command of the governor, they come into a county, and they’re resisted by the local militia or the sheriff and his posse, it will kick off a civil war in this country. That’s what will happen. There will be a civil war between the left and the right and we’d prefer to see that not happen. That’s where it’s going to go.
Excerpted from The Age of Insurrection: The Radical Right’s Assault on American Democracy by David Neiwert. Copyright © 2023. Available from Melville House Books.