The January 6 assault on the United States Capitol carried the iconography of US empire. Camouflage-clad rioters, adorned with faux-military rucksacks, helmets, body armor, and badges, marched up the Capitol steps in “Ranger File” formation as fellow rioters took photos. Commentators quickly compared the physical violence and its aftermath to a military theater or battlefield. Some rioters, we now know, intended to annihilate those who stood in their path — carrying out a warlike maneuver with the hope of subverting an electoral outcome.
While many military personnel expressed shock and disgust at the events at the Capitol, roughly one in five of those arrested have a military record. Navy SEALs joined the mob, and an air force veteran was one of five who died in the attack, killed after she tried to force her way into the Speaker’s Lobby.
The far right clearly thrives on American militarism.
As historian Kathleen Belew has shown, white supremacists have a fifty-year history of recruiting military veterans in the United States. During the Cold War, the far right used veterans’ narratives of collective abandonment to goad them into acts of paramilitary violence. Since 9/11, the glorification of US military hegemony has fueled a right-wing movement where violent rhetoric and actions reverberate among its adherents.
To disarm the power of the far right, and to prevent future January 6ths, we must cut the sinews between violence at home and empire abroad. This will mean ending endless wars, of course. But it will also mean building social democracy in the United States and challenging a status quo where the military state is the welfare state, and where the Pentagon both satisfies the material needs of many working-class Americans and shapes popular perceptions of the military.
Crucially, this effort will require organizing among military veterans themselves. Only through long-term coalition building, with military veterans working in and leading leftist organizations, can we defeat the political power of the far right.
The Cold War and the Far Right
Ties between the far right and the military are not new. Cold War foreign policy, with its Janus-faced mission of fighting communism around the globe to prevent communists from coming to power in the US — all while encouraging Americans to keep an eye out for communist subversives — fostered a domestic politics of fear that fueled the projection of military power.
Both Democrats and Republicans promoted expanding the national security state, seeing military dominance as the primary means to defeat communism. By the mid-1950s, the federal government had become dependent on military expertise to confront the Soviet Union, a permanent war economy to generate jobs, and a vigilant body politic to root out communist “traitors.” The military budget soared to unprecedented heights.
The new ideological and economic environment provided the far right the chance to wind its way into the military. In 1961, Edwin Walker, a two-star army general and member of the John Birch Society, was revealed to be spreading right-wing propaganda to men under his command. Walker resigned from the military, but he soon became a valuable martyr for the Right, joining speaking tours with other right-wing firebrands to fulminate about the internal threat of communism.
Walker presaged the political career of General Curtis LeMay, the architect of the World War II firebombing of Japan and later the vice-presidential nominee for Democrat-turned-Independent candidate George Wallace — the same George Wallace who as governor of Alabama vowed to maintain “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” LeMay added the foreign policy experience, oozing with jingoism and Cold War belligerence, to Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign. “It would be most efficient,” LeMay suggested, “to use nuclear weapons” in Vietnam.
Walker and LeMay merely personified the nexus between the Right and the Cold War national security state. A cadre of right-wing groups such as the American Security Council and National Strategy Information Center sprouted up in the 1950s with help from the Pentagon, enlisting speakers to present at military venues and financing informational campaigns about (what else?) the dangers of communism.
By the late 1960s, public scrutiny of the military intensified as the Vietnam War spurred widespread protests and critiques of the national security state. Cuts to the defense budget and the backlash against the Vietnam War in the early 1970s — a backlash led by GIs and active-duty soldiers — made the military a less fertile ground for far-right recruitment. In 1975, Congress’s Church Committee launched investigations into illegal covert actions by the Central Intelligence Agency, putting the national security state on notice.
But the anti-militarist moment soon evaporated. In the late 1970s, as policymakers fretted about the ostensible threat of a resurgent Soviet Union alongside rising unemployment, stagnating wages, and limited economic growth, elites turned once again to defense spending to restore America’s economic and military might. And with growing numbers of conservative officials in Congress, the Right seized the opportunity to defund social programs in the name of both austerity and national security, while championing (along with some Democrats) a foreign policy of “peace through strength.”
The Military Welfare State and the Far Right
The creation of an “all-volunteer force” (AVF) in 1973 was a sea change for the American military.
Disguising an ascendant neoliberal capitalism with the patina of social democracy, the military began to dole out housing, health care, and education funding to enlistees and their families. As historian Jennifer Mittelstadt has argued, the AVF soon functioned as a welfare state for the military, separating social benefits from public need and distinguishing those who serve (the “deserving”) from those who do not.
The AVF, combined with conservative platitudes about post-Vietnam military service, concealed the material interests of the working class in a veneer of volunteerism and reflexive patriotism, which were repackaged to the public in cultural tropes that simplified narratives of military service. The image of soldiers scorned by their country because they “came home without a victory” became ubiquitous even as economic inequality soared. It was fertile ground for the far right.
Civil-military relations eroded during the 1980s and 1990s, as the Pentagon drifted beyond civilian oversight and Ronald Reagan pushed through the largest hike in military spending since the Vietnam War. At the same time, Reagan deployed troops into US cities as part of the “War on Drugs,” establishing the American military’s presence in “high-crime neighborhoods” and around the country’s borders. The military metastasized — increasingly severed from civilian control — just as white supremacists began building networks within its ranks.
Beginning in the 1980s, white supremacist groups like the White Patriot Party (WPP) and the California Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (CKKKK) sought out new members by appealing to servicemen stationed in military bases across the South. The CKKKK was founded by a twenty-year veteran of the army, Frazier Glenn Miller, who “readily employed the narrative, symbols, and weapons of the Vietnam War to shape his group,” Kathleen Belew writes.
Right-wing paramilitary organizing in the 1980s also received a major boost from the United States’ war on Latin American leftists. As Reagan took the Cold War into Central America to defeat Marxist guerillas, military figures used their positions — like Major General John Singlaub, who headed the US chapter of the World Anti-Communist League (WACL) and had connections to conservative members of Congress and groups like the American Security Council — to offer support to anti-communist counterinsurgents in the region. This anti-communist international movement solidified networks between the national security state, the military, and right-wing groups.
The surge of far-right activism in the 1980s had domestic catalysts as well: the rise of the National Rifle Association as an aggressive pro-gun lobby group and revivified arguments about preserving traditional “American values.” Greater access to weapons and the far-right obsession with paramilitary violence, imperial decline, and racial superiority formed a potent cocktail that fueled right-wing radicalization during and beyond Reagan’s presidency.
Meanwhile, the military worked to repair its public image post-Vietnam — aided by films like First Blood, Red Dawn, and Top Gun — and government officials sought to shield US wars from democratic accountability. Presidents from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton began to favor quick, decisive military action — “small wars” in El Salvador, Lebanon, and Somalia — rather than long-term “nation-building.” What hadn’t changed was the justification for US power: the United States could vanquish enemies with preponderant military force without fearing domestic repercussions.
And when the violence came home, they could simply call up the national security state. In the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by military veteran and white power supporter Timothy McVeigh, Clinton issued a directive that tapped national security agencies to investigate and suppress far-right groups.
But they had little success in preventing far-right organizations from making inroads among veterans. Even worse, the post-9/11 “war on terror” buttressed support for higher defense spending, aggressive military interventions, and hyperallegiance to the military — all while overshadowing right-wing extremism at home.
In 2009, as veterans returned home from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) feared they confronted “an uncertain economy and a perceived rising influence of other countries, [which] may be invigorating rightwing extremist activity, specifically the white supremacist and militia movements.” DHS expressed the same concern two years later, noting that “far-right extremist groups are more interested in recruiting military veterans into their organizations.” America’s endless wars, compartmentalized in the public’s imagination and lauded as necessary to defeat enemies in the Middle East so “we do not have to face them in the United States,” manifested in right-wing militias that counted veterans as members.
Donald Trump both inherited and remade this history. During his tenure, Trump pursued a militarist foreign policy — marked by targeted assassinations of figures like Iranian general Qassem Soleimani — while praising white nationalists groups like the Proud Boys (“stand back and stand by”) that celebrated violence and the killing of leftists. The Cold War’s dictatorships were resurrected in their mantras — “Pinochet did nothing wrong,” they insisted.
Trump’s hawkish foreign policy was an extension of militarist tendencies in American politics. And it’s this history that rallied insurrectionists, including military veterans, to the Capitol as Trump told his supporters to “take back our country.”
A Working-Class Alternative
We should be careful not to demonize all military veterans. While a majority of military veterans lean Republican, the military is a much more fluid institutional space for political organizing than popularly depicted.
The often conservative politics of some of the military’s elite officer corps — the four-star generals and veterans from special operations units like the Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets — differ from many enlisted soldiers who opposed Trump’s policies and associated themselves with the Left. Bernie Sanders led the presidential field in contributions from active-duty troops. And veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq overwhelming support a “full withdrawal” from wars in the Middle East.
We should seek to build solidarity with all those who recognize the connections between militarism and poverty, between violence at home and abroad. Common Defense, a veteran-led organization with ties to the labor movement, is pushing for universal health care and racial justice as well as an end to forever war. Democratic Socialists of America has a Veterans Working Group that recruits veterans to socialist politics, knowing that they often hail from “working-class backgrounds themselves.” Both groups follow in the footsteps of generations of veterans-turned-anti-war activists who have tried to transform the welfare state by weakening the warfare state.
Collaboration and coalition building among leftists and anti-imperialist organizations is particularly important given the post-January 6 calls to fight the far right with the same methods and ideologies that erected the post-9/11 surveillance state. Proposals for domestic terrorism laws and January 6th commissions will rely on the same “war on terror” military tactics used in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaigns — and we can expect the same antidemocratic results.
While those who participated in the January 6 riots should be arrested and prosecuted, waging an endless, preemptive war on right-wing extremism will invariably divert social spending toward military purposes and fail to remedy the domestic sources (racism and economic inequality) that nurture right-wing extremism.
It is therefore not enough to mobilize against the power of the far right. For the far right’s existence is also connected to the technocratic contours of America’s national security state. A genuine alternative would deliver healthcare, jobs, and social stability outside a war economy (for example, by converting defense jobs into civilian jobs that address climate change).
Instead of relying on the military to deliver social democracy to a few — social democracy contingent upon military service — we must dismantle the domestic and international edifices of the national security state which harm the poor, the working class, and democracy itself.