Briefing

Why right-wingers claim white nationalist group Patriot Front is an FBI sting

Did the group really 'pop up outta nowhere'?

The white nationalist group Patriot Front staged a march in Boston on July 2. Right-wingers think the group is secretly run by the FBI. Here's everything you need to know:

What happened in Boston?

Dozens of masked members of the group known as Patriot Front marched through the streets of Boston on Saturday carrying flags and police shields. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Patriot Front is a "white nationalist hate group."

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu took to Twitter to condemn the march. "To the white supremacists who ran through downtown today: When we march, we don't hide our faces," she wrote. "Your hate is as cowardly as it is disgusting, and it goes against all that Boston stands for."

What does the Patriot Front believe?

The group's manifesto envisions an anti-democratic future for the United States. "The time of the Republic has passed in America as the system grows too weak to perform its duty," it reads. "The damage done to this nation and its people will not be fixed if every issue requires the approval and blessing from the dysfunctional American democratic system. Democracy has failed in this once great nation."

The document also expresses the group's white nationalism: "An African, for example, may have lived, worked, and even been classed as a citizen in America for centuries, yet he is not American ... The same rule applies to others who are not of the founding stock of our people."

At a 2017 rally, one of the group's speakers repeated a version of the Great Replacement theory. "A corrupt rootless, global, and tyrannical elite has usurped your democracy and turned it into a weapon, first to enslave and then to replace you," he said.

What else has the Patriot Front done?

Patriot Front split off from the white nationalist group Vanguard America (VA) following the Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. James Alex Fields Jr., the man who killed Heather Heyer by ramming his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, was a member of VA.

The VA contingent that attended Unite the Right was led by a high school student named Thomas Rousseau, but soon after the rally, he found himself in a power struggle with VA leader Dillon Irizarry, according to messages from the group's Discord server that were later posted online. By September, Rousseau had formally split from VA. The new splinter group, Patriot Front, would embrace a hyper-American aesthetic in order to be more palatable to "those more inclined to fence-sitting," Rousseau announced.

Former alt-righter Matt Forney said in a recent blog post that this fragmentation was part of a larger trend. "The aftermath of Unite the Right saw many of the alt-right's major figures show their lack of character, turning on each other, getting each other fired from their jobs, and even reporting each other to the police and FBI over petty disputes," he wrote.

Patriot Front then remained relatively obscure for over four years before making headlines with a December 2021 rally in Washington, D.C. Only around 100 people attended — marching down the National Mall without a permit, wearing white face coverings, sunglasses, hats, and khakis and carrying shields and American flags — but the event was widely covered in the media thanks to a clever ruse.

Ahead of the event, organizers appear to have set up a fake Twitter account with an AI-generated profile picture under the name Sheryl Lewellen, The Washington Post explains. The account sent its first Tweet — "HAPPENING NOW About 500 men with riot shields are marching in #WashingtonDC" along with a video of the demonstrators — on the day of the event. Several mainstream media outlets picked up the tweet, amplifying the account's reach. Then, after the event, the account changed its name to "Reclaim America," ditched the fake picture, and began posting Patriot Front content.

On June 11, 2022, a group of Patriot Front members, including Rousseau, was arrested near an LGBT Pride event in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The 31 men were found inside a U-Haul truck along with several shields and at least one smoke grenade. They were charged with conspiracy to riot, a misdemeanor.

Why do some claim the Patriot Front is an FBI sting operation?

A few days after the Patriot Front demonstration in D.C., podcast host Joe Rogan suggested that the marchers might actually be federal agents in disguise. "They just pop up outta nowhere with the same sized flags, the same outfits, goose-stepping ... in an orderly line? Who organized this? ... I'm calling bulls--t," he said. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) expressed a similar theory, arguing that real right-wing protesters would never cover their faces the way the Patriot Front marchers did. Other outlets and individuals, including right-wing news site The Gateway Pundit, echoed these claims after the arrests in Idaho. Coeur D'Alene Police Chief Lee White told reporters emphatically that the men his officers arrested were not "FBI in disguise."

The group did not "pop outta nowhere" as Rogan suggested. "Far from being an 'unknown' entity that suspiciously materialized ... in December 2021, both Patriot Front and Rousseau have been the subject of monitoring and news coverage since" 2017, Snopes reports. Gigabytes of leaked emails and Discord server messages from inside the group also appear to be genuine.

And yet, the theory persists. After the march in Boston, former Fox News producer Kyle Becker joked, "The Feds are putting on off-Broadway musicals now. Coming to a town near you: 'The Patriot Front!'" Daily Wire host Michael Knowles shared the tweet, adding, "It's literally called a 'front.' A little on the nose, Quantico!"

This wouldn't be the first time the American right tried to blame the FBI for the actions of extremists. In January 2022, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) suggested during a Senate hearing that a man named Ray Epps, who participated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, was actually an FBI informant tasked with inciting the riot.

A spokesperson for the Jan. 6 committee later said the committee "has interviewed Mr. Epps," who told them that "he was not employed by, working with, or acting at the direction of any law enforcement agency on January 5th or 6th or at any other time, and that he has never been an informant for the FBI or any other law enforcement agency." But that wasn't enough to quash the rumor. Last month, Cruz re-shared video from the hearing and asked when the House committee would start pursuing "REAL answers as to what happened with the FBI on January 6."

Of course, it is also not unheard of for federal agents to actually lure members of the far-right into committing crimes. In April, a jury acquitted two men accused of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) two years earlier and failed to reach verdicts against two other defendants. The alleged conspirators argued that they were entrapped by the FBI. A July 2021 investigation by Buzzfeed News seemed to confirm these claims, concluding that "the extent of [FBI informants'] involvement raises questions as to whether there would have even been a conspiracy without them."

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