Right-Wing Death Threats Are Forcing A Virginia Lawmaker Into Hiding

With a January 20 gun rights rally looming, socialist Lee Carter is going to ground and the governor has declared a state of emergency

Jan 15 · 8 min read
Photo: AFP Contributor/Getty Images

The Virginia General Assembly, which flipped from Republican to Democratic control in November, is expected to be in regular session on January 20. But at least one elected delegate, Lee Carter, who represents the town of Manassas, will take the day off — and not just to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Having become the subject of a heated conspiracy theory swirling around pending gun-control legislation, he plans to spend the day in a safe house, “someplace where the address was never published,” he emphasizes.

“To maximize my chance of survival, I may have to miss some votes,” he says. “I’m not interested in becoming a martyr.”

The south’s only socialist legislator, whose election in 2017 presaged the “blue wave” that swept leftists like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into power the following year, is no stranger to political combat. Carter has aggressively criticized both the GOP and his erstwhile Democratic colleagues, whom he largely views as ineffectual, misguided, and in thrall to corporate interests. He is a sharp presence on Twitter, often punching back at anonymous accounts other elected officials might simply ignore. And he once posted a thread listing “things you can expect to be used against me,” a catalog of missteps, from offensive social media comments to lost jobs, troubled marriages, and dick pics — a self-inflicted oppo dump.

The south’s only socialist legislator, whose election in 2017 presaged the “blue wave” that swept leftists like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into power the following year, is no stranger to political combat.

In other words, Carter is not one to back away from a fight. But this time is different. In recent weeks, the red-haired lawmaker and part-time Lyft driver has been the subject of a torrent of violent threats, several of which he has shared with Capitol Police, who took them seriously enough to forward them to the FBI. Not long after, Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, declared a state of emergency, citing intelligence reports that armed extremists were planning to storm the Capitol.

Carter is 32, with a wispy beard and a crooked smile. He grew up in a military family in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, a small coastal town. He joined the Marine Corps in 2006, serving tours in the Middle East and the Mediterranean as a technician. That’s where his political evolution began. “I thought I was joining the Marine Corps to help people, and what ended up happening was the government stole five years of my life in service to a foreign policy that’s about maintaining corporate imperial domination of other countries.”

After his honorable discharge in 2011, Carter found work as a repair technician specializing in hospital equipment. With his overtime pay topping $50 an hour, he thought he’d made it. Then he saw an invoice and discovered the customer was being billed $380 for his work. “I went, ‘Oh, shit … ’” After an injury and a frustrating experience with workers comp, he decided to run for office as a state delegate in the 50th district, taking on a powerful GOP incumbent, majority whip Jackson Miller. Carter says he had the support of the local Democratic party establishment until he made his refusal to take corporate money a major pillar of his campaign, at which point things grew chilly and the party opted to put their resources into other races.

It was around that time, he says, that he began hearing about “this guy going around the country, this independent senator from Vermont” who was saying a lot of stuff that resonated with him. “I literally Googled the words ‘What is socialism?’ and started reading and never stopped.” After securing the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America, he went on to win the seat with a formidable 54% of the vote.

His ultimate goal, he says, is to create “a new economic structure in which the people who do the work have ownership and democratic control over the workplace.” He cites the Spanish conglomerate Mondragon, a collection of worker cooperatives with more than 70,000 employees, many of whom are part owners with a role in decision making, as a model for how socialism might flourish within a capitalist system, and gradually remake the world.

Carter says he’s been able to connect with voters in his purple district by mostly avoiding ideology. “I talk about my goal: building the kind of society that I want us to all live in, one where you don’t have to worry about whether you’re going to be able to pay the bills, or worry about about mass layoffs. After about 20 minutes, when people are nodding, you go, ‘Well, that’s called socialism.’ And they’ll say, ‘Hold up, you mean it’s good?’”

In November, he was reelected with nearly 58% of the vote.

But in the ensuing months, matters took a dark turn as Carter became the subject of a furious online intimidation campaign by gun-rights enthusiasts.

After the November election, in which Democrats won decisive majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, they vowed to pass a number of gun-control measures, setting off a panic among Second Amendment stalwarts. In response, well over 100 localities throughout the state have declared themselves Second Amendment “sanctuary counties,” in which sheriffs and other officials vow to defy any gun regulations they deem unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, a local gun-rights advocacy group, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which lobbies state legislators every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — typically brandishing firearms while doing so — called for a mass mobilization for January 20. An assortment of pro-gun activists, militia members, and far-right extremists from around the country — “enough citizens armed with handguns to take over a modern mid-sized country,” according to Ammoland — have vowed to attend. Oath Keepers, the national anti-government group, issued a call for trainers to help organize “posses” and “Spartan training groups” throughout the state to support rebellious government officials.

Although organizers insist they want a peaceful demonstration on January 20, social media platforms have been rife with extremist fantasies about a coming “boogaloo,” a slang term for a civil war. Much of the violent online rhetoric has been directed against Gov. Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, but many are aiming their outrage at Carter.

The ironic part is, the lawmaker considers himself an unambiguous supporter of gun rights. “I’m probably the only pro-gun Democrat in the state,” he says.

He supports universal background checks (as do 84% of Virginia voters, according to a recent poll) but opposes assault weapons bans. As for red flag laws, which would allow authorities to confiscate guns from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others, he says the current proposals lack due process. Another concern: having spent some time monitoring far-right discussion forums, “because my life depends on it,” he’s seen extremists discussing plans to target their opponents with false complaints.

“I literally Googled the words ‘What is socialism?’ and started reading and never stopped.”

An enthusiastic gun owner, who sometimes carries a sidearm and collects antique bolt-action shotguns, Carter fears that Virginia’s proposed gun legislation may well prompt “a massive wave of violence” — precisely the opposite of what proponents intend. Asked whether it’s appropriate to allow violent threats to dictate public policy, he replies, “Maybe not, but I’m dealing with the fundamental material reality, in that people will die.”

Much of the rage directed at Carter from gun-rights supporters appears to spring from a misreading of his recent proposed legislation, House Bill 67, which is aimed at allowing public employees — most importantly, teachers — to go on strike, but maintains the long-existing status quo prohibiting strikes by law enforcement officers.

Convinced that the bill’s goal is to punish sheriffs and other officials who refuse to enforce new restrictions, gun rights advocates have feverishly conflated Carter’s socialist views with an imagined plan for wholesale gun confiscation. Cam Edwards, a gun rights advocate and editor of Bearing Arms, attributes the hysteria to “folks misreading the bill,” though he admits, “there may be some who are trying to stoke fear by representing it as an attack on law enforcement.” Nonetheless, when Virginia GOP delegate Nick Freitas repeated the smear on Edwards’ YouTube show, the host declined to challenge him. “That’s on me for not pushing back,” Edwards admitted in an email. (Freitas did not respond to a request for comment.)

For Carter, the mischaracterization has become a matter of personal safety. “Now there’s a massive internet conspiracy theory that I’m working hand in hand with Gov. Northam, whom I can’t stand, the National Guard, and the UN, to go door-to-door taking people’s guns,” he explains. “It’s gotten to the point where people are openly discussing murder, and they want me and Governor Northam and Attorney General Herring to be the first ones dead.” The governor and AG have security details, he notes; state delegates do not.

The flurry of death threats came after Carter’s proposed legislation was discussed by another popular pro-gun YouTuber, Iraqveteran8888, whose channel has more than 2 million subscribers. Carter scrolled through the video’s thousands of comments with alarm, eventually posting a thread of screengrabs to Twitter.

The lawmaker believes that at least some of his critics are “cynically exploiting the opportunity to drum up violence and intimidation.” He says the campaign against him and other elected officials raises the specter of stochastic terrorism, the use of mass media to trigger lone wolf attacks. “There might be 100 people out there who are on the verge of carrying out violent acts already, and when they do, the media figure who inspired it gets to wash their hands and condemn it and say, ‘That’s awful.’”

This dynamic is part of why Carter believes that rather than pushing for gun control, his fellow liberals should seriously consider arming themselves. “That’s the lesson of Charlottesville,” he maintains. “If you’re in a community that is at risk for politically motivated violence, if you’re an activist, if you’re gay or trans or a person of color, and if you feel safe within your household having a firearm, you should probably have one. And you should be organized and ready to defend your community. When thousands of Nazis converge on a mid-size town, the state and local police just don’t have it within their ability to keep everybody safe.” (While 58% of Americans believe that owning a firearm makes people safer, research shows the opposite: according to one well regarded study, the presence of a gun in the home correlates with a 41% higher risk of homicide and a 244% increase in suicide.)

So far, Carter says, Virginia officials and the national media seem to be in denial about what he sees is a genuine potential for bloodshed during the King Day demonstration. “It’s an uncomfortable subject,” he says. “Nobody wants to recognize the fact that these people are out there, because that would mean acknowledging that the country is coming apart at the seams. We’re in a cold civil war, and we have been for awhile.”

“There are flash points where it’s briefly become clear, and the Nazi attack on Charlottesville was one of those,” he adds. “Thankfully, the tinder didn’t catch. But there keep being these moments where you’re throwing sparks on that tinder, and eventually one of them is going to start a wildfire.”

Written by

Medium editor-at-large, with bylines in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Times and numerous other publications. ¶ aarongell.com

What matters now. A Medium publication about politics, power, and culture.

Written by

Medium editor-at-large, with bylines in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Times and numerous other publications. ¶ aarongell.com

What matters now. A Medium publication about politics, power, and culture.

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