The number of anti-government groups drops, but their racism is mounting.
When the so-called "Patriot" movement burst onto the national scene in the early 1990s, it spread like fire, fueled by resentment of the government and by events at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Even after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the number of militias and similar groups expanded, hitting an all-time high of 858 groups in 1996.
Now, dampened by arrests and by the passage of time, the Patriot movement is contracting. In 1998, for the second year in a row, the number of Patriot groups fell, from 523 in 1997 to 435 last year. Over the two years from 1996 to 1998, the number of Patriot groups decreased by almost 50%.
But as the number of Patriot groups declines, the reach of their rhetoric grows. While the number of Patriot publications has remained stable, Patriot sites on the Internet have exploded — from 179 in 1997 to a 1998 total of 248. In the earlier year, 18% of Patriot groups had Web sites; in 1998, 33% of them did.
The decline in Patriot groups has coincided with two other trends: a marked increase in the number of hate groups, a phenomenon fueled, in part, by Patriots moving further to the right; and increased interest in racial issues among remaining Patriot groups. Where their chief themes were once gun control and federal regulation, Patriots now are taking up issues like non-white immigration.
More importantly, they are increasingly influenced by Christian Identity, a racist and anti-Semitic theology. Prominent Patriots regularly attend Identity conferences, and some militias have adopted Identity wholesale.
"What we're seeing now is ... the re-emerging notion of this country as Anglo-American, a white country," says Leonard Zeskind, a longtime analyst of the extreme right who sees strengthening radicalism. "That idea is being put forward in a mainstream way, and that has not happened successfully since at least before World War II."
Reasons for the Decline
The decline in Patriot groups has several explanations.
The Patriot movement is aging. The events that set it afire — the 1992 killing of white supremacist Randy Weaver's wife and son at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the 1993 debacle in Waco, Texas — no longer have the same resonance they once did. Many of those who once expected imminent revolution have tired of waiting and have drifted back into their old lives.
At the same time, many who remain have become opportunists, finding ways to make money from those who believe Patriot ideology and conspiracy theory.
Arrests and criminal plots have frightened off many who once saw the movement as a way to bring back a mythologized American past. In particular, the authorities have cracked down on Patriots' "common-law" courts, pseudo-legal bodies that have passed false financial instruments, filed bogus liens against their enemies and purported to exercise real judicial authority.
In addition, many Patriots have been imprisoned in connection with terrorist plots and arms trafficking.
Many hard-liners within the movement have gone underground and are no longer part of visible, organized groups. Frustrated by the small effect the movement has had on national life, these people are effectively dropping out of the system, and in some cases taking up arms to build the second American revolution they hope for.
The "leaderless resistance" model is, in the eyes of many, the only available option.
Hate groups, once seen as the lunatic fringe of the political scene, have become a more acceptable and attractive alternative. Evidence of this can be seen in the power of groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, a racist group that portrays itself as a mainstream conservative organization; the increasing currency of controversial theories about race and IQ; and a generalized worry among whites about becoming a minority in America (see Redefining America).
The Patriot movement is also atomizing. Where Patriots once sought to protect the country by remaking the government to their own liking, many are now more concerned about themselves and their immediate families. This can be seen most clearly in widely circulated fears about the Y2K computer bug and the coming millennium.
Worried about the collapse of civilization or the coming of the end times, many have retreated from overt political action into "covenant communities" or their own, individual bunkers.
In recent years, Patriots and others with similar fears have attended so-called Preparedness Expos, at which dried foods and other goods are sold in preparation for the coming hard times. There were six expos held in both 1997 and 1998 — expos at which retailers report selling survivalist goods at unheard of rates.
In 1999, with the millennium date change approaching, nine major Preparedness Expos are scheduled.
White Nationalism Heats Up
For now, though, the movement is clearly shrinking.
Of the 435 Patriot groups identified by the Intelligence Project, 171 were militias, down from 221 in 1997. At the same time, the number of common-law courts fell from 53 to 31. Another 107 groups were categorized as political or citizens' groups, reflecting an effort by at least some Patriots to influence the mainstream political process.
In its count, the Intelligence Project found Patriot groups operating in every state in the nation. But they were concentrated in Texas (52), Michigan (49), California (47), Ohio (22) and Florida and Tennessee (17 each).
Many of these same states had large numbers of race-based hate groups, including Florida (38), California (36), Texas (31), Michigan (24) and Ohio (22). Counting both types, the highest counts were in Texas and California (83 each), Florida (55) and Ohio (44).
The decline in Patriot groups may reverse itself in the coming year or two. Patriots, who now appear largely hunkered down in anticipation of the Y2K crisis, may again pick up steam when the event passes. Many have spoken of the need to rebuild the movement — or to prepare for the imposition of martial law they expect when the computers crash.
Norm Olson, leader of the Northern Regional Michigan Militia, has called for a May assembly to discuss "recall[ing] and reassembl[ing] the militia." One Patriot Web site, Team Law, claims that it has already chosen "governors" for 24 states — governors who presumably will lead some future American government.
Such sentiments may heat up in the runup to the 2000 elections, as the national political debate turns to the shape of the next millennium. Some, drawn into the debate by the level of rhetoric yet repelled by both choices in the presidential contest, may opt for a "none-of-the-above" choice, falling into the ranks of the Patriots.
But whatever happens to their numbers, it is likely that Patriot groups will take on a more racist cast.
"You're seeing a ... nationalist movement, an ethnically based nationalism, moving into the American mainstream," says Zeskind, who is president of the Kansas City, Mo.-based Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights. "... We are facing a very serious challenge in the form of a rapidly coalescing white nationalism.
"We have to confront that, or we face becoming another Yugoslavia."