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Editorial: A Leaner, Meaner Radical Right

The number of hate and antigovernment “Patriot” groups fell significantly for the first time in 2013 after four years of spectacular growth. But the radical right still remains enormous by historical standards, and its capacity for terrorism is still very much alive.

As many as 20 million unarmed “Patriots” are coming to Washington, D.C., this spring to oust President Obama and top Congressional leaders, try the offending politicians, and return America to constitutional rule.

Or so says retired Army Col. Harry Riley, the organizer of the latest radical rally aimed at taking the president down. Riley told far-right radio host Pete Santilli in January that “about 1.8 million militia members across the nation” had already “signed up” to participate in “Operation American Spring” on May 16.

While Riley’s predictions are certainly inflated, the rally is just the latest manifestation of a radical right that remains at historically high levels. A new count by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows that hate groups like the Klan and antigovernment “Patriot” groups that see the federal government as an enemy of American liberty actually declined from 2012 to 2013, by 7% and 19%, respectively. But with a total of more than 2,000 groups, the radical right today still has almost twice as many groups as it did at an earlier peak some two decades ago.

Several factors contributed to the decline in the number of radical-right groups in 2013: an improving economy, shock and dismay at the re-election of Obama, law enforcement crackdowns, and, perhaps most importantly, co-optation of the far right’s issues by mainstream politicians. At the same time, the movement seemed to grow more hard-line as less committed and more moderate members fell away.

Violence is still one of its hallmarks. As we detail in this issue, last year saw a New York Klansman charged with trying to build a deadly X-ray weapon to murder huge crowds of Muslims. A member of a racist prison gang disguised as a pizza deliveryman assassinated the head of the Colorado prison system on his own doorstep. An Army private in Georgia pleaded guilty to two murders in furtherance of his secret group’s plans to violently take over the government. A so-called “sovereign citizen” in Las Vegas was charged with plotting to kidnap, try and execute police officers.

Moreover, the primary driver of the radical right over the past decade — the backlash over the country’s changing demographics — is still very much in play. Significant numbers of Americans feel their whole way of life is slipping away in a country that is expected to lose its white majority within the next three decades. For them, Obama symbolizes the changing face of the country in a vivid way. At the same time, the far right is losing on a large number of other fronts as well, from the legalization of same-sex marriage to national health care reform to an array of other issues. It is often precisely when the extreme right starts to lose the battle for public opinion that frustrated radicals decide the time for action has come and turn to violence.

Harry Riley’s promise of millions appearing in Washington to kick off an effective coup d’etat in the style of Egyptian rebels might seem like a bit of a joke, certainly in terms of the numbers predicted. But the fact that the radical right has lost some steam does not mean that millions of Americans don’t still sympathize with its ideas and even its methods. A poll last year found that almost one in three registered American voters think armed rebellion may soon be necessary.

Riley, a Floridian who retired from military intelligence more than 20 years ago, also has the backing of a growing number of mainstream enablers.

Two of them are former Fox News personalities, says Mother Jones magazine: Erik Rush, a former Fox analyst who has called Obama “a subversive, a saboteur, an Islamist-enabler and a Marxist,” and retired Gen. Paul Vallely, a one-time military analyst who has said he would head an anti-Obama revolution if need be. Other vocal supporters include Jim Garrow, a conspiracy theorist who claims Obamacare legalized execution by guillotine, and Steve Eichler, the TeaParty.org CEO who decries Obama’s “twisted agenda for a New World Order.”

Riley’s rally is only the latest in Washington meant to throw out our nation’s first black president. Similar attempts, each billed as a nonviolent effort to return the country to constitutional rule, were led by Larry Klayman of Freedom Watch last November and by a group of right-wing truck drivers in October. None has drawn a major crowd, but they nevertheless focused participants’ fury on the president.

How many people show up at the rally is very much in question. But as with the larger radical right, the problem lies not so much in numbers as in their attitude. Riley has predicted that the government will not hesitate to use armed force on those who attend and that so-called Patriots may be killed, wounded or sent to prison.

It’s hard not to worry that some will actually believe him.