After four years of stunning growth, the number of groups on the American radical right dropped significantly for the first time in 2013. The decline in hate groups and, especially, antigovernment “Patriot” groups was driven by a legal crackdown, the failure of various nightmarish radical predictions to materialize, the co-opting by politicians of the extreme right’s issues, and the re-election of President Obama.
After four years of spectacular growth driven by the 2008 election of President Obama and the nearly simultaneous collapse of the economy, the radical right in America saw its first significant decrease in 2013. The shrinking numbers of hate groups and, especially, antigovernment “Patriot” groups appear to be the result of a host of factors, ranging from the co-opting of their issues by mainstream politicians, to an improving economy, to law enforcement crackdowns.
The year started out with a national discussion of gun control in the wake of a deadly Connecticut school massacre and a promise that action would come soon on comprehensive immigration reform, two issues that energized the right and seemed to promise an intensification of radical rage. But those issues faded away with little real action, leaving a deflated radical right to wallow unhappily in “losses” including the advance of same-sex marriage and national health care reform, the failure of various nightmarish predictions to materialize, and Obama’s re-election.
Those factors, along with the collapse or near-collapse of several major groups for a variety of reasons, seem to have taken some of the wind out of the sails of the radical right, leaving the movement both weaker and somewhat smaller. But that has not dampened the violence and terrorism coming out of the movement, as a number of cases last year, including a Klansman’s alleged attempt to build an X-ray weapon to mass murder Muslims, reflected. And while the number of groups has diminished, they are still at historically high levels, far higher even than the very high number that was seen at the peak of the militia movement in the 1990s.
The number of hate groups last year dropped for the second year in a row, down 7% from 1,007 in 2012 to 939, after reaching a 2011 high of 1,018, according to the latest count by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). But the more significant drop came among the Patriot groups, which fell 19% from 1,360 groups in 2012 to 1,096 in 2013. That drop followed an unprecedented rise in Patriot groups, which climbed from a mere 149 in 2008 to the all-time high seen in 2012.
Enormous antipathy toward Obama clearly drove the surge in radical groups, not to mention boosting the Tea Party groups that took off in 2009 and various far-right politicians, that may now have ended. Their anger was not directed only at Obama, but at the demographic change he represented — the Census Bureau has predicted that whites will lose their white majority in the United States by 2043. But the president’s 2012 re-election, which was unexpected by much of the political right, seemed to have the opposite effect, sapping the energy of many of those who had assumed that Americans would finally rise in righteous fury against him.
In other words, the same groups that were galvanized by Obama’s first election and swelled dramatically as a result, were demoralized by his re-election, which seemed to signal that their battle was lost despite enormous effort.
The Changing Landscape
In addition, the radical right seems increasingly conscious that it is losing its battles on many other fronts. Well over half of Americans now support same-sex marriage, a dramatic rise since 1996, when just 27% did so. Large sections of the GOP are trying to figure out how to appeal to the rapidly growing pool of minority voters, even if they are stymied by others within their party. Global warming and rising oceans seem like an indisputable reality to ever more Americans. Legalization of recreational marijuana in two states reflects an increasingly liberal trend. Even with its troubled rollout, national health care reform is likely here to stay.
The right wing of the Republican Party suffered, too, especially in the wake of the ill-fated 16-day government shutdown led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and backed by the Tea Parties as a way of defunding Obamacare last October. In the shutdown’s aftermath, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 77% of respondents disapproved of the GOP’s actions, and 63%, the highest level in the history of the poll, had an unfavorable view of the party. Just a quarter approved of the Tea Parties, the lowest level since the question was first asked in 2010.
Kurt Schlicthter, a conservative lawyer writing on Townhall.com last year, seemed to capture the demoralized mood when he urged others on the right to learn to live with gay marriage. “The gay marriage fight is over. It is here to stay,” he wrote. “Whether the fight ends with a Constitution-twisting Supreme Court ruling or after years or decades as the states adopt it one by one, it’s a done deal.”
Democracy Corps, a liberal think tank whose principals include James Carville, sounded similar in an analysis last fall entitled “Inside the GOP: Report on focus groups with Evangelical, Tea Party, and moderate Republicans.”
“[T]he base thinks they are losing politically and losing control of the country — and their starting reaction is ‘worried,’ ‘discouraged,’ ‘scared,’ and ‘concerned’ about the direction of the country — and a little powerless to change course,” it said.
Complementing that, a litany of disasters predicted by the radical right, and often echoed on the more mainstream right, failed to occur. The “gun grab” long expected by Patriot groups and even the National Rifle Association didn’t happen. The United Nations didn’t invade, and martial law was not declared. The gold bubble — prices of the precious metal were pushed up to almost $2,000 an ounce last summer by fear-driven investors who expected and were apparently preparing for a major collapse — has popped, with prices early this year at around $1,225 and predicted to keep falling. Although many are still hurting, the economy has clearly improved, with stocks in record territory and employment ticking up.
At the same time, law enforcement officials were leaning in on criminal manifestations of the radical right. Since September 2011 — when the FBI labeled “sovereign citizens,” people who believe they don’t have to follow most tax and criminal laws, as comprising a “domestic terrorist movement” — law enforcement officials have been aggressively acting against participants’ illegal activities. Last year, for example, the leader of the largest sovereign group, the Republic for the united States of America, was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for tax fraud.
That pressure seemed to intensify after neo-Nazi Wade Page murdered six people at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in August 2012, leading, among other things, to the dissolution of all 17 U.S. chapters of Volksfront, a leading neo-Nazi skinhead group founded in Oregon. A series of cases in 2013, including the assassination of the head of the Colorado prison system, added force to the apparent crackdown.
Stealing Their Fire
Finally, many issues championed by the radical right have been adopted by purportedly mainstream politicians, in much the same way that a number of state legislatures stole away the core ideas of nativist extremist groups, leading to their rapid diminution in recent years. The idea, for instance, that the United Nations sustainability program known as Agenda 21 is a one-world government conspiracy originated in radical groups like the John Birch Society. But in January 2012 the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution describing it as a “destructive and insidious” scheme that will impose “socialist/communist redistribution of wealth” on America. In fact, the plan, which was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, is completely voluntary and can force no one to do anything.
But that hasn’t stopped national and local politicians around the country from joining in the hysteria over Agenda 21. Since the RNC resolution, Alabama has passed a law meant to outlaw any effects of the plan in that state. Similar needless laws have been approved by one chamber of the state legislatures in Arizona, Missouri and Oklahoma. Kansas, New Hampshire and Tennessee have all passed state resolutions condemning the plan. And major political fights over it have broken out in at least half a dozen other states and countless local communities.
Similarly, laws meant to prevent Islamic Shariah law from being imposed on American courts — a totally unnecessary measure, given that the Constitution does not allow for such an eventuality, but one that has been pushed by Islamophobes on the extreme right — have passed in Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee, and are being considered elsewhere.
Other far-out fears originating on the extreme right also have found their way into the political mainstream. The idea that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, among others, is being plugged by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Last November, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) suggested the president was using the Affordable Care Act as cover to set up a “secret security force.” Earlier in 2013, U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), echoing many Patriot groups, falsely claimed that a proposed United Nations arms treaty “set the stage for [gun] confiscation on a global scale.”
And state legislatures around the country have either passed or considered laws, generally related to gun control but also encompassing other issues, that purport to “nullify” federal legislation. The doctrine of nullification, of course, was originally devised as an antebellum defense of slavery and then brought back to life by Southern states resisting school desegregation and the civil rights movement. It has been repeatedly found by the nation’s courts to be entirely unconstitutional.
The radical right has suffered from its own internal dynamics as well. In the last dozen years, the nation’s leading neo-Nazi groups have largely fallen apart. The World Church of the Creator collapsed after its leader was sent to federal prison for soliciting the murder of a federal judge. The Aryan Nations imploded after a lawsuit brought by the SPLC and the 2004 death of its leader. The National Alliance, long the nation’s most important hate group, has seen its membership fall from 1,400 people to fewer than 100 since its founder’s 2002 death. The implosion has been driven by its new leader’s ineptitude and the SPLC’s exposure of a series of embarrassing secrets about the group and its leaders.
In the last couple of years, other important groups have also seen more than their share of troubles. The shutdown of Volksfront’s U.S. chapters was followed last year by the apparent collapse of its overseas organization. The Council of Conservative Citizens, long the core of the nonviolent white nationalist movement, lost 14 chapters in 2013 and is only sporadically publishing its newsletter. The American Third Position, the nation’s largest racist political party, took a new name in a bid to shore itself up but still lost almost half its chapters in 2013.
Also last year, the number of groups espousing Christian Identity, a kind of neo-Nazi reading of the Bible that has been important to both Klan and neo-Nazi groups, declined by about a third. The League of the South, a racist neo-secessionist group, lost several chapters as it struggled to remain relevant. Marginalized anti-LGBT groups increasingly turned to pushing the criminalization of homosexuality abroad as a response to their loss of battle after battle in the United States.
Three of the more quixotic enterprises on the radical right also appeared to be in trouble last year. An attempt to build an armed Patriot city called III Citadel in northern Idaho to a serious hit after one of its chief promoters was revealed as a convicted con man. A nearby effort to restart Aryan Nations collapsed after the Intelligence Report showed the man who bought land for it was disobeying certain local laws. A stealth plan to turn Leith, N.D., into an all-white enclave — made public by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Bismarck Tribune — also caved in, with its organizer jailed on terrorizing charges after allegedly threatening residents.
None of this is to suggest that the radical right in America does not remain highly dangerous. The weakening of groups often has the effect of fostering, rather than retarding, followers’ decisions to finally act out violently. Despite the decline, there are still enormous numbers of radical groups operating — more than 2,000 of them, including hate and Patriot organizations. The single most important factor that has driven the growth of the radical right over the last five years, the ongoing demographic change to a non-white majority over the course of the next three decades, is still a source of enormous angst and rage for many. And the fact that the Tea Parties and the far right of the Republican Party have lost some of their public support does not mean that millions of Americans do not still sympathize. A shocking poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind last spring showed that 29% of Americans think that armed rebellion may soon be necessary.
More detailed reports on radical-right sectors follow.
Anti-LGBT groups suffered a year of devastating losses in 2013 as the legalization of same-sex marriage and other developments cheered pro-LGBT groups immensely. By year’s end, a total of 18 states had legalized marriage equality or had a court rule that gay marriage could not be outlawed. (At press time, Utah, one of the 18, was considering an appeal that could halt legalization there.)
And that wasn’t all. Minnesota voters rejected a ballot measure that would have codified an anti-gay marriage law in the state constitution. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the central provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented same-sex couples from being recognized by states as “spouses” for purposes of federal benefits. Another federal appeals court ruled that California’s Proposition 8, which would have made only marriage between a man and a woman legal in California, was not constitutional, confirming a lower court decision.
Although the number of anti-gay hate groups rose slightly over the previous year, the losses suffered by such groups clearly sent many of them abroad as they sought to prevent gay advances wherever they still could. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association tweeted support for Uganda’s draconian anti-gay law. Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage spoke against marriage equality in both France and Russia. The latter country, which last year passed a highly controversial law against pro-gay “propaganda,” also hosted Paul Cameron, a discredited anti-gay writer who heads the Family Research Institute and spoke to the Russian parliament. Peter LaBarbera of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality went to Jamaica to speak in support of that country’s hard-line anti-gay laws.
Black Separatist Groups
The longtime leader of the New Black Panther Party, the white- and Jew-bashing lawyer Malik Zulu Shabazz, relinquished his post last fall in order to focus on his legal career with Black Lawyers for Justice, a group he founded in 1996.
Replacing Shabazz, who will continue on as a “spiritual guide” to the group, was his former chief of staff, Hashim Nzinga. Nzinga, who like Shabazz is known for his anti-Semitism and anti-white racism, pleaded guilty in 2012 to writing a bad check for $3,000, a felony. Last year, he was arrested for selling a gun at a Georgia pawn shop and held in jail for four months. But prosecutors eventually dismissed the charge, saying that Nzinga had not been informed that, as a convicted felon, he was not allowed to possess a gun. Earlier, in March 2013, Nzinga announced the party was offering a $10,000 bounty for the “citizen’s arrest” of George Zimmerman, the man who killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin but was acquitted in his death.
Christian Identity Groups
Christian Identity, a racist reading of the Bible that describes non-white people as lacking souls and Jews as the biological descendants of Satan, has since World War II provided the theological glue for many U.S. hate groups. But it is a complex theology and, while it recently had an estimated 50,000 adherents, seems to have been losing followers in recent years, especially among young people.
That trend appeared to continue last year as the number of groups that are primarily about Identity dropped from 54 to just 37, mainly because the Chillicothe, Ohio-based Crusaders for Yahweh shut down all 30 of its chapters. A new Identity group, Identity Nation, did appear in 2013 with 10 chapters, but that was not enough to offset the overall decline. That group, based in Franklin, Ind., at first teamed up with a remnant of the Aryan Nations headed by Morris Gullet, but then broke away and began working with another faction of Aryan Nations that is associated with a biker group called Sadistic Souls MC. The Franklin group has begun calling itself a “Christian Identity Brotherhood” and says it has done away with military ranks.
Ku Klux Klan Groups
Although the number of Klan groups held steady at 163 chapters, or klaverns, last year saw what may be the beginning of a trend: Klan groups moving off the Internet in an apparent bid to regain the secrecy that marked their heyday. The United White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, based in Texas with 30 klaverns, was the first example of that, although others are moving in the same direction.
Most recently, the Fraternal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a group with 10 klaverns based in Tennessee, announced that it had “gone underground so we can be more productive in our struggle. The only way you will be able to contact us from now on is through the old way, word of mouth. ... We are everywhere.”
Klan groups made the news in several ways last year.
In Memphis, Tenn., when one Klan group, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, organized a March rally against the City Council’s decision to change the Confederate-themed names of three high schools, another — the United Klans of America (UKA), based in Alabama — said it opposed the rally and even attempted to work with a local black street gang against racism. Later in the year, in another bizarre moment, a Montana UKA leader met with a local NAACP chapter.
And in upstate New York, Glendon Crawford, a member of the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was arrested and charged with working to construct an X-ray weapon that he allegedly intended for use on crowds of Muslims. He called it “Hiroshima on a light switch.” Crawford was arrested after trying to get financing from two Jewish agencies and another Klan group.
The decline of the National Alliance, once America’s most important and best-organized hate group, continued last year. At one point, its leader, Erich Gliebe, said he was ending the system of dues-paying members and instead asking people to simply support the organization financially. Although Gliebe portrayed the change as one that would make the group stronger, it seemed clear that he was trying to hold on to a bequest of some $160,000 from a deceased Canadian member.
The man’s bequest is being challenged in court by his sister and several human rights groups in Canada. An affidavit by the challengers listed the criminal acts of a large number of Alliance members, which could cause Gliebe to lose the case — and the bequest. It appeared likely that Gliebe hoped that by ending memberships he would have a better shot at winning the Canadian case.
Racist Skinhead Groups
Since 1994, Volksfront has been one of the country’s most important groups of neo-Nazi skinheads. Formed in prison by founder Randal Krager, the group had 17 chapters by 2012 as well as an extensive overseas network of chapters.
In the aftermath of Wade Page’s 2012 mass murder at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., however, an apparent law enforcement crackdown seemed to push Krager into the decision later that year to shut down all U.S. operations, even though the group had amassed a number of properties and other assets. He also was clearly tired of the struggle with militant anti-racists, who had forced him to leave Portland, Ore., where Volksfront was founded, and wanted to raise his children in peace.
Then, late last year, the Intelligence Report published a major investigative story on Volksfront’s overseas operations, which encompassed the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Slovakia, Portugal and Spain. In response, the units shut down their websites and seemed to disappear from public activism. Some sources have suggested that the units may be active underground, but that is not clear.
Another racist skinhead group, Die Auserwählten (German for “The Chosen Few”), rose and fell with stunning rapidity last year. Formed last May in Pleasanton, Neb., the group, also known as Crew 41, seemed to fall apart a few months later when its leader, Jonathan “Monster” Schmidt, was arrested after allegedly pulling a man from a vehicle and fracturing his skull. Around the same time, the group’s South Carolina representative, Jeremy Moody, was arrested with his wife for their alleged murder of a local man who was a registered sex offender and his wife. After that, the group, which contains a number of men with criminal histories, went quiet, although its website remained up, albeit with little activity, at press time.
White Nationalist Groups
The Council of Conservative Citizens, a St. Louis, Mo.-based group that is the direct descendant of the White Citizens Councils that fought against desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s, saw its chapters fall from 38 in 2012 to 24 in 2013, an indication that it is losing steam as founder Gordon Lee Baum ages. The group, which says in its mission statement that it opposes “all efforts to mix the races of mankind,” is now only sporadically publishing its once-important Citizens Informer newsletter, and its website is less active than in recent years.
The South Africa Project, a racist group based in Mandeville, La., that seeks to draw attention to the imagined genocide of white people in that country, also plummeted, falling from a robust 13 chapters in 2012 to just two last year.
The Pioneer Fund, a group founded in 1937 that has been giving large grants to racist “scientists” for years to study matters related to race and intelligence, was reorganized last year after the death of its head, Jean-Philippe Rushton. A large portion of its remaining assets went to Rushton’s son, Stephen, who appears to not be involved in the academic racist movement and who shut down the Michigan-based Charles Darwin Research Institute started by his father in 1989.
The American Third Position is a group that was started in 2009 and has been led for most of its existence by William D. Johnson, who in 1985 began promoting a constitutional amendment that would deport all Americans with “an ascertainable trace of Negro blood.” In the years since its founding, it has managed to accumulate some of the nation’s best-known white nationalists on its board, and in 2012 it made a major effort to run candidates in various races around the country (none won).
In early 2013, the group changed its name to the American Freedom Party, supposedly because it had done so well in the 2012 elections and wanted to capitalize on that success by picking a more appealing name. But the reality is that the party did terribly in the election, was repeatedly revealed as blatantly racist at its core, and saw its chapter count fall from 17 in 2012 to just nine in 2013.
Heidi Beirich, Michelle Bramblett, Anthony Griggs, Angela Freeman, Evelyn Schlatter and Janet Smith contributed to this report.