Hate and antigovernment 'Patriot' groups are down by about a fifth as activism shifts to cyberspace and lone wolf actions
The traditional, organized American radical right, which was swollen enormously by Barack Obama's 2008 election and the near-simultaneous collapse of the economy, shrank significantly in 2014 for the second year in a row. The rapidly falling numbers of both hate and antigovernment "Patriot" groups seem to have been driven by a strengthening economy, continuing crackdowns by law enforcement, and an accelerated movement of radicals out of groups and into the anonymity, safety and far-reaching communicative power of the Internet.
The decline of the organized radical right came against a background of increasing losses for extremists. On the one hand, the advance of same-sex marriage, racial and religious diversity, and intolerance toward those with openly racist views has made life more difficult for those on the extreme right. On the other, the highly successful infiltration into the political mainstream of many radical-right ideas about Muslims, immigrants, black people and others have stolen much of the fire of the extremists, as more prominent figures co-opt these parts of their program.
There is also evidence that large numbers of extremists have left organized groups because of the high social cost of being known to affiliate with them. Many of those people apparently now belong to no group, but operate instead mainly on the Internet, where they can offer their opinions anonymously and easily find others who agree with them - and where they can be heard by huge numbers of people without the hassles, dues and poor leadership associated with membership in most groups. At the same time, those with violent criminal inclinations are increasingly opting to act as lone wolves or in very small cells, not connected to organized larger groups, which is another, smaller factor in the decline of these groups.
Specifically, the Southern Poverty Law Center's annual count found that hate groups declined by 17% between 2013 and 2014, from 939 to 784 groups, bringing that number to its lowest level since 2005. Patriot groups, which are animated by a series of conspiracy theories about the alleged evils of the federal government, fell even faster, to 874 groups from a 2012 peak of 1,360 groups. In just the last year, the number of Patriot groups declined by 20%, from 1,096 groups to 874.
But those numbers may be somewhat deceiving. More than half of the decline in hate groups was of Ku Klux Klan chapters, and many of those have apparently gone underground, ending public communications, rather than disbanding.
In any event, as the movement to the Internet suggests, the importance of organized radical groups is declining for a number of reasons. In an age where ever more people are congregating on the Web and in social media, the radical right is doing the same. With almost no charismatic leaders on the scene, there is little to attract radicals to join groups when they can broadcast their opinions across the world via the Internet and at the same time remain anonymous if they wish. And an enormous sector of the extreme right - the "sovereign citizens" movement, made up of as many as 300,000 people who do not believe the federal government has any authority over them - is not organized into groups at all.
Violence and the Fear of Exposure
The latest decrease in radical-right domestic groups does not seem to have dampened the level of criminal extremism in America. A new Southern Poverty Law Center study of terrorism suggests that political violence over the last six years has been about the same as during the 1990s. Not including the 168 victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the SPLC study finds that people were being killed by domestic terrorists at about the same average annual rate as in the 1990s. That is meaningful, because the 1990s are remembered as a time of great violence from militias, even without including the Oklahoma massacre.
The study also found that 90% of domestic terror attacks of all kinds (antigovernment, jihadist or related to other kinds of hatred) since 2009 were carried out by just one or two people. Of the 63 incidents examined during that period, just one - the 2011 murder of two people by a revolutionary Georgia antigovernment group called Forever Enduring, Always Ready (FEAR) - was actually planned and carried out by a named organization. The days when such attacks were planned in groups, which commonly happened during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, are largely over. Major conspiracies are just too easy to infiltrate and disrupt, and so terrorists are increasingly acting alone.
A large part of the reason for the decline of groups seems to be the fear of exposure of their members or those who otherwise associate with them, including in many cases politicians and other relatively prominent people. In recent years, the SPLC has repeatedly exposed people, sometimes people whose family members and colleagues had no idea of their activities, as neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the like. Many others have done the same, including a variety of anti-fascist groups, the Anonymous hacking collective, and a large number of media reporters.
And today, such exposure typically carries an enormous cost. A good example of that was the scandal created when a Louisiana blogger in December revealed that U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) had spoken in 2002 to a group headed by neo-Nazi and longtime Klan leader David Duke. The revelation was national news for days, and although it did not ultimately cost Scalise his job as the No. 3 man in the House leadership, it came fairly close. Ten to 15 years earlier, similar revelations about then-House Majority Leader Trent Lott and many other leading politicians led to some handwringing, but did not approach being a fatal blow to their careers.
The same phenomenon is seen in the fact that the Council of Conservative Citizens, the reincarnation of the White Citizens Councils that resisted desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s, no longer publishes the names of politicians who speak to its various chapters - something it did proudly for decades. Now, having one's name printed in the council's tabloid publication can be ruinous for politicians.
And last summer in Fruitland Park, Fla., the news that an FBI informer had fingered two men in the police department as having been involved with a Klan group resulted almost immediately in the resignation of one and the firing of the other. The incident quickly sparked a review by prosecutors of literally hundreds of cases handled by the two men for any evidence of racially biased policing.
Power of the Internet
The move to cyberspace is reflected in the large numbers of people joining Stormfront, the largest and most active radical-right Web forum in America, especially since Obama became the nation's first black president in early 2009. That year, the site added 32,736 registered users, its largest numerical growth ever. In later years, the numbers of users steadily increased and today, the total of registered users is just shy of 300,000, a fairly astounding number for a site run by an ex-felon and former Alabama Klan leader. And that doesn't include thousands of visitors who never register as users. At press time, Stormfront ranked as the Internet's 13,648th most popular site, while the NAACP site, by comparison, ranked 32,640th.
Moreover, the action is not at all limited to Stormfront. Another major American forum, the neo-Nazi Vanguard News Network, is highly active as well, although it does not provide numbers of users. In addition, while Facebook has largely kicked haters off its network, large numbers of American extremists (along with those of many other nations) have migrated to VK, a huge Russian online social network that is much more welcoming to those with radical-right views. There, many extremists congregate anonymously in password-protected forums.
This kind of activity in cyberspace has expanded to other sites. That can be seen clearly in the propagation of often incredibly hateful forums on Reddit, which favors untrammeled free speech over the kind of rules that govern Facebook. And it’s not only on forums like VK and Reddit, which don’t bother to police hateful posts or comments. Increasingly, hateful views and propaganda appear regularly in newspaper and blog comment fields. There has been a conscious move on the part of U.S. extremists in recent years to propagate extreme-right memes, slogans and arguments on such mainstream sites.
Violent radicals are finding one another on the Internet as well. An example of that is Die Auserwählten, a small but incredibly violent skinhead crew that was started in 2013 by a Nebraska man. Members of the short-lived group - it collapsed in 2014 amid a raft of criminal charges - met each other in cyberspace.
Some analysts have suggested that posting extremist material actually lessens violence, serving as a kind of safety valve for people who might otherwise engage in terrorism or, at least, real-world movement-building activity. And there is probably some truth in that - most “keyboard commandos” don’t accomplish much.
But an SPLC study last year found that in the prior five years, registered users of Stormfront had murdered close to 100 people. In their cases, the forum seems to have helped cultivate their thirst for violence or at least nurtured and rationalized their ideological hatreds. Almost all of the killers had been posting regularly on Stormfront and other racist sites in the 18 months prior to picking up the gun, and many of them had posted thousands upon thousands of comments.
Even in the cyberworld, however, radical rightists are being scared off by their fear of arrest or exposure. While the number of registered users of Stormfront remains high, Alexa ratings show a dramatic falloff in general popularity - the number of all visitors to the site, not just registered users — last year. The fall in overall traffic of close to 60% followed the April 2014 murder of three people in Kansas, allegedly by a well-known neo-Nazi, and, days later, the publication of the SPLC report on Stormfront killers. It seems clear that much of the general public was driven away, at least temporarily, by the fear of government tracking.
The reason for such fears was partly illustrated this February, when a 28-year-old man was arrested in Montana just days after anonymously allegedly tweeting a series of threats to kill Jews and schoolchildren. The man was almost immediately tracked down after a reader pieced together several clues to his identity and notified authorities. The suspect was charged with two counts of felony intimidation.
But the decline has apparently been offset, and then some, by a rising number of extremists who post on other sites - sites that are not associated with criminal violence the way Stormfront is and therefore are not of high interest to law enforcement officials. That can be seen in the racist or anti-Semitic threads on media and similar sites, along with forums like Reddit, which now has a community of savagely anti-black sites known as "the Chimpire" and a variety of other hate-drenched "subreddits."
Role of the 'Mainstream'
Another strong sign of persistently high levels of extremism in America is the way that a wide variety of hard-right ideas, racial resentments and demonizing conspiracy theories have deeply penetrated the political mainstream, infecting politicians and pundits alike. That can been seen clearly in the role of right-wing media outlets like Fox News, which regularly propagate racially charged accusations, baseless conspiracy theories, and "facts" that are simply untrue.
A prime example of the public expression of racial resentment came from Fox's Bill O'Reilly, who expressed the feeling of many whites when discussing Obama’s looming victory on Election Day 2012. "It’s a changing country," he complained on Fox News that night. "The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America any more. And there are 50% of the voting public who want stuff. They want things...The white establishment is now the minority."
Early this year, another reminder came from Steve Emerson, the Islamophobic founder of the Investigative Project on Terrorism and a self-described "internationally recognized expert on terrorism and national security." Emerson told Fox’s Jeanine Pirro that there are "places where the governments, like France, Britain, Sweden, Germany - they don’t exercise any sovereignty so you basically have zones where Shariah courts are set up, where Muslim density is very intense, where police don’t go in...In Britain, it’s not just no-go zones. There are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in."
This baseless claim brought widespread ridicule. "When I heard this, frankly, I choked on my porridge and I thought it must be April Fool’s Day," said British Prime Minister David Cameron. "This guy’s clearly a complete idiot." PolitiFact declared the claim a "Pants on Fire" falsehood. Even Emerson had to admit his "inexcusable error" in defaming "the beautiful city of Birmingham."
The fact that such claims have also been adopted and promulgated by politicians can have another effect - taking the wind out of the sails of radical groups which are, in effect, co-opted. As the fortunes of the major political parties rise and fall, the situation of radical-right groups tend to change, too. When extremist ideas are held by some of those in power, the number and impact of radical-right groups tends to decrease.
That can be seen clearly in the recent history of "nativist extremist" groups - anti-immigrant outfits that go beyond merely advocating for lower levels of immigration and actively confront suspected undocumented workers. The number of such groups peaked in 2010, when there were 319 of them. But as state legislatures and politicians around the nation took up increasingly extreme anti-immigrant legislation, the energy of the nativist vigilante movement was stolen. Last year, the nativist groups bottomed out at just 19 organizations.
Today, radical antigovernment ideas are very much in evidence among hefty portions of the political class. In Nevada, for example, many politicians last spring loudly championed rancher Cliven Bundy, who called in armed militias to help him resist a federal effort to force him to pay $1 million in accrued grazing fees — at least until Bundy began to declaim on the problems of "the Negro."
This can also be seen in the kind of Islamophobia pushed by Steve Emerson and many others. Last year, Alabama became the seventh state to ban Shariah religious law, following Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee - something that couldn’t happen anyway under the Constitution. Missouri passed a similar law, but it was vetoed; Oklahoma’s statute was thrown out by the courts. Altogether, 36 of the states have considered passing such laws.
Around the country, a number of county sheriffs have vowed to resist federal gun control laws and other lawful actions. In Texas, State Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt introduced a law that would declare all federal gun control laws "invalid." In Eddy County, N.M., Sheriff Scott London early this year wrote the IRS to say he would "not allow" the sale of a resident’s land to satisfy a tax judgment. A federal court had ordered the sale after the resident failed to file a timely notice of appeal.
And early this year, the Tenth Amendment Center, a radical group that strongly opposes federal power, exulted that more than 200 state bills had already been introduced in the current legislative session to block or curtail federal powers. The center describes these bills as "nullification" legislation, a reference to the legal doctrine adopted in the past by defenders of slavery and school segregation.
The Beat Goes On
The decline in radical groups does not seem to have been accompanied by a decline in violence from the right. Last year saw an array of attacks that reminded Americans that the jihadist threat is not the only kind of terrorism they face.
In March, federal agents arrested a man in Katy, Texas, who they said was plotting to rob banks and armored cars, kill police officers, and blow up government buildings and mosques. The next month, neo-Nazi Frazier Glenn Miller allegedly murdered three Kansans he wrongly thought were Jewish. In May, six people were slain in California by a 22-year-old woman-hater during a killing spree.
It continued from there. A neo-Nazi in Florida was charged with 10 counts of attempted murder after 50 rounds were fired at police outside his home. A Georgia man with antigovernment views was killed as he attempted to storm a courthouse. In June, a radical couple walked into a Las Vegas restaurant and murdered two police officers before killing another man and being killed themselves. Extremists in Utah, California and Pennsylvania allegedly attacked police or plotted to do so. And in Austin, Texas, a white supremacist opened fire on a federal courthouse, the Mexican consulate and police headquarters before being shot dead by a police officer.
The authorities have not reacted passively to all this. Large numbers of sovereign citizens, extremists who believe that most laws don’t apply to them, have been prosecuted and harshly punished. Two elderly men in Georgia last year were sentenced to 10 years in prison in an antigovernment conspiracy despite their lawyers’ claims that they were harmless old men jawboning. Bill White, a well-known neo-Nazi already serving lengthy sentences for making threats, was handed another 17.5 years for threatening officials involved in a Florida court case.
But that hasn't stopped extremists who are not involved in criminal actions from issuing a drumbeat of scary warnings meant to terrify Americans. Steve Eichler, CEO of TeaParty.org, claimed in November that Obama was about to impose martial law, and added that his group was "working 'underground' with top retired military generals and officers to strategize our takedown of the Obama regime." Craig James, hosting a radio show for the anti-LGBT hate group Family Research Council, said he was concerned Obama would illegally seize a third term. And the Rev. Austin Miles, writing for the right-wing Renew America website, agreed, saying Obama was getting set "to declare himself President for Life."
At the same time, radical ideas were widely held by members of the public. Last September, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found 24% of Americans strongly supported or tended to support their state’s secession from the union. A month later, another study, published in Social Science Research, found that the Tea Party movement was still "a powerful force," and that it was "an outlet for mobilizing and expressing [anti-black] racial grievances." And whites are increasingly leaving the Democratic Party, voting by a 62-38 margin for GOP House candidates in 2010 and 2014.
For years, the number of hate and antigovernment groups has served as the best available, if still imperfect, gauge of the strength of the American radical right. Today, as the movement grows more atomized, with more individuals acting outside of the context of organized groups, that may be a less accurate method. While the number of groups are declining - in part, perhaps, because hot social movements like the contemporary radical right tend to run out of steam after a few years - the level of extremism, and the danger of radical terror, seem just as high as ever.
More detailed reports on several radical-right sectors follow.
It was another bad year for anti-LGBT groups, as a series of court decisions made same-sex marriage legal in 36 states, up from 18 a year before. At the same time, the Supreme Court was expected to rule on the issue by mid-summer, and most analysts expected the justices to come down on the side of national legalization.
Many of these groups turned their energies abroad, seeking to criminalize homosexuality in other countries after failing in this one. At home, meanwhile, the groups worked to get "religious liberty" laws passed in a dozen states that would allow some businesses to discriminate against certain people if they have religious objections. Although most did not explicitly say so, they were aimed at allowing businesses not to service same-sex weddings. But despite these efforts, only Mississippi saw the proposal actually become law.
The National Organization for Marriage illustrates the dilemma of many of these groups as they lose support in an increasingly uphill battle. The group's 2013 tax returns showed it had fallen $2.5 million into debt after raising only $5.1 million (a 50% drop from 2012), with two donors accounting for half that amount.
Early this year, the American Family Association, listed by the SPLC as an anti-gay hate group, was the prime sponsor of an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel for an estimated 60 members of the Republican National Committee. But the group came under fire by the SPLC and others for its history of extremist remarks, to the point that, two days before the trip, it repudiated its best-known spokesman, Bryan Fischer, and a whole series of his comments. In response to a letter from the AFA, SPLC President Richard Cohen wrote that "it’s difficult to see the AFA's disavowal as anything other than an effort to quell the negative press attention you're receiving in connection with your sponsorship" of the trip for RNC members.
Cohen also pointed out that Fischer would remain as an AFA radio host and that other AFA officials had often shown similar "narrow-minded bigotry."
Ku Klux Klan Groups
Klan groups were very much in the news in the last year, but mainly because two of them — the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, based in Missouri, and the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, headquartered in North Carolina — leafleted extensively. The reality was that the leafleting, despite the press attention it got, was more a sign of weakness than of Klan strength.
Overall, in fact, the number of Klan chapters, or “klaverns,” fell by more than half, from 163 in 2013 to just 72 last year. Several Klan groups, notably the Fraternal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Knight Riders Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, disappeared completely. It appeared that most of the groups simply faded as their leaders and members got older, but it is also very possible that many simply stopped announcing where their chapters were. A case in point: Both the Traditionalist American Knights and the Mississippi White Knights, which in 2013 each listed several klaverns, only listed their headquarters chapters last year.
At least two Klan groups had earlier announced that they were no longer making their chapter lists public. As with other groups, exposure of membership in the Klan has cost at least some members their jobs, families or friends.
In a year when rallies, concerts and other public events put on by groups on the radical right were at a dramatic low, the League of the South, the most important neo-Confederate group in the United States, was a clear exception.
The group, which seeks a second Southern secession and the creation of an independent country ruled by “Anglo-Celts,” held an unprecedented number of rallies and street protests around the Southeast. That appeared to be the result of a new set of leaders who are younger and more energetic than founder Michael Hill.
Late last year, the SPLC also revealed another aspect of this apparently new period in the history of the league, which was founded in the mid-1990s — the creation of a secret paramilitary unit to be called The Indomitables. Although the group is believed to include some of the league’s most hardcore members, including former Klansmen, it did not appear very active at year’s end.
The big story of the last year in the neo-Nazi sector was the takeover of the wreckage of the National Alliance, once the most important and best-organized radical-right organization in the United States. The group had fallen on hard times in the aftermath of the unexpected 2002 death of its founder, William Pierce.
The group had been run since Pierce’s death by Erich Gliebe, but he faced widespread dissatisfaction with his leadership, several major splits, and accusations that he was looting the organization. Then, last October, a former member, veteran racist William W. Williams, announced that he had secretly concluded an agreement with Gliebe to turn the group over to him. Gliebe resigned, the group’s board of directors confirmed Williams’ new role, and within months Williams had announced that he expected to soon reopen the group’s old National Vanguard Books.
The putsch shocked a small group of Alliance veterans called the National Alliance Reform & Restoration Group, which had filed a civil suit against Gliebe and others that sought $2 million and control of the Alliance. It was unclear where all this maneuvering left the once-powerful group, but for the time being it seems that “White Will” Williams has the advantage and is its effective führer.
White Nationalist Groups
Last October, a group called the National Policy Institute — a white hate group that favors suits and ties and the appearance of scholarly objectivity — tried to hold an international conference in Hungary, where the neo-fascist Jobbik Party had recently become the third-largest party in the country. It was a miserable failure.
First, Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced the government would use “all legal means” to prevent the gathering. Then, as its participants began to arrive, a number were arrested, including organizer Richard Spencer and far-right publishing scion William Regnery. Some of the participants did manage to meet briefly, but their meeting was ultimately broken up and many participants were deported.
Even before participants’ arrival, officials of Jobbik, which had been listed as a co-sponsor of the gathering, dropped their support and sponsorship. In the end, Spencer, an American, was deported and forbidden to return for three years.
Heidi Beirich, Michelle Bramblett, Anthony Griggs, Angela Freeman, Evelyn Schlatter and Janet Smith contributed to this report.