Looking in Dark Corners

By Robert Futrell

The 2009 U.S. Department of Homeland Security report, “Rightwing Extremism” surprised many. The report noted a surge in right-wing recruitment and organizing activities in a context of dire economic conditions, immigration fears, Middle East conflicts, returning war veterans, and the potent symbolism of our nation’s first African-American President. Many commentators responded to the report with shock and disbelief. Terror is an external threat, they said, epitomized by violent Jihadis. How dare we turn the terror spotlight inward when we should be united against real extremist threats from afar.

The reality is that right-wing extremists are active in our midst. During the past decade, extremist networks have grown under the radar of most Americans. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) 2010 report, “Rage on the Right,” indicates a decade-long increase in the number of neo-Nazi, paramilitary, and fundamentalist groups. This right-wing extremism comes in the form of social networks whose participants advocate neo-Nazi beliefs, anti-federalist attitudes, and religio-racist fundamentalism. Common doctrines across these networks include ideas about racial and anti-Semitic violence to defend the “white race” from genocide and to combat the specter of a “one world government” bent on making whites subservient to Jews and other “lower order” races. Some adherents stockpile weapons in preparation for a race war they believe is on the horizon. Virtually all right-wing extremists participate in a cultural milieu that promotes fantastical visions of racial violence and white power.

Maybe some of this sounds surprising, but it shouldn’t. The U.S. has a long history of far-right activism promoting racial discrimination, xenophobia, and violence. From the 1860s through the mid-1920s, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) grew from small gatherings to a network of three to five million members (McVeigh 2009). Since then, KKK membership and activities cycled through peaks and valleys, with the most notable peak coming during the 1950s and 60s civil rights conflicts. Klan support waned in the 1970s, but was reinvigorated in the 1980s by emergent neo-Nazi skinheads who combined veteran white power groups’ rhetoric and ideology with a new youth aesthetic expressed through white power music and Nazi symbolism. Like the white robed and hooded, cross-burning Klan gatherings before them, public displays by neo-Nazis such as the National Socialists or Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance, brought intense, albeit episodic, media attention that helped to form our stereotypical image of the young wild-eyed, tattoo-laden, sneering, belligerent, in-your-face, neo-Nazi racist. One result of this stereotype may be the (faulty) assumption that white power activists are easily identified and, consequently, easily controlled. Indeed, when a group like the National Socialists periodically stage rallies dressed in SS garb laden with swastikas and chant about white unity, counter-protesters vastly outnumber them, shout them down, and relegate what appears to be a miniscule and politically innocuous minority of wackos back to the dark corners of society from where they emerged.

My colleague Pete Simi and I have looked in these dark corners where right-wing racist extremism persists (Simi and Futrell 2010). We discovered, as have many of the other essay writers here, that right-wing racist and anti-Semitic extremism flourishes in “hidden spaces of hate” where neo-Nazis and paramilitary adherents share ideas, support one another, draw attention to their collective grievances, and realize that the dispossession they individually feel is shared by many others like them. At first glance, the sites and activities that make up this hidden world seem rather ordinary and benign.  To most of us, private homes, Bible study meetings, family birthdays, backyard parties, bar concerts, music festivals, websites, and online social networks, are pleasurably familiar activities and settings. But right-wing extremists transform such otherwise ordinary and benign sites and activities into havens that nourish violent, paranoid conspiracies and imagine terror plots to lash out at their oppressors and spark the race war they see coming.

Simultaneously, white power adherents increasingly cover their extremist identities in public by concealing their true feelings at work, school, or around relatives who are non-believers. In contrast to popular perception, many right-wing extremists are not easy to identify. They cover their racist and anti-Semitic tattoos or do not get them at all and dress in an inconspicuous style to blend in with the mainstream while at work, school, or the grocery. While they may hope to change the world to reflect their vision of “racial purity” or right society’s wrongs, they also recognize that just “getting by” is itself a major accomplishment for those whose beliefs are so despised by much of the mainstream. Their hidden spaces of hate provide them opportunities to relax their cover-up, display their allegiance to the cause, and commiserate with like-minded others. White power networks make up the underbelly or backstage where plans are set in motion and where ritualized behavior produces the emotional glue that keeps extremists feeling attached to each other and committed to the cause, while biding their time for the opportunity to strike.

And sometimes they do strike. Activism in the form of violent terror is one possible outcome of a sustained culture centered on aggression, dispossession, and hate.  One of the most notable examples is the 1995 Oklahoma City domestic terror bombing committed by Timothy McVeigh and his accomplices, who were not only involved in anti-federalist networks, but also directly aided by racial extremists. Almost 20 years ago, the collective disbelief centered on the fact that such a horrific act was committed by such a wholesome looking, young, white, American military veteran. Analyses of the atrocity painted McVeigh as a lone wolf, aided by two others who had simply “lost control.” Little was said (and still to this day) about the white power culture from where McVeigh drew his inspiration and logistical aid. More recently, the Sikh Temple massacre committed last year in Wisconsin by Wade Michael Page, a neo-Nazi Hammerskin, military veteran, and white power music scene stalwart, exemplifies the type of terror that spins out of right-wing racialist culture. On the other hand, the “strikes” can be stealthier, but no less significant, such as white supremacist Craig Cobb’s attempts to surreptitiously (until the SPLC exposed his plans) buy up property in Leith, North Dakota and transform the small town into a white power enclave.

When Pete and I speak to colleagues, students, and community members about right wing extremism, we’re inevitably asked, “So what’s the real threat?” The question implies another: “Sure, these extremists espouse abhorrent ideas, but they don’t really do anything, do they?” If judged from our standard “movement lens” on activism, racial extremists can seem politically innocuous. Few of them today participate in public marches and rallies and they don’t have “storefront” SMOs with membership rolls. But they do act. Sustaining a vilified and marginalized, yet vibrant, extremist culture, however much it is hidden from most people’s view, constitutes a crucial form of activism.  Extremist activism also includes attempts to recruit new adherents, for instance from the ranks of Tea Partiers, militia, and other networks whose participants can ideologically shade toward racialist right-wing extremism or from disenchanted youth seeking new experiences in a taboo culture. Likewise, street-level aggressions, violent massacres, and secretive infiltrations in the service of right-wing ideals constitute forms of activism.

As scholars and humanists, it is risky for us to ignore the extremist elements in our society. As we have said elsewhere, “when extremist ideas endure, so does the potential for extremist action.”  Let us not be surprised by extremism, because whatever forms that activism may take, the inspiration is anchored in an enduring extremist culture that deserves more of our attention.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Racist and Racial Justice Movements

4 responses to “Looking in Dark Corners

  1. Pingback: Looking in Dark Corners | Nonviolent Action Network

  2. >>> The 2009 U.S. Department of Homeland Security report, “Rightwing Extremism” surprised many.<<>>1995 Oklahoma City domestic terror bombing committed by Timothy McVeigh and his accomplices, who were not only involved in anti-federalist networks, but also directly aided by racial extremists. <<<
    I was subpoenaed by the Terry Nichols defense team to counter a government claim that McVeigh and Nichols shared the same ideology. They did not. It is true that McVeigh had moved into organized White racist circles and was associating with neonazis, especially in Arizona. Nichols and his brother were enmeshed in the armed citizens militia movement, but Nichols wife banned McVeigh from their house because McVeigh was overtly racist; and Nichols confronted McVeigh over this.
    Clearly many in the militia movement held racist views, but most were not ideological neonazis. It is probable (and has been reported) that Nichols thought the Oklahoma City Federal Building was going to be blown up at night when it was mostly empty, and certainly no children present. Mass murder is a trait more easily tied to past and present totalitarian movements built around racial or religious supremacy and apocalyptic aggression such as that found in Nazism.
    A major flaw in the 2009 DHS report was that it failed to adequately distinguish between the militia movement and the organized White supremacist movement (including Christian Identity and pagan/Wotan neonazis). The 2009 DHS report was unfairly criticized by Republicans, but it was flawed both in terms of sloppy categorization, weak analysis, and a lack of attention to civil liberties.
    This failure to distinguish between angry yet reformist reactionary and racist conservatives (such as in the bulk of the Tea Parties)–and the neonazi movement—continues to create problems for civil liberties. It also allows liberals and centrist Democrats to use broad-brush demonizing language that helps them rake in cash donations but does little to confront racism or economic unfairness in the US political system.
    In terms of the OKC bombing; had the US and OK government officials appreciated these distinctions, immunity for testimony would have been granted to militia wannabe Terry Nichols, not the demonstrably unreliable ultra-right Fortiers from Kingman, Arizona. Then Nichols would have been willing to name the others who participated in the bombing. Nichol’s attorney told the judge that Nichols would name the other participants if the death penalty was taken off the table in any further federal/state prosecutions. The state of Oklahoma refused, and the feds pretended the case had been closed.
    My wife and I spent ten years on the southwest side of Chicago from 1978-1988, and organized against the White supremacists including neonazis, the Klan, and racist skinheads and street gangs. Not once did I accept the claim—stated or unstated—that they did not have the same civil liberties that I did. Today the erosion of civil liberties for all of us is appalling. Any mention of the 2009 DHS report in a scholarly setting needs to mention its flaws.
    As you know, Robert, I think your research is excellent. But although I too study organized White supremacist groups; I am also on the board of the Defending Dissent Foundation. So forgive me my desire to raise these issues once again.


  3. Robert Futrell

    Chip, thanks for your thoughts and elaborations. I appreciate your expert insights on McVeigh and the OKC event, as well as the civil liberties issue. I’ll try to clarify and extend my thoughts on a couple of points.

    No doubt, civil liberties, such as freedom of expression and congregation are important. And, no doubt, they have been compromised in the last decade, in a number of ways. We agree that civil liberties must be defended to insure the free expression of ideas, especially those ideas we don’t agree with. As Pete and I discuss in American Swastika and elsewhere, any attempt to limit or eradicate the white power movement’s political spaces—the spaces where they most often express their extremist ideas—inevitably pushes up against constitutional freedoms concerning speech, assembly, privacy, and surveillance, and we must be aware of the limits. Moreover, as extremists use these spaces to express their frustrations with like-minded others, they often “let off steam,” so to speak, among themselves rather than in overt acts against others. We’ve even seen activists in these settings stressing non-violence strategies to others, albeit in a context where aggressive, violent narratives and visions are commonplace. So, these spaces may actually serve to quell violence in many ways. That said, violence can spin out of this culture, and we should not be surprised that it does.

    I used the DHS report mainly to raise the point that we (the collective “we”…scholars, public, policy makers) are too often surprised when claims and evidence emerge about racist extremism and domestic terror threats in our midst. You’re right about the flaws in the report and the political hand wringing that occurred shortly after it’s release. I couldn’t squeeze all of that into the 1,000 word essay format…or 1,300 in my case. But the response to the report seemed, on the whole, to be more evidence that too many prefer to ignore or write off the reality of extremism. It’s not only politicians or the public. We do this as social movement researchers when we give little attention to movements and political activism that we find “distasteful.” I cannot count how many times Pete and I have presented our work to others and find the responses do not engage much about how we’re elaborating concepts, theorizing movement processes, or other research-based issues. Almost invariably, the responses go something like: “Wow, I didn’t realize these people still existed.” “Why did you study them?” or “This is strange, because what you describe about this group is so similar to my [insert your movement group here], except for the racial extremism and violence talk.” That’s all okay. We understand the curiosity and are happy to explain with “Yes, they certainly exist.,” and “We study them for scholarly reasons— that is, we want to know how this movement (and movements generally) persist and are curious what can we learn from an understudied range of movements on the far-right—and we study them for normative reasons—that is, we’ve had experiences with people targeted and challenged by this culture and are concerned about that,” and “Yes, they are similar because they operate as many other movement networks do and engage in various forms of activism, under conditions in which they are marginalized, stigmatized, and vilified.” We’re curious about how this all works.

    Understanding extremist culture and organization gives us clearer insight into how extremist activism persists. I think we agree that can seek understanding without unfairly criminalizing non-criminal acts. That said, when acts shade into the criminal, a better understanding of this culture might help us all take a more sober approach toward a too often ignored reality.


  4. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for a very serious and thoughtful reply. I do wholeheartedly agree with your last point. As for the responses you get when you and Pete present…

    >>>“Wow, I didn’t realize these people still existed.” “Why did you study them?” or “This is strange, because what you describe about this group is so similar to my [insert your movement group here], except for the racial extremism and violence talk.”

    OMG! I have heard the same responses. I suspect all of us who do this work have had similar experiences.

    You write:

    >>>”But the response to the DHS report seemed, on the whole, to be more evidence that too many prefer to ignore or write off the reality of extremism.”

    Sadly true. I serious discussion of the merits and flaws of the DHS report has had to wait until now, and I appreciate you elaborations on what was a fine essay, my quibbling notwithstanding.


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