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.