What We Know #1: The relationship between U.S right-wing/racist movements and the population in which they emerge is significantly different today than it was in earlier times. In the past, far right and racist movements often took root at times and in places in which a significant proportion of the population shared their racist and political values. The largest racist movement in U.S. history, for example, was the 1920s Ku Klux Klan whose 3-5 million members espoused ideas of white Christian supremacy and nativism that were not significantly different than those held by the white native-born Protestant majority in the early twentieth century. Similarly, German Nazism, commonly regarded as the prototypical Western racist movement, was nested within a population in which many embraced fundamental aspects of Nazi ideology such as anti-Semitism and nationalism.
Today, things are different. Movements on the extreme right, especially those that use openly racist appeals, rarely attract more than a tiny fraction of the population. Certainly, racist beliefs continue to circulate and racial privileges and practices are routinely accepted and reinforced. Yet, explicitly white supremacist ideas, especially those based in ideologies of biological racism, are generally marginalized. Their expression is routinely denounced by public officials and institutional leaders and finds little play in mainstream media outlets. Thus, the white supremacism that proliferates on the internet is unlikely to have much impact on the racial attitudes of the population at large except to allow viewers to be self-congratulatory that their own racism is less extreme (Hughey 2012). The ability of white supremacists to present racist ideas to the public continues to need to be resisted, not because it is likely to create large number of converts to racist movements, but because open expressions of racism are a form of terrorism. Although often beyond the reach of law, the threat of violence engendered by vile anti-Semitic and racially derogative messages on the internet and other public spaces has profoundly negative effects on its intended victims and society more broadly (Daniels 2009).
What We Know #2: Until recently, racist and right-wing groups fit the standard picture of social movements as organized collective action by a significant number of people who want to change society through non-electoral means. Through the twentieth century, the far-right was made of a variety of organized groups, including some that were able to recruit substantial memberships, that espoused varying forms of white supremacism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and often (but not always) virulent misogyny and nationalism (Blee 1991; Cunningham 2012; McVeigh 2009).
Today, the structure of the U.S. extreme right is quite different and far less organized. No longer do many racist groups have a significant number of members. The number of racist and far-right groups may be increasing, but most of these groups have few members so the aggregate number of racist group members in the U.S. may be declining. Now, the most active and dangerous aspect of racist extremism is a loosely structured, relatively unorganized, and only intermittently connected network of small groups of virulently racist and militantly dedicated activists (Political Research Associates, various issues of The Public Eye; Simi and Futrell 2010; Southern Poverty Law Center, various issues of Intelligence Report). Sometimes modeling themselves on their understanding of the Islamic fundamentalist networks that develop and practice acts of terrorism, these activists operate in small cells that coordinate their messages through virtual interaction and postings on the internet, rather than by direct interaction, and generate their actions without consultation with other racist groups. Some seek to infiltrate the armed forces to gain weapon training and even weapons; others traffic in weapons or other contraband to raise funds. Such groups rarely recruit openly; rather, they aim to stay small and isolated in order to avoid detection by authorities (Blee 2002; Zeskind 2009).
The modern far right is a far cry from the organized and relatively open mobilization of adherents that we think of as characteristic of social movements. This racist movement doesn’t necessarily want new members. Few of its groups or activists are trying to convince anyone outside their immediate circle of the rightness of their cause or ideas. Instead, the modern U.S. far right is highly insular, shielded from the mainstream, and largely focused on developing tactics and strategies of cataclysmic violence that can move forward the agenda of white supremacy. Such a movement cannot be stopped by ideological debate or broad appeals to tolerance. It requires targeted efforts to identify individuals who are vulnerable to recruitment and prevent that from happening, or to identify those able to be lured away from these groups as has been done with some success in the U.S. and Europe (Aho 1988; Kimmel 2007).
What We Don’t Know: There is little known about how transnational the modern far-right has become. A particularly urgent question is the extent to which connections and networks link far right groups and political parties in Europe with right-wing extremists in the U.S. and allow ideas, strategies, personnel, cultural forms, funds, and weapons to flow across national borders (Bob 2012; Miller-Idriss 2012; von Mering and McCarty 2013). In the past, such transnational cooperation was inhibited by the intense nationalism and xenophobia of the U.S. far-right. But today, significant parts of U.S. rightist extremism herald ideas of pan-Aryanism and international cooperation among white supremacists. European far-right groups vary in their receptivity to transnational efforts. Some support pan-national strategies to counter immigration into Europe by Muslims from northern Africa and the southern Mediterranean and promote Aryan supremacy. Others, especially in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, maintain more rigid nationalistic agendas and may be less willing to work transnationally. International networks of antiracist activists are particularly well situated to detect emerging transnational elements on the far right and to mobilize against these dangerous linkages.