Experts say community empowerment, legislative action are required to counter far-right extremism
The number of hate groups in the U.S. fell last year, according to a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center. But researchers say that doesn’t mean extremist ideologies are losing ground – instead, they’re going mainstream.
Since the Jan. 6 insurrection last year, hate groups and anti-government extremists have been reorganizing, re-strategizing and planning to emerge stronger. That’s according to a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which says the threat requires holistic solutions.
The Year in Hate & Extremism 2021, the civil rights watchdog’s annual overview on political extremism, counts 733 hate groups and 488 antigovernment groups active in the U.S. It’s a decline from historic highs in 2018, but the report’s authors say that doesn’t mean right-wing extremism is losing influence.
Rachel Carroll Rivas is a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. She explained there’s less need for radical activists now, because they’ve managed to impose their agendas on mainstream society.
“People don’t necessarily have to affiliate with a specific extremist group to be adhering to these very dangerous ideas, these ideas that are very counter to democracy,” she said.
SPLC uses the term “hard right” to broadly describe ideologies on the fringes of mainstream conservatism, including white supremacy, neo-fascism and anti-government extremism. The data shows there were 22 hate groups in Arizona last year, the highest number among Mountain West states. Colorado, Nevada and Idaho also rank near the top of the list.
To be included, Carroll Rivas explained, a group has to have certain characteristics: They’re typically anti-democratic, authoritarian and conspiratorial. Many of them also target people for immutable characteristics like race, gender or national origin.
According to SPLC’s report, Fox News host Tucker Carlson provides an example of the way fringe beliefs have been inserted into the public dialogue. In 2021, Carlson promoted the great replacement theory, a white nationalist conspiracy theory that claims liberals, Marxists, the Jewish community and Democratic leaders are trying to systematically replace white people with nonwhite immigrants.
Samantha Kutner, who studies the Proud Boys and other violent far-right groups at The Khalifa Ihler Institute, says extremist groups have also been using the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen to make inroads with more traditional conservatives.
“There is a push for political legitimacy and so you might see more of this complicated interweaving,” she said. “The presence of extremism is not going away.”
In January, an NPR/Ipsos poll found more than half of Republican voters rejected the election results, even though lawsuits, ballot recounts and third-party audits around the country failed to provide any evidence that the election was flawed.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League documented almost 5,000 cases of hateful fliers, stickers, posters, banners and stenciled graffiti nationwide in 2021.
Ian Zeitzer with the League’s Nevada office said the data shows a significant rise in antisemitic messaging. He anticipates people will report more incidents as we emerge from the pandemic – but also because candidates jockeying for position in upcoming midterm elections might employ extremist narratives to make news.
“Often it’s the most extreme views that are going to get the most clicks, the most shares, the most attention on television,” he said.
The League reported Colorado had the highest number of incidents in the Mountain West last year, followed by Utah, Idaho and Nevada.
Zeitzer and Carroll Rivas urge people who encounter white supremacist propaganda to report it, so those incidents can be tracked.
“Your first instinct may be to tear it up, rip it down, and throw it away, because you don’t want to see that hateful message in your community,” Zeitzer said. “It’s preferred that that incident is documented.”
According to Carroll Rivas, the strategy of bringing extremist ideologies into mainstream politics is a “radical shift” that started with the Tea Party movement, which emerged ahead of the 2010 midterms to support populist right-wing candidates.
“A decade after that Tea Party revolution, we have seen it really fully come into its own,” she said.
According to a 2011 study by political scientists at Brigham Young University, support from Tea Party members benefited Republican candidates. Activists were able to influence Congressional races, too, especially in Utah and Colorado.
Carroll Rivas warns that moving forward, far-right extremists will seek to capitalize on conflict at the regional and local levels. For example, she expects to see them take advantage of discord that arises from the consequences of climate change in the West.
“That conflict could be – and I think has been in the past – again, an opportunistic situation for anti-government groups,” she said.
But according to the SPLC report, the hard right’s ascent isn’t inevitable. It says lawmakers can guard against authoritarianism by protecting voting rights, for example. The authors also suggest that elected officials work to address the social problems political extremists seek to exploit.
Ultimately, Carroll Rivas says, countering far-right extremism begins with community empowerment.
“These groups, they want to tell a specific story. They want their conspiracies to stand as the truth. They’re not the truth,” she said. “Individuals can unearth that, can tell the truth.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.