The recent mass shooting in Charleston has led to arguments over whether the act was terrorism or not. Lost in this definitional debate is a deeper understanding of why an individual or group would perpetrate such an act. Below, we offer a short guide to U.S.-based far right extremists. As has been argued before, this categorization is important to help understand motivations and to predict when or where these acts may take place.
- Patriots/Militias and Sovereign Citizens
U.S. far right extremism can be divided into three types: (1) Patriots, Militias and Sovereign Citizens, (2) White Supremacists and Nationalists, and (3) Christian Identity/ Christian Patriots.
The first set tends to fixate on the power of the federal government. They are exemplified by the Patriot movement which emerged as a response to what many on the extreme right felt was government overreach during the Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge, Idaho incidents in the early 1990s. While many in the mainstream blamed U.S. federal agents for using excessive force in these two violent incidents, Patriots viewed these events as indicators of a broad attempt by enemies of America to undermine the US Constitution’s authority and impose an oppressive police state.
Many Patriot groups view those on the political left as aggressively pushing the country towards a socialist/communist authoritarian state. They are exceptionally suspicious that forces inside of the federal government are working to weaken or even abolish the Constitution. This line of thinking leads them to frequently view gun control as a way for the federal government to disarm the citizenry, leaving the population helpless to fight back against a newly instituted tyrannical government.
This extreme suspicion also leads to an anti-internationalist stance. Patriots are highly distrustful of transnational NGOs and IGOs, especially the UN, fearing that organizations like the UN will eventually become powerful enough to relegate the U.S. Constitution worthless. By weakening the Constitution, Patriots see a grim future for citizens who are eventually subjected to the U.N. as the institutional center of a newly created, authoritarian, one-world government.
While the fear of government power and potential tyranny is a fairly common thought, what separates Patriot groups from others who exhibit this same fear is their belief that tyranny is imminent.
Militias represent a subcategory of Patriot groups characterized by their paramilitary appearance, training, and operational preparedness for the eventual conflict with tyrannical government forces. It is helpful to think of militias as Patriot groups ready for combat if federal government reach becomes excessive. While some prepare by digging bomb shelters and stockpiling survival materials (including weapons), others, like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, sometimes put this preparedness into action. McVeigh did so in response to the Ruby Ridge and Waco law enforcement excesses.
So-called “sovereign citizens” are related to militias as they reject federal authority, but “sovereigns” often do not stop there. Unlike past versions of sovereign citizens that rejected state and federal authority but acknowledged the county sheriff as a legitimate purveyor of the law, contemporary sovereign citizens reject almost all types of governmental authority. While some sovereign citizens have threatened or actually used violence, their major form of protest is often referred to as paper terrorism. This generally consists of acts such as filing lawsuits and liens against government officials to jam up various court systems, in addition to illegal tax filings and passing fictitious financial instruments.
- White Supremacists/White Nationalists
The second main pillar of the far right is more xenophobic and exclusive than Patriots, militias, and sovereign citizens. White supremacists and white nationalists tend to focus on race and target African-Americans, Jews, LGBT people, and/or immigrants more generally. At the very least, their goals consist of either white domination or white separatism. White domination is exemplified by what society was like in the segregated or even antebellum South. White separatism on the other hand, is where portions of the US are partitioned off according to race. Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler’s offered up what he called the “10% Solution.” Five states (therefore 10% of the US states) in the US Northwest would be set aside for whites only. Elohim City, Oklahoma is an example of white separatism in action. The all-white, 400-acre compound has historically been a haven for various far right extremists due to its exclusive nature and all-white occupancy.
Within the white supremacist/white nationalist movement are several submovements. These include Ku Klux Klan, racist skinhead, Neo-Nazi, Neo-Confederate, and White Nationalist movements.
Ku Klux Klan groups
The Klan originated in the Reconstruction Era South to intimidate newly-freed African-American slaves and prevent them from occupying higher social positions in Southern communities. In the late 1800’s, after President Grant imposed federal martial law in the South as a response to Klan violence, the Klan declined precipitously. However, a rebirth in the 1920s led to the Klan’s largest membership in their history, with around 5 million members. After a decline toward the beginning of the 1930s, the Klan re-mobilized in response to African American Civil Rights demonstrations in the 1950s and 1960s. However, in the early 1970s the Klan once again declined and the post-Civil Rights Era Klan became a collection of conflicting and splintered Klan organizations. Currently, the SPLC lists 72 different KIan organizations (and their affiliates) operating in the US and estimates Klan membership to be between 5,000 and 8,000 members.
Racist skinhead groups
Some of the most violent white supremacists/nationalists reside in the racist skinhead movement. This countermovement originated in Great Britain in the 1960s as a response to the hippie movement and was typically non-racist. However, in the early 1970s a racist version developed and eventually split off from the non-racists. In the US, racist skinheads started to mobilize in the early 1980s across the Midwest and into Texas. Visually, racist skinheads were typically younger than other white supremacists/nationalists, and incorporated shaved heads, military boots, and Nazi and white power symbols and tattoos. Examples of racist skinhead groups include Hammerskin Nation and the Vinlanders Social Club. The Sikh temple shooter, Wade Michael Page, was a member of the Hammerskins.
Members of this subcategory desire a rejuvenation of Hitler’s Third Reich here in the U.S. and try to recreate the pageantry and look of the Third Reich in addition to sharing their vitriolic hatred of Jews, minority races, and homosexuals. The American neo-Nazi movement came to prominence in the late 1950s under George Lincoln Rockwell. Rockwell went on to influence future leaders, including former National Alliance founder and Turner Diaries writer William Pierce. Examples of contemporary neo-Nazi groups include the American Nazi Party and the National Socialist Freedom Movement.
These groups generally revere the antebellum South’s heritage and possess a certain longing for a return to these times, as they feel American society went in the wrong direction after the Civil War. They see the largely multicultural American society as a failure, and forecast it to eventually lead to American’s undoing. Examples of neo-Confederate groups include the League of the South and the Southern National Congress.
White nationalist groups
These organizations generally attempt to express their racism in a more academic or scholarly manner than Neo-Nazis or skinheads. Some white nationalists associate with research organizations that couch their racist views in intellectual rhetoric derived from racist think tank findings. They tend to eschew pageantry and are more mild mannered in appearance. Some contemporary white nationalist groups include the American Freedom Party, Council of Conservative Citizens, and European Americans United.
The above-mentioned groups generally target individual minorities with violence more than the federal government. However, since the end of the Civil Rights Era, white supremacists/nationalists have begun directing violence toward the federal government more frequently.
- Christian Identity/Christian Patriots
A third stream of far right ideology relates to the teachings of Christian Identity, and sometimes mixes them with other extreme right ideological components. This category of the extreme right couches their racist views in a pseudo-religious doctrine containing what Hoffman (2006:109) describes as four core components: “Jesus Christ was not a Semite, but an Aryan, the lost tribes of Israel are composed not of Jews but of ‘blue-eyed-Aryans,’ White Anglo-Saxons and not Jews are the ‘Chosen People,’ and the United States is the ‘Promised Land.’” In addition, these groups often see a federal government controlled by Jewish elements (Zionist Occupied Government or ZOG) ready to destroy America and the white race, and advocate for its overthrow.
Most of these teachings are not mutually exclusive systems of belief. On their own, Christian identity teachings are certainly racist, a fact accepted by even their own preachers. However, when mixed with other streams of thought, such as those of the Patriots, militias, or sovereign citizens, they can justify violence against certain subpopulations and suggest an enhancing effect on this violence.
Rather than have a single category to understand the extreme right, we have broken it down into three major dimensions. We believe that these three dimensions help us understand how beliefs translate into different potential actions. This is a politically sensitive topic. Our point here is not to label an entire section of American society as potential militants. Instead, we seek to understand variation in violent behavior among a small portion of people whose views are beyond what is generally acceptable and potentially push them towards violence.
Paul Martin is a PhD student at the Southern Illinois University.