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As presidential election approaches, radical anti-government groups skyrocket

Part one of a two-part special Report
By Mark Potok 
Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from the Intelligence Report

The radical right grew explosively in 2011, the third such dramatic expansion in as many years. The growth was fueled by superheated fears generated by economic dislocation, a proliferation of demonizing conspiracy theories, the changing racial makeup of America, and the prospect of four more years under a Black president who many on the far-right view as an enemy to their country.

The number of hate groups counted by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) last year reached a total of 1,018, up slightly from the year before but continuing a trend of significant growth that is now more than a decade old. The truly stunning growth came in the antigovernment “Patriot” movement — conspiracy-minded groups that see the federal government as their primary enemy.

The Patriot movement first emerged in 1994, a response to what was seen as violent government repression of dissident groups at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and near Waco, Texas, in 1993, along with anger at gun control and the Democratic Clinton Administration in general. It peaked in 1996, a year after the Oklahoma City bombing, with 858 groups, then began to fade. By the turn of the millennium, the Patriot movement was reduced to fewer than 150 relatively inactive groups.

But the movement came roaring back beginning in late 2008, just as the economy went south with the subprime collapse and, more importantly, as Barack Obama appeared on the political scene as the Democratic nominee and, ultimately, the president-elect. Even as most of the nation cheered the election of the first Black president that November, an angry backlash developed that included several plots to murder Obama. Many Americans, infused with populist fury over bank and auto bailouts and a feeling they had lost their country, joined Patriot groups.

The swelling of the Patriot movement since that time has been astounding. From 149 groups in 2008, the number of Patriot organizations skyrocketed to 512 in 2009, shot up again in 2010 to 824, and then, last year, jumped to 1,274. That works out to a staggering 755 percent growth in the three years ending last Dec. 31. Last year’s total was more than 400 groups higher than the prior all-time high, in 1996.

Meanwhile, the SPLC counted 1,018 groups operating in the United States last year, up from 1,002 in 2010. That was the latest in a string of annual increases going all the way back to 2000, when there were 602 hate groups. The long-running rise seemed for most of that time to be a product of hate groups’ very successful exploitation of the issue of non-white immigration. Obama’s election and the crashing economy have played a key role in the last three years.

At the same time, a third strand of the radical right — what the SPLC designates as “nativist extremist” groups, meaning organizations that go beyond normal political activism to harass individuals they suspect of being undocumented immigrants — shrank radically. After five years of sustained growth, these vigilante groups plummeted last year to 184 from 319 in 2010, a one-year drop of 42 percent. The decrease appears to be a product of bad press, internecine quarrels, and the co-optation of the immigration issue by state legislatures around the country passing draconian nativist laws like Alabama’s H.B. 56.

Patriot and militia groups 1995-2011

In some ways, it was surprising that the same deflating effect did not hit the Patriot and hate groups, as 2011 also saw many politicians and other public figures attacking Muslims, LGBT people and other minorities, effectively taking on some of the issues dear to the radical right. But there was enough of a far-right wind to fill the sails of politicians, hate and Patriot groups, and Tea Parties alike, very likely the result, in large part, of a view of Obama as a dire threat to the country. (An IBOPE Zogby survey last year found that 30 percent of all voters did not believe that Obama was born in the U.S. even after the release of his long-form birth certificate.)

It’s hard to know how all this will play out, given the unsettled nature of the presidential campaign and, in particular, the GOP primaries. The animus toward Obama and the government may be as much rooted in economic as racial anger.

Sovereign citizens whose ideology first developed in white supremacist groups, generally do not believe they are obliged to pay federal taxes, follow most laws, or comply with requirements for driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations. They also typically believe that filing certain documents can relieve them of debt or bankruptcy proceedings, or even bring them millions of dollars from secret government accounts. The claims are bogus, of course, but they have attracted thousands into the movement at a time of real financial hardship.

Mark Potok is senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, publisher of The Intelligence Report.

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