The well documented rise of anti-government groups has seen “explosive growth” according to the liberal watchdog group, the Southern Poverty Law Center. In its annual report on hate groups and political extremism, the Center claims “the number of conspiracy-minded antigovernment “Patriot” groups reached an all-time high… in 2012.”
The SPLC has strong critics among conservatives. A columnist with The American Conservative claimed the numbers were inflated and called the group's listing of patriot groups as "broad and pointless."
Mark Potok, the editor of that report, and a senior fellow with the Center, recently spoke to the annual Criminal Justice Conference at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Before his speech he discussed the trends with NET News Senior Producer Bill Kelly.
MARK POTOK (Southern Poverty Law Center): What we found, and this has been true over the last four years, is a continuing and very significant growth in the radical right among so-called patriot groups. What we all used to call militias back in the 1990s. That growth has been unbelievable.
In 2008, there are about a hundred and forty-nine groups out there. And that was about the same level we’d seen since the end of the 90s. In 2009, that jumped up to 512 groups. In 2010, 824 groups. In 2011, 1,274 groups and our last count brings the total to 1,360 groups. That’s an 816 percent (increase) in a mere four years. (Note: the SPLC website lists 13 groups in Nebraska).
BILL KELLY (NET News) : Define what you mean by a patriot group, in this case.
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, during his visit to the University of Nebraska at Kearney. (Photo: Bill Kelly, NET News)
KELLY: What’s changed in the last five to ten years where you’ve seen a steady growth in those beliefs?
POTOK: What that growth coincides with is the appearance on the national political scene of Barack Obama. The man who would, of course, ultimately become our first Black president. So in the fall of 2008, there was a lot of anger in some corridors about Barack Obama’s election and also not only his person, a Black man in the White House, but a more general feeling that he represented a big change in this country. And of course, that change is in part the loss of a white majority, which the Census Bureau has predicted for 2043.
In addition, right at the same time, in October of 2008, we had the sub-prime crisis which led to the economic collapse. All those things together along with a few other factors have formed a bit of a perfect storm in terms of fostering the growth of these groups.
(Hear an NET News interview with a self described "free inhabitant" living Nebraska who does not believe the U.S. Government is valid)
KELLY: Has the growth of them also been spurred by regular social media, Facebook, Twitter, and the like?
POTOK: Certainly that helps to get conspiracy theories and so on out into the wider public. There’s no doubt at all that’s helped. For the very small minority of people in these movements, who actually go onto commit criminal violence, it obviously makes much more available things like, you know, how do you make an ammonium nitrate and fuel oil bomb, that kind of thing. So technologically too, the Internet is a big help.
Estimates by the Sothern Poverty Law Center of the number of active anti-government Patriot groups organized in the U.S. (Graphic courtesy SPLC)
POTOK: This is the area in general where the so-called Patriot organizations exist. They’re very much a rural phenomenon. You don’t see them in New York City or along the coast as much as you do in this part of the country. Really, when you look at all different kinds of groups on the radical right, they’re fairly evenly spaced around the country and they’ve all been growing over the last four or five years.
KELLY: There are a lot of people with deeply-held conservative views on immigration, gun owner rights, the role of government that might be outside the mainstream of the Republican Party or the Tea Party. What’s the difference between the Patriot groups and people with just deeply-held beliefs?
POTOK: I think the real difference is the conspiracy theorizing. It’s not merely believing the government ought to be smaller or we ought to have less immigration or positions like that on a whole array of issues. It’s the idea that there are conspiracies afoot. There are evil people out there orchestrating these things. Typically, the evil people are viewed as sort of socialistic globalists of one sort or another. It’s funny that idea has pervaded the American radical right going back for about a hundred years, but it’s gotten very intense in the last ten or 15 (years).
Recent polling shows, for instance, it’s something like 56 percent of Americans believe that the federal government is an “imminent threat” to their civil liberties. It’s this whole set of ideas that basically feeds the fundamental premise which is the government is out to get you.
A flyer prepared by the Missouri State Police samples some of the flags and symbols sometimes used by members of Patriot groups. (Courtesy Missouri State Patrol)
POTOK: Yes! It’s worth saying that we’ve not had another Oklahoma City, thank God, but it’s not for want of trying on the part of many people. In just the last couple of years, we’ve had plots to, among other things, murder some 15 hundred Martin Luther King Day marchers in Spokane, Washington; to attack four cities on the East coast including Atlanta with the deadly biological toxin ricin; to kidnap and shoot the judges and police officers in another case; to take over Fort Stewart which is an Army base in Southeast Georgia. There are a whole series of plots out there.
The difference, of course, is that law enforcement has been generally very on the ball and has stopped these plots before they come to fruition. In the case of the Georgia militia plot, to attack Eastern cities with ricin, you know, the leader said at one point, in an aside that was taped by an FBI informant wearing a wire, he said quote, “When it comes to saving the Constitution, some people got to die.” You know, that was not further explained, but that I think typifies at least some of the more radical thinking in these groups.
KELLY: Your group, the Southern Poverty Law Center, lists on its website, groups that it believes is a concern and specifically in Nebraska, the name Gary Lauck, or Gerhard Lauck, is a familiar name as a major figure in the American Nazi Party Movement. A few years ago, he spent time in a German prison for distributing Nazi-themed literature there, where it’s a crime. He’s back in Nebraska and he’s listed on your website. Why is he a concern to you?
Stickers available for sale on the website believed to be operated by Nebraskan Gary Lauck by the SPLC. (Courtesy image)
KELLY: If we’re seeing an increase in the number of groups, are we seeing people not necessarily affiliated with the groups taking on these beliefs as well?
POTOK: I think you see quite a lot of cross-pollination of these various ideologies. I wouldn’t describe the Tea Parties as either racist or really closely allied with the sort of core patriot conspiracy theories. At the same time, we see an awful lot of people from the Patriot groups (at their events).
For instance, Richard Mack, a well-known Arizona, a former sheriff, who’s quite an iconic leader of the militia movement (spoke to) Tea Party groups. There’s an awful lot of spread of these kinds of ideas from the margins of the society to the mainstream.
KELLY: The Southern Poverty Law Center has great concerns about these groups. Should the rest of us?
POTOK: First of all the vast majority of people in these groups, the so-called Patriot Groups, will never blow up a federal building; will never shoot a police officer; will never commit a major crime. That said, the concern is that the Patriot Movement has produced over time, certainly back in the 1990s, enormous numbers of real terrorist plots. Plots, had they been completed, would have compared with Oklahoma City. So that’s the concern. We’re seeing that again.
The fringes of this movement, not typically a group itself, will go out and commit a crime. Very often it’s a person either associated with the group or in that milieu generally who’s come to believe the propaganda and who gets sick of the groups. Typically, so-called Lone Wolf will break away from the greater movement and say, you know, it’s finally time to act. We’ve got to save America. We’ve got to save the Constitution.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has it's share of critics. Some conservative commentators have objected to which organizations are included on the SPLC's "Hate Group" list, including an on order of Catholic nuns in Washington State. One of the Nebraska churches listed, Mission To Israel in Scottsbluff, recorded a podcast calling the SPLC a "false teacher." The leader of Mission to Israel, Ted Weiland, an anti-government advocate, wrote in a recent blog:
"It is time for Christians to stop serving two masters. We must choose between the document that begins 'We the People' and the one that begins 'In the beginning God.' Like Gideon in Judges 6, we must first tear down our father's idol and altar before we can begin restoring Yahweh's kingdom here on earth."