Members of the Proud Boys pose for a picture in front of the Oregon State Capitol building during a far-right rally on January 8, 2022 in Salem, Oregon.
The events of January 6, 2021, have been closely watched for their long-term impact on the far right. Members of two groups in particular, the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, were hit with felonies for their participation in the breach of the U.S. Capitol. Now, two years later, the Oath Keepers have largely collapsed, while the Proud Boys have grown.
These are the findings of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) annual census of far right groups, The Year in Hate & Extremism 2022.
The technological advances of the last years have created new avenues for organizing — not just for the far right, but across the political spectrum. One effect of this is that organized groups of all sorts have declined in number, although there are still many. In looking for a reliable nationwide count of groups on the far right, the SPLC’s annual report has long been the gold standard.
The Oath Keepers and Proud Boys have different origins. The Oath Keepers were founded after Barack Obama’s 2008 election as part of a wave of new Patriot and militia groups. (The Patriot movement is a kind of postwar politics that uses patriotic veneer to forward an anti-democratic, conspiracy-based far right worldview that sees the federal government as being controlled by “traitorous” communists or international elites, and the militias are the armed wing of the movement.) The Oath Keepers were originally focused on recruiting current and former military and police, asking them to disobey orders that the group argued were unconstitutional, based on a series of conspiracy theories. Over the years the Oath Keepers developed into an armed group like the militias. The Proud Boys, in contrast, emerged from the foment of the “alt right” in 2016 as a misogynistic, semi-ironic hipster group, but quickly morphed into a nationwide violent fight club with crossovers with open white supremacists.
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On January 6, the Oath Keepers had stashed guns nearby which were to be fetched if needed, while members entered the Capitol in a military formation. Meanwhile, dozens of the younger and more violent Proud Boys took the lead in breaching the Capitol itself. The leaders of both groups have been convicted of the rarely used “seditious conspiracy” law; the Oath Keepers’ Stewart Rhodes received 18 years, while the Proud Boys’ Enrique Tarrio is waiting to be sentenced.
But these prosecutions have affected each group in an opposite fashion. The Proud Boys now have 78 chapters, six more than the year before. This has not been completely unexpected, though, as they have shown themselves to be a particularly durable group, not pausing even through a major leadership change. Founder Gavin McInnes stepped down as its leader in 2018, but the group was not hurt by this — it has almost doubled in size since then. Nor has it been slowed down by the numerous arrests for violence unrelated to January 6, such as large brawls with anti-fascists that frequently involved hundreds of people. Now the group has hopped issues by jumping on the anti-LGBTQ+ bandwagon and switched to engaging in smaller, more locally organized demonstrations; in 2022, they harassed or protested more than 40 events. More generally, the Proud Boys as an organization remains a home for those on the far right who seek an outlet for violence, and their broad tent ideology accommodates a range of views, from garden-variety Trumpists to neo-Nazis willing to work with people of color, Jews and gay men, who are all allowed in the group.
Conversely, the Oath Keepers have practically collapsed. They changed their previous anti-federal government stance to jump on the Trump bandwagon, successfully positioning themselves as the far right’s armed wing during clashes with anti-fascists. In 2020, they still had 79 chapters; one year after January 6, that plummeted to 15, and in 2022 only 5 remained. Whether the organization will continue to exist with its leader in prison remains to be seen, but the odds are against it.
More generally, the militias are in the doldrums, too, although less so. In 2017 they had around 275 groups. But that number has fallen every year, and in 2022 it was only 61.
The Oath Keepers and militias aside, there has been an uptick in the unarmed, but not always less aggressive, part of what the SPLC dubs “antigovernment groups.” Although remaining somewhat under the radar, two more have experienced growth. The Sovereign Citizen movement has expanded into an international affair; starting as an explicitly white supremacist idea, it teaches that people do not need to follow the laws as they exist, and instead asserts that a parallel legal system is actually the real one. It comes from the same origins as the Constitutional Sheriff movement, which holds that county sheriffs can choose to ignore any law that they like, including gun and environmental regulations, as well as civil rights protections.
The SPLC’s count of anti-government groups has grown from 488 in 2021 to 702 in 2022, in large part due to a new organization, Moms for Liberty. According to the report, Moms for Liberty (which Alyssa Bowen has reported on extensively for Truthout) started in 2021, but already “claims to have a membership of over 100,000 in 250+ chapters in 42 states.” Riding the current wave of attacks on “groomers” (a slur for LGBTQ+ people), the main praxis of Moms for Liberty is disrupting or taking over local school boards, where they try to ban LGBTQ+ and so-called “critical race theory” books and classroom instruction. So, while armed anti-government elements have receded, SPLC Senior Research Analyst Travis McAdam said in an email to Truthout that these “anti-student inclusion groups” are now listed because “they use many of the same tactics and rhetoric against local schools that other antigovernment groups direct towards the federal government.”
Further to the right, the organized faction of the public white supremacist movement is also much smaller than in the past. Ku Klux Klan groups, once a powerhouse among racists, have dwindled to a mere 11. Age has also taken its toll on racist skinhead groups; they are down to 13, even though they had 71 only five years before. Despite some new blood, neo-Nazi groups are half of what they were in 2017 (from 121 down to 60). Some of their specific decline, however, is because Patriot Front has become easily the biggest white supremacist group. It came out of Vanguard America, a white supremacist group that became notorious after an activist, who marched with it at the 2017 Charlottesville rally, afterward carried out the car attack that killed anti-fascist Heather Heyer and injured almost 30 others. Patriot Front is made up of young members of the far right who engage primarily in propaganda efforts like stickering and banner groups; neo-Nazis are welcome to join but the group includes other types of white supremacists as well. The arrests of 31 members who tried to disrupt a Pride event last June have not stopped its growth either; in 2022, it had 46 chapters.
There is a more general reason for these more traditional groups’ reduction in numbers. Hannah Gais, SPLC Senior Research Analyst, told Truthout that white supremacists
have increasingly eschewed traditional organizing structures — what we would traditionally refer to as ‘groups.’ This shift in tactics comes as a result of years of increased scrutiny from anti-fascist activists, journalists and law enforcement, as well as legal actions against groups, such as those involved in [the 2017 fascist rally in Charlottesville] ‘Unite the Right.’
And this can be seen across the political board. For example, the Groyper movement — antisemitic white supremacists whose program is to get Trumpists to move further right — does not have organized chapters and so this part of the far right is not reflected in the count. This is despite their large following and a level of influence that extends even to congressional representatives.
Overall, the annual SPLC counts should be looked at carefully. Many individual groups are missed in the best of times; new types of groups get added, like the Moms for Liberty; and the need for far right organizations in general has diminished as technology has changed organizing structures. But the annual count is a good estimate of where the far right is each year. In 2022, it counted 1,225 active groups. In 2021 it was practically the same number.
The far right in the United States was a fringe but dangerous political movement before Trump. It has since expanded dramatically, capturing a major part of the Republican Party and energizing street organizing. Not only are its energies not spent, but they don’t seem to be declining. Barring unforeseen events, the next major event will likely be the 2024 election, and its effect on the far right should be watched closely. Those on the left will need to know about what form the far right is taking, including which vulnerable communities it is targeting, in order to oppose it in the most effective way possible.
Note: This article was amended to correct a typo in a date, changing “2020” to “2021.”
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