The Proud Boys Gained 29 Chapters in the Year Since Capitol Attack

Even to casual observers, it’s clear that white supremacist groups and their cousins, the militias, have been in full swing for years. And it’s also clear that the departure of Donald Trump from the White House has not collapsed the far right. A newly released annual census of these groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “The Year in Hate and Extremism 2021,” which quantifies the far right’s ideological trends, shows that even as most in-person far right groups have declined, the violent Proud Boys group has grown, and new online forms of far right organizing have spread.

The most important change the report shows is that one of the most violent groups, the Proud Boys, gained 29 new chapters in a year, and now has 72 nationwide. While this growth seems counterintuitive after more than 40 members were arrested for the Capitol takeover, it is not unheard of. (The militia movement, for example, grew the year after members committed the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168.) Having dug into local politics, like harassing school boards about COVID-19 policies, the Proud Boys look like they will have a significant presence in the foreseeable future.

Another subsector that is experiencing growth are the so-called “sovereign citizens” groups. Loosely organized, they use a fantastical interpretation of the Constitution to convince followers that they are immune to practically all laws and governmental authorities. The SPLC report attributes sovereign citizen growth to its entwinement with both QAnon and anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories. Additionally, this movement is also spreading around the world. Christine Sarteschi, a scholar who studies the movement, notes that “sovereigns” have recently been spotted in places like Australia, Slovakia, Sweden and Singapore.

However, beyond the sovereign citizen groups, the broader sector of “anti-government groups,” the umbrella category under which SPLC places the sovereigns, is actually declining. The SPLC defines this sector, which includes militias and groups like the Oath Keepers, as an “antidemocratic hard-right movement,” adding that these groups “believe the federal government is tyrannical, and they traffic in conspiracy theories about an illegitimate government of leftist elites seeking a ‘New World Order.’” Others who monitor the far right refer to these groups as the Patriot and/or militia movement.

Overall, anti-government groups have been declining under Biden, defying a cycle in place since the 1990s, in which they have tended to grow under Democratic administrations and recede under Republicans. Numbers of anti-government groups stayed fairly high under Trump, although they slumped every year (from 689 in 2017, to 566 in 2020). But rather than rising under Biden, they have declined even more, to 488 in 2021.

However, Rachel Carroll Rivas, senior research analyst at the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, sees the decline of far right anti-government groups as easily reversible. Right now, the movement may be hamstrung by the fallout of the Capitol takeover and the fact that more mainstream Republican officials have adopted the Patriot movement’s talking points. However, if the Biden administration “begins to roll out more policies that the hard right opposes” — such as new gun laws — “we could see these groups activated with dangerous consequences and a jump in numbers.”

A number of the older white supremacist forms of organizing, most of which are dependent on in-person organizing, have continue to decline significantly — even from the beginning of the Trump administration. Although it still looms large in the public’s imagination, the practical collapse of the Ku Klux Klan has escaped much attention. In 2015 there were 190 Klan groups, but in the first year of Trump’s presidency it was already down to 72, and now there are a mere 18 left standing. The Klan’s approach to organizing has not been updated to the digital world, and its style is snubbed by younger racists, who associate it with rural and uneducated people.

Likewise, racist skinhead groups, which emerged in the late 1980s in the United States, also are collapsing. In 2014 there were 120, and in 2017 still 71; but today there are only 17. A failure to recruit new members and attrition to more contemporary groups like the Proud Boys have all taken their toll.

Meanwhile, an explicitly racist and antisemitic grouping called Christian Identity, which was a powerful and violent force in past decades, has now dwindled to nine groups. In fact, the only type of these older forms that isn’t declining are the racist neo-Völkisch groups (such as the Ásatrú Folk Assembly), which espouse a form of mystical spirituality opposed to modern society.

Neo-Nazi organizations are also in decline in the U.S. (down from 121 in 2017). However, the ideology retains popular appeal. Some groups, like National Socialist Club (NSC-13), are newer and younger, while many other neo-Nazis are organizing online.

The two largest groups that emerged out of the white supremacist wing of the “alt-right,” Patriot Front and the Groypers (aka the America First movement), are worth looking at as representatives of two trends. The Patriot Front organizes in the more traditional style of revolutionary fascist groups, but it is not specifically neo-Nazi in ideology, even though its members promote the same themes of white supremacy and antisemitism. It eschews the Republicans and concentrates on real-world propaganda like flyering and unannounced demonstrations. Patriot Front has 42 chapters, which is almost equal to the 54 groups the SPLC has designated as neo-Nazi. What’s new here is that such a large, activist fascist group is not neo-Nazi, as would inevitably be the case in the past. (If it were, the numbers of neo-Nazi groups would be significantly higher, changing our perspective on the momentum of this movement.)

Meanwhile, the Groyper movement, led by Nick Fuentes, represent the other trend in white supremacist organizing. Soft-selling the same politics as the open fascists like Patriot Front, the Groypers have positioned themselves on the right wing of the Trumpist movement. And they have been disturbingly successful; their last conference drew the participation of Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) and Paul Gosar (R-Arizona). But the catch here is that the Groypers are hard to quantify. They don’t have organized chapters, and so on the SPLC census only two entries are counted, for the foundation they established.

Other influential sectors defy easy counting as well. The SPLC report only lists three “constitutional sheriffs” groups. This movement, with origins in the same set of ideas as the sovereign citizens, holds that county sheriffs have the power to reject laws with which they disagree. But the “constitutional sheriff supremacy” idea has a strong influence, and at any given time there will be sheriffs in the Western states under its sway. Those who follow the doctrine believe they can ignore federal laws about guns, civil rights protections, environmental laws and the use of public lands.

Similarly, the SPLC report only lists one group in the “male supremacy” category. This is despite the movement, which includes so-called Men’s Rights Activists and “incels” (those who call themselves “involuntarily celibates”), having a massive influence — including playing a pivotal role in the alt-right. The Institute for Research on Male Supremacism’s executive director, Alex DiBranco, says her institute would include many of the other groups in the SPLC list as part of a category of male supremacy. This could include Proud Boys chapters, radical traditionalist Catholics, and anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ groups.

DiBranco also emphasized that, more generally, those who watch the far right acknowledge “that we need new ways to recognize and track alternative forms of supremacist movement-building and disseminating ideologies online.”

These digital changes create both new difficulties and new opportunities. For example, the report looks at monetized live-streaming on independent platforms, which have proliferated since YouTube has deplatformed many far right figures. These alternate platforms include DLive, Rumble, Toro and SubscribeStar, which in turn have different financial models (such as taking subscriptions or donations). Often these platforms are interactive and viewers can comment and donate; for their support, viewers may receive shout-outs from the personalities; and the streams allow the creators the opportunity to rally their fanbases to take real-world political actions.

Monitoring livestreams is also more time-consuming, but their profits can also be tracked. However, what’s transparent isn’t always good news. According to the report, between April 2020 and February 2021 alone, Fuentes and another Groyper leader raised almost $174,000 between them on the DLive platform.

As one generation and set of far right organizing techniques fades, new ones arise. A collapsing number of traditionally organized groups certainly does not equate to a collapsing movement. And these changes pose new challenges, both for the techniques used to monitor and track these groups, and for the digitally based strategies to counter-organize against them as well. Just as the far right has reconfigured its approach, those opposed to it must as well.