The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has reported an alarming rise in the number of American anti-government militia and anti-immigrant groups, which have remained largely dormant since their heyday in the mid-1990s.
The number of extremist groups exploded in 2009 as "militias and other groups steeped in wild, antigovernment conspiracy theories exploited populist anger across the country and infiltrated the mainstream," according to the SPLC annual report titled "Year in Hate and Extremism."
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. Founded by civil rights lawyers Morris Dees and Joseph Levin Jr. in 1971, the SPLC is internationally known for tracking and exposing the activities of hate groups.
The SPLC documented a 244 percent increase in the number of active Patriot groups in 2009. Their numbers grew from 149 groups in 2008 to 512 groups in 2009, an astonishing addition of 363 new groups in a single year. Militias - the paramilitary arm of the Patriot movement - were a major part of the increase, growing from 42 militias in 2008 to 127 in 2009.
Hate groups also grew slightly, from 926 to 932, continuing what the SPLC said was a trend that began around 2000, and rising 54 percent in the decade.
Generally, Patriot groups define themselves as opposed to the "New World Order," engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing, or advocate or adhere to extreme anti-government doctrines.
Patriot groups have been fueled by anger over the changing demographics of the country, the soaring public debt, the troubled economy and an array of initiatives by President Obama that have been branded "socialist" or even "fascist" by his political opponents, the report said.
With the election of Barack Obama as president, that report said, the new wave of militia activity had taken on a much more racist cast than the movement. "This extraordinary growth is a cause for grave concern," said Intelligence Report editor Mark Potok. "The people associated with the Patriot movement during its 1990s heyday produced an enormous amount of violence, most dramatically the Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 people dead."
The Patriot movement has made significant inroads into the conservative political scene, according to the new report. "The "tea parties' and similar groups that have sprung up in recent months cannot fairly be considered extremist groups, but they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism," the report says.
Unlike the 1990s, the Patriot movement's central ideas are being promoted by people with large audiences, such as FOX News' Glenn Beck and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Beck, for instance, reinvigorated a key Patriot conspiracy theory - the charge that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is secretly running concentration camps - before finally "debunking" it.
There also has been a surge in "nativist extremist" groups - vigilante organizations that go beyond advocating strict immigration policy and actually confront or harass suspected immigrants. These groups grew from 173 groups in 2008 to 309 in 2009, a rise of nearly 80 percent.
Nativist activists increasingly adopted the ideas of the Patriots; racist rants against Obama and others coursed through the Patriot movement; and conspiracy theories involving the government appeared in all kinds of right-wing venues. A good example is the upcoming Second Amendment March in Washington, D.C. The website promoting the march is topped by a picture of a colonial militiaman, and key supporters include Larry Pratt, a long-time militia enthusiast with connections to white supremacists, and Richard Mack, a conspiracy-mongering former sheriff associated with the Patriot group Oath Keepers.
What may be most noteworthy about the march, however, is its date -- April 19. That is the date of the first shots fired at Lexington in the Revolutionary War. And it is also the anniversary of the fiery end of the government siege in Waco and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
These three strands of the radical right - the hate groups, the nativist extremist groups, and the Patriot organizations - are the most volatile elements on the American political landscape.
"We are in the midst of one of the most significant right-wing populist rebellions in United States history," the report quotes Chip Berlet, a veteran analyst of the American radical right. "We see around us a series of overlapping social and political movements populated by people [who are] angry, resentful, and full of anxiety. They are raging against the machinery of the federal bureaucracy and liberal government programs and policies including health care, reform of immigration and labor laws, abortion, and gay marriage."