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 significant change revealed by the report is that one the most violent groups, Proud Boys gained 29 new chapters in a single year and now has 72 nationwide. This growth is not unusual, even though it seems counterintuitive after 40 members were detained for the Capitol takeover. The militia movement, for instance, grew in the year that members of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing which resulted in the deaths of 168 people. The Proud Boys have been active in local politics, including harassing school boards regarding COVID-19 policies. They look set to continue to be a prominent presence in the near future.

Another subsector that is experiencing growth are the so-called “sovereign citizens” groups. They are loosely organized and use a fantastical interpretation to the Constitution to convince their followers that they are immune from almost all laws and governmental authorities. The SPLC report attributes sovereign citizen development to the entwinement of QAnon as well as anti-vaxxer conspiracy theory. This movement is also spreading throughout the globe. Christine Sarteschi, a scholar who studies the movement, notes that “sovereigns” have recently been spotted inPlaces like Australia, Slovakia and Sweden are all possible.

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, antigovernment groups have been declining in Biden’s administration. This breaks a cycle that has existed since the 1990s in which they have tended grow under Democratic administrations and receded under Republicans. While the number of anti-government organizations remained fairly high under Trump’s leadership, they have declined each year (from 689 in 2017 to 566 in 2020). They have declined to 488 under Biden in 2021, instead of rising under Trump.

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.

Also, the collapse of racist skinhead groups, which were founded in the United States in late 1980s, is a result. In 2014, there were 120 and 2017, respectively. Today, there are only 17. Failing to recruit new members as well as attrition to more modern groups like the Proud Boys all have their effects.

Christian Identity, an explicitly racist and antisemitic group, has been reduced to nine groups. It was once a powerful and violent force over the past decades. 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.

In the U.S., Neo-Nazi organisations are also on the decline (down from 121 in 2017. The ideology is still popular. While some groups, such as National Socialist Club (NSC-13), may be younger and more active, many other neoNazis are now 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 a more traditional style than revolutionary fascist organizations, but it isn’t specifically neoNazi. Its members still promote the same themes, white supremacy and antisemitism. It avoids the Republicans and focuses on real-world propaganda such as flyering and unannounced demonstrations. The number of chapters in Patriot Front is 42, almost equal to the 54 neo-Nazi groups that the SPLC has identified. 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 number of neo Nazi groups would be significantly greater, changing our perspective about the momentum of this movement.

Meanwhile, Nick Fuentes’ Groyper Movement represents the other trend of white supremacist organizing. The Groypers, soft-selling the same politics of open fascists like Patriot Front have placed themselves on the right wing Trumpist movement. They’ve been a disturbing success; their last conference drew the participationMarjorie Taylor Greene (R. Georgia) and Paul Gosar, (R. Arizona). The problem with the Groypers is that they are difficult 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 are also difficult to count. The SPLC report only lists three “constitutional sheriffs” groups. This movement, which has its roots in the same ideas as sovereign citizens, believes that county sheriffs are able to reject laws they don’t agree with. 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. The doctrine is believed to allow them to ignore federal laws regarding guns, civil rights protections, and the use 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’sAlex DiBranco is the executive director. He says that her institute will include many of those on the SPLC lists as part of a category called male supremacy. This could include Proud Boys chapters and radical traditionalist Catholics as well as anti-abortion or anti-LGBTQ organizations.

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 bring new challenges and new opportunities. This report examines how independent platforms have monetized live-streaming, which has grown rapidly since YouTube removed many far-right figures. These alternative platforms include DLive and Rumble, Toro, SubscribeStar, and others that have different financial models, such as subscriptions or donations. These platforms can be interactive and viewers can comment or donate. In return viewers may get shout-outs by the personalities.

Although monitoring livestreams takes more time, it is possible to track their profits. However, what’s transparent isn’t always good news. According to the report Fuentes and another Groyper leader raised nearly $174,000 on the DLive platform between April 2020-2021.

As one generation and one set of far right organizing methods fade, new ones emerge. A collapse in the number of traditional organized groups does not necessarily mean a collapsed movement. These changes create new challenges both for the technology used to monitor and track these groups as well as the digitally-based strategies that are used to counter-organize against them. The far right has restructured its approach. Those opposed to it should, too.