The SPLC’S Report on Anti-Government Extremism – Interview Part 1

9 mins read

In the wake of the January 6th insurrection, the Southern Poverty Law Center put out a three-part report about anti-government extremism, studying how specific elements like the pandemic, election disinformation, and the Black Lives Matter protests may have led to the events at the Capitol. 

The report was released concurrently with the SPLC’s “Year in Hate and Extremism,” an annual review tracking the activity and growth of white nationalist groups in the United States.

Stephan Cox, host of the Washington State Indivisible Podcast, sat down recently with Kate Bitz, a program manager with the Western State Center, an affiliate of the Southern Poverty Law Center, to discuss the reports and what they may indicate for a post-Trump America. This is the first part of the interview.

Stephan Cox: Since you track this sort of thing as part of your work, I’ll ask you first if you were at all surprised by the events of January 6th. 

Kate Bitz: This was not a surprise, no. We had pretty clear indications beforehand that several groups were talking about and planning to storm the U.S. Capitol. It was a coordinated nationwide effort. We also know from events over the last four years — such as armed protesters entering state capitols in Michigan and Oregon last spring and in December — that law enforcement agencies really struggle to see these groups for the threat that they are. We should also keep in mind that members of these same organizations were walking the halls of other state capitol buildings on January 6th, including in Kansas and Georgia, although those events were not as violent as that in Washington D.C. These are all things that would have made nationwide headlines if it wasn’t for the violence at the Capitol.

SC: How do we define anti-government extremism? 

KB: When the SPLC report talks about anti-government groups, they’re talking about groups that tend to engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing. They’ll refer to a new world order, or more recently, a great reset. These groups adhere to extreme anti-government doctrines. Many warn of impending violence by the government and use this as a justification for organizing paramilitary groups. Many of these anti-government groups don’t see themselves as prejudiced against marginalized groups; they would not call themselves white nationalists or racists. Still, these groups often rely on messaging about patriotism as a cover for extremist beliefs that are anti-democratic, often xenophobic, and opposed to the legitimacy of the federal government and other government bodies. 

SC: We saw a lot of different groups at the Capitol on January 6th: Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, QAnon believers, white nationalists. What ties these groups together and why they were all there working with common purpose that day?

KB: These groups do have very disparate world views. There are often disputes among them. But the connective tissue between them for the past five years or so has been pro-Trump sentiment. 

SC: The SPLC report talks about how the anti-government movement was galvanized by three things over the course of 2020: the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and disinformation around the election. So let’s unpack it by starting with the pandemic. 

KB: The pandemic creates understandable fear and anxiety and has shaken a lot of people’s sense of stability. Anti-government movements are intentionally trading on that type of fear and uncertainty, and also seeking to exacerbate it, because that creates an opportunity for them to broaden their influence in our communities. These groups don’t like the government on a good day, and so they will often see routine public health measures like vaccinations or masking as somehow oppressive. Instead of facing up to the pandemic, many of them turn to conspiracy theories that downplay or even deny the danger entirely. These conspiracy theories have been a really effective recruitment tool.

Anti-government groups initially voiced support for Black Lives Matter protests. But making supportive statements is an extremely easy thing to do. It does not require a lot of practical follow-up, which also speaks to an interesting conflict at the heart of anti-government right-wing ideology. These groups don’t support the police. Some of them will wave Blue Lives Matter flags, but we’ve seen how that turned out on January 6th. They also do not support an anti-racist worldview, and really have a pattern of blaming Black communities for problems that come from systemic racism. During the Black Lives Matter protests, they would often describe themselves as being there for protection either of the protesters or of businesses in the area. Regardless of the fact that many of these were basically planned by high school students, we saw large paramilitary mobilizations. For example in north Idaho, because people were convinced by rumors on social media that these protests were actually planned riots, you ended up having guys with long guns facing off against groups of kids holding signs. To this day, they claim that they successfully scared off people who were planning to riot. Your opponent doesn’t actually have to show up for you to use a situation like that as a training and recruitment opportunity. Unfortunately, that repeated mobilization led to the obvious readiness for everything that we saw on January 6th.

SC: Yes, absolutely. And then, of course, the thing that really seemed to light the match for January 6th was the movement to deny election results. We know that disinformation drove a lot of what happened on January 6th. Do you feel that these groups were manipulated by the disinformation or that they used it, or both?

KB: Definitely both. There’s not a dichotomy there in my mind. You really have to think about the power of the then president of the United States and the entire media apparatus that he brought to the table, in addition to having the biggest mic in our entire country. This whole group geared up to make these spurious claims about the 2020 election results. That kind of media machine is very persuasive. Court filings by the lawyers of people who are now accused of committing crimes during the insurrection show that many people really believed the lies that they were told. They thought that it was their patriotic duty to assist in storming the Capitol. But this isn’t the whole story. If we’re going to secure our democracy, we need to turn a critical eye on the propagandists who motivated this: people who intentionally spread lies about racial justice protests over the summer, claiming that these were driven by outside influences; everyone who enabled Trump’s focus on a completely baseless set of claims about the 2020 election results. These people knew better. Their intentional manipulation is how five people ended up dead.

Look for the second part of this interview on DemCastUSA tomorrow!

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We invite you to watch or listen to the full interview.

DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

Stephan Cox is a public radio and broadcasting veteran who has helmed shows for PRI, and KUSF, and has reported for NPR. He is the host of the Washington State Indivisible Podcast.

Cynthia Eller is a writer based in Los Angeles. She's really eager for term limits in Congress and ditching the filibuster.

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