Southern Poverty Law Center: Right-Wing Hate Rises Along With Obama

SPLC’s Mark Potok talks to Kevin Fallon about shifting demography and the explosive growth of “Patriot” groups under President Obama.

03.09.13 9:45 AM ET

The Southern Poverty Law Center released its annual “Hatewatch” report Tuesday, which included an interactive map and state-by-state lists of the anti-government “Patriot” groups and hate organizations active in 2012. The report triggered controversy from groups on the right, who accused the SPLC of spinning their data and painting targets on the backs of the listed organizations. The Daily Beast spoke with SPLC Senior Fellow Mark Potok about the report, its backlash, and what he hopes readers will take away from it. Here’s his story, in his own words, very lightly edited for context and clarity:

For the fourth straight year, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual “Hatewatch” report found very significant growth of the radical right, and in particular with respect to the so-called “Patriot” groups, what we used to call militia groups. It’s been really astounding. There were 149 of these groups in 2008, by our count. That number as of 2012 was 1,360. That’s 813% growth in four years.

It seems quite clear to us that this has a lot to do with Barack Obama, who was of course elected right at that time at the end of 2008, and what he represents: the demographic change that is going on in the population right now. The loss of the white majority is predicted by 2043, according to the Census Bureau. That along with the economy, which collapsed at right around the same time, is really what’s driving this movement.

It’s been a very tough time. We’re living through a serious backlash to large changes in our world, and it’s very likely to get worse before it gets better. Now, with the new talk of gun control in the aftermath of the Newton, Conn., massacre, we’re seeing an even angrier reaction. Gun control is a large part of what drove the initial wave of militia movement back in the 1990s, and now we’re seeing talk about it again. As a result, we’re in a very scary situation.

It is important to say that the vast majority of people in the Patriot movement, and in the radical right in general, will never blow up a federal building, will never shoot a police officer, or commit a major crime. But the reality is that looking back at the 1990s, there was an enormous amount of terrorism or attempted terrorism that in fact did come from people associated with the Patriot movement. We’ve seen it again, too, since 2008. There’s been a fairly dramatic uptick in non-Islamic domestic terrorism as soon as Obama appeared on the scene.

Barack Obama had not left the city of Denver, where he was nominated for president by the Democratic party in 2007, before there was a skinhead plot to murder him. That fall, there were a number of other plots to kill Obama. There have been plots to attack four eastern cities, including Atlanta, with a deadly biological toxin. There have been plans and conspiracies to assassinate and kidnap judges and police officers. There was a major attempt to kill as many as 1,500 people marching in a Martin Luther King Day parade several years ago in Spokane, Wash. The list goes on and on, but what’s very clear is that after a lull of about eight years—the eight years under George Bush—we’re seeing a serious uptick in domestic terrorism.

The SPLC’s new report is eliciting a range of reactions, depending on the politics of the audience. On the progressive left, there are nods of acknowledgment. People are seeing what we’re saying is real, that at this point in [American] history there’s a vastly more important radical right than radical left, and that there really is a danger. On the right, however, we’re met, as we often are, by intense skepticism ranging from the idea that this is a fundraising scam to the idea this all a Communist plot.

There’s been a lot of anger from certain groups, too. We’ve been in a battle for years with the Family Research Council and some of the other large Christian right organizations. The FRC has accused us of somehow being responsible for the shooting of their business manager in front of their D.C. headquarters because we listed them as a hate group.

FRC President Tony Perkins speaks during The Family Research Council (FRC) Action Values Voter Summit September 14, 2012 at a hotel in Washington, DC. The summit is an annual political conference for US social conservative activists and elected officials.    AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

FRC President Tony Perkins speaks during The Family Research Council (FRC) Action Values Voter Summit Sept. 14, 2012.

Tony Perkins, president of the FRC, said our report gives people like the gunman who attack the FRC headquarters, a “license” for violence. That’s utter hogwash, and very, very dishonest. Perkins has said a number of things that are not true. He claims that we list the FRC because a hate group because it opposes same-sex marriage and because it has a Biblical view of morality. That’s false, and we’ve said so from the first day we listed them as a hate group.

Our objection to the FRC and some of the other anti-gay groups out there is that they consciously lie in order to demonize gay people. The very best example of that is the oft-repeated contention that gay men molest children at rates vastly higher than heterosexual men. That, as a matter of scientific record, is false. Relevant scientific authorities, the American Psychological Association, for example, have found that that’s completely untrue, and that in fact gay men molest children at not at all higher rates as straight men, and there’s no extra danger to children associated with same-sex parenting.

The FRC’s contention that we somehow give a license to a would-be killer by calling them a hate group is a matter of real false equivalencies. We were factually pointing out what the FRC was saying that was completely untrue, and had the effect of viciously demonizing a large group of people. They’ve tried to turn this on its head by saying that we have demonized them. The difference is that what we’re saying is true. What they’re saying isn’t and isolates and makes targets out of a particular segment of the population.

It’s not just the FRC. Many conservative groups, pundits and bloggers are attacking the report. But we are trying to do the public a service. We’re trying to distinguish what is mainstream political debate from real falsehoods. We are not trying to take sides as to whether you should be conservative or liberal, or whether big or small government is better. We’re trying to encourage debate about immigration, health care, and same-sex marriage, and make those debates based on the facts instead of a bank of lies and conspiracy theories.

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It’s a challenge. We’ve got to get through the propaganda from the right that could obscure our message. We are trying to educate the public so that people will understand that what we’re talking about is more than half-a-dozen skinheads off in a corner some place, that there really is a challenge to democracy from the extreme right. We’ve tried very hard to marginalize and minimize the effect of radical propaganda in the political mainstream. For example, we concentrated energy on a battle with Lou Dobbs, who we felt was consistently lying about immigrants on national television. In that case, and not only due to our efforts, Dobbs lost his job on CNN and was moved over to small-time radio. That seems like a victory of sorts.

What we really hope that people get from our report is that our country, like many European countries, is going through a very hard time. The world is changing around us in very significant ways, and the world is having to adjust to that change. We are going through a period, like a lot of others in our history, of backlash. People are reacting against a very major change, just like we saw in reaction to the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, and the women’s rights movement.

Ultimately, the lesson is that this too shall pass. This backlash will recede at some point. But there is still an immediate worry that’s very real, and that’s another Oklahoma City bombing. That’s what we worry about the most in the immediate future. As a society, we are moving to a better place. We’re headed to becoming, for the first time, a truly multiracial democracy where no one group dominates.

The reaction of the political right to our report is misinformed. Really, I wish they would just read the report. Our purpose is not to demonize every conservative in the country or describe them all as potential Timothy McVeighs. It’s sad to listen to some of the commentary from the political right about the report. It’s obvious that these people are just listening to one another. They don’t read our reports. They read each other’s reports about our reports. You’re arguing with a shadow.