Defining the Far Right

The far right is best understood as a spectrum of groups and individuals who are often at odds with one another but hold in common some combination of four elements: exclusionary and dehumanizing beliefs, antigovernment and antidemocratic practices and ideals, existential threats and conspiracy theories, and apocalyptic fantasies.[1] Exclusionary and dehumanizing beliefs are at the core of far-right ideologies through ideas about superiority and inferiority according to race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, or sexuality.[2] White supremacism in the United States has been the primary – although not the only – form of exclusionary ideology and is therefore especially key to understanding the American far right. But there is overlap across the spectrum of far-right groups with those whose primary focus is other issues, such as anti-government extremists, misogynistic groups, and Christian supremacy or nationalism. Far-right ideas are generally fundamentally opposed to the norms, values, and beliefs that underpin democratic practice across the globe, as evidenced through actions like promoting authoritarianism, threatening free and fair elections, challenging systems of checks and balances, or threatening the protection of individual freedom, the rule of law, or freedoms of the press, religion, speech, and assembly.[3] Far-right ideologies, individuals, and groups espouse beliefs that are antidemocratic, antiegalitarian, white supremacist, and are embedded in solutions like authoritarianism, ethnic cleansing or ethnic migration, and the establishment of separate ethno-states or enclaves along racial and ethnic lines.

For far-right extremists, exclusionary beliefs are more than prejudicial attitudes toward an out-group. They are tied to the idea of an existential threat to the dominant group and then linked to emotional appeals to protect, defend, and take heroic action to restore sacred national space, territory, and homelands. The existential threat is often voiced in terms of a broader and orchestrated conspiracy theory, such as the ‘great replacement’, which is currently the leading far-right conspiracy theory of demographic change globally. The ‘great replacement’ argues that there is an intentional, global plan orchestrated by national and global elites – and led by Muslims or Jews – to replace white, Christian, or European populations with nonwhite, non-Christian ones.[4] In the U.S., the ‘great replacement’ conspiracy builds on the concept of ‘white genocide’ popularized by the American neo-Nazi David Lane, who argued that white populations face an existential threat because they are dying out demographically due to immigration, abortion, and violence against whites.[5]

At the most-extreme fringe, far-right extremists not only believe that an existential threat exists, but also that an inevitable violent apocalypse is on its way, which will be followed by a period of restoration and re-birth for white civilization. These apocalyptic fantasies motivate violent action from a fringe part of extremists called ‘accelerationists’, who believe that the best and fastest way to reach the desired phase of restorative rebirth is to hurry up the path to the apocalypse by increasing polarization, chaos, and societal fighting as a way of undermining overall social stability.[6] Accelerationism is not unique to the far right, but violent far-right extremists’ adoption of it as a strategy is relatively recent, and reflects a major shift from the realm of apocalyptic fantasies into direct action, through a celebration of violence that will bring about an end-times collapse and subsequent restoration of a new white civilization.[7]


History and Development of the Far Right in the U.S.

White supremacism has been foundational in the United States, from the earliest arrival of Europeans and the eventual genocide of Native Americans to the reliance on institutionalized slavery to build the nation’s economy. An ideology based on racist ideas came together in the U.S. in the mid-1800s, initially oriented around the defense of slavery but eventually fixated on opposition to equality for African Americans.[8] The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), likely the best-known historical U.S. white supremacist extremist group, was founded at the end of slavery. The KKK was made up of violent vigilante groups who enacted a reign of brutal terror against freed Black people through the use of rape, lynching, torture and mutilation.[9] A resurgence of Klan activity in the 1920s led to the KKK having several million members across the U.S.[10] Uniquely American variations on white supremacy emerged over time, including Christian-identity groups who believe whites are God’s chosen people, white-supremacist prison gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood, and groups inspired by overseas ideologies, including neo-Nazis and racist skinheads.[11] Like the KKK, other far-right groups and ideas in the U.S. have often emerged in reaction to civil rights movements or progress toward racial equity.[12] In 2020, for example, some U.S. antigovernment extremist groups mobilized in reaction to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, harassing protesters in multiple cities and calling on ‘patriots’ to protect business owners’ property.[13]

What we think of today as the modern white supremacist movement in the U.S. began in the 1970s, fueled in part by the return of disgruntled Vietnam veterans, who the white supremacist Louis Beam mobilized to participate in paramilitary training facilities and boot camps that were intended to create a white-separatist army to assume control of national and regional space and expel nonwhites, creating a white homeland.[14] These were typically separate camps in remote areas, which helped ensure they had relatively limited reach.[15] Later, the breadth and reach of far-right groups would expand dramatically as the internet facilitated engagement in ways no longer limited by geography.  

After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by an anti-government extremist with white supremacist sympathies, the far right went underground in the U.S. for a few years. When the 9/11 attacks took place, the government and the public’s attention shifted to Islamist and international forms of extremism and terrorism, and white supremacist extremism and the far right received far less attention. Growth across the spectrum began in earnest after the first election of an African American U.S. President in 2008. In the years that followed that election, the country saw record-breaking numbers of hate groups emerge, as well as the founding of new militia groups and anti-government movements like the Oathkeepers and the three-percenters.[16] By the time Donald Trump was elected to the U.S. presidency in 2016 on a wave of populist nationalist and nativist rhetoric that was seen by many white supremacist extremists as a legitimation of their beliefs, the so-called ‘alt right’ and ‘alt lite’ was already emerging as the new face of the far right in the U.S., using youth culture to fuel the mainstreaming and growth of the far right and white supremacist extremist ideas.[17]


Mainstreaming, Normalization, and Mobilization to Violence in the U.S. Far Right

In the U.S., the most visible moment related to the mainstreaming of white supremacist extremism came in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where dozens of young men clad in pressed khakis and white polo shirts marched across the University of Virginia campus carrying flaming tiki torches and chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’. That rally made it clear to the American – and global – public that extremist ideas had seeped into everyday kinds of spaces and discourses in the U.S. Just over a year later, a Pennsylvania man allegedly killed eleven people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Six months after that attack, 51 Muslim worshippers were killed in Christchurch, New Zealand by a white supremacist extremist, who livestreamed his attack and inspired copycat attacks in several places globally, including in El Paso, Texas, where 23 people died in a mass shooting targeting Latinos in a Walmart store. In the wake of these terrorist attacks, the U.S. government finally mobilized to take more significant action. Congress called multiple hearings in 2019 and 2020, where expert witnesses testified about a range of issues related to white supremacist extremism and terrorism. In October 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a threat assessment report declaring white supremacist extremists (WSEs) the ‘most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland’, noting that 2019 was ‘the most lethal year for domestic violent extremism in the United States since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995’.[18]

Within weeks of that report, however, millions of Americans would come to believe mass disinformation about a fraudulent election. Fueled by rapid growth in 2020 in QAnon conspiracy theories, anti-government militia movements, and the self-described ‘Western chauvinist’ Proud Boys, large numbers of American citizens began to mobilize in response to President Trump’s call to ‘Stop the Steal’. On January 6, 2021, as the U.S. Congress was gathering to certify the electoral college votes authenticating the election of Joe Biden, thousands of individuals comprising a toxic mix of militant far-right extremists and mobilized Trump voters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a violent insurrection, ultimately resulting in the deaths of five individuals that day, and two suicides of police officers in the days that followed.[19]

At the time of this writing, the U.S. policy reaction to the U.S. Capitol attack is still emerging. Among other developments, revelations that a disproportionate percentage of veterans were among those arrested has helped bring renewed attention in the U.S. to the role of law enforcement, military, and veteran communities in far-right extremism. [20] This is not a new phenomenon, of course.[21] There have also been repeated examples of active armed forces or law enforcement engagement in the white supremacist fringe in the U.S. over the past several decades. In the 1990s, a white supremacist gang formed among soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg, and two members murdered a local Black couple.[22] A 2006 FBI bulletin described the ‘threat of white nationalists’ who might deliberately infiltrate the police, disrupt investigations, and try to recruit.[23] And of course, army veteran and white supremacist Timothy McVeigh was responsible for the worst domestic terrorism attack in U.S. history, taking the lives of 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.[24]

But in the wake of the U.S. Capitol attack, calls for more data collection, accountability, and transparency from the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Justice about the potential role of law enforcement and active-duty military in extremist groups began to gain steam. To protect the 2021 inauguration of President Joe Biden from potential ‘insider’ threats, the U.S. Department of Defense individually vetted all 25,000 National Guard troops assigned to secure the city and the inauguration ceremony, resulting in the removal of a dozen members of the National Guard – two for possible links to extremism.[25] In early February, the Pentagon announced plans for stand-downs, or pauses in regular activity, over a two-month period in order to address the issue of racism and extremism in the military.[26] The coming years in the U.S. are likely to bring new developments in these areas.


The Current and Future Threat Landscape

The fall 2020 U.S. Department of Homeland Security report declaring white supremacist extremism the most lethal and dangerous threat facing the nation was in many ways a turning point in the U.S. government’s acknowledgement of the problem of violent domestic extremism. The 2019 death numbers cited in that report had come on the heels of 50 deaths at the hands of domestic extremists in 2018, with the majority linked to white supremacy specifically, making 2018 the fourth-deadliest year since 1970 in terms of domestic extremist deaths.[27] The lethality of extremism dropped significantly in 2020, with only 17 domestic extremist murders – all but one linked to right-wing extremism and over half linked to white supremacist extremism (one death was attributed to a left-wing extremist, and five deaths were attributed to anti-government extremists). But even as deadly outcomes declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, extremists remained highly engaged in other ways. At least 16 far right terrorist plots or attacks were documented in 2020,[28] some of which received wide media attention, such as the kidnapping plot against the Michigan and Virginia governors. Hate crimes against Asian Americans also increased significantly during the pandemic, due to COVID-19 related hate directed at people of Asian descent, with a UN report documenting more than 1,800 hate incidents against Asian Americans in the U.S. just between March and May 2020.[29]

The circulation of extremist propaganda and the numbers of hate groups also remain very high. White supremacist extremist propaganda nearly doubled in 2020, (from 2,724 incidents in 2019 to over 4,500 incidents).[30] Importantly, this type of propaganda is not limited to any single group. The hundreds of instances of far-right propaganda documented in 2018, for example came from at least ten separate national ‘alt-right’, white-supremacist, and neo-Nazi groups.[31] The numbers of hate groups in the U.S. remains at a historic high. These numbers had more than doubled to over 1,000 after the presidential election of Barack Obama before declining by 2014 to 784. Hate group numbers then rose to a record high of 1,020 in 2018 and remain historically high at 838 in 2020. White-nationalist groups alone increased by nearly 50 percent in 2018, from 100 to 148.[32]

It is hard to predict what the future of far-right extremism looks like in the U.S. The January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol was a wake-up call for much of the public and the policymaking community about the impact of mass disinformation and the potential for large numbers of people to become radicalized and mobilize to violence. The Biden administration will certainly take on the issue of domestic violent extremism in ways that will be important to watch in the months and years to come.



[1] For a longer discussion of these categories, see Miller-Idriss 2020.

[2] Smith 2011.

[3] Mudde 2019, Plattner 2019.

[4] See the thorough discussion of the Great Replacement theory, along with its precursors “white genocide” and “Eurabia,” in Davey and Ebner 2019

[5] Michael 2009

[6] See ADL (Anti-Defamation League). “White Supremacists Embrace Acceleration.” ADL Blog, April 19, 2019.

[7] For an example, see the case of Atomwaffen in the U.S. in Ari Shapiro’s interview with Joanna Mendelsohn, National Public Radio, March 6, 2018,; also see Ware, Siege, citing Hatewatch, “Atomwaffen and the SIEGE Parallax: How One Neo-Nazi’s Life’s Work Is Fueling a Younger Generation,” SPLC, February 22, 2018

[8] Pitcavage 2019, p. 3.

[9] See discussion of the first Ku Klux Klan in Blee 1991, esp. pp. 12-15

[10] See Blee 1991 p. 17; McVeigh. 2009.

[11] Pitcavage 2019, p. 3.

[12] See Mudde, 2018, p. 7.

[13] See “Opposing Nationwide Protests against Police Brutality.” The Year in Antigovernment Extremism Part 2. Southern Poverty Law Center, February 8, 2021. Available at:

[14] Belew 2018, 40.

[15] Belew 2018, 33.

[16] For more reading on this, see Jackson 2020.

[17] See Pitcavage 2019 for a full discussion of these groups.

[18] See Homeland Threat Assessment, October 2020. p. 18. Homeland Threat Assessment October 2020 (

[19] Caitlin, Emma and Sarah Ferris. “Second Police Officer died by suicide following Capitol attack.” Politico, January 27, 2021. Available at: Second police officer died by suicide following Capitol attack - POLITICO

[20] Dreisbach, Tom and Meg Anderson. “Nearly 1 in 5 Defendants in Capitol Riot Cases Served in the Military.” NPR, January 21, 2021. Available at: Military Veterans Overrepresented In Those Charged In Jan. 6 Capitol Riot : NPR

[21] Miller-Idriss, Cynthia. “When the Far Right Penetrates Law Enforcement.” Foreign Affairs.¸December 15, 2020. Available at: When the Far Right Penetrates Law Enforcement | Foreign Affairs

[22] Jones, Christopher. “Does the American Military Have a Problem with Far-Right Extremism?” Pacific Standard, March 26, 2019. Available at: Does the American Military Have a Problem With Far-Right Extremism? - Pacific Standard (

[23] See Downs, Kenya. “FBI warned of white supremacists in law enforcement 10 years ago. Has anything changed?” PBS News Hour. October 21, 2016. Available at: FBI warned of white supremacists in law enforcement 10 years ago. Has anything changed? | PBS NewsHour

[24] Anti-Defamation League. “Twenty-five years later, Oklahoma City Bombing Inspires a New Generation of Extremists.” April 19, 2020. Available at: Twenty-five Years Later, Oklahoma City Bombing Inspires a New Generation of Extremists | Anti-Defamation League (

[25] See New York Times coverage of the vetting at 12 National Guard Troops Removed for Inaugural Protection, Two for Possible Links to Extremist Groups - The New York Times (

[26] Stewart, Phil and Ali Idrees. “Pentagon, stumped by extremism in ranks, orders stand-down in next 60 days.” Reuters. February 3, 2021, available at: Pentagon, stumped by extremism in ranks, orders stand-down in next 60 days | Reuters

[27] See the Anti-Defamation League’s report, “Murder and Extremism in the U.S. in 2018.” Available at:

[28] ADL, “Murder and Extremism in the United States in 2020.” Also see See the ADL’s Oren Segal’s statement in Montanaro, Domenico: “Democratic Candidates Call Trump a White Supremacist, a Label Some Say is ‘Too Simple,’ ” NPR, August 15, 2019; also see “ADL: White Supremacist Propaganda Distribution Hit All-Time High in 2019,” ADL, February 12, 2020,

[29] See the August 2020 report, “Mandates of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls.” Available at: DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile (

[30] See the SPLC 2020 Year in Hate Report, Flyering Remains a Recruitment Tool for Hate Groups | Southern Poverty Law Center (

[31] Propaganda was linked in 2018 to Identity Evropa (which regrouped in 2019 as the American Identity Movement, AIM), Patriot Front, Loyal White Nights, Ku Klux Klan, Daily Stormer, Atomwaffen Division, National Alliance, National Socialist Legion, National Socialist Movement, and Vanguard America. See Selim, “Congressional Testimony.”

[32] As cited in Brooks, Lecia. “Testimony of Lecia Brooks, Southern Poverty Law Center, Before the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Committee on Oversight and Reform, United States House of Representatives.” Testimony at the hearing “Confronting White Supremacy (Part II): Adequacy of the Federal Response.” June 4, 2019., and documented in the SPLCs Intelligence Reports magazine. See especially Beirich, “Year in Hate” and the 2020 Year in Hate Report, available at The Year in Hate and Extremism 2020 | Southern Poverty Law Center (



Cynthia Miller-Idriss, ‘White Supremacist Extremism and the Far Right in the U.S.’, Political Extremism and Radicalism: Far-Right Groups in America, Cengage Learning (EMEA) Ltd, 2021.


Belew, Kathleen. Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Berger, J. M. Extremism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018.

Blee, Kathleen. Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. 

Davey, Jacob and Julia Ebner. “The Great Replacement”: The Violent Consequences of Mainstreamed Extremism. London: Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2019.

Jackson, Sam. Oathkeepers. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

Rory McVeigh. The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan: Right-Wing Movements and National Politics. University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Michael, George. “David Lane and the Fourteen Words.” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 10, no. 1 (2009).

Miller-Idriss, Cynthia. Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Mudde, Cas. The Far Right Today. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2019.

Mudde, Cas. The Far Right in America. Routledge, 2018.

Pitcavage, Mark. Surveying the Landscape of the American Far Right. George Washington University Program on Extremism, August 2019.

Plattner, Marc F. “Illiberal Democracy and the Struggle on the Right.” Journal of Democracy 30, no. 1 (2019): 5–19.

Smith, David Livingstone. Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others. New York: St. Martin’s, 2011.

Ware, Jacob. Siege: The Atomwaffen Division and Rising Far-Right Terrorism in the United States. International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) Policy Brief, July 2019. The Hague: ICCT, 2019.


Any views and opinions expressed in these essays are those of the author in question, and any views or opinions from the original source material are those of the publication in question. Gale, part of Cengage Group, provides facsimile reproductions of original sources and do not endorse or dispute the content contained in them. Author affiliation and information within them are correct as of the original publication date.