The number of white nationalist groups operating in Appalachia has increased, according to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The rise coincides with a national surge of far-right, anti-government and anti-LGBTQ+ groups, which the SPLC warns could undermine democracy heading into the 2024 presidential election. 

“With a historic election just months away, these groups are multiplying, mobilizing and making, and in some cases already implementing, plans to undo democracy,” Margaret Huang, SPLC’s president and CEO, said on a call with reporters following the release of the organization’s 2023 Year in Hate and Extremism Report.

In Appalachia, these groups include Active Clubs, the Patriot Front, White Lives Matter and the Ku Klux Klan. Here, most limit their activity to propaganda efforts, like dispersing fliers or displaying banners on highway overpasses, according to Kieran Doyle, the North American research manager for the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project

As of June, ACLED, a non-governmental organization that collects global data on violent conflict and protest, has recorded five events in West Virginia involving white nationalist groups since November 2022, according to data compiled by Doyle. 

The most recent event recorded was an April protest in downtown Charleston, the state capital, organized by the Patriot Front, which Doyle said is the most active white nationalist group in the state. The march was held on the same day as the YWCA hosted its “Race to End Racism” event; West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported that masked Patriot Front members wore matching khaki pants, hats and dark polo shirts and carried a sign that read “America is not for sale.”

Two of the other reported events were also in Kanawha County, where Charleston is located. Another event occurred in Cabell County in 2022. And in Brooke County, the leader of a neo-Nazi group was sentenced to more than six years in federal prison for threatening the jury and witnesses in the hate crimes trial of the man responsible for the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue mass shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Recent events tied to white nationalist and other hate groups have been reported in nearly every other state across Appalachia. 

ACLED recorded nearly 60 events in Pennsylvania since January 2020, with Allegheny County — which includes Pittsburgh — ranked as one of the state’s most frequent sites of white nationalist group activity. 

In Tennessee, ACLED data shows 70 white nationalist events. Knox County, in East Tennessee, has experienced the second-highest number of events in the state, Doyle said. 

ACLED has also documented multiple instances of white nationalist group activity taking place in Southwestern Ohio, Eastern Kentucky, Western North Carolina, North Georgia and elsewhere across the region.

According to the SPLC’s report, this activity, coupled with “holy war” and “race war” rhetoric and the fear and disruption these groups sow, “foreshadow an attempt to exploit American democratic and electoral processes in 2024 to finally accomplish the goals of the insurrection — the suppression of multiracial, pluralistic democracy.”

Anti-LGBTQ+ groups are also on the rise, according to the SPLC report, with groups frequently targeting libraries, schools and drag shows. Last year, in Floyd County, Kentucky, a drag performance moved online after organizers received threats. A few months later, online threats were made against another Kentucky drag performance, this time in Montgomery County. 

Jacob Glick, senior policy counsel at Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said this type of anti-LGBTQ+ activity is closely related to anti-democratic extremism. 

“I’m worried where that leads when you consider that some of these localities could then become flashpoints for national conflict as you enter the election,” Glick said. “You can see very easily how the local issues then balloon into national issues with the right call to action, as we approach sort of the ultimate moment of national conversation.”

Filling a void

While the number of active white nationalist groups reached a nationwide high last year, these groups haven’t coalesced under a central leadership or organized institutional structure like far-right extremist and anti-government militia movements the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers, according to the report. 

Those large national networks, which strengthened following the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, have largely shattered amid public scrutiny and prosecutions following the violent uprising and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Glick said. A void emerged as a result, with more empowered, localized groups with the same extremist ideologies stepping in to fill it. 

“Splinter groups that are sometimes even more explicitly fascistic, neo-Nazi and white nationalist or white supremacist have popped up to take the place of some of these established militia networks or established Proud Boy networks, and in some cases, they’ve supplanted them,” Glick said. “In other cases, they’ve just sort of popped up in the absence of any other extended network.” 

A lot of these groups are organizing under the banner of Active Clubs, decentralized white nationalist fight-club-style groups of young white men with chapters in most states in the region. Active Clubs have been described as “white supremacy 3.0” and a “standby militia.” In the last year, the group has grown to nearly 40 chapters nationwide, which are increasingly employing more violent tactics at the local level and specifically targeting LGBTQ+ events, according to the SPLC report.

The localized nature of these groups could magnify their impact and pose concerns for election security.

Last year, members of the Tennessee Active Club showed up to a forum to provide protection to a mayoral candidate who focused her campaign on targeting LGBTQ+ events. The mayoral candidate lost her bid, but Glick believes that dynamic could shift, with extremists, for example, taking it upon themselves to prevent voter fraud.

He added that it’s a danger that’s especially potent with county-level militias and groups like the constitutional sheriffs movement, an anti-government group that held a training in Appalachia last year, given there’s already a script for election fraud these groups are able to work from. 

Today, Glick sees the same patterns that emboldened the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers in the lead up to January 6, being set in motion with this “open flirtation” between far-right groups and public officials exploiting community fears at local levels.

“We’re seeing that play out now in more localized contexts across the country, but the election is going to be the overarching narrative that immediately unites all of those fears into one package,” Glick said. “And that’s how many folks on the far right are talking about this election — in terms of an apocalyptic battle.”

Jacob Biba is a reporter covering democracy and election security for 100 Days in Appalachia. Support his work here.

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