What Is a Political Extremist?

The Danger of Fringe Movements in the U.S.

The Branch Davidians
The Branch Davidians, a Christian sect led by David Koresh, lived at Mount Carmel Center ranch in the community of Elk, Texas. They are an example of a militia group, a type of political extremism. Photo by Steven Reece/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

A political extremist is someone whose beliefs fall outside mainstream societal values and on the fringes of the ideological spectrum. In the U.S., the typical political extremist is motivated by anger, fear and hatred — most commonly toward the government and people of different races, ethnicities and nationalities. Some are motivated by very specific issues such as abortion, animal rights, and environmental protection.

What Political Extremists Believe

Political extremists oppose the core principles of democracy and human rights. Extremists come in many flavors on both sides of the ideological spectrum. There are right-wing extremists and left-wing extremists. There are Islamic extremists and anti-abortion extremists. Some political extremists are known to engage in ideologically driven criminal activity, including violence

Political extremists often show disdain for the rights and liberties of others, but resent the limitations of their own activities. Extremists often exhibit ironic qualities; they favor censorship of their enemies but use intimidation and manipulation to spread their own assertions and claims, for example. Some claim God is on their side of an issue and they often use religion as an excuse for acts of violence.

Political Extremists and Violence

A 2017 Congressional Research Service report, authored by organized crime and terrorism expert Jerome P. Bjelopera, linked domestic terrorism to political extremism and warned of a growing threat in the U.S.

“The emphasis of counterterrorism policy in the United States since Al Qaeda’s attacks of September 11, 2001, has been on jihadist terrorism. However, in the last decade, domestic terrorists — people who commit crimes within the homeland and draw inspiration from U.S.-based extremist ideologies and movements — have killed American citizens and damaged property across the country.” 

A 1999 Federal Bureau of Investigation report stated: “During the past 30 years, the vast majority — but not all — of the deadly terrorist attacks occurring in the United States have been perpetrated by domestic extremists.”

There are at least six types of political extremists operating in the U.S., according to government experts. 

Sovereign Citizens

There are several hundred thousand Americans who claim they are exempt or “sovereign” from the U.S. and its laws. Their hard-line anti-government and anti-tax beliefs place them at odds with elected officials, judges, and police officers, and some confrontations have turned violent and even deadly. In 2010, self-proclaimed "sovereign citizen" Joe Kane fatally shot two police officers in Arkansas during a routine traffic stop. Sovereign citizens often refer to themselves as “constitutionalists” or “freemen.” They may also form loose-knit groups with names such as Moorish Nation, The Aware Group, and Republic of United States of America. Their core belief is that the reach of local, federal, and state governments is excessive and un-American. 

According to the University of North Caroline School of Government: 

"Sovereign citizens may issue their own driver’s licenses and vehicle tags, create and file their own liens against government officials who cross them, question judges about the validity of their oaths, challenge the applicability of traffic laws to them and, in extreme cases, resort to violence to protect their imagined rights. They speak an odd quasi-legal language and believe that by not capitalizing names and by writing in red and using certain catch phrases they can avoid any liability in our judicial system. They even think they can lay claim to vast sums of money held by the United States Treasury, based on the premise that the government has secretly pledged them as security for the country’s debts. Based on these beliefs, and a twisted understanding of the Uniform Commercial Code, they try various schemes that they think discharge them from responsibility for their debts."

Animal Rights and Environmental Extremists

These two types of political extremist are often mentioned together because their mode of operation and leaderless structure is similar — the commission of crimes such as theft and destruction of property by individuals or small, loosely affiliated groups operating on behalf of a larger mission.

Animal-rights extremists believe animals cannot be owned because they are entitled to the same basic rights humans are afforded. They propose a constitutional amendment creating an animal bill of rights that "bans exploitation of animals and discrimination based on species, recognizes animals as persons in a substantive sense, and grants them the rights relevant and necessary to their existence — the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." 

In 2006, an animal-rights extremist named Donald Currie was convicted for orchestrating a bombing campaign against animal researchers, their families, and their homes. Said one investigator: "The offenses were of a very serious nature and demonstrate the lengths a minority of animal-rights activists are prepared to go to for their cause."

Similarly, environmental extremists have targeted logging, mining and construction firms — for-profit corporate interests they believe are destroying the Earth. One prominent environmental extremist group has described its mission as using “economic sabotage and guerrilla warfare to stop the exploitation and destruction of the environment.” Its members have used techniques such as "tree spiking" — the insertion of metal spikes in trees to damage logging saws — and "monkeywrenching" — sabotaging logging and construction equipment. The most violent environmental extremists employ arson and firebombing. 

Testifying before a congressional subcommittee in 2002, the FBI's domestic terrorism chief, James F. Jarboe, said:

"Special interest extremists continue to conduct acts of politically motivated violence to force segments of society, including the general public, to change attitudes about issues considered important to their causes. These groups occupy the extreme fringes of animal rights, pro-life, environmental, anti-nuclear, and other movements. Some special interest extremists — most notably within the animal rights and environmental movements — have turned increasingly toward vandalism and terrorist activity in attempts to further their causes."

Anarchists

This particular group of political extremist embraces a society in which "all individuals can do whatever they choose, except interfere with the ability of other individuals to do what they choose," according to a definition in The Anarchist Library

"Anarchists do not suppose that all people are altruistic, or wise, or good, or identical, or perfectible, or any romantic nonsense of that kind. They believe that a society without coercive institutions is feasible, within the repertoire of natural, imperfect, human behavior."

Anarchists represent a left-wing political extremism and have employed violence and force in attempting to create such a society. They've vandalized property, set fires and detonated bombs targeting financial corporations, government entities and police officers. One of the largest anarchist protests in modern history took place during the World Trade Organization's 1999 meetings in Seattle, Washington. A group that helped carry out the protests stated its goals this way: "A storefront window becomes a vent to let some fresh air into the oppressive atmosphere of a retail outlet. A dumpster becomes an obstruction to a phalanx of rioting cops and a source of heat and light. A building facade becomes a message board to record brainstorm ideas for a better world."

New groups have risen amid the rise of the alt-right and white nationalism in the U.S. to combat white supremacy. These groups reject the involvement of government police forces in tracking neo-Nazis and white supremacists. 

Anti-Abortion Extremists

These right-wing political extremists have used firebombings, shootings and vandalism against abortion providers and the doctors, nurses and other staff who work for them. Many believe they are acting on behalf of Christianity. One group, the Army of God, maintained a manual that stated the need for violence against abortion providers.

“Beginning officially with the passage of the Freedom of Choice Act – we, the remnant of God-fearing men and women of the United States of Amerika (sic), do officially declare war on the entire child killing industry. After praying, fasting, and making continual supplication to God for your pagan, heathen, infidel souls, we then peacefully, passively presented our bodies in front of your death camps, begging you to stop the mass murdering of infants. Yet you hardened your already blackened, jaded hearts. We quietly accepted the resulting imprisonment and suffering of our passive resistance. Yet you mocked God and continued the Holocaust. No longer! All of the options have expired. Our Most Dread Sovereign Lord God requires that whosoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed." 

Anti-abortion violence spiked in the mid-1990s, declined and then spiked again in 2015 and 2016, according to research conducted by the . Surveys conducted by the group found that more than a third of abortion providers in the U.S. had experienced "severe violence or threats of violence" in the first half of 2016.

Anti-abortion extremists are responsible for at least 11 homicides, dozens of bombings, and nearly 200 arsons since the late 1970s, according to the National Abortion Federation. Among the most recent acts of violence carried out by an anti-abortion political extremists was the 2015 slaying of three people at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado by a self-proclaimed "warrior for the babies," Robert Dear.

Militias

Militias are another form of anti-government, right-wing political extremist, much like sovereign citizens. Militias are heavily armed groups of people who are motivated to overthrow the U.S. government, which they believe has trampled their constitutional rights, particularly when it comes to the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. These political extremists “tend to stockpile illegal weapons and ammunition, trying illegally to get their hands on fully automatic firearms or attempting to convert weapons to fully automatic. They also try to buy or manufacture improvised explosive devices," according to an FBI report on militia extremism.

Militia groups grew out of the 1993 standoff between the government and the Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, near Waco, Texas. The government believed the Davidians were stockpiling firearms.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, a civil-rights watchdog group:

"Their extreme anti-government ideology, along with their elaborate conspiracy theories and fascination with weaponry and paramilitary organization, lead many members of militia groups to act out in ways that justify the concerns expressed about them by public officials, law enforcement and the general public. ... The combination of anger at the government, fear of gun confiscation and susceptibility to elaborate conspiracy theories is what formed the core of the militia movement's ideology." 

White Supremacists

Neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, the Ku Klux Klan and the alt-right are among the most well known political extremist groups, but they are far from the only ones that seek racial and ethnic "purity" in the U.S. White supremacist political extremists were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016, more than any other domestic extremist movement, according to the federal government. White supremacists act on behalf of the "14 Words" mantra: “We must secure the existence of our race and a future for white children.”

The violence carried out by white extremists is well documented across the decades, from Klan lynchings to the 2015 slaying of nine black worshipers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, at the hands of a 21-year-old man who wanted to start a race war because, he said, "negroes have lower IQs, lower impulse control, and higher testosterone levels in general. These three things alone are a recipe for violent behavior."

There are more than 100 groups operating in the U.S. that espouse views such as these, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. They include the alt-right, Ku Klux Klan, racist skinheads and white nationalists. 

Further Reading

  • Bjelopera, Jerome P. "." Congressional Research Service. August 21, 2017. Accessed February 2018.
  • French, David. "." National Review. May 30, 2017. Accessed February 2017.
  • Kaste, Martin and Siegler, Kirk. "Is Left-Wing Violence Rising?" National Public Radio. June 16, 2017. Accessed February 2017.
  • Bartels, Larry. "." The New York Times. Sept. 12, 2016. Accessed February, 2018.
  • Southern Poverty Law Center. "." Feb. 21, 2018. Accessed Feb. 24 and Feb. 25, 2018.
  • Anti-Defamation League. "" Accessed February 2018.
  • University of North Carolina School of Government. "." November 2013. Accessed February 2018. 
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. "" Accessed February 2018.