Extremism in America: Out of the Shadows

According to experts who monitor the radical right, the white supremacist ideology that police say drove the Buffalo gunman has begun moving from the extremes into the mainstream. This is the fifth episode of a five-part series produced in collaboration with The WNET Group’s reporting initiative Exploring Hate.

The man accused in the massacre in Buffalo on May 14 had posted racist writings online, the police said, including a conspiracy theory warning that white Americans were being replaced with immigrants and people of color. Experts on extremism say this fringe belief, long held by white supremacists, has been moving into the mainstream in recent years.

A violent rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 brought together white nationalists, neo-Nazis and counterdemonstrators, and brought hate out into the open.

“The Unite the Right rally was the largest public rally for white supremacists in more than a decade, and it turned out to be very violent,” said Pete Simi, an expert on extremism and the author of “American Swastika.”

Amid clashes between white nationalists and Antifa and other counter-protestors, a neo-Nazi slammed his car into the crowd, killing a woman and injuring more than two dozen people. When President Trump condemned “both sides” after a violent rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, extremism became politicized, a former counterterrorism official told us.

“If it touched on Charlottesville, it was looked at through a political lens,” said Brian Murphy, who was at the Department of Homeland Security at that time. “As time moved forward and the elections got closer, that changed more and more to be almost exclusively – We’re not going to talk about this because it will make the president look bad.”

“Many of these groups that used to hide in the shadows have come out now and boldly march in the state of Virginia and other places,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told Retro Report. “They feel somehow licensed and emboldened to do it. It’s more public now.”

Since the Charlottesville rally, extremists have joined protests against pandemic lockdowns and fought openly with racial justice advocates. Members of the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and other extremist groups were on the frontlines of the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and have been accused of planning it.

This is the last in a five-part series produced in collaboration with The WNET Group’s reporting initiative Exploring Hate, on the roots and rise of hate in America and across the globe. Leadership support for Exploring Hate is provided by the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Antisemitism. To learn more about Exploring Hate and for a full list of funders, visit  pbs.org/exploringhate.

For teachers
  • Series Senior Producer and Writer: Scott Michels
  • Series Supervising Editor: Brian Kamerzel
  • Editor: Heru Muharrar
  • Editor: Anne Checler