United States college campuses, which in the ’60s gave rise to a generation of civil rights activists and anti-war protesters, are not traditional launching pads for the far right. But this year, chapters of Youth for Western Civilization (YWC), which stands opposed to “radical multiculturalism, political correctness, racial preferences, mass immigration, and socialism,” have spread to eight campuses—evidence, say experts, of a growing fringe movement.
In fact, buoyed by the economic downturn, the election of a black, liberal president and a strong undercurrent of nativism, right-wing extremism in general is gaining traction. But even before the U.S. economy tanked, the far right was ramping up. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), between 2000 and 2008 the number of hate groups ballooned from 602 to 926.
Project director Mark Potok says immigration from Mexico “has clearly been the biggest driver.” (Immigration debates have also been credited for the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, and xenophobic violence in Russia.) Along with cadres of neo-Nazis, Potok says extreme nativist groups like the website Vdare, tellingly named after Virginia Dare, the first white baby born in the English colonies, are being “aided and abetted by people in positions of power.” (A lengthy archive of former presidential adviser Pat Buchanan’s writings can be found there.)
On campuses, the far-right movement can also be explained by the stinging defeat of Republicans last November. Increasingly, says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in California, right-wing college students “feel both personally and socially disenfranchised.”
Washington, D.C., student Kevin DeAnna, who founded YWC last fall, echoes this sentiment: “I’m just sick of seeing conservatives being pushed around.” At the same time, says Levin, violence from the left, such as that which prevented virulent anti-immigration lobbyist Tom Tancredo from speaking at a recent YWC event, fuels “an undercurrent of resentment that allows some of the worst demagoguery on the right to take root.”
How real a threat the burgeoning far right poses remains to be seen. As Chip Berlet, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America, points out, while “radical ideology and violent methodology sometimes intersect, they sometimes don’t.” DeAnna denies that his call to preserve “Western heritage” has racial undertones (“We have a black [member] at MIT,” he told Maclean’s). Still, the SPLC says this new group is one it will be watching closely.