American Zealots: Inside Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism

Authors: Arie Perliger
Publisher: Columbia University Press, 2020. 217 pages.
Reviewer: Matthew Valasik | January 2022

In the wake of the insurrection at the Capitol Building on January 6, concerns remain about the growth of, support for, and vitriol of far-right groups in the United States. While greater attention towards more traditional white power groups (Tenold, 2018), anti-government “militias” (Jackson, 2020), alt-right gangs (Reid and Valasik, 2020), and misogynistic, white supremacist Internet trolls (Lavin, 2020; Marantz, 2019) has focused on particular elements of the far-right, American Zealots: Inside Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism delivers a more expansive view. American Zealots examines the violent acts perpetrated by those associated with anti-government, white supremacist, anti-abortionist, or religious fundamentalist beliefs. Arie Perliger’s broader approach to examining the characteristics, trends, and perpetrators of far-right violence is both a refreshing and valuable perspective. In comparing the variety of far-right violence, Perliger is able to highlight the diverse nature of these acts, reinforcing the notion that the far-right is not some monolithic group, but instead composed of an assortment of congregations and ideologies. American Zealots: Inside Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism provides a valuable contribution to the growing literature of the contemporary far-right in the United States.

Perliger begins with presenting a very cursory and expansive history of far-right groups in the United States — starting with the Know-Nothing Party, briefly touching on each generation of the Ku Klux Klan, then Nazism and racist skinheads, followed by the patriot or “militia” movement, and ending with Christian Fundamentalism. It is in the subsequent chapters (four, five and six) where American Zealots makes its greatest contribution to the literature on far-right violence. Crafting a unique dataset of violent attacks perpetrated by individuals or groups associated with far-right groups between 1990 and 2017, Perliger is able to sketch a profile of far-right violence both as a whole and amongst the varies clusters of far-right actors over the last two and half decades. The analyses reveal several interesting patterns, including that the vast majority of attacks by the far-right target ethnic/religious minorities, followed by members of the LGBTQ+ community, then religious sites (e.g., synagogues, mosques, churches, etc.). Attacks against representatives of the federal government remain scant. As such, far-right violence is focused on swaths of the population that are more vulnerable and have limited influence to respond to such threats with any meaningful redress. Parsing out the types of groups committing the violence, there are clear and predictable patterns, as white supremacists focus their vitriol towards ethnic/religious minorities, “militias” focus on government representatives, and anti-abortionists target abortion facilities. Overall, most far-right attacks have not been intended to be mass causality events, and it has not been until the last decade that far-right groups have increased the lethality of their tactics. A disturbing trend indeed. Perliger also finds that Republican control of Congress significantly correlates with far-right attacks, suggesting that these groups feel conservative legislators are more likely to tolerate their extreme actions, as exemplified by former President Trump’s assertion that the white power rioters at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia were “very fine people.” Lastly, Perliger highlights how far-right violence is generally not so much a collective action, as these extreme acts are more an expression of the individual and may be influenced by the doctrine of “leaderless resistance.” This revelation by Perliger’s analyses is important. News media regularly frame far-right attacks as being the act of a mentally disturbed individual, often ignoring the possible ties to far-right rhetoric. The fact that Perliger’s empirical analyses are able to draw attention to this disparity provides a means to counter this distorted framework of how American society views far-right violence, and even providing a means to counter it.

In the two closing chapters, the author highlights the varied discourses in which each of the prominent far-right groups are engaging in contemporary America. While there is no singular solution to solve the problem of far-right violence, this fragmentation and lack of congruity among far-right groups may actually be the principal way to deal with far-right violence. That is, it should be combatted dynamically at the local-level, based on the particular flavor of far-right extremism. For instance, the techniques to deal with violent alt-right gangs or “militia” groups are likely to be very different from those used against anti-abortionists.

In conclusion, Perliger has written an expansive book on far-right violence to better understand the patterns of such attacks, the correlates, and the groups and individuals that perpetrate such attacks. Examining far-right violence from 1970 to 2017, the author is able to highlight trends and patterns that are readily ignored in the news media when these attacks transpire. As such, this book is valuable not only to policymakers, practitioners, and researchers interested in better understanding far-right extremism, but is written in way to make the material accessible to a more general audience.

There are, however, several oversights that the uninitiated will likely not pick up on, but which for authorities in the field are obvious. The most notable is that Stormfront, the white power Internet forum, was actually created by Donald Black, and not Tom Metzger. While Metzger was definitely one of the early adopters in the white power movement of digital communication through online bulletin boards with his “W.A.R. Computer Terminal,” it never gained the notoriety of Stormfront (see Berlet, 2001). Additionally, Louis Beam’s essay on “leaderless resistance” was originally written in 1983 and circulated throughout the white power movement, and was later revised and published in The Seditionist in 1992. While not trying to seem too overtly critical and harsh here, it would have been useful for these inaccuracies to have been caught prior to publication.

Overall, American Zealots: Inside Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism provides valuable insights into the variety of far-right violence, and is an important contribution to the literature.


Berlet, Chip. “When hate went online.” In Northeast Sociological Association Spring Conference in April. 2001.

Jackson, Sam. Oath Keepers. Columbia University Press, 2020.

Lavin, Talia. Culture warlords: My journey into the dark web of white supremacy. Hachette Books, 2020.

Marantz, Andrew. Antisocial: Online extremists, techno-utopians, and the hijacking of the American conversation. Penguin books, 2020.

Reid, Shannon E., and Matthew Valasik. Alt-right gangs: A hazy shade of white. University of California Press, 2020.

Tenold, Vegas. Everything you love will burn: Inside the rebirth of white nationalism in America. Hachette UK, 2018.

Matthew Valasik, Associate Professor of Sociology, Louisiana State University

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