Extremist hate threatens pluralistic democracy
In 2019, the third year of the Trump presidency, data gathered by the Intelligence Project of the SPLC documents a continued and rising threat to inclusive democracy: a surging white nationalist movement that has been linked to a series of racist and antisemitic terror attacks and has coincided with an increase in hate crime. The number of white nationalist groups identified by the SPLC rose for the second straight year, a 55 percent increase since 2017, when Donald Trump’s campaign energized white nationalists who saw him as an avatar of their grievances and their anxiety over the country’s demographic changes.
White nationalism poses a serious threat to national security and pluralistic democracy. It’s a virulent and profoundly authoritarian ideology that infects our political system with hate, fear and resentment. As this report demonstrates, the threat of increased violence is very real. A growing sector of white supremacists, who call themselves “accelerationists,” believe mass violence is necessary to bring about the collapse of our pluralistic society.
Like the year before, domestic terror attacks by white nationalists and other extremists, at home and abroad, delivered blow after blow in 2019. A synagogue in Poway, California. A rabbi’s home in a New York City suburb. A Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Beneath those headlines, underreported hate crimes added to the death toll and reinforced the climate of violence that threatens lives as well as the functioning of inclusive democracy.
Social media and the internet more generally have helped extremists extend the reach of racist ideologies and conspiracy theories. White supremacists, in fact, are increasingly congregating online, often not formally joining hate groups but networking, raising funds, recruiting and spreading propaganda that radicalizes young people and stokes violence against nonwhite immigrants, Jews, Muslims, Black people and others who belong to minority groups.
The man charged with the New Zealand massacre livestreamed part of the assault on Facebook. The El Paso suspect is believed to be the author of a “manifesto” that appeared online just minutes before the shooting began; in it, he praised “the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto.”
The year was also marked by a sharp expansion of anti-LGBTQ hate groups, which rose by nearly 43 percent. The Trump administration has demonstrated a clear willingness to embrace their leaders and their policy agenda.
Alongside the increase in white nationalist and anti-LGBTQ hate groups, 2019 saw the collapse of two neo-Nazi factions riven by leadership turmoil and community pressure. This contributed to a marginal decline in the overall number of hate groups operating across America after a 30 percent rise since 2015.
In 2019, the total number of hate groups tracked by SPLC dipped by about 8 percent—940 compared to the record high of 1,020 in 2018. This decline does not reflect a significant diminishment of the radical right or a fundamental shift in the general trend of the last several years, given the increased activity among white nationalist hate groups.
As the country continues to experience white nationalist terror, extremist ideas long believed outside of the realm of legitimate politics are penetrating deeply into the mainstream, spawning public policies that target immigrants, LGBTQ people and Muslims. The Trump administration has installed members of hate groups into government—particularly those with anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim or anti-LGBTQ animus—and put in place highly punitive policies that seemed unthinkable just a few short years ago. These political moves will far outlast this administration, as Trump and his allies in the U.S. Senate have pushed through hundreds of new federal judges, many of whom are hostile to civil rights concerns and will serve for decades.
Fortunately, some are hearing the alarm bells that the data in this report should be setting off across the country. The FBI upgraded its assessment of the threat posed by racially motivated extremists to a “national threat priority” after Director Christopher Wray acknowledged that a majority of domestic terror attacks are “fueled by some type of white supremacy,” and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a strategic shift toward countering racial hatred. Key arrests may have averted several white nationalist terror attacks.
A full defense of inclusive democracy will require not only appropriate federal action, but local responses by city, county and state governments; litigation strategies that hold hate groups accountable for the harm they cause; technology companies enforcing their own policies that restrict the ability of hate groups to operate online; and support for individuals and organizations willing to courageously reach out, neighbor to neighbor, to stand up for each other’s civil and human rights. This is what must constitute a national movement against organized hate and extremism in America.
Domestic Terror Attacks and Hate Crime in 2019
Like the year before, 2019 saw a spate of domestic terror attacks, both at home and abroad. In Poway, California, a gunman attacked a synagogue, killing a 60-year-old woman and wounding a rabbi and two other people. Also in that state, a man wielding a semi-automatic rifle killed three at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. And three days before the end of the year, in a New York City suburb, a man burst into a rabbi’s home and began slashing people with a machete, wounding five, during a Hanukkah celebration.
By far, the worst carnage wrought by domestic extremists came on Aug. 3 at a Walmart in the border city of El Paso, Texas, a city that is nearly 80 percent Hispanic, when a man opened fire with an AK-47 just as parents and children were taking advantage of a tax-free shopping day before the beginning of the school year. Twenty-two people were killed and another 26 injured.
Hate crimes added further to the toll, though the numbers of the dead and wounded are impossible to determine because of vast deficiencies in the way hate crime statistics are gathered and reported by the government. The victims in 2019 included two gay men and a transgender woman killed in a single shooting in Detroit, where prosecutors said they were targeted because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy organization, also reported the names of 20 Black transgender women who were murdered in 2019.
In a shocking and gruesome demonstration of the transnational nature of the white nationalist movement, on March 15 in Christchurch, New Zealand, a man immersed in white supremacist ideology killed 51 people at two mosques—and livestreamed part of the assault on Facebook.
The alleged attackers in El Paso and Christchurch, as in other places, clearly shared a racist ideology and were linked by a central theme that animates the white nationalist movement—the false notion of “white genocide,” also called the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, the idea that white people of European descent are being systematically displaced in the Western world. Authorities believe the suspect in El Paso, a 21-year-old white man from Allen, Texas, was the author of a 2,300-word “manifesto” that appeared online just minutes before the shooting began. In it, he warned that foreigners are replacing white people and outlined a plan to divide America by race. Tellingly, he nodded to the alleged mosque shooter in New Zealand, writing, “In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto. This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” While Trump blamed the internet and social media for the “racist hate” that led to the attack, The Guardian newspaper pointed out that Trump’s re-election campaign had used the word “invasion” to describe immigration in more than 2,000 Facebook ads in 2019.
In Poway, the attacker referred to a “meticulously planned genocide of the European race” and praised other shooters, including the one in Christchurch.
The number of people killed in white nationalist terror attacks might have been higher if not for several key arrests. In February, a Coast Guard lieutenant—based at the Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C.—was arrested with a stockpile of weapons and a hit list of Democratic politicians and media figures. The FBI said he was a self-identified white nationalist and an admirer of the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people during an anti-Muslim rampage in 2011. In addition, a Winter Park, Florida, man with a history of posting racist and antisemitic threats on social media was arrested for plotting to attack a Walmart just days after the mass killing in El Paso. Other white supremacists were arrested for bombing plots that targeted religious institutions, dams and other infrastructure, and law enforcement.
Fear of Demographic Change Driving Surge in White Supremacist Activity
The most powerful force animating today’s radical right—and stoking the violent backlash—is a deep fear of demographic change. This fear is encapsulated in the conspiratorial notion that a purposeful “white genocide” is underway and that it’s driving “the great replacement” of white people in their “home” countries by foreign, non-white populations. Antisemitism adds fuel to this fire; some white supremacists claim that Jews—as well as progressive politicians—are helping to facilitate this demographic change.
Since the turn of the millennium, when the Census Bureau first pointed out that white people in the United States would lose their majority status in the 2040s, American racists have fretted over what they fear will be the loss of their place of dominance in society. Now, those fears are shared across borders. The New Zealand mass murderer titled his manifesto “The Great Replacement.”
These extremists are not reluctant to voice their desire for mass violence to counter the demographic changes. “Random violence is not detrimental to the cause, because we need to convince Americans that violence against nonwhites is desirable or at least not something worth opposing,” wrote Andrew “Weev” Aurenheimer, a leading voice on the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, last August. “There’s no way to remove a hundred million people without a massive element of violence.”
Such talk might seem absurd. But a growing number of white supremacists are embracing the ideology of “accelerationism.” In their view, political activity is pointless, and escalating violence, on a broad scale, is the only way to bring down the pluralistic, democratic society they want to destroy. The suspect in New Zealand devoted a section of his manifesto to the concept, with the heading “Destabilization and Accelerationism: Tactics for Victory.”
The DHS, which for years has underplayed the threat of terrorism from far-right domestic extremists, in September announced a strategic shift toward countering racial hatred. Kevin McAleenan, then its acting head, said recent mass shootings had “galvanized the Department of Homeland Security to expand its counterterrorism mission focus beyond terrorists operating abroad, to include those radicalized to violence within our borders by violent extremists of any ideology.” Under the revised strategy, DHS would seek to better analyze the nature and extent of the domestic terror threat and share information with local law enforcement to help prevent attacks.
At an invitation-only meeting attended by the SPLC in September at the National Counterterrorism Center, leaders of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies emphasized the white supremacist threat as both a national and a transnational problem. One agency head remarked that it had been much easier, psychologically, to accept terrorism coming from the Middle East than to accept that the United States might soon become a net exporter of terrorism motivated by white supremacy.
Though the experts appear to understand the threat, they remain hamstrung by the Trump administration, which has hired members of hate groups into high-level positions and has on its staff people like Stephen Miller, the senior policy adviser in the White House who has long been allied with anti-immigrant hate groups. In November, the SPLC exposed hundreds of emails that Miller sent to editors at the far-right Breitbart News during 2015 and 2016—including the time he worked on the Trump campaign—that revealed he was steeped in white nationalist literature and ideas. Among other things, he promoted the racist novel The Camp of the Saints and explicitly white nationalist websites like American Renaissance and VDARE.
Trump himself has made light of America’s white nationalist problem—equivocating, at best. After the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, the president declared there were “some very fine people on both sides,” apparently including the racists who were marching and shouting Nazi slogans at night and clashing with anti-racist activists in the daylight hours. After the New Zealand massacre in 2019, Trump said of white nationalists, “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess.”
Trump’s allies in the media also stoke fear of demographic and cultural change among Trump’s base of mostly white supporters. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has a cable news audience in the millions, spent considerable time in 2019 bashing immigrants and warning of demographic change. He has told his viewers that “the world’s poor”—meaning immigrants—make this country “dirtier and more divided” and that “litter is left almost exclusively by immigrants.” Carlson said that U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota—one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress—“hates” the United States and is “living proof that the way we practice immigration has become dangerous to this country.” Other Fox hosts engaged in similar reactionary rhetoric. Jeanine Pirro was briefly suspended after saying Omar’s religious beliefs were “antithetical” to the U.S. Constitution. The network’s hosts repeatedly used the words “invaders” and “invasion” when speaking of immigration.
This type of rhetoric is not without consequence. After the Walmart massacre, a New York Times review of popular right-wing media platforms identified what it described as “hundreds of examples of language, ideas and ideologies that overlapped with the mass killer’s written statement—a shared vocabulary of intolerance that stokes fears centered on immigrants of color.”
Hate By The Numbers
The overall number of hate groups active in 2019 dropped from the previous year, from 1,020 to 940—a decrease explained by the loss of two major groups, and their individual chapters, rather than from a reduction in overall white supremacist activity. Meanwhile, organizing continues to move online. Major hate sites like the Daily Stormer have more than 1 million monthly readers. And Gab, the social media network established in 2017 after mainstream social media sites began to remove some bigots from their platforms in the wake of the Charlottesville riots, has reached nearly 1 million users.
Certain sectors of the white supremacist movement did grow in 2019. The number of white nationalist groups was up slightly to 155 from 148 in 2018. Most notably, some are advocating violence and encouraging their foot soldiers to prepare for (and precipitate) a race war or mass civil conflict.
The movement’s followers are breaking into two major strategic camps: so-called accelerationists who wholeheartedly embrace violence as a political tool and “mainstreamers” (or the “dissident right,” as they often call themselves) who are attempting, with a degree of success, to bend the mainstream political right toward white nationalist ideas. Much of the movement’s energy lies in the growing accelerationist wing, which, for the most part, is organized in informal online communities rather than formal groups.
The number of neo-Nazi groups declined from 112 to 59, and activism moved online. Two of the biggest factions (comprising multiple chapters) fell apart in 2019. The Traditionalist Worker Party, which had 12 chapters in 2018, shrank to zero last year, after its leader, Matthew Heimbach, was arrested in a domestic violence incident the year before. And the National Socialist Movement (NSM), long the biggest Nazi formation of all, collapsed after its leader, Jeff Schoep, renounced the movement and reportedly signed papers transferring its assets to James Stern, a Black preacher in California who said he would shut down the group. Stern’s death in October threw the NSM further into chaos. Now, longtime member Burt Colucci, the group’s former chief of staff, claims that he has control.
Groups that openly advocate violence, including Feuerkrieg Division and the Base, grew in 2019. Perhaps more importantly, neo-Nazi activity is growing fastest in online forums. Fascist Forge, built in the mold of the forum Iron March (which spawned the group Atomwaffen), saw a large influx of registered users in the past year. The forum gained more than 1,000 registered users from October 2018 to October 2019. Despite disappearing from the web for a short period and changing domains, Fascist Forge had nearly 1,500 members at year’s end. The activity online is much larger than this, and often hidden. The accelerationist groups have moved much of their private communications and recruitment to encrypted web chats and apps.
The Ku Klux Klan, already largely rejected as outmoded by most white supremacists, continued to decline in numbers, though more slowly, with 47 chapters in 2019, down from 51 the year prior. With the exception of the American Christian Dixie Knights, most Klan groups stayed about the same size and held few, poorly attended public events. For example, the Honorable Sacred Knights of Madison, Indiana, held a Memorial Day Weekend rally in Dayton, Ohio, where only nine Klansmen showed up. They were confronted by approximately 1,000 peaceful protesters, and the city held a concurrent peace rally several miles away to divert attention from the Klan event. Such rallies demonstrate the groups’ relative inability to break with their rigid traditions, thus limiting the Klan’s appeal to younger generations of tech-savvy white nationalists.
The same can be said, to some extent, of racist skinheads, who are known for their shaved heads, red suspenders and Doc Martens boots, and whose ranks also continue to fall. There were 63 such groups in 2018 and 48 in 2019.
Other parts of the white supremacist movement have been stagnant or in decline. 2019 had about the same number of Holocaust-denial groups and hate music sellers. Christian Identity churches dropped from 17 in 2018 to 11 in 2019.
Black separatist hate groups declined to 255 chapters in 2019, from 264 the prior year. These groups lag far behind the hate groups fueled by various forms of white supremacy. Typically holding views that are antisemitic, anti-LGBTQ and anti-white, they had been expanding in recent years, perhaps in reaction to rising white supremacy and Trump’s abandonment of police reform and civil rights. Even though they have little to no impact on mainstream politics and no high-level defenders in the media, the two antisemitic terror attacks in the New York City area in 2019 demonstrate that this ideology can influence individuals’ behavior.
The Anti-LGBTQ Movement Expands
Anti-LGBTQ groups have become intertwined with the Trump administration, and—after years of civil rights progress and growing acceptance among the broader American public—anti-LGBTQ sentiment within the Republican Party is rising.
Groups that vilify the LGBTQ community, in fact, represented the fastest-growing sector among hate groups in 2019—expanding from 49 in 2018 to 70 in 2019, a nearly 43% increase.
Much of this growth has taken place among groups at the grassroots level, a surge possibly fueled by continued anti-LGBTQ sentiment and policy emanating from government officials. They include a network of churches led by Steven Anderson, who once called for President Obama’s assassination and is pastor and head of the Faithful Word Baptist Church—a hate group in Tempe, Arizona—as well as several new chapters of Mass Resistance, based in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Though Trump promised during his campaign to be a “real friend” to the LGBTQ community, he has fully embraced anti-LGBTQ hate groups and their agenda of dismantling federal protections and resources for LGBTQ people, while his Department of Justice has filed amicus briefs with the Supreme Court in support of anti-LGBTQ lawsuits, some of which were brought by the anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom. In October 2019, Trump once again spoke in person to the Values Voter Summit, a gathering of religious-right organizations hosted by the hate group Family Research Council. In May, he announced his opposition to the Federal Equality Amendment, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Civil Rights Act as protected categories regarding employment and housing discrimination.
Staffers from organizations that vilify the LGBTQ community have been hired by the Trump administration and have influenced and written its policies. Numerous protections for LGBTQ people have been removed through executive action, as when the Interior Department stripped “sexual orientation” from its anti-discrimination guidelines this year. In addition, the administration has consistently claimed that laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex do not apply to LGBTQ people and has worked to install religious exemptions to civil rights laws.
According to a report by Lambda Legal, a third of the more than 50 U.S. circuit court judges nominated by Trump have a “demonstrated history of anti-LGBTQ bias.” Lambda argues that the justice system is “now indisputably in a state of crisis.”
Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Muslim Hostility Reigns
Anti-immigrant hate groups notched a small increase in their numbers in 2019—from 17 groups in 2018 to 20 in 2019. But their numbers, relative to other categories of hate groups, belie their vast influence and success in bringing what is essentially a white nationalist ideology into the mainstream of politics and policy.
Though Michigan ophthalmologist John Tanton, a white nationalist and the architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement, died in 2019, his ideas are now deeply entrenched in the Trump administration, which has installed numerous people from the network he fathered in key government positions and adopted myriad harsh policies that seek to carry out Tanton’s goal of dramatically curtailing the influx of nonwhite immigrants.
In the third year of the Trump presidency, the movement enjoyed unprecedented access to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. Nowhere was that more evident than in the White House itself, where senior policy adviser Stephen Miller reigns as the de facto czar of immigration policy. Previously a Senate aide to Jeff Sessions, Trump’s first attorney general, Miller has long been known as a key bridge connecting policy-oriented, anti-immigrant hate groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) to their allies in Congress. But 2019 brought new revelations. The SPLC exposed hundreds of emails he wrote to editors at the far-right website Breitbart News in 2015 and 2016—including some while he worked for the Trump campaign—that revealed he was steeped in the language, literature and ideology of the white nationalist movement.
As Miller attempted, with great success, to influence Breitbart’s coverage of immigration issues, he frequently forwarded materials from white nationalist websites. He blamed immigrants for bringing violent crime into this country and suggested that Breitbart write an article comparing remarks the Pope made about open borders to the virulently racist French novel The Camp of the Saints.
The apocalyptic fantasy, beloved by white supremacists, luridly illustrates the “great replacement” theory by depicting a European continent overrun by hordes of disease-ridden, feces-eating Indian migrants. It was published in English by the Tanton-founded hate group Social Contract Press.
To close observers of Trump administration policy, Miller’s animus toward nonwhite people came as little surprise. But it was confirmation that Trump’s policies are rooted in white nationalist ideology. More than two dozen senators, all Democrats, demanded Miller’s removal in a letter to the White House. Among them was Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, who called Miller “a cancer at the very heart of the values of this administration.”
Miller is just one of many Trump officials who have connections with anti-immigrant hate groups. Robert Law and John Zadrozny, two former FAIR staffers, were promoted within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to acting chief of policy and acting chief of staff, respectively. Former FAIR lobbyist Elizabeth Jacobs is also at USCIS, working as a senior adviser.
In November, FAIR President Dan Stein told CBS News, “It certainly is delightful to see folks that we’ve worked with in the past advance and contribute to the various efforts of the administration, most of which we support.”
Another FAIR ally, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, was named in June to head USCIS after former director Lee Francis Cissna was pushed out of the agency. In November, Cuccinelli was named as acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security. He attended FAIR’s annual “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” media conference in September and did a number of interviews with right-wing radio hosts broadcasting from the event. That same week, he spoke at the “Immigration Newsmaker” hosted by the CIS, another hate group founded by Tanton. Other anti-immigrant hate groups have gloated about their influence. ProEnglish announced in fundraising emails that it had met with White House aides six times over the past three years, most recently in July 2019. CIS staff testified at multiple congressional hearings in 2019. Also in July, nativist hardliner, Trump adviser and former FAIR lawyer Kris Kobach announced he was running for U.S. Senate in Kansas. Earlier in the year, Kobach joined the board of We Build the Wall, the GoFundMe campaign to raise private donations for Trump’s border wall.
FAIR and other anti-immigrant groups continued to court local law enforcement. Nearly 200 sheriffs from across the country attended Hold Their Feet to the Fire. In October, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County, Maryland, spoke at the Social Contract Press’s annual writers’ workshop event.
While anti-Muslim sentiment remains strong on the radical right—as well as within the Trump administration—the number of anti-Muslim hate groups fell from 100 in 2018 to 84 in 2019, and shake-ups at the White House left the movement with far fewer allies in the halls of power. In August, John Bolton, an ally to anti-Muslim groups, was ousted as national security adviser. Charles M. Kupperman, a top aide to Bolton who previously served on the board of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), was tapped to serve as acting national security adviser but was replaced just eight days later. CSP is known for its conspiratorial warnings that Muslims are trying to overthrow the U.S. government from within and that Shariah law is overriding U.S. law in the courts.
Katharine Gorka, the wife of former White House aide Sebastian Gorka who is also known for her Islamophobic views, left the DHS to take a job as a spokesperson at U.S. Customs and Border Protection but stepped down from that role in August. Frank Wuco, a former radio host who has associated with anti-Muslim figures and peddled Islamophobic conspiracy theories, left a short-lived post as a senior adviser on arms issues at the State Department after previous stints at the White House and DHS.
The movement did retain one powerful friend in Washington: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who the hate group ACT for America has called a “steadfast ally.”
The Rage Will Continue in 2020
Anxiety over the country’s changing demographics will continue to be the No. 1 factor animating far-right extremists in the year ahead. Trump didn’t create the fear of nonwhite immigrants but rather harnessed it to win the White House in 2016 and continues to nurture it by fanning the flames of resentment within the most extreme elements of the Republican base. Two years after his election, extremist fears were crystallized by the Democratic wave in the midterms, when women of color—including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib—made historic gains in the House of Representatives.
In the month surrounding the 2018 midterms, there were four domestic terrorist attacks, including a series of malfunctioning pipe bombs mailed to Trump critics by a supporter of the president.
Now, as the 2020 election approaches, many white supremacists see Trump’s re-election as a last stand to stop the impending erosion of a white majority. And there is little doubt that Trump will ratchet up his rhetoric by not only demonizing immigrants but portraying Democrats and progressives as existential threats to America. In what may be a preview of what lies ahead, last July he tweeted that Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib should “go back” to where they came from (all but Omar were born in the U.S.).
There is little to suggest that the violence that has accompanied the surge in white nationalism in recent years will abate. Last July, a Pew Research Center poll found that 78 percent of Americans believe that aggressive language by politicians makes violence more likely. And in recent months, as the campaign has ramped up, news reports have been replete with references—if not outright threats—of violence by nervous Trump supporters, who have been warned repeatedly by the president of massive voter fraud.
At Trumpstock in Golden Valley, Arizona, last October, an attendee told The New York Times he had been stockpiling weapons just in case Trump loses. “Nothing less than a civil war would happen,” he said, reaching for a handgun. “I don’t believe in violence, but I’ll do what I got to do.”
Others might, as well.