The Year in Hate and Extremism 2020
"Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore, and that is what this is all about … we fight, we fight like hell, and if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore. … So we are going to, we are going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue… And we’re going to the Capitol…” — with those words on Jan. 6, Donald Trump incited a mob that included the hate and antigovernment groups the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the Three Percenters to storm the U.S. Capitol in an insurrection to maintain white supremacy.
Trump refused to condemn the insurrection, which left five people dead, including a Capitol law enforcement officer. He even praised the rioters, calling them “patriots,” saying “we love you” and “you are very special.“ The episode was reminiscent of his notorious declaration that there were “very fine people on both sides,” in the aftermath of the violence at the deadly 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
While every few months it seemed there was a new, brazen moment that would define the Trump presidency, it was this siege of the U.S. Capitol, with pro-Trump rioters parading through the halls of Congress with Confederate flags and a self-described white nationalist pilfering from the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, that will exemplify Trump’s racist demagoguery for posterity.
Historically, SPLC research shows that when extremists perceive more allies in the halls of power, their numbers dip. Not so with the Trump presidency. For the first three years of his presidency, SPLC recorded historically high hate group numbers as bigotry found a comfortable home in the White House, and white nationalist ideologues influenced policies like the Muslim ban and separation of immigrant children from families at the border.
Hate groups that traditionally occupy the mainstream, like anti-LGBTQ groups and anti-immigrant groups, saw their influence in government balloon over the last four years, with serious consequences for human rights in America and around the world. Nativist bigotry brought about one of the worst human rights crises in modern U.S. history, when the Department of Homeland Security separated children from their parents at the southern border. The administration also effectively suspended the legal asylum process, stranding people who fled violence in their home countries, and vacated asylum protections for survivors of intimate partner violence. Anti-LGBTQ appointments to the judiciary will likely threaten trans and queer Americans’ civil rights for a generation.
Hate groups declined, but hate did not
In 2020, SPLC tracked 838 active hate groups. Though numbers have dropped 11% overall, we are still recording historic highs. In 2015, the numbers jumped from 784 to 892, and they have remained well above 800 for the duration of the Trump presidency.
It is important to understand that the number of hate groups is merely one metric for measuring the level of hate and racism in America, and that the decline in groups should not be interpreted as a reduction in bigoted beliefs and actions motivated by hate. The SPLC has begun conducting polling as an additional tool to measure extremist sentiment. Our August 2020 polling, for example, revealed that 29 percent of Americans personally know someone who believes that white people are the superior race.
As another metric, SPLC keeps track of extremist flyers reported around the country. This year we recorded almost 4,900 flyering incidents. Groups under the white nationalist ideology exploited flyering as a tactic to spread their hateful worldview nearly twelve times more than all other ideologies combined.
Typically, new hate groups are formed and membership grows in reaction to changes in society, especially changes that challenge white hegemony. A historical example of this is the Ku Klux Klan, which was virtually nonexistent in the 1930s and 1940s after its membership reached record levels in the 1920s, and came roaring back in the 1950s. White nationalist beliefs had not declined in the 1930s and 1940s alongside group membership, a fact that became clear when organized hate activities erupted after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education made segregation illegal. In the modern era, we tracked a gradual rise of hate groups during the George W. Bush administration, when numbers peaked in the 800s. After Barack Obama became the nation’s first Black president, the number jumped to more than 1,000.
The demise of the Klan in the last decade has specifically resulted in an overall reduction in the number of hate groups that the SPLC tracks. The Ku Klux Klan, formerly a significant generator of white supremacist terror, saw its count dwindle to 25 groups in 2020. The number of Klan groups the SPLC tracked used to be consistently over 150; in recent years they dropped below 100, and then under 50. A major reason for this is that the Klan’s name has become extremely toxic — if you are a Klan member and your employer finds out, for instance, you are all but guaranteed to be fired. Unfortunately, those declining numbers do not reflect a parallel reduction in support for their ideas.
Despite the massive drop in Klan groups, there are now many alternative hate organizations that make Klan membership obsolete. For example, the Proud Boys, which SPLC lists under the General Hate category, vandalized historically Black churches in Washington, D.C. during a December pro-Trump demonstration, and members of the Proud Boys were front and center during the U.S. Capitol insurrection.
Many extremist ideologues are not formal members of any organization. Online platforms allow individuals to interact with hate and antigovernment groups without joining them, as well as to form connections and talk with likeminded people. And, despite the lack of formal affiliation, these individuals still take real-world actions. The U.S. Capitol insurrection exemplifies this. Most of the people storming the Capitol building may not be card-carrying members of a hate or antigovernment group, but they harbor extremist beliefs.
The U.S. Capitol insurrection also showed us how the Trump campaign and the MAGA movement offered individuals a twisted kind of camaraderie that you get from being a member of a hate or antigovernment group, where Trump himself was a radicalizing force. We again see this with the people who were arrested — many had previously attended several rallies, and viewed President Trump as their leader.
Two other trends that impacted the count in 2020 and will likely affect it in future years: 1) COVID-19 minimized overt hate group activity. There were some groups that we did not relist this year because they ceased their in-person activity and did not appear to do anything online; and 2) Hate groups are increasingly being booted from popular social media platforms and moving their communications into encrypted chatrooms, which makes it harder for the SPLC to track them.
The hate group landscape in 2020
As previously mentioned, The Ku Klux Klan continued its collapse, with only 25 active chapters in 2020.
White nationalist group numbers also dipped by 27, a change that does not signal a trend toward less white nationalist organizing. Both white nationalist groups and neo-Nazi groups are becoming more diffuse and difficult to track and quantify as they proliferate online and communicate on encrypted platforms, a trend this report will explore in greater detail in our next installment.
Anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ hate groups, which are typically more successful at laundering their ideas into mainstream political discourse, saw their numbers remain largely stable, though their in-person organizing was curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even though anti-immigrant groups were not able to hold as many in-person events as years past, their influence was felt where it mattered: in policy and legislation. Over Trump’s four years in office, according to data published by the Migration Policy Institute, the Trump administration implemented more than 400 policy changes to curb both legal and illegal immigration. Exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to stoke health and economic fears, the Trump administration enacted a de facto moratorium on all immigration to the U.S. by the end of 2020.
Influential anti-LGBTQ hate groups became further entrenched in the Trump White House, and the Trump administration continued its years-long pattern of appointing federal judges with ties to anti-LGBTQ groups. The most high-profile of these appointments was Amy Coney Barrett, who joined the Supreme Court last fall and has ties to Alliance Defending Freedom, which SPLC has designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group. Though the anti-LGBTQ hate movement has lost an ally in the president, they are likely to continue to use the lower courts and the Supreme Court to try and roll back LGBTQ rights.
The number of anti-Muslim hate groups dropped by 12, from 84 last year to 72 this year. The largest anti-Muslim hate group in the country, ACT for America, enjoyed attention from the Trump White House, which met with ACT head Brigitte Gabriel on at least two documented occasions in 2020. A former ACT staffer was also hired at the State Department. Despite that influence, the group suffered from infighting between smaller local chapters and the national office in Washington, D.C. Following Trump’s election loss, some leaders in the anti-Muslim movement have signaled a shift toward local and state-level organizing.
Recommendations to combat extremist groups:
- Enact the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which would establish offices within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice, and the FBI to monitor, investigate and prosecute cases of domestic terrorism – and require these offices to regularly report to Congress. Passed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives last September, this legislation would also provide resources to strengthen partnerships with state and local law enforcement authorities to confront far-right extremism and create an interagency task force to explore white supremacist activities within the U.S. armed forces and federal law enforcement.
- Improve federal hate crime data collection, training, and prevention. Data drives policy. The FBI’s annual Hate Crime Statistics Act (HCSA) report is the best national snapshot of hate violence in America, but data received from the 18,000 federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies is vastly underreported – in part because reporting is not mandatory. In 2019 (the most recent report), 86% of police agencies either affirmatively reported that they had zero hate crimes, or they did not report any data to the FBI at all.
- As we work to build support for mandatory hate crime reporting to the FBI, Congress should enact the Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer National Opposition to Hate, Assault, and Threats to Equality Act of 2019 (NO HATE Act), which would authorize incentive grants to spark improved local and state hate crime training and data collection initiatives, as well as state-based hotlines to connect victims with support services.
- The law is a blunt instrument to address violent hate and extremism – it is much better to prevent these criminal acts in the first place. Congress should shift funding away from punishment models and toward the prevention of violent extremism. It should focus on programs that build resilient communities and empower adults — including parents, teachers, caregivers, counselors, therapists, faith leaders, and coaches — to help steer young people away from dangerous ideas. These programs are better housed in the Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services than DHS or other national security agencies.
- Reject efforts to create a new criminal domestic terrorism statute – or the creation of a listing of designated domestic terrorist organizations. A new federal domestic terrorism statute or list would adversely impact civil liberties and could be used to expand racial profiling or be wielded to surveil and investigate communities of color and political opponents in the name of national security.
Confronting far-right and racist narratives
The incoming Biden administration faces dual challenges: reversing the catastrophic damage to civil rights done by Trump and his allies, and doing the harder work of exposing and dismantling the engines of entrenched, systemic white supremacy that have always threatened inclusive democracy in the U.S. For example, SPLC’s August 2020 poll found that 65 percent of respondents believe racism exists and is harmful, but 49 percent believe that people of color are more likely to be poor because of a lack of work ethic.
Findings were similarly disturbing around gaps in health outcomes, with only 38 percent of respondents believing that systemic racism played a role, even as COVID-19 ravages communities of color.
Despite some high-profile support for Black Lives Matter protests this summer, the poll showed that 51 percent of Americans thought that the looting which occurred in several cities was a bigger problem than police violence against Black people, and 51 percent also thought that the protests were not justified because the problem with police violence was isolated to a few “bad apples.”
These racist narratives and beliefs have been reinvigorated thanks to one of the most enduring and pernicious legacies of the Trump era: the far right’s success constructing a false alternative reality, bolstered by a never-ending stream of baseless conspiracy theories and disinformation. This fight over the frame of reality has polarized American society further and fundamentally ruptured trust in institutions and information. The tech sector, an opportunistic ally in the propagation of this fraud, abdicated its responsibility so long ago that it has not been able to meaningfully recover. Only after Trump incited a deadly insurrection and Democrats flipped the Senate did they suspend the President’s accounts and begin to purge other extremists from their platforms. The echo chambers have formed, trust in the credibility of reputable media outlets has been disastrously diminished, and the polarization of American society has accelerated.
Some of the robber barons of social media are warming to revisions of section 230 of the Communication Decency Act — legislation that, in its current form, insulates platforms from liability for the content users post – long after its true utility ran out for their companies. The toxic networks that they nurtured are migrating to new platforms, like Parler and Telegram.
The dangers of these isolated and tainted wells of information reached their most critical point during the 2020 election, when Trump, his allies and the extremists who support him, denied the severity of COVID-19 and preemptively declared the results of the general election fraudulent. Throughout the year, armed militias became fixtures at state houses, and election officials were targeted and threatened in multiple states, including at their private homes.
Fortunately, predictions of violent attempts to disrupt voting proved largely unfounded, and the U.S. celebrated historic voter turnout. But in the weeks after Biden’s victory, Trump and his compatriots spread disinformation and conspiracy theories at a breathtaking rate, and called on state and federal elected officials, as well as judges, to overturn the will of voters in five states. By late November, only 20 percent of Republicans surveyed said they believed Joe Biden was the true winner of the election, after he won the popular vote in a free and fair election by a margin of more than 7 million and secured the electoral college by 74 votes.
While most — but not all — elected officials and judges ignored Trump, his followers succeeded in temporarily halting the certification of the 2020 election during the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6.
The election, and the violent backlash from the right, have all taken place against the backdrop of a global pandemic which has claimed the lives of more than 400,000 Americans in less than a year – disproportionately people of color, who have to contend with white supremacist systems that limit their access to high-quality healthcare and other vital resources. And skepticism towards safety measures and the vaccine – much of it fueled by rightwing conspiracy networks – remains high.
Recommendation to address far-right and racist narratives
- Hold former President Donald Trump and those who helped incite the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol accountable. Action by the House of Representatives to impeach former President Trump was absolutely necessary to protect the future of our democracy. Now the Senate must have the courage and true patriotism to convict him and permanently disqualify him from holding public office. In addition, Congress should discipline, censure, or expel all of the 147 Senators and Representatives who supported the insurrection and baseless “Stop the Steal” lies by voting against Electoral College certification of President Biden’s victory.
- Public figures involved in inciting and giving encouragement to the armed insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — destroying property, injuring dozens of officers, and leaving five people dead – should be permanently deplatformed from all social media. In addition, corporations should permanently suspend political donations to Members of Congress and other elected officials that helped incite the violent siege and request that any past political donations to their campaigns be returned.
- Provide funding for the Department of Education to develop a curriculum on structural racism and funding for states to implement their own related initiatives. Americans can only dismantle white supremacy if they understand how racism shaped (and continues to shape) housing, education, policing, health care and other policies and practices that affect our everyday lives.
- Require renaming of military bases named for Confederate leaders, and ban the display of Confederate flags or other racist symbols from all military installations, federal parks, streets, and highways. The 2015 Charleston church massacre sparked a nationwide effort to remove Confederate symbols from public places, but hundreds remain – a sign that we have failed to fully acknowledge the injustices of slavery or affirm our commitment to a wholly inclusive, pluralistic democracy. In addition, Congress should create a federal grant program to help municipalities remove symbols of the Confederacy.
American attitudes about racism
Just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the United States, a different tragedy gripped Brunswick, Georgia when Ahmaud Arbery was pursued by three white men (one a former police officer) while he was jogging and shot to death. Despite the incident being captured on video, law enforcement made no arrests in connection with the attack for more than 70 days.
Arbery’s death was among the first extrajudicial killings of Black people in 2020 to garner national media attention. Each one is a reminder that the census of hate groups undertaken by the SPLC’s Intelligence Project is only one metric for understanding the toll that white supremacy takes on Black and Indigenous Americans, along with other Americans of color.
Despite a historic, national outcry over these murders, SPLC’s poll showed a limited understanding of such structural racism. Large majorities of the population surveyed acknowledged the dangers posed by organized antigovernment and white power groups, but failed to connect their existence and influence to the greater culture of white supremacy. For example, the narrative of the odd “bad apple” in police departments persists, even as reports of violence and death at the hands of law enforcement proliferate across the country.
Throughout his presidency, Trump and his allies denied and minimized the reality of bigotry in this country, and legitimized white supremacy through policies like the Muslim ban and the child separation, through personnel like Stephen Miller, Julia Hahn, Jason Richwine and Darren Beattie, and through behavior like defending Confederate monuments and the extremists who marched in Charlottesville. His administration mocked and resisted public education about our country’s racist legacy, attacking the New York Times’s The 1619 Project in particular. In late September, President Trump issued an executive order banning some forms of diversity training for federal employees and contractors.
Recommendations to change attitudes about racism
- Establish a national truth, racial healing and transformation commission to examine the history of white supremacy and structural racism in the United States. This long-overdue truth and reconciliation commission would help the United States reckon with the injustices our country has committed and help spark a movement to eliminate racial discrimination.
- Prohibit racial, ethnic and religious profiling in federal, state and local law enforcement. Black, Latinx, Muslim and Indigenous people are subject to discriminatory policing, including increased surveillance, more harsh criminal sentences and disproportionately high rates of being killed by police.
On Aug. 25, a 17-year-old named Kyle Rittenhouse traveled the 20 miles between his hometown of Antioch, Illinois and Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was answering an open call, sent out over social media, for armed militia to “defend” Kenosha from the mostly peaceful protests that had sprung up in the city after a Kenosha police officer chased Jacob Blake into his car and shot him four times in the back, paralyzing him. Rittenhouse, despite being a minor, had procured a semiautomatic rifle and brought it with him to the protest. Before the night was over, he allegedly shot three men, killing two. He has been charged with multiple counts of homicide, and his attorneys are arguing he acted in self-defense. People on the right, from the mainstream to the fringe, not only defended his actions, but celebrated them.
The shootings in Kenosha were the apex of a year of feverish paramilitary vigilantism, which began in January 2020 when militias showed up in Richmond, Virginia to oppose gun measures promised by a newly Democratic-controlled state legislature. Soon, they found a new mobilizing cause: As COVID-19 began to spread across the country, antigovernment groups came out in force to oppose mask mandates and other safety measures to slow the spread of the disease. As mass protests for racial justice mobilized around the country, paramilitaries styled themselves as ad hoc deputies of law enforcement, “patrolling” the streets in opposition to the largely peaceful protests.
A similarly laudatory reaction from the right greeted Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who brandished guns at a passing group of Black Lives Matter protesters in St. Louis. They were rewarded with a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention.
In their defense of Rittenhouse and other armed militia action, the right has signaled that antigovernment participation is an acceptable form of right-wing political expression, a stance that did not even waver when members of a Michigan militia were arrested and charged with plotting to kidnap their governor, Gretchen Witmer.
The thwarted plot came after a string of violence and arrests attributed to the Boogaloo movement, a predominantly white and heavily armed online subculture that began as a racist meme. The subculture is an illustration of the porous boundaries between the antigovernment movement and the larger hate ecosystem, and how anonymous posting forums like 4Chan continue to influence both. Its adherents advocate for a second civil war and have been involved repeatedly in acts of violence, including murder.
The antigovernment movement will be explored in detail in a subsequent installment of this report, along with SPLC’s 2020 list of antigovernment groups.
Recommendations for squelching the antigovernment uprising
- End funding for police militarization and the transfer of excess military property to law enforcement agencies. Police militarization disproportionately exposes communities of color to police violence and it inflames the paranoia of the extreme right, which uses state-sponsored violence as evidence of government tyranny and impending civil war.
- End funding for DHS Countering Violent Extremism/Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention programs that profile and target immigrants, Muslims and Black Americans and result in illegal spying and surveillance. They are not only ineffective, but harmful.
- Codify independent authority and autonomy protections for whistleblowers and inspectors general at federal agencies – including federal law enforcement agencies. President Trump’s unprecedented purge of several federal agency inspectors general revealed the limits of current law to protect these necessary government watchdogs, who are capable of injecting much needed accountability into the federal government. Whistleblower protection can help address the “Blue Wall of Silence” and encourage reporting of racist law enforcement officials.
The path forward
As we move into 2021, and beyond the Trump presidency, we must find ways to counter the reactionary, authoritarian populism that is mobilizing on the heels of Trump’s loss. Hate groups that lose salience or public attention will not go away. Instead, they will find shelter elsewhere among the far right, particularly in the militant edge of campaigns like “Re-Open” and “Stop the Steal.”
An effective opposition to this antidemocratic movement has to dismantle the symptoms of white supremacy culture that justify it and give it fuel. The SPLC has developed four Impact Statements that help define and quantify our mission, and each has a role to play in combating the extreme right.
First, dismantling white nationalism and protecting democracy. With robust anti-racist education, we can reduce the population of Americans that harbor sympathy for a white nationalist worldview.
Second, protecting voting rights and civic engagement. By dismantling voter suppression laws, we can keep the power in the hands of the American people and safe from undue influence by the small antidemocratic minority.
Third, decriminalizing and decarcerating Black and Brown people. Mass incarceration and overcriminalization saps resources and opportunities from communities of color and contributes to a culture that dehumanizes Black and Brown people and fuels the core ideology of white nationalism.
Finally, eradicating poverty. Yet again, systemic racism creates barriers to advancement, meaning Black and Brown people are overrepresented in populations experiencing poverty. The challenges poverty presents overlap with the other challenges we face in the fight against white supremacy.
Lydia Bates, Eddie Bejarano, Freddy Cruz, Hannah Gais, Tracey Gale, Rachel Goldwasser, Raven Hodges, Caleb Kieffer, and other members of IP research staff contributed to this report. Policy recommendations were contributed to this report by SPLC Senior Policy Advisor Michael Lieberman and other SPLC Policy staff.
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Lead photo by Reuters/Maranie Staab