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The Year in Hate and Extremism: Far-right extremists coalescing in broad-based, loosely affiliated movement

It’s been over five years since Donald Trump rode down his golden escalator and launched a longshot bid for president with a xenophobic, immigrant-bashing speech that electrified white nationalists and set a dark tone for his campaign and presidency.

Throughout his tenure, Trump continued to sow division and hate with a steady stream of racist conspiracy theories and lies – all while installing extremists in positions of power and executing radical policies, such as banning Muslims from entering the country, separating immigrant children from their parents at the border and reversing basic protections for the LGBTQ community.

Trump’s words and actions had consequences.

Hate crimes and far-right terrorist attacks surged. Teachers across America reported a sudden spike in the use of racial slurs and incidents involving swastikas, Nazi salutes and Confederate flags. And in the first two years of Trump’s administration, the number of white nationalist hate groups rose by 55 percent, as white supremacists saw in him an avatar of their grievances and a champion of their cause.   

Now, Trump is gone from Washington. But the extremist movement he energized may be entering a perilous new phase, as we all saw on Jan. 6

“The insurrection at the Capitol was the culmination of years of right-wing radicalization but more recently the product of Donald Trump’s support for and encouragement of radicalized individuals and groups to buy into conspiracy theories about a ‘stolen election,’” said Susan Corke, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. “Trump may no longer be in the White House, but the white nationalist movement he emboldened and incited is not going anywhere – and may grow more dangerous to our country.”

This week, the SPLC released its annual Year in Hate and Extremism report. In it, the SPLC identified 838 hate groups operating across the United States in 2020. That was a decrease from the 940 documented in 2019 and the record-high 1,020 in 2018. The report contains a list of hate groups and a map pinpointing their locations.

Hate groups harder to track

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The number of hate groups is a barometer of the level of hate in the country, but an imperfect one.

In fact, the proliferation of extremist internet platforms allows individuals to engage with potentially violent movements like QAnon and Boogaloo without being card-carrying members of a particular group. This phenomenon has blurred the boundaries of hate groups and far-right ideologies, helping coalesce a broader but more loosely affiliated movement of far-right extremists who reject the country’s democratic institutions and pluralistic society.

The number of white nationalist groups decreased from 155 to 128, according to the report. The decline may reflect the fact that these groups, like neo-Nazi groups, are becoming more diffuse and difficult to quantify as they proliferate online and use encrypted platforms.

In addition, some groups ceased their in-person activity because of the COVID-19 pandemic and many are being kicked off their social media platforms and communicating in encrypted chatrooms, making it harder to track their activities.

Another factor is the continuing collapse of the Ku Klux Klan as younger extremists move into newer groups that do not carry the same stigma as a group long associated with white supremacist terror. In 2020, Klan chapters dwindled to 25, down from 47 in 2019 and down significantly from years past, when there were typically about 150 chapters in any given year.

Domestic terror attacks

Despite the massive drop in Klan groups, there are now numerous, alternative hate groups that make Klan membership obsolete. The Proud Boys, for example, vandalized historically Black churches in Washington, D.C., during a pro-Trump demonstration in December, and its members were front and center during the attack on the Capitol.

Many extremists who lack a formal hate group affiliation still take real-world actions – as we’ve seen in domestic terrorist attacks like the one in August 2019 at a Walmart in El Paso, where the suspect in the massacre of 23 people left an online “manifesto” echoing white nationalist themes.

The Capitol insurrection demonstrated how the Trump campaign and the MAGA movement offered individuals a kind of camaraderie they could get from membership in a hate or antigovernment group, where Trump himself was a radicalizing force. Many of the people who were arrested had previously attended several rallies and viewed Trump as their leader.

Because of the widespread radicalization that has taken place in recent years, the Biden administration faces dual challenges. Not only must it reverse the damage to civil rights done by Trump and his allies but also must do 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, an SPLC poll conducted last August found that 65% of respondents believe racism exists and is harmful, but 49% believe that people of color are more likely to be poor because of a lack of work ethic.

The findings were similarly disturbing around gaps in health outcomes; only 38% of respondents believed that systemic racism played a role, even as COVID-19 ravaged communities of color.

Despite some high-profile support for Black Lives Matter protests this summer, the poll showed that 51% of Americans thought the looting that occurred in several cities was a bigger problem than police violence against Black people, and 51% 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 radical right’s success constructing an 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 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 must dismantle the symptoms of white supremacy culture that justify it and give it fuel.

All of us must play a role in this fight. And there is no time to waste.

Photo by Reuters/Seth Herald