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A Year of Preparation Under the Specter of Conspiracy

The investigations and prosecutions related to the failed Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol have revealed just how close the nation came to a right-wing coup. In 2022, the SPLC documented how the hard right shifted its focus to hyperlocal campaigns intended to amplify the “fear and pain experienced by Black, Brown and LGBTQ+ communities” and “disrupt their ability to participate in an inclusive democracy.” That year, hate crimes significantly increased across the board, but Black, Latinx and LGBTQ+ people experienced an especially dramatic escalation in violence. In 2023, it became clear that the two years since the Jan. 6 insurrection was a time of preparation for the hard right.

Extremists and those opposing meaningful democracy have used the past year to legitimize insurrection, paint hate as virtuous and transform conspiracy theories into truth — all in preparation for one of the most significant elections in U.S. history. The very progress we as a country have made over the last century is at stake — and the hopes of a vibrant, diverse democracy with human rights at its core.

In 2023, the SPLC documented the highest number of active anti-LGBTQ+ and white nationalist groups we have ever recorded. These record numbers accompany increases in direct actions against minoritized groups, including hate crimes and other tactics such as anti-Black and antisemitic flyering, protests, and intimidation campaigns targeting LGBTQ+ people, libraries, schools and hospitals. Together, the activities of hate and antigovernment groups, the “holy war” and “race war” rhetoric they employ, and the environment of fear and disruption they foster foreshadow an attempt to exploit American democratic and electoral processes in 2024 to finally accomplish the goals of the insurrection — the suppression of multiracial, pluralistic democracy.

In the video: Details on the number of hate and antigovernment groups documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the 2023 Year in Hate & Extremism Report.

In 2023, violence was again used as a tool of suppression against Black, Brown and LGBTQ+ people. The activities of hate and antigovernment groups and the experiences of those they target for abuse, exclusion and violence exemplify what happens when racist, dominionist (a theocratic ideology that holds only Christians have the right to control government and society) and nationalistic conspiracy theories are operationalized. In July, O’Shae Sibley, a young gay Black man, was murdered in front of a Brooklyn, New York, gas station after dancing to a Beyoncé song with a group of friends, reportedly because the alleged attacker “had a problem with them dancing.” In August, Angela Michelle Carr, Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre Jr. and Jerrald De’Shaun Gallion were murdered in Jacksonville, Florida, by a white gunman who believed in the “inferiority of Black people” and hoped to “inspire others to carry out racially motivated attacks,” according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Jacksonville field office. In the wake of the murders, Kristen Clarke, who leads the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, said racially motivated hate crimes in the United States were at “an all-time high.”


The same month, in Cedar Glen, California, LGBTQ+ ally Laura “Lauri” Ann Carleton was murdered because she flew an LGBTQ+ Pride flag outside her clothing store and refused to be intimidated by the man who “tore down” the flag and “yelled homophobic slurs” when she confronted him. Throughout 2023, the Progress Pride flag was attacked by hate and antigovernment groups as well as conservative media and conservative politicians, many of whom falsely claimed it symbolized child sexual abuse. “They fly that [Pride] flag, because they hate you and your values and what you believe and everything you stand for,” said far-right media personality Matt Walsh in March 2023. For a year, Carleton regularly replaced Pride flags that were taken from in front of her business and worried about the possibility of an “altercation,” according to her friend. In June before the attack, Carleton’s alleged murderer reportedly posted to X (formerly Twitter) an image of a burning Pride flag and appeared to associate LGBTQ+ people with pedophilia.

The activities of hate and antigovernment groups, those who espouse conspiratorial ideologies, and their symbiosis with many far-right politicians reveal the increasingly authoritarian and theocratic vision of the hard right. This means that for many of these groups, there is no room to compromise, no room to resolve political disputes in the ways afforded by democratic governance. Julie Green, one staple of the antigovernment movement, alluded to this at the beginning of 2024: “My children, the time has come. A time that you have been waiting for.” The far-right, self-described “prophet” Green has appeared with former Trump administration National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and hosted Eric Trump on her web show. Green predicted this year would witness “[a] reinstatement. A shift of power. A new government in control. An overthrow, and a takeover in this nation from the hands of the wicked to the hands of the righteous.”

Increasing numbers of elected officials and influencers on the far right are turning to conspiracy and theocracy in their politics, finding particular support for these ideas in the Republican Party. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., who was elected speaker of the House of Representatives in October, has mimicked white supremacist “great replacement” conspiracy rhetoric, and his election was applauded by multiple anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ hate groups. The new speaker shunned the separation of church and state, and claimed the United States is a “biblical republic” and not a democracy. In 2020, he supported a Texas lawsuit to throw out the votes from four battleground states and overturn the results of the presidential election.

Johnson was previously a litigator and spokesperson for the anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom, a self-described “Christian law firm” whose legal strategy often pits Christians unfairly against LGBTQ+ people in a legal gambit to undermine nondiscrimination laws through claims of “religious freedom.” The strategy implies and asserts that Christianity and LGBTQ+ identity are inherently mutually exclusive. The group also claims credit for helping overturn constitutional protections for abortion and, in 2023, led the legal push to eliminate access to reproductive and LGBTQ+ health care primarily by amplifying pseudoscientific claims about abortion and LGBTQ+ identity. Speaker Johnson’s ascension, despite his association with the hate group and parroting of conspiracy, is testament to the level of influence these theocratic ideologies wield within the Republican Party.

That relationship was perhaps most clearly revealed in 2023 with the release of the Heritage Foundation’s “Project 2025 Presidential Transition Project” and its accompanying 900-plus-page “Mandate for Leadership,” a sweeping plan to reshape presidential powers and the federal bureaucracy in the image of dominionism. Since its release, many of Project 2025’s recommendations were adopted or parroted by former President Trump’s election campaign. In 2023, Trump openly embraced the idea of being a “dictator” for at least his first day back in the Oval Office and, in a throwback to the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler, referred to immigrants as “vermin” and claimed they are “poisoning the blood of our country.” Trump has not only assented to some Project 2025 proposals, but also promised even more extreme policies – like an expanded version of his infamous “Muslim ban,” barring travel to the U.S. from predominantly Muslim countries.

Project 2025 was developed and supported by a coalition of more than 75 organizations, including at least nine hate and antigovernment groups with strong ties to the Republican Party, such as Alliance Defending Freedom, Center for Immigration Studies and Moms for Liberty. The coalition also features groups like the Honest Elections Project, which along with Heritage Foundation reportedly “created an incubator of policies that would restrict access to the ballot box and amplify false claims that fraud is rampant in American elections,” according to The Guardian. The coalition also includes groups that the SPLC identified in 2023 as components of an anti-LGBTQ+ pseudoscience network designed to push anti-trans health care, restrictive education, and anti-abortion policies, including Family Policy Alliance, Independent Women’s Forum, and National Association of Scholars.

Combined, the groups responsible for Project 2025 are churning out plans to use the federal and state governments to enforce their theocratic vision for society. The coalition’s “Mandate for Leadership” characterizes Christianity as under threat and frames some policy recommendations as part of a “Judeo-Christian tradition.” It also calls for staffing the federal bureaucracy with ideologues recruited with the assistance of many partner groups. The “mandate” also equates “transgender ideology” (a phrase used by many anti-LGBTQ groups to delegitimize transgender identity) with pornography and demands punishment for simply sharing information inconsistent with that belief, saying: “The people who produce and distribute it [‘pornography’/’transgender ideology’] should be imprisoned. Educators and public librarians who purvey it should be classed as registered sex offenders. And telecommunications and technology firms that facilitate its spread should be shuttered.”

Antisemitism and the Adaptability of Conspiracy

One prominent example of the operationalization of conspiracy in 2023 is the surge in antisemitic incidents this year. Graffiti of Nazi symbols and vandalism of Jewish establishments remain the most consistent incidents from year to year; however, in 2023, and particularly after Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack, there has been a significant surge in swatting or bomb threats made against synagogues, Chabad houses, and other openly Jewish businesses and institutions. Antisemitism has been twisted to fit various situations including the Israel-Hamas war, references to the “deep state,” and control over social movements, media influence and financial systems.

The escalation became especially pronounced following the terrorist attack in Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. Extremist rhetoric seeped into mainstream narratives at an alarming pace, blurring the lines between legitimate criticism of the Israeli government’s actions and outright antisemitism. This year also saw a rise in the use of tropes encompassing notions of Jews controlling multiple industries, American subservience to Jewish interests, and the equation of any criticism toward Israel with antisemitism, knowingly or unknowingly employed by public figures and prevalent on social media platforms. On X (formerly Twitter), for example, the site’s chairman Elon Musk in November endorsed an antisemitic post, which claimed that Jewish people “have been pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them.” Musk responded, “You have said the actual truth.”

The concept of Jewish control over society stands as one of the most prevalent antisemitic tropes, tracing its modern-era roots from Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, through Henry Ford’s The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, to Hitler’s Mein Kampf – all of which are regularly cited by extremists as evidence. In 2023, former President Trump denied reading Mein Kampf after criticism of his rhetorical similarities to antisemitic and anti-immigrant Nazi propaganda. The upcoming election year will likely witness a continued use of George Soros as an antisemitic trope to symbolize the existence of the “deep state.” The Soros trope gained traction during the 2022 midterm elections. Given former President Trump’s prior distribution of mailers and emails employing this trope to rally support and instill fear of the “deep state,” it’s probable that he will continue to exploit this trope to evoke fear or justify a potential loss. Such actions could further galvanize the country behind this antisemitic trope, solidifying anti-Jewish sentiment as a more entrenched aspect of American politics.

In addition, a faux hypersensitivity toward antisemitism was particularly visible among right-wing media and politicians in the United States as they utilized the legitimate issue of antisemitism on college campuses to disingenuously further an attack on higher education. While these institutions should review and revise their policies, accusers need to acknowledge their own ties to antisemitic narratives before accusing others. Certain politicians targeting education overlook their associations with groups like Moms for Liberty, which has a chapter that quoted Hitler, and entities like PragerU, known for promoting right-wing ideas and neglecting the realities of slavery and Indigenous peoples in American history, and fostering a pro-white Protestant narrative that emboldens extremist groups.

These right-wing attacks can propagate racist rhetoric, suggesting a minority population’s disproportionate influence on national outcomes. New College’s Christopher Rufo responded to the resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay on X, by exclaiming, “SCALPED,” invoking the genocidal practice colonial settlers employed against Indigenous people as a victory lap for his imagined crusade. These responses prompt skepticism about how genuine their claimed support for Jewish and other marginalized peoples is.

Furthermore, extremist groups have attempted to inject themselves into the national discussion about the war against the terrorist group Hamas. At the end of 2023, the Goyim Defense League distributed a flyer online and in person stating, “FREE PALESTINE.” This is not in any way to show support for Palestinian people. Rather, this is a not-so-thinly-veiled attempt at stoking more antisemitism and using Palestinian people to further their own aims. This is a common tactic used by hard-right extremists throughout U.S history – pretending to engage legitimate conversation about a national or international issue to promote their own endgame, which is, in this case, uniting the country against Jews.

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Illustration of tumbling pillars in foreground with images of protests, library books and Moms for Liberty sign.
Illustration by Chantal Jahchan

Sowing Disruption Through Antigovernment Conspiracies

The U.S. is in the midst of a powerful social and political disruption. In the wake of long wars, pandemics and economic disruption, the hard right is taking advantage of the dislocation and suffering so many of us are experiencing to undermine meaningful democracy and eliminate the checks, balances and institutions that hold people and organizations that seek power to account. Communities of color, immigrant communities, minority faith communities and LGBTQ+ communities are all targeted by and experience the negative effects of antigovernment conspiracies through targeted violence, but also book bans, acrimonious town halls, school boards as battlegrounds, and agitation among one’s neighbors. Attacks on democratic institutions are part of a concerted effort by the hard right and antigovernment extremists to gain power through a focus on local politics, emphasizing the power local institutions and government bodies – sheriffs, counties, local churches – so that the local authorities can trump, even nullify, federal and state laws. It is a twisting of our social contract, driven by conspiracy theory and fabrication, to increase power for the few at the expense of the many.

Some of the most worrying conspiracy theories gesture back to the days of the Christian patriot posse comitatus movement, resurrecting the myth that the highest law in the land rests at the county level and, now, with the sheriff. These conspiracies are known as “county supremacy” and “the constitutional sheriff movement,” which claim without merit that the county government and sheriff trump any federal or state law or policy. It aims at a new form of nullification — a rallying cry for the Confederacy (and neo-Confederates) — where the county or the sheriff can nullify laws in their jurisdiction based on their own reading of the U.S. Constitution.

This has led some sheriffs to believe that they can ignore federal and state laws that they disagree with, such as gun control laws, without any form of accountability except the ballot box. The Marshall Project, for example, recently found in a survey of sheriffs in the U.S. that the vast majority who serve in the office are “White and male … far more conservative than Americans as a whole, and largely approve of Trump’s performance as president.” Of 500 sheriffs polled, almost half agreed that “their own authority, within their counties, supersedes that of the state or federal government.”

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis revived the Florida State Guard — a volunteer militia that exists outside of the traditional military command structure with state funding budgeted “for helicopters, boats and cellphone-hacking technology.” After it was announced, “alt-tech” websites “lit up” with anti-immigrant and antigovernment comments calling for the guard to be used to “secure” elections and “our interest” against the federal government and to stop refugee resettlement. Mimicking this move, some counties have even created their own local militias, taking that power away from the states.

This antigovernment ideology helps spread the pernicious belief that our country cannot and should not come together through government to achieve social goods and human rights. This local absolutism, which is based not on law or compact but on right-wing fringe political theories — such as posse comitatus, constitutional sheriffs and county supremacy — is dangerous because it tears away the checks and balances used to ensure accountability for those who wield the right to use deadly force.

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Threats from Dominionism Theology and Christian Supremacy

Christian supremacy and dominionism were prominent features of antigovernment conspiracy and movement organizing in 2023. Dominionists preach that only Christians — and in particular, Christians who believe as they do — have the right to control government and all influential posts in society and culture. This is called dominionism, a form of Christian supremacy that Frederick Clarkson, a researcher at Political Research Associates, has defined as “the theocratic idea that Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions: for example, over the role of government, the form and content of public education, and eliminating rights related to bodily autonomy.”

The growth of this movement is fueling anxiety around what many in the media are calling Christian nationalism. The goal of much of this theology is to strip government of functions such as education and welfare and, as dominionist minister and “historian” David Barton has argued, reserve those for churches. Importantly, this is not a pluralistic religious vision for the public good — Barton does not seem to mean mainline churches but, specifically, like-minded dominionist churches that would siphon off public funds and put them in the hands of a reactionary minority. U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson is a student of Barton’s work, further raising alarm bells about Johnson’s speakership.

This is an old idea, dangerous to democracy and human rights, that has motivated the antigovernment right for decades. Yet the resurgence of dominionism is an attempt to fulfill a decades-old dream, begun when segregated schools were ruled unconstitutional, to keep education shackled to a narrow, authoritarian version of Christianity. Jerry Falwell wrote back in 1979: “I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!”

But happy for whom?

There are several drivers of this new dominionism, but one of the most potent comes from a growing movement within charismatic churches called the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). Using the image of “Seven Mountains,” the leaders of this movement argue that Christians who believe as they do are divinely commanded to lead and control all aspects of the country. Organizations such as the Truth and Liberty Coalition and City Elders are NAR organs that aim to seize control of political power at all levels of society. The founder of City Elders, Jesse Leon Rodgers, has even explained that his movement seeks to achieve not just theocracy, but theonomy, where “our lives, our businesses, our culture, our cities, our schools” are under control of religious authority. NAR apostle Andrew Wommack has also expressed the kind of power they envision for the City Elders: “They are gatekeepers. If they want to pass something in schools, they go through City Elders. We need to do that.”

Such authoritarian religious movements are influential in society broadly. In addition to Barton, Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA, a reactionary student organization, employs the image of the Seven Mountains mandate. The NAR has also consistently argued that their opponents or detractors are literally “demonic.” GOP operative Roger Stone, for example, who is a late-in-life Christian, has even argued that he saw a demonic portal open over the White House, claiming it opened because of the Bidens.

In addition, Florida state Rep. Webster Barnaby has referred to LGBTQ+ people as “demons and imps.” Bishop E.W. Jackson, a former candidate for Virginia lieutenant governor, claimed the pronouns “they/them” are plural because people who use them are “possessed by multiple demons.” Former President Donald Trump demonstrated how all these dehumanizing epithets blend together at the highest echelons of American political rhetoric at the anti-LGBTQ+ hate group Family Research Council’s 2023 “Pray Vote Stand” summit, saying, “But I wanted to, and had to stand up to the communists, the Marxists, the atheists and the evil and demonic forces that want to destroy our country.”

When everyone but your own is demonic, there is no room for discussion or any daylight left between you for compromise, which undermines the very heart of a modern, democratic system. The effect is a wearing down, and sometimes, a tearing down of institutions and trust meant to hold people accountable to each other and to help moderate conflict before it breaks into violence. The destruction of our civic institutions, even when they need reform, will only give the hard right a free hand unencumbered by checks and balances to rewrite our social contract into a dystopian, Christian supremacist, and even neo-fascist future.

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Hate Groups Multiply and Mobilize

Throughout 2023, the SPLC documented the activities of hard-right factions as they attempt to desensitize us to the erosion of pluralism and multiracial democracy while amplifying conspiratorial and false narratives that paint the far right as victims of political and religious persecution. We detail many of these activities in this report. In addition to the troubling trends we highlight above, we also documented a growth in hate groups and the continued use of political violence.

In 2023, the white nationalist movement surged, reaching a historic high of 166 chapters of various groups. This growth was led by the National Justice Party (NJP) and Active Clubs. While the NJP, with centralized leadership, used independent chapters for flyering, Active Clubs relied on Telegram for recruitment. This growth came with a pivot toward increasingly violent tactics, threats, and intimidation, emboldened by successes of other far-right groups.

While the number of neo-Nazi groups remained stable in 2023, new groups like the Blood Tribe, led by Chris Pohlhaus, gained attention with the large, uniformed demonstrations in which members carried swastika flags and performed Roman salutes. Despite arrests, legal challenges and online crackdowns, such groups as the neo-Nazi Aryan Freedom Network also expanded, emphasizing in-person demonstrations over low-risk activities, particularly against immigrants. Combined, these activities suggest a determined return to tactics that rely on aggression, intimidation and violence.

In 2023, the SPLC also documented hundreds of protests – many led or attended by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups – targeting a children’s literacy program known as Drag Story Hour. The growth comes specifically at the expense of trans people — who were frequently targeted in 2023 by online rhetorical and in-person violence and victimized by an emergent network peddling anti-trans pseudoscience that the SPLC documented in our 2023 CAPTAIN report. The increasing vitriol directed at trans people, and especially trans kids, is reflected in the record number of active anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups the SPLC documented in 2023.

In addition to the spike in antisemitic attacks that followed the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel by Hamas, the SPLC documented a rapid return to virulent rhetorical Islamophobia by anti-Muslim groups who, throughout much of 2023, had opportunistically focused their ire on other marginalized people like LGBTQ+ and immigrant communities. Anti-Muslim rhetoric helped fuel attacks on Palestinian Americans, including the Oct. 14 murder of 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume by his family’s landlord in Plainfield Township, Illinois, outside Chicago, who was reportedly angry with the family for “what was going on” in Israel.

The violent rhetoric and activities of many hate and antigovernment groups in 2023, coupled with their embrace of electoral conspiracies and rejection of inclusive civil institutions (like schools, libraries and religious congregations), presage a troubling willingness to co-opt those same American civil and social institutions in 2024 to both position far-right actors in offices of authority and lend an air of legitimacy to the conspiracies that animated the Jan. 6 insurrection.

One component of this strategy, on display in 2023, is restricting the flow of historically accurate information about systemic racism and American pluralism. As we explain in this report, in Florida, present-day attacks against diverse students perpetuate the legacy of forced assimilation in the United States. Through book bans and limits on inclusive curriculum, education policies are compelling marginalized students to only learn and acknowledge whitewashed views of history that erase the experiences and contributions of the minorities who helped make this country. For some hate groups, restricting anti-racist and LGBTQ+-inclusive school curricula is considered part of their right to “religious freedom.”

Many hate and antigovernment groups are unwilling to compromise with those who oppose their exclusionary, racist and hateful visions for society. This is increasingly reflected in the use of Christian and white supremacist, dominionist and militaristic rhetoric that characterizes the hard right as crusaders against corrupt and demonic forces, represented by most people in society who do not share their restrictive views or conspiratorial mindset.

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Signs of Hope

Recognizing the trends in hard-right activity we chronicle in this report as preparatory offers an opportunity to act. For example, once-influential groups began to wither in 2023 as communities contested exclusionary and hateful actions in their backyards. Within only two years of its founding, Moms for Liberty — leaders in the anti-student inclusion movement — grew to have enormous power on the right, commanding appearances by presidential hopefuls at their first national event and boasting a membership of approximately 115,000 in 47 states.

While 2022 seemed full of nothing but victories for Moms for Liberty, 2023 found the group frequently tarnished by the activities of both its local and national leaders, while also struggling to get its candidates for school board elected. Local communities, such as those in southeastern Pennsylvania, and the work of local journalists, such as those at the Bucks County Beacon in Pennsylvania, raised the alarm and pushed back, which led this year to the ouster of the anti-inclusion majority of at least two local school boards in Bucks County.

Preserving an inclusive multiracial democracy takes work; along with describing the strategies and tactics of hard-right hate and antigovernment groups, we also share the experiences of those who work to make our communities more inclusive and less hospitable to far-right extremism. For example, in this report we show how a civilian oversight board instituted a new policy prohibiting officers in the Chicago Police Department from belonging to hate or extremist groups. We also demonstrate how literacy advocates Drag Story Hour are pushing back against anti-LGBTQ+ violence with local programs across the country.

As these examples show, the preparations of hate and antigovernment groups can still be forestalled. In addition to policy and political responses to help reduce and eliminate inequalities and to prevent and counter the spread of disinformation and conspiracy, the efforts of empowered local communities to build coalitions of civically engaged defenders of democracy and pluralism will help ensure there is no place for hate in 2024.

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Illustration at top: by Chantal Jahchan.