American hate groups — and particularly anti-Muslim groups — are on the rise, fueled in part by the recent presidential election, according to a new report from a liberal-leaning advocacy group that tracks domestic extremism.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) attributed some of the growth to President Trump, who it described Wednesday in its quarterly Intelligence Report as having “electrified the radical right,” and whose campaign rallies, the report’s author claims, were “filled with just as much anti-establishment vitriol as any extremist rally.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the report and its conclusions. Many of the groups the SPLC identified as part of the rise in extremist activity reject the label of “hate group.”
According to the SPLC, the number of American hate groups has been climbing steadily for most of the past 30 years, but the new arrivals to the SPLC’s list in 2016 were predominantly characterized as white nationalist and anti-Muslim groups.
“By far, the most dramatic change was the enormous leap in anti-Muslim hate groups,” wrote the report’s author, Mark Potok, an SPLC senior fellow. The report says hate groups in the United States nearly tripled, from 34 in 2015 to 101 last year.
Nearly 50 of those new additions are local chapters of ACT for America, an anti-Muslim activist group that claims Michael Flynn, who this week resigned as Trump’s national security adviser, as a board member.
Potok argues that Trump’s rhetoric throughout the campaign — including calls for a ban on immigration from some Muslim-majority countries, proposals for ideological vetting of those seeking entry to the United States, and accusations that American Muslims harbor terrorists — stoked popular fears in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Europe, California and Florida. Potok wrote that Trump’s rhetoric has helped fuel a spike in anti-Muslim sentiment, a view that is shared by several other civil rights advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Diminished are the overt Ku Klux Klan robes and Nazi insignia sometimes associated with extremist hate groups: the number of KKK chapters fell 32 percent, and the use of symbols has diminished in favor of a more “intellectual” approach, Potok wrote. More prominent now are the groups born as think tanks and nonprofits, and the correlated emergence of the “alternative right,” which the SPLC argues is a “rebranding of white supremacy for public relations purposes.”
Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s center on extremism, said in December that he, too, had seen an uptick in white supremacist messaging, some of it targeting college campuses as part of an outreach to appeal to a younger audience. He said at the time that it appeared supremacist groups viewed Trump’s electoral victory as a victory for their cause, noting that “the alt-right in general thinks this is the time to pounce.”
Militias within the so-called Patriot movement, like the Bundy brothers, who seized control of a wildlife refuge in Oregon, also dropped by 40 percent, the SPLC reports.
New arrivals to the 2016 list included white nationalist groups such as the campus-based Identity Evropa in California and the 29 clubs created by the popular neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, which changed its masthead from “The World’s Most Visited Alt-Right Web Site” to “America’s #1 Most-Trusted Republican News Source” the day after the election. And the SPLC warns of “growing numbers of right-wing extremists [who] operate mainly in cyberspace until, in some cases, they take action in the real world,” such as Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in a Charleston, S.C., black church after finding inspiration in online propaganda.
The FBI says it does not investigate organizations characterized by the SPLC as “hate groups,” or others, unless it has reason to believe that a particular individual is engaged in criminal activity.
“The FBI cannot initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion or the exercise of First Amendment rights, and we remain committed to protecting those rights for all Americans,” said Carol Cratty, an FBI spokeswoman.
Potok argues that more hate group activity — in terms of online and physical participation — yields more “small level hate violence,” though he acknowledges such activity is difficult to prove.
The growth in anti-Muslim and white nationalist groups coincided with what Muslim and civil rights leaders have described as an ongoing spike in anti-Muslim harassment and violence. The FBI reported a 60 percent rise in hate crimes targeting Muslims in 2015. Statistics for 2016 are not yet available.
The SPLC says it recorded 1,097 “bias incidents,” including some secondhand reports of harassment and name-calling, as well as crimes including vandalism and assault, during the first 34 days following Trump’s election. More than a third of those incidents, the organization says, “directly referenced either Trump, his ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan, or his infamous remarks about grabbing women by the genitals.”