Fred Phelps Sr., the fiery founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, displays one of his many infamous protest signs in this file photo taken before his death in 2014. (AP Photo/The Topeka Capital Journal)

America is getting angrier, according to one watchdog.

For the first time in five years, the number of hate groups in the United States rose in 2015, according to a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal and advocacy organization known among other things for monitoring extremist activity.

The number of such groups spiked 14 percent in 2015, a year characterized by levels of polarization and anger perhaps unmatched since the political turmoil of 1968, the center said in the report on hate and extremism released exclusively to The Washington Post on Wednesday.


Swelling numbers of Ku Klux Klan chapters and black separatist groups drove last year’s surge, though organizations classified as anti-gay, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim saw small increases, too.

“It was a year marked by very high levels of political violence, enormous rage in the electorate and a real significant growth in hate groups,” said Mark Potok, author of the report.


 

The center credits a number of factors for inciting that anger, including shifting demographics that largely favor non-whites; immigration; legalized same-sex marriage; the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement; and the all-too-real atrocities carried out by Islamic terrorists.

A creeping rhetoric of intolerance among politicians helped to normalize hate, the center argued. And while it singled out other presidential contenders, too, the center—which conservatives criticize for casting too wide a net—stated that Donald Trump had “electrified the radical right.”

“Hate in the mainstream had absorbed some of the hate on the fringes,” the group wrote in the report, which is published in a magazine whose cover prominently features Trump alongside domestic terrorists.

The cover of the spring issue of "Intelligence Report," published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, features Donald Trump front-and-center, as well as photos of one of the San Bernardino attackers and Charleston shooter Dylann Roof. (Screenshot)
The Intelligence Report’s spring cover features Donald Trump front and center—alongside several domestic terrorists. (SPLC)

Racist extremists were responsible for the spike last year, SPLC found.

The number of KKK chapters in America more than doubled from 2014 to 2015, rising from 72 to 190, according to the report. That growth was “invigorated” by several hundred pro-Confederate flag rallies, which largely channeled white anger over the group’s declining demographic and economic position, the group said.

Black separatist groups also multiplied, rising from 113 in 2014 to 180 last year, “pretty much as a direct result of the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Potok said.

But unlike the members of that movement, the separatist groups represented an extreme position that “demonized” whites, gays and Jews.

The number of black separatist groups was the highest of any year since at least 2000, according to SPLC data. The number of Klan chapters was the highest of all but one year — 2010 — during that time period. Those numbers exclude white nationalist and racist skinhead groups.


For all of its effort at documenting hateful association in the United States, the SPLC noted that its 2015 count was likely an underestimate, as extremists increasingly turn to the Internet to congregate anonymously.

Critics have suggested the opposite—that SPLC overestimates the number of hate groups. A broad definition of “hate” leads the SPLC to cast too wide a net, unfairly ensnaring groups simply for having strong conservative views on topics such as abortion or illegal immigration, the organization’s detractors have argued.

“They paint with a very broad brush and in the process they tend to be sweep up people that are politically conservative,” said Carol Swain, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University who has criticized the organization’s methodology in the past. “I think they do it in a very harmful way and they abuse their power as an organization.”

The group has singled out as extremist Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and Liberty Counsel, the group that recently provided legal defense to Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis over her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Swain noted.

“These are individuals that are Christian conservatives—they’re just traditional conservatives—but because of their position on LGBT issues the Southern Poverty Law Center finds ways to malign these individuals or their organizations.”

Washington, D.C., think tank The Center for Security Policy made the list this year for its alleged anti-Muslim rhetoric, a fact that founder Frank Gaffney, Jr., called “outrageous” in an interview last week with Liz Wheeler, of the One America News Network. The SPLC is focused on suppressing speech, he said.

“And what’s really worrying is that they seem to be increasingly doing it in the service of folks who are authentically the most egregious haters on the planet: people who hate women, who hate homosexuals, who hate Jews, who hate people of faith of various kinds,” he said. Those “folks,” he said, are supporters of Sharia, divine law whose definition varies widely among Muslims.

Liberty Council, which famously defended Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, takes issue with being named to the list, too. In a statement last fall, the group called SPLC “a money-driven organization that has admitted its own hypocrisy, lost sight of its own vision, and stooped to arbitrary name-calling to pander to its donors and media sensationalists.”

Hate groups aside, the SPLC also documented a 14 percent swell in anti-government “patriot” groups — militias and others motivated by conspiracy theories. Those “patriot” groups are not necessarily violent or racist, but rather tend to fear and oppose a “New World Order” and be staunchly anti-government.


Number of anti-government ‘patriot’ groups by year. (Southern Poverty Law Center)

The number of such groups — counted separately from hate groups — rose from 874 in 2014 to 998 last year. The groups were emboldened, SPLC said, by Cliven Bundy’s 2014 standoff, in which he was joined by armed ranchers in facing down federal authorities over a dispute related to land rights.

As to what the future holds, SPLC’s Potok notes that FBI data shows hate crimes last year rose for just one group: Muslims.

“I think that gives an indication of what’s coming,” he said.

This post was updated on Feb. 18.

Related stories:

U.S. Muslims feel intense backlash following Paris and California attacks

Hate speech is going mainstream

If you’re a racist, say you have minority friends. It helps.