There are at least 1,020 hate groups now active in the U.S., the Southern Poverty Law Center announced on Wednesday. The civil-rights group, which has tracked extremist activity since the 1980s, says it’s documented a 30 percent increase in hate-group activity over the last four years, a time period it says “roughly” coincides with the end of Barack Obama’s presidency and the rise of Donald Trump as a political figure.
The SPLC doesn’t just track white supremacists — it also tracks the Nation of Islam — but white extremists engaged directly in promoting nativism and myths about racial superiority make up the bulk of activity included in the organization’s annual hate report. SPLC researchers documented 112 active neo-Nazi groups, 148 white nationalist groups, and 63 racist skinhead groups, in addition to 36 neo-Confederate organizations. Though some white supremacists have become disillusioned with Trump over his unrealized border wall, the SPLC argues that the president’s vitriolic anti-immigrant rhetoric and soft-pedaling of white supremacist violence have emboldened hate groups.
The SPLC’s hate-group designations have provoked controversy in the past — some of it legitimate, some of it not. In 2018, the organization settled a lawsuit with the Quilliam Foundation’s Maajid Nawaz over its decision to include the anti-extremism group in a “field guide” to anti-Islam activism. In 2019, both Gavin McInnes and the Center for Immigration Studies filed similar lawsuits over the organization’s hate-group designations. It’s not clear how likely it is that either McInnes or CIS will prevail. The Proud Boys, which McInnes founded and which the SPLC labelled a hate group, has been linked to violence against left-wing activists and has become a regular sight at alt-right rallies. CIS, which filed a RICO suit against SPLC, was founded by John Tanton, a nativist and a proponent of eugenics; the SPLC reports that articles by Holocaust deniers and white nationalists have circulated on the CIS listserv. (On its website, CIS countered that articles expressing a variety of ideological positions have circulated on its listserv.)
No matter what happens with these lawsuits, it’s undeniable that members of the far-right have been responsible for an escalating number of high-profile violent incidents over the last several years. It’s also true that Trump, and some of his surrogates in the conservative press, have helped mainstream certain white nationalist myths. Both Trump and Fox’s Tucker Carlson briefly became fixated on the alleged persecution of white South African farmers, though there’s no evidence of a white genocide unfolding in South Africa or anywhere else, and Trump frequently amplifies myths about the disproportionate criminality of immigrants. Since Trump took office, white nationalists have beaten left-wing activists and murdered one protester; one of his supporters, Cesar Sayoc, is on trial for a failed domestic bombing campaign. In November, authorities arrested a white nationalist in Washington, D.C., on firearms charges; the man, Jeffrey Clark, owned body armor and hollow-point ammunition and had called Sayoc’s campaign “a dry run” on a social media account.
This radicalization shows no signs of abating. Hours after the SPLC released its report, Seamus Hughes of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism broke the news that a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard will go on trial for domestic terrorism charges. The lieutenant, Christopher Hasson, identified as a white supremacist, possessed around 1,000 rounds of ammunition, and created a hit list of liberal politicians and media figures ranging from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.
“Please send me your violence that I may unleash it onto their heads,” Hasson allegedly wrote in a letter. “Guide my hate to make a lasting impression on this world.” Court filings indicate that Hasson has been a white supremacist for decades. He did, however, conduct recent online search queries related to Donald Trump: “what if trump illegally impeached,” he typed, and later, “civil war if trump impeached.” Trump hasn’t explicitly called for people like Hasson to do violence in his name. But the SPLC’s report reinforces a disturbing trend. However frustrated white supremacists may be over the border wall, others seem galvanized by the Trump presidency.