A new study reports that the number of hate groups in the United States grew in 2015 for the first time in three years, with extremist organizations exploiting ongoing tensions around race, religion, and ideology to recruit a small horde of new followers.
An investigation released Wednesday from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) chronicles the rise of American extremist groups in 2015, reporting that the number of hate groups increased 14 percent compared to 2014.
“2015 was a year that very nearly approaches the political upheavals of 1968,” Mark Potok, SPLC senior fellow and author of the report, told reporters on a press call Wednesday morning. “An enormous amount of hatred has been absorbed in the political mainstream.”
Potok attributed much of the growth of such groups to the uptick in hateful, xenophobic, and often anti-Muslim rhetoric spouted by presidential candidates such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, the latter of which has proposed a ban on all Muslim immigration into the United States in response to terrorist attacks in Paris by ISIS.
“What we’re seeing is a response to a couple of different things: The rising number — and scariness — of ISIS and related groups, and the enormous antipathy toward muslims from leading politicians,” Potok said, noting that the SPLC report features an image of Donald Trump on the cover. “We have real enablers in the political mainstream who are helping the radical right.”
He also said that he doesn’t expect the unprecedented wave of anti-Muslim violence currently sweeping the country to subside any time soon, saying, “We expect [it] to get worse, not better.”
Many hate groups appeared to feed off each other in 2015. For example, the two kinds of hate groups that saw the largest membership spike were the Ku Klux Klan and black supremacist/separatist groups. Potok explained this dual surge was likely sparked by last year’s public debate over the Confederate flag in South Carolina, which stewed controversy throughout the American Southeast and resulted in 364 pro-Confederate flag rallies in 26 different states, according to the SPLC.
“We think this [increase] mainly had to do with the battle over the Confederate battle flag,” he said, adding that black separatist groups appeared to be taking advantage of peaceful campaigns such as the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to end disproportionate police violence enacted against African Americans.
The study also found a 14 percent growth in right-wing anti-government groups, also called “patriot groups,” which include the “militia” organizations such as those who occupied a federal reserve in Oregon from early January to mid-February. When asked why this group grew, Potok pointed to the 2014 standoff between gun-toting, anti-government supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and federal officials. That potentially explosive situation, which included militia members training their guns on officers, initially resulted in zero arrests, although Bundy was finally apprehended at the airport last week on his way to the Oregon occupation.
“[The initial Bundy standoff] emboldened any number of patriot groups to engage in any number of similar actions,” he said, noting that the recent Oregon occupation was but one of several instances since 2014 where militia groups challenged federal officials.
This statistical surge is troubling enough on its own, but Potok expressed concerns that American extremism is becoming increasingly difficult to track as hate groups take their campaigns online. He pointed to white supremacist Dylann Roof, noting that the man who murdered nine African American churchgoers in Charleston last summer was not a member of any known hate group — but was known to frequent the websites of white supremacist groups.
“We think the radical right movement is actually bigger than our numbers suggest,” Potok said.
The number of right-wing hate groups — who are seven times more likely to kill Americans than extremists who cite Islam as inspiration to commit terrorism — surged after the election of Barack Obama, the first African American president in U.S. history. Still, some groups do appear to be changing tactics, in part because of their inability to capture public support: the report found that anti-gay elements of the Religious Right, having lost the same-sex marriage debate, are now leaving the country, whereas others are shifting their focus to hatred against transgender people.
“The Religious Right is taking on transgender people as the last group of people to demonize,” he said. “Trans people — particularly trans people of color — are the most victimized group of all.”