There’s good news and bad news about hate groups in America today, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The good news is that the SPLC tracked 105 fewer hate groups and 78 fewer anti-government groups last year than in 2020. The bad news is the decline occurred in part because the authoritarian, racist and homophobic messages they espouse have become increasingly mainstream, SPLC announced its “The Year in Hate and Extremism 2021” report released March 9.
SPLC defines anti-government organizations as those who view the federal government as an enemy of Americans. Examples include the Three Percenters, the Oathkeepers and the militia movement. SPLC defines hate groups as those whose beliefs and practices malign an entire class of people, such as Jews, LGBTQ persons or immigrants. Examles include the KKK, Neo-Nazis, white nationalists and those arrayed against immigrants, Muslims and the Jewish and LGBTQ communities.
The annual report documents that the conspiracy theories and hate-filled ideologies espoused by the hard-right continued to emerge from the shadows in 2021 by capitalizing on paranoia about Critical Race Theory, COVID-19 vaccines and masking fears, immigration surges at the border and the “Big Lie” that Donald Trump was robbed of victory in the 2020 presidential election. Proponents of those ideas parlayed their growing traction into well-publicized school board and city council protests and by seeking local and state elected office.
The decline in hate groups from 838 to 733 in 2021, and in anti-government groups from 566 to 488 in the same period, also “means they are more decentralized and harder to track,” said Susan Corke, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project. She spoke during a virtual panel discussion accompanying the release of the report.
The study also uncovered among these groups a wider acceptance of violence to accomplish political ends, a reality on display during the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol and in the subsequent justifications of that attack by a growing number of Republicans. It’s also on display in the threatening behavior of hard-right protesters at school boards and other local government meetings.
Another tactic adopted by hate and anti-government groups in 2021 was an expanded web presence, most notably through the heightened use of livestreaming to spread ideology and to raise funds, Corke said. “Democracy is under threat. This is an alarm bell. Protecting democracy will mean pushing back against the hard right.”
The web accelerates the mainstreaming of hate by enabling more people to participate, said Cassie Miller, senior research analyst at SPLC.
“There are so many platforms online where they can organize and propagandize without joining a formal group,” she said. “It is a hard-right mainstream movement that includes hate groups, anti-government extremists and Trump loyalists, right-wing think tanks and activists with real political power to spread conspiracies and misinformation.”
The SPLC report also describes a burgeoning array of “alt-tech” sites that anti-government and hate movement adherents are using to circumvent bans by YouTube, Twitter and other mainstream social media sites.
“Alt-tech platforms generally don’t command the same audience size — and, thus, the same access to possible donors — as YouTube and Twitch. Still, they have provided a fruitful fundraising outlet for extremists, some of whom have netted annual earnings in the low six figures off streaming alone,” the report says.
Many of the organizations that continued to operate in 2021 have major goals, including creation of an openly ethnic and nationalist movement capable of subverting democracy, the study claims.
“Some white nationalist organizations, such as Nick Fuentes’ America First Foundation, want to exert power over the GOP and convince its members to openly embrace white nationalism. Others are attempting to build infrastructure to challenge mainstream institutions, including the National Justice Party. Founded in 2020 by several longtime activists in the white power movement, NJP has become a hub for the movement.”
SPLC also tracked a rise in the number of conservative leaders and commentators, including Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, promoting the Great Replacement Theory, which sees immigration as a Democratic effort to achieve power by diluting and replacing the white population, Miller said.
That theory motivated terrorist attacks globally and across the U.S., the report states. “But as hard-right actors weaponize America’s demographic changes to instill fear and resentment, the myth has spread beyond terrorist manifestos and into American living rooms.”
“As hard-right actors weaponize America’s demographic changes to instill fear and resentment, the myth has spread beyond terrorist manifestos and into American living rooms.”
The theory received a major boost with Carlson’s 2021 broadcast declaring it as a political weapon being used against whites. His comments generated open support from Republican legislators.
According to the report: “Officials in border states, where white nationalist and antigovernment groups have ‘intercepted’ and interrogated migrants, have especially tried to ramp up fear of white replacement to undercut their political opposition. Democrats, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said on Fox News, are using immigration to ‘take over our country without firing a shot.’”
Another group that finds itself in extremists’ crosshairs is the LGBTQ community “and especially trans people,” Miller said.
The hostility directed at them includes legislative efforts in numerous states to ban speaking about sex and gender identity and to criminalize those who provide care for transgender persons.
“We can see the danger extremist ideas have when proponents have access to real political power and create an atmosphere where violence is allowed,” Miller said.
The pandemic remained a powerful rhetorical and recruiting tool for right-wing organizations in 2021, according to the report. “The John Birch Society and QAnon enthusiasts have also peddled anti-vaccine misinformation and anti-mask propaganda, formed protests and rallies, and caused disturbances in front of hospitals and public officials’ homes. Conspiracy propagandists have found a niche audience with COVID-19 vaccine skeptics, using existing antigovernment mistrust, corporate skepticism and a long historical relationship with a growing natural-health sector to push the false ideas of vaccine danger.”
“Words matter, especially from our leaders.”
SPLC concluded the report by calling for the vigorous prosecution of Jan. 6 perpetrators, for tech companies to be diligent in ridding their platforms of hate speech, and for all Americans to stand up against extremism.
“Words matter, especially from our leaders. It is impossible to overstate the importance of elected officials, business and community leaders, civic and faith leaders, military commanders, and law enforcement executives using their public platforms to condemn hate, racism, attacks on voting and democratic institutions, and extremism in all forms. Failure to do so emboldens extremists — as we saw dramatically demonstrated during the Trump administration. Leaders across the country can inspire positive change and confidence about the future by promoting visions of an inclusive community where everyone can thrive.”
But Miller noted that the challenges detailed in the report remain daunting.
“The political terrain in the U.S. has shifted to authoritarianism at a time when leaders on the right are voicing support for political violence, which gives the OK to a lot of groups like this,” she said.
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