Hate Group Trackers Say They’re ‘Struggling’ to Keep Up with the Alt-Right

The Southern Poverty Law Center spends a lot of time counting America’s hate groups. But the new wave of racists is less formally organized and trickier to quantify.

On Wednesday the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on hate group activity over the course of last year. The major development of 2016 was of course the rise of the "alt-right," that amorphous group of white nationalists, men’s rights activists, trolls, and Islamophobes who love to puff up their chests on the internet. But as far as numbers are concerned, the SPLC report doesn’t have much to say about the alt-right.

released its 2017 report

The report does however highlight an increase in the overall number of US hate groups. In total, there are now 917 such groups, about 100 shy of the all-time record, set in 2011. It’s a significant—though not shocking—increase from last year’s count of 892.

"There’s no doubt at all that these numbers understate—and probably dramatically—the real state of the radical right," the report’s author, Mark Potok, told journalists in a conference call Wednesday. But as his report notes, since many of the people who hold radical views are just the readers of alt-right websites, they "may be less visible than before because they are not affiliated with actual groups."

"While the overall level of hate groups remained fairly steady, the period saw a noticeable drop in real-world extremist activities like rallies and violence," the report says.

"It’s true that we’re struggling with this," Potok said during the call. He pointed to the example of Dylann Roof, who massacred nine black people in a church in 2015, but never went to any Klan meetings or became an official member of a white nationalist organization before plotting his horrific hate crime. Instead, Roof was radicalized—like many young men—by going down the rabbit hole of racist websites. "It’s clear that more and more of these people are operating exclusively on the internet, except when the moment comes to start shooting," Potok said.

In other words, the number of hate groups in the US has little to do with the breadth or depth of the hatred brewing in the US.

"We never had the illusion that counting groups was the best way," Potok added.

That said, the report does identify some important players on the far-right fringe. Four of the new racist groups on the SPLC’s radar for the year rose to prominence essentially as what Potok called "cheerleaders" for the Trump campaign. Two of the newly designated hate groups, the Daily Stormer and the Right Stuff, are basically alt-right blogs and forums. The other two, Identity Evropa, and American Vanguard, look a little more active. They both appear to send members out into the IRL world decked out in the Richard Spencer–influenced dapper Nazi look, talking to college students and flyering neighborhoods with white nationalist propaganda.

Potok also argued that, to some extent, high-profile events like Trump’s political rallies made actual hate group memberships redundant. When there’s plenty of "anti-government vitriol" coming from the mouth of a presidential candidate—who is now the president—why look for a special anti-government club? There’s some historical basis for this: Extremist groups like Arizona’s Minutemen, vigilantes who patrolled the border because they thought the government was being insufficiently tough on undocumented immigrants, declined in numbers as state politicians enacted harsh crackdowns on undocumented immigrants.

Significantly, Potok found a 197 percent increase in the number of anti-Muslim hate groups, from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016. "The most important factor has been Donald Trump and his campaign," Potok argued, and criticized the president for promoting the "entirely false idea that 25 percent of Muslims believe in jihad." (This idea comes from a deeply flawed poll from a hawkish think tank.)

The FBI’s most recent hate crime data comes from 2015, not 2016, but that year—during which Trump called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States"—saw a 67 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes.

But tracking hate groups in the era of the alt-right is tougher than ever. Potok explained that in order to make it into the report, a group has to meet the SPLC hate group criteria, meaning it must "have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics." And there must be a record that the group was active on the ground in the past year, which means doing things like "accepting members and selling literature," Potok told reporters.

But even though new forms of bigotry have been tough to quantify, the report calls 2016, "a banner year for hate."

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