The number of active hate groups in the U.S. has declined, according an annual count by the Southern Poverty Law Center. But unfortunately – and not surprisingly to anyone who has read the news — it found no accompanying decline in hate and extremism.
Instead the law center, which is based in Montgomery, Ala., said that new white nationalist and neo-Nazi organizations have become more diffuse in their membership.
"The far-right remains highly mobilized and extremely dangerous," with the number of threats from the far-right as high as in the years before the Oklahoma City bombing, says SPLC senior research analyst Cassie Miller.
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security released a bulletin warning of "a heightened threat environment across the United States" from domestic violent extremists.
The number of active hate groups tracked in 2020 by the law center was 838 – a decline of 11% from the previous year. But the SPLC notes that the numbers are still historically high, hovering above 800 for the duration of the Trump presidency. The number of such groups spiked to more than 1,000 after the election of Barack Obama, the country's first black president.
The SPLC defines a hate group as "as an organization or collection of individuals that – based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities – has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics. An organization does not need to have engaged in criminal conduct or have followed their speech with actual unlawful action to be labeled a hate group."
In part, the decline in the number of hate groups can be tied to the decline of the Ku Klux Klan, the SPLC says.
And two other trends impacted the number of hate groups it counted: First was the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant that some groups didn't gather in person and didn't seem to do anything online. And second, more groups have been kicked off of mainstream social media sites, making them more difficult for the SPLC to track.
The law center says that in years past, it found more than 150 active Klan groups. That number has dwindled over time, to 25 such groups in 2020. "A major reason for this is that the Klan's name has become extremely toxic — if you are a Klan member and your employer finds out, for instance, you are all but guaranteed to be fired," the report says.
But there has been no accompanying decline in support for the Klan's ideas. Instead, new far-right hate groups like the Proud Boys have formed. And with the rise of social media, people aren't necessarily becoming official members of groups, but instead are connecting online with others who share their views.
"Many extremist ideologues are not formal members of any organization," the report's authors write. "Online platforms allow individuals to interact with hate and antigovernment groups without joining them, as well as to form connections and talk with likeminded people."
It's common for people to find entry to these groups on Facebook, YouTube, Reddit or Twitter and then move in the far-right extremist ecosystems on those sites and others.
More diffuse structures has benefited hate groups, Miller says, by reducing their liability. When formalized groups are infiltrated by law enforcement or journalists, their internal communications can be leaked and open up the organizers to criminal charges. Extremists can now join Facebook groups and Telegram channels and feel like they are participating in a movement — in the same manner that more formal affiliations offered in the past.
But if extremist gatherings have moved online, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, their violent actions are happening in the physical world.
"Most of the people storming the Capitol building may not be card-carrying members of a hate or antigovernment group, but they harbor extremist beliefs," the report notes.
As an example of trends in far-right extremism, Miller points to the Boogaloo movement. Its far-right adherents are united in their opposition to firearms restrictions, their belief that the U.S. is moving toward a civil war, and that a civil war is necessary to purge the U.S. of tyranny, among other ideas, she says. Men allegedly associated with the movement have been charged with crimes including terrorist plots and murder.
"But are there are very few people — if anyone — who could be considered a leader of the Boogaloo movement," she says. "And there's no real organizational structure outside of a handful of online hubs where people who associate with the movement can gather and network with each other."
Nonetheless, members of the Boogaloo movement were a conspicuous presence in gatherings throughout 2020, including at protests calling for COVID-related reopenings, Black Lives Matter rallies, and Stop the Steal events.
One big worry, says Miller, is that the ideas, language and violence of far-right extremists will continue to seep into the general discourse.
"My concern is that their form of politics, where they use violence and intimidation to silence their political adversaries, is going to continue to be normalized," she says, noting that some Republican elected officials have seemingly endorsed the idea of a civil war, and have used threatening language to talk about even their own colleagues across the aisle. "So these seemingly dangerous ideas have really moved more and more into the mainstream."
The SPLC report makes a number of policy recommendations. Among them is the establishment of offices within DHS, the Department of Justice, and the FBI to monitor, investigate and prosecute cases of domestic terrorism. The report also calls for improved federal hate crime data collection, training and prevention.
The law center also calls for a shift in approach to violent extremism: away from punishment, and toward prevention. It recommends a focus on programs that steer young people away from dangerous ideas, and that such programs be housed at the Departments of Education or Health and Human Services – not DHS.