Donald Trump’s campaign and presidential election have brought racism in America out of the shadows in a manner not seen in decades, with Muslims becoming the top target of attacks and violence, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual survey of domestic hate groups and extremists.
“There’s something going on right now in our country that’s really dramatic,” said Mark Potok, SPLC senior fellow and author of its “Year in Hate” analysis, an annual index of groups promoting ideologies elevating one race above others.
“Just a few weeks ago we had 63 different bomb threats phoned in to various Jewish community centers and synagogues around the country. In the last month or so, we’ve seen two mosques burned to the ground. The one in Victoria, Texas, burned just a couple of hours after the Trump administration announced the executive orders that comprised the so-called Muslim ban. Late last fall, we saw a major plot by three members of a radical anti-government group called the Kansas Security Force, with a subgroup called the Crusaders, who actually plotted to load four different vehicles with high explosives, park them on the four corners of a large apartment complex housing Somali Muslim immigrants in Garden City, Kansas, and to kill them all.”
Potok detailed numerous examples of racist threats, plotting and violence in a two-hour briefing Wednesday. The trends were tied together by a common thread, he said, the modeling and license given by Donald Trump’s campaign and his administration’s early actions against immigrants and Muslims. Potok said America has become a nation where bastions of angry, aggrieved, economically struggling men—usually white—feel freer than they have in decades to lash out at anyone unlike them.
“I think what has happened is that the Trump campaign, in many ways, has kind of ripped the lid off Pandora’s Box, and all of these different kinds of hatreds have escaped, and it’s pretty damn near impossible to get them back into the box,” he said. “One of the things that was most remarkable about the hate crime, the bias incidents we saw immediately after the election, was they targeted virtually every minority out there—Jewish people, immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people, Latinos, and also a non-minority, women. That was quite specific to Trump and his attitudes towards women and the kinds of ideas that he promoted.”
Within 24 hours of Trump’s victory, there was a burst of “celebratory” incidents in which his supporters exulted in preying on others.
“We actually counted 1,094 different hate crimes and lesser bias incidents in just the first 34 days after the election,” Potok said. “That was clearly directly related to the election. First of all, the largest number of these incidents occurred on the day right after the election, and then they decreased after that. And in 37 percent of those incidents, the perpetrators actually named Trump, his slogan, ‘Make America Great,’ or his comments about grabbing women by the genitals. So the Trump phenomenon has really unleashed right-wing hate in the country in a way that is difficult to remember.”
The SPLC has been tracking and documenting domestic right-wing extremist groups for three decades. They define a hate group as any with an ideology that elevates one race above others, and taking a range of public actions to promote that racist view: seeking members, selling or distributing literature, holding rallies, planning and executing threats, and even violent attacks.
The jump from individuals searching online and sympathizing with white supremacist views to lashing out was not a straight or a predictable line, Potok said. Nonetheless, SPLC’s 2016 report found that the greatest increase in attacks were against Muslim-Americans.
“I would say that the most important thing that we saw happening, in terms of the numbers, was the really dramatic expansion in the anti-Muslim sector of the radical right,” he said. “That is where things really seem to be happening. Our anti-Muslim hate group count went up by 197 percent last year, from 34 groups in 2015 to 101 in 2016.”
“The most important factor has been Donald Trump and his campaign," he said, elaborating, "his vilification of Muslims. His description of them as so dangerous that we need to keep them out of the country. His idea that we have to form a registry, a kind of Naziesque registry, in which we are going to put down the names of all Muslim Americans. His proposal to surveil all mosques and on and on and on. Trump, of course, is a man who promoted the idea, the entirely false idea, that 25 percent of American Muslims agree that violence against Americans is justified in the name of jihad, and so on.”
But there are other forms of racism in America and those people who subscribe to it reacted differently to Trump. Many "patriotic" or militia groups became dormant in 2016, SPLC found, with their numbers falling from 998 in 2015 to 623 in 2016. Potok said that was because Trump was “so revered” by the people in these groups that they no longer needed to operate independently and simply joined his campaign. On the other hand, Trump’s white nationalism led other previously shadowy groups to emerge publicly.
“We are also seeing a lot of activity that is not measured in the numbers of hate groups,” he said. “For instance, in the last year, 2016, we counted 117 different instances of the Klan, or a Klan group, leafletting entire communities. This occurred in 26 different states.”
Stepping back from 2016's political rhetoric, Potok said the emergence of the so-called alt-right was nothing but a “rebranding” of white supremacist ideology aimed at luring younger adherents.
“The alternative right is simply a Machiavellian rebranding of what is really white supremacy or white nationalism for the purposes of public relations,” he said. “These are people who generally favor suits and ties over Klan robes and swastika armbands, and there are some kinds of unique traits of the alternative right in that it is a very youth-oriented edge of the white supremacist world. It is very much aimed at young people and colleges, and is very internet savvy by its use of that means. But at the end of the day, the alternative right is fundamentally about the idea that civilization and cultures that are healthy are simply expressions of race—that everything healthy is based on race. In other words, that America, that most of the European countries, are countries that were created by and for white people, and that is the way it ought to stay or the state to which we ought to return.”
This message, which was at the core of Trump’s candidacy and dominates White House policies, is causing real harm, he said, citing one study in which 90 percent of 10,000 K-12 educators said the election had created a negative climate in their schools, and 80 percent of non-white students “had raised fears in serious ways.” Moreover, these beliefs are shared by many in Trump's inner circles.
"I would point out today that we are minus one key anti-Muslim adviser to Donald Trump with the departure of [national security adviser] Michael Flynn," Potok said." But I’d just like to point out that there are quite a few very serious anti-Muslim ideologues left at the heart of the Donald Trump team: Stephen Bannon, his strategic adviser; Steven Miller, another key White House adviser; Kellyanne Conway, who was the person who actually produced the bogus poll claim that 25 percent of American Muslims support jihadist violence; Jeff Sessions, a former senator from Alabama who is now our attorney general; and, of course, Trump himself. It’s hardly like the departure of Michael Flynn is going to mitigate this really terrible onslaught directed at American Muslims.”
Hate Groups Across America
The SPLC map of hate groups shows that no state is immune. Potok said every population has a cohort, and they often arise where economic hardship confronts rapid social change.
“The groups follow population,” he said. “In very, very low population states, like North Dakota, you might have one group. In a very high population site, like California, we’ve got 79. Similarly, in New York State, not exactly the deep South, we’ve got 47. I don’t think it's fair to describe what we are seeing as a southern phenomenon. Or even a coastal, or inner country, non-coastal phenomena. I do think they track fairly closely with some variations as a matter of historical accidents from state to state.”
The expressions of hate and their local faces vary with local culture, Potok said.
“There are different kinds of groups in different places,” he said. “You will not find the black nationalist groups, the black separatists that we list, in the wilds of Montana or Wyoming. They don’t exist there. Those groups are very much urban phenomena and prosper in large cities up and down the East Coast and West Coast. Similarly, you won’t find Klan groups in New York City. Where they’re found is they’re almost invariably very rural and very small towns, and generally towns that are not doing very well financially. Same with militias—those are generally not urban, they’re rural. So there are different kinds of groups. We have a whole neo-confederate movement. These are groups who are located in the south because that’s what they are all about.”
Potok gave the example of the outer suburbs near Los Angeles as being an area where lower-income whites resent an influx of non-whites from that diverse city.
“We’ve seen over the years that you tend to get very high counts of hate crimes in areas, in regions and communities that are changing very rapidly. And especially those communities that have reached a kind of tipping point,” he said. “So you go to a place like the Inland Empire of [Southern] California, an area that was once mainly composed of white suburbs and exurbs of L.A., because there has been a lot of middle-class black migration out of the city and into those areas in the Inland Empire, there’d been a big racial shift and as a result we have seen, over time, an awful lot of racist skinhead groups and an awful lot of anti-black hate crimes. So when you get those kinds of conflicts and very rapid changes happen in a community.”
What is alarming today is how white supremacists are ascendant, Potok said. Contrary to right-wing propagandists’ claims, there is no corollary on the left.
“What was said in the right-wing media about our report was that it was hogwash, that we made stuff up out of whole cloth and in any case we could never prove that it was linked to Trump or the election, and I think that is patently false,” he said. “It was a real wave of incidents that washed across this country in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, and I would describe it as celebratory violence and hatred. A tiny number of those incidents were anti-Trump, came from opponents of Trump. The vast majority came from people how were very pro-Trump, who felt licensed, or given permission, by Donald Trump to say the things that they had been feeling and thinking for some time. They were essentially legitimized.”
“We are talking about false equivalencies,” Potok continued. “I don’t claim that the country never had a radical left that engaged in real violence. Obviously, we did. That was certainly true in the '60s and the early '70s. But the idea that there is a substantial radical left in this country, committing or intending to commit major crimes and major terrorism, is frankly utter hogwash. It’s baloney. It’s simply false. And unfortunately, we have seen on any occasions, under the prior [George W.] Bush administration, top officials of the FBI testifying to Congress that so-called eco-terrorists, groups like the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front, are the most serious domestic terror threat that we face in the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t know how they can justify making a claim like that. It’s ridiculous. To back up what I’m saying, these groups, the ALF and the ELF and like-minded groups, have never killed a single person.”
In contrast, Trump and his base are promoting white supremacy and using the means at their disposal—including presidential decrees—to achieve that end.
“What we are seeing is the rise of right-wing populism,” Potok said. “By that, I mean, in the words of a couple of scholars who came up with a pithy description of what right-wing populism is, that is the ideology that, ‘pits the virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous others, who are depicted as depriving the sovereign people of their prosperity and rights.’ So in other words, it’s the idea, as Trump has said, that there are international bankers and elites who are basically screwing the rest of us, and that we have these kinds of parasitic underclasses who are described variously as Muslims, as immigrants, as black people, as brown people, as LGBT people, as Jews, and so on.”
Potok is under no illusions that the Pandora’s Box of hatred unleashed by Trump is going away any time soon. The percentage of foreign-born people in the country—13.7 percent—is on par with the levels in the decades of the 1910s and 1920s. In 1924, Congress passed a federal immigration law with quotas preventing Europeans fleeing the Nazis from coming to the U.S. A year later, the Ku Klux Klan boasted 4 million members, the largest number ever.
American history doesn’t quite repeat itself, but the SPLC report suggests that the country has entered a dark era, in which white supremacists will keep lashing out, especially as the numbers of whites continue to shrink nationwide in an ever-more diverse overall population.