The number of hate and extremist groups declined last year, but that doesn’t mean the threat from these groups is diminishing.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual report “The Year in Hate and Extremism” counted 838 active hate groups in 2020, an 11% decline from the previous year. Despite a decrease in the number of hate groups, the report notes that overall they are still at “historic highs.”
“In 2015, the numbers jumped from 784 to 892, and they have remained well above 800 for the duration of the Trump presidency,” the report reads.
Hate groups have a presence in every state in the Mountain West with Colorado registering the highest number. SPLC counts 17 hate groups in the Centennial State that range from neo-Nazis to groups that target Muslims and LGBTQ people. Montana, meanwhile, has the highest rate per capita of hate groups in the region.
Susan Corke, director of Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, said threats are on the rise from these groups due to “a diffused landscape.”
Corke noted several factors at play.
For one, the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way extremist groups organize and recruit. Corke says it kept people inside and many in turn were radicalized in the darker corners of the internet.
Groups in the Mountain West, though, had some galvanizing moments away from computer screens. Corke said they “really became animated” by state health orders and mask mandates meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.
For example, back in December, Idaho official Diana Lachiondo left a government meeting in tears after anti-mask protesters surrounded her home while her 12-year-old son was there alone.
Corke said “interlocking ideologies” of different groups have also deemphasized the need for extremists to associate with one particular group. Instead, many were energized around broader efforts such as the anti-Democratic “Stop the Steal” protests meant to overturn a free and fair election.
SPLC’s recent polling cited in the report offers another window into the way racist ideologies are proliferating across the nation.
In one such poll from August 2020, 29% of people surveyed said they personally know someone who believes that white people are the superior race. And while 65% of respondents said they believe racism is real and harmful, 49% percent believe that people of color are more likely to be poor because of a lack of work ethic, the report reads.
SPLC’s report notes that racist attitudes and beliefs were reinvigorated “thanks to one of the most enduring and pernicious legacies of the Trump era: the far right’s success constructing a false alternative reality, bolstered by a never-ending stream of baseless conspiracy theories and disinformation.”
Corke says former President Donald Trump energized extremist groups and helped normalize fringe political views. We’re now seeing that legacy, she says, with people like Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert. The freshman lawmaker is in a photo and video with people who appear to be Three Percenters, an anti-government movement.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.