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Who's to Blame for the Rise of Hate Groups? Donald Trump, for One

A new report reveals that right-wing extremism is on the rise in the U.S., with no thanks to Trump.
Donald Trump campaigns in South Carolina ahead of the state's primary. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Donald Trump campaigns in South Carolina ahead of the state's primary. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

America had an especially bloody 2015. In May, two gunmen opened fire on a "Draw Muhammad" contest in Garland, Texas. In June, white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine parishioners at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. In December, an anti-abortion fanatic killed three people at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic; just a few days later, two Islamic radicals murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, California.

What distinguishes these murders from the year's multitude of mass killings is that they're symptoms of an uptick in extremism, according to a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC's analysis found that the number of hate groups and anti-government "patriot" groups in the United States both grew by 14 percent between 2014 and 2015: Hate groups increased from 784 groups to 892 last year, while patriot groups grew from 874 to 998.

The SPLC sees a very clear cause for this jump in ideological extremism: in large part, the rhetoric of the 2016 presidential candidates. "After seeing the bloodshed that defined 2015, our politicians should have worked to defuse this anger and bring us together as a nation," Mark Potok, editor of the report, wrote. "Unfortunately, the carnage did little to dissuade some political figures from spouting incendiary rhetoric about minorities. In fact, they frequently exploited the anger and polarization across the country for political gain."

The number of hate groups and anti-government "patriot" groups in the United States both grew by 14 percent between 2014 and 2015.

This is very clearly targeted at Donald Trump, who has made xenophobic, nativist language the center of his White House bid. And that language has had very real, very troubling effects. In August, two Boston men who severely beat a Hispanic man said they were inspired by Trump's earlier condemnation of South American immigrants as murderers and rapists. (It was the Washington Post's Janell Ross who observed the connection between the man who threatened to blow up a mosque in Virginia and Trump's subsequent doubling down on his platform to ban all Muslim immigrants from entering into the U.S.)

Of course, the American public was primed for Islamophobia in the aftermath of the deadly Paris terror attacks in November—hate crimes were down nationally in 2015, except against Muslims—but it's the Trump era of political rhetoric that's helped fan the flames of America's anxiety. A charismatic leader like Trump is able to conjure up the specter of the dangerous outsider in order to push conservative Americans into a nervous breakdown. It's the same trend ostensibly at work that triggered a spike in gun and ammo purchases (and patriot groups) when Barack Obama came into office. And the SPLC report suggests—anecdotally—that the activities of hate groups of self-proclaimed patriots are on the rise as a direct consequence.

This is a hefty allegation—and, on paper, a seemingly true one, given the laundry list of examples of post-Trump hate crimes. What's noteworthy about Trump's political rhetoric is that it's focused on revenge. Revenge against Mexicans for apparently selling drugs and murdering people; revenge against African Americans for their apparent racial entitlement; revenge against the media for spinning lies; revenge against the establishment for not taking him seriously enough.

Revenge matters, because it's one of the only forms of political propaganda that's statistically shown to incite violence. That's the conclusion of psychological and physiological studies conducted by John Hopkins' Institute for Advances Studies in 2015, in which more than 400 participants were shown propaganda speeches and asked questions about their empathy for (and violent impulses toward) the in-group and the out-group:

Only revenge speech increased overall negative attitudes toward the out-group. Significantly, only the speeches that called for revenge and that referenced past atrocities led the participants to morally justify violence. Not only did revenge speech increase moral justifications of violence, but it also consolidated in-group identity to the same extent as highly nationalistic rhetoric. We theorize that revenge speech disposes people to view the opposing group as lacking in any moral capacity, i.e., no longer made up of cognizant individuals capable of moral thought.... At the personality level, those who believe the world is not a just place, are more politically conservative, and engage more in violent media are more predisposed to justify violence.

This narrative of revenge may help explain the psychological connection between Trump's rhetoric and more organized hate groups. As I've written before, America's vigilante tradition is deeply rooted in revenge, against outlaws who inject economic or political instability into a community, or against out-groups who threaten the prevailing social order. Psychologically, it's marginalization and victimization, two hallmarks of so-called supremacy groups, that can push the politically anxious to violence. And it's middle- and lower-class white Americans, left in a state of socioeconomic free fall as the diversifying electorate and decline of manufacturing leave them behind, who are most susceptible to this brand of anxiety, and therefore more likely to find solace in other ideological extremists.

It might be too much to suggest that Trump's campaign speeches are the equivalent of hate speech; after all, there's a big (legal) difference between saying something hateful about a group and actually advocating for violence against that group. Trump has yet to deliberately, explicitly incite violence against someone based on their racial or ethnic background. Hate speech is still free speech under our First Amendment, but the rise in hate groups and longevity of hate crimes against Muslims may force Americans to finally reckon with Trump's particular brand of rhetoric.