The number of hate groups nationwide reached a record high in 2018, driven partly by the persistent growth of white nationalist groups catering to young, college-aged men.
There are currently 1,020 active hate groups in America — up from 954 in 2017, and 917 the previous year, according to an annual tally by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The new, young face of hate emerged from the shadows during the 2016 election and organized through a shared language of memes and under the banner of the “alt-right.” Many hailed then-candidate Donald Trump, with his hard-line views on immigration, as a hero. In celebration of his election, the alt-right’s one-time de facto leader Richard Spencer led a room full of young men in suits to give Nazi salutes.
Since then, Spencer and other prominent actors, entangled in costly lawsuits and tired of being heckled by anti-fascist protesters, have faded into relative obscurity.
At the same time, groups like Identity Evropa — whose khaki-clad members were a formidable presence at the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017— have proliferated and expanded their reach by setting up new chapters across the country. Patriot Front also grew significantly in 2018 after splintering from Vanguard America, the group linked to the 19-year-old neo-Nazi who rammed his car into a crowd of protesters during the Charlottesville rally and killed Heather Heyer.
Both Identity Evropa and Patriot Front actively recruited in 2018, accounting for 583 and 432 flyering incidents, respectively, and nearly 80 percent of all hate group flyering nationwide, on college campuses and beyond, according to the SPLC.
Thomas Rousseau, 20, heads Patriot Front, and Patrick Casey aka Reinhard Wolff, 29, leads Identity Evropa. Both Rousseau and Wolff were determined to rebrand their organizations in the wake of Charlottesville and try to appeal to a more mainstream demographic. Both groups weaponize metaphors to make their white nationalism seem more palatable, like urging followers to stand up for “European heritage,” using Greco-Roman motifs on fliers, or latching onto mainstream conservative issues like immigration.
Identity Evropa, based in Virginia, now has more than 38 chapters nationwide compared with just 15 in 2017, according to SPLC. The group is known for eschewing the swastikas and Confederate flags typical of the far right in favor of a preppy, collegiate look. As many of the key organizers behind the rally turned on one another after Charlottesville, Wolff took over leadership of Identity Evropa and sought to distance the organization from the ugliness of Unite the Right.
Wolff held a Reddit AMA session last summer to talk about Identity Evropa’s ambitions and touched on the question of optics and life for the group after Charlottesville.
“When you think of white nationalists decades ago (e.g., from KKK) you think of ‘white trash,’ dysfunctional and uneducated people from the bottom of society,” one Reddit user said. “Identitarians (or other alt-right groups similar to them) seem to be very middle class, with members that are well-educated, well-spoken, and more respectable. Why do you think this is?”
“It’s mostly a question of aesthetics,” Wolff replied. “The optics you employ will play a defining role in whom you attract.” Another user asked whether Identity Evropa would welcome applications from “a full-blooded Jew who looks white, identifies as white and acts in the interests of other whites.”
“Sorry, but IE is exclusively for white gentiles,” Wolff replied.
Patriot Front, based in Texas, now has chapters in 15 states plus Washington D.C. since it was founded in late 2017. The group dresses its agenda up in Americana and patriotism.
“They’re basically millennial white supremacists,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Center. “About 10 or 12 years ago, I thought this movement might be dying out. A lot of leaders from prior years were dying off, and their ranks weren’t necessarily being replenished. That’s absolutely changed with the rise of the alt-right.”
While the alt-right continues to grow, old-school white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan are fading away, its ranks plummeting in numbers. The SPLC counted just 51 KKK chapters last year, down from 72 in 2017 and 130 in 2016. Former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke has been an outspoken supporter of the president, but during the campaign, Trump explicitly disavowed Duke’s support after he was repeatedly pressed during interviews.
On a press call Tuesday, Beirich noted that the 2016 election and the 2018 midterms revealed a pattern: Both political periods correlated with a higher rate of white supremacist violence or activity. In the weeks leading up to the midterms, for example, the “Proud Boys,” a far-right, nationalist gang, brawled with anti-fascist protesters in New York City; a white man shot and killed two black people at a supermarket in Kentucky; a MAGA-obsessed Trump supporter waged a weeklong package-bomb campaign against the president’s biggest critics; and an anti-Semite opened fire on a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
With 2020 campaigns already underway and the jump in far-right groups this year, Beirich anticipates further violent expressions of political anxieties in the year to come.
Cover image: Alt-right group members, extreme right activists, Trump supporters and white supremacists rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., June 25, 2017, "to reaffirm a commitment to the basic necessity of Freedom of Speech in civil society." (Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)