Hate groups on the rise, new count finds

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The number of radical hate groups rose significantly last year in what civil rights advocates described as a nearly unprecedented increase spurred by sharper political rhetoric and the growth of the Internet.

There were 14 percent more hate groups in 2015 than in 2014, according to a new annual count released Wednesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The number anti-government “Patriot” groups, which were considered in a different category, also rose by 14 percent.

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“All in all, I think last year is best described as a year that very nearly approaches the political upheavals of 1968 — a time of real trial for this country,” Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and editor of its report, told reporters during a conference call. 

“Last year was a very dramatic year marked by very high levels of political violence, enormous rage in the electorate, the growth of hate groups and also hate speech in mainstream politics to an extent we have not seen in decades.”

Potok attributed the rise of hate groups to a combination of factors including the prevalence of conspiracy theories in mainstream outlets, fears about immigration, financial frustration among white working-class Americans and new attention on police violence against young black men.

Harsh rhetoric from prominent politicians is also to blame, Potok said, pointing to extreme talk from leading presidential candidates such as real estate mogul Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFat Joe on Trump: 'We can’t have that guy in office’ Kristol fires back at 'roaring jackass' Trump Adelson aides in talks to make pro-Trump super PAC MORE and Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzGOP senators move to keep women out of military draft GOP senators shoot down Cruz’s aid on campaign trail Rankings: Trump’s top 10 VP picks MORE (R-Texas).

Trump’s pledge to bar Muslims from entering the United States, along with comments from other politicians aimed at immigrants and Muslims, “may be the most remarkable aspects of what happened in the last year,” Potok said.

The civil rights group noted that two types of groups in particular grew at a rapid pace last year: organizations connected to the Ku Klux Klan and so-called black separatist activists, also known as black supremacists.

Two national trends also spurred on followers of those radical ideologies, the group said: controversy over the Confederate battle flag after it was linked to the killing of nine people at a historic African-American church in South Carolina and heightened scrutiny of police violence against young black men.

Potok warned that the number of people growing radicalized online, apart from organized groups, may paint an even more troubling picture.

“Over the last two or three years, we’ve seen increasing movement of white supremacists and others on the right into cyberspace,” he said.

Dylann Storm Roof, the suspect in the South Carolina church attack, may be “the very best example of that,” Potok added, but he is not the only one.