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.
“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 TrumpTrump: I was 'psyched to terminate' NAFTA Trump: 'Major, major' conflict with North Korea possible Cohn: People 'wasting time' calling for Trump's tax returns MORE and Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzNet neutrality fight descends into trench warfare Secret Service: No guns at Trump NRA speech Cruz: Breaking up 9th Circuit Court ‘a possibility’ 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.