The United States experienced yet another rise in hate groups in 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports, aligning with a mostly-steady 30-year uptick in domestic extremism.
But today's most prominent racists don suits, not white robes.
The number of Ku Klux Klan chapters across the country declined 32 percent from the previous year, dropping from 190 groups in 2015 to 130, with Klan activity largely limited to anonymous leafleting, according to the SPLC quarterly Intelligence Report published Wednesday. Meanwhile, a newer, less overt brand of white supremacy, espoused by well-dressed, college-educated leaders and spread through think tanks and nonprofit organizations, found media fame at the forefront of the burgeoning "alt-right" white nationalist movement.
The rise of this new breed of more subtle hate groups – whose ascension is described by Mark Potok, senior fellow at the SPLC and author of the report, as "a recent rebranding of white supremacy for public relations purposes, albeit one that de-emphasizes Klan robes and Nazi symbols in favor of a more 'intellectual' approach" – poses unique challenges to those seeking to combat the spread of white supremacist ideology into the mainstream political landscape, experts say.
"[R]esurgent hate groups ... have long been marked by leaders' efforts to 'rebrand' as respectable and serious," says David Cunningham, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "In that sense, the current move toward a think tank model mirrors David Duke's efforts to re-make the KKK in the 1970s as a pseudo-mainstream political movement, emphasizing three-piece suits over robes and hoods."
But, he adds, "what makes this moment unique is the very real sense that such efforts can win the day in the age of Breitbart and the alt-right. Armed with ideas that resonate with presidential positions, and in a climate that legitimizes 'alternative facts,' these groups feel they can gain further influence by adopting personas that mirror those of mainstream policy institutions."
Much of the challenge, observers say, lies in the relative difficulty of delegitimizing groups such as the National Policy Institute, a Virginia-based think tank "dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world."
The Ku Klux Klan's "sordid history," oftentimes "imprudent" rhetoric, and associations with violence make it "very easy to delegitimize," notes George Michael, a criminal justice professor at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. In contrast, he continues, it's "more difficult to delegitimize a group like the National Policy Institute, because it has a regular name and sounds like a legitimate think tank."
The rhetoric of figures like Richard Spencer, head of the National Policy Institute and coiner of the term "alt-right," is also typically more palatable to the undiscerning ear than that of KKK leaders, Professor Michael tells the Monitor in an interview, making them "far more effective" at spreading their message to a mainstream audience.
"The literature they put out, the information they put out, is a lot more persuasive than the kind of crude propaganda coming out from the KKK," he says. "There are a lot of people who like the kind of in-your-face racism, but a lot of young college-educated people are moving away from that and would find groups like the National Policy Institute more attractive."
The "intellectual" approach typically involves not just a change in presentation, but subtle shifts in ideology as well, experts say. One example is a growing emphasis on white nationalism – the school of thought that promotes separatism among different races for the sake of preserving a white national identity – rather than white supremacy, which calls for white dominance over other races.
"Rebranding is key to being able to have an extremist message play in the mainstream," says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, in a phone interview. "And overt Nazi symbology and obvious references to supremacy do not play as well as a slightly shifted message that concentrates on protecting national security and preserving Western civilization. But they're the same racist cornflakes, just in a different box."
In November, Spencer and other adherents to white nationalist ideology saw new hope for their cause to enter the mainstream political sphere when President Trump named Steve Bannon, former head of conservative Breitbart News, as his chief strategist. Mr. Bannon "began to infuse the Trump campaign with many [alt-right] themes" after officially joining the campaign in August, Nicole Hemmer, the author of "Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics," told the Monitor at the time. "Now, he sits at the right-hand of the president, and many alt-righters believe that it is the dawn of a new era of white nationalism."
In late November, Trump disavowed the alt-right and defended Bannon to reporters and editors at a meeting at the New York Times, saying that he's known him for "a long time" and that the allegations of anti-Semitism and connections to the alt-right are "not him."
"If I thought he was racist, or 'alt-right' ... I wouldn't even think about hiring him," Trump said.
The White House presence of Bannon, who is credited with transforming Breitbart from a conventionally conservative news site into what he himself has described as a "platform for the alt-right," may add to the difficulty of delegitimizing organizations like the National Policy Institute, notes Professor Michael.
Still, he and other experts say, there are ways to keep the spread of "intellectual" racism in check.
In times like this, the media can play a "key role" in holding white supremacist groups accountable, Professor Cunningham says.
"Despite the Trump administration's willingness to dismiss science and data-driven policy, empirical evidence still holds sway with much of the populace," he writes in an email to the Monitor. "Continuing to push back against 'alternative facts' with actual ones remains the best way to erode any credibility that these hate groups seek to win in the current political climate."
It's also crucial, Mr. Levin says, that Americans dig below the polished surface of benign-sounding organizations and recognize the ideology for what it is – and then denounce it as such. Labels, he tells the Monitor, can go a long way.
"The key with groups like the National Policy Institute or Identity Evropa is simply truth in labeling," he says. "Put a magnifying glass onto that ingredient list and you’ll see that it’s full of toxins that have no place in the body politic."