As the country continues to reflect on the deadly armed riot at the U.S. Capitol building last week, an event that stirred anger throughout the country and in Congress, it also appeared to highlight an uncomfortable alliance: the relationship between mainstream politics and far-right hate groups.

Several known hate groups and individuals have already been identified as being involved in the Jan. 6 riot, according to multiple media reports. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies have since made dozens of arrests. 

The groups, many of which have come to prominence over the last four years, are just some of the hundreds that operate under the banner of white supremacy, white nationalism, anti-government and anti-LGBTQ, among other causes, according to a database of hate groups managed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.,-based civil-rights organization that monitors and designates hate groups in the U.S.

While some hate groups engage under the auspices of combating election fraud — adding a more respectable veneer to their organizations —  the embrace of conspiracy theories by such high-profile elected officials as President Donald Trump has emboldened many of them to follow through on their agendas, while also serving as conduit for conspiracy and hate, according to experts who spoke to Reckon. 

But who decides which organizations are hate groups and how do they make that determination?

“We look at groups that are focused on people’s immutable characteristics,” said Michael Hayden, a senior investigative reporter, and spokesperson for the SPLC. “Things that you can’t control from birth, like if you have a propensity to be attracted to one sex or the other — that’s beyond your control. If you’re born in another country and immigrated here. You can’t control if you’re born black, for example. So, these things move to the front of the line in terms of hate groups.”

A recent SPLC  report showed an 8% decline in the number of hate groups, down from a record of 1,020 in 2018 to 940 in 2019. However, that decline hasn’t diminished the far-right. The same report shows a 55% increase in white nationalist groups since 2017 and a 43% increase in LGBTQ hate groups since 2019.

Many organizations the SPLC designates hate groups participated in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6.  

They include the Proud Boys, a violent far-right, male only neo-fascist group, which were easy to spot in the crowd, wearing their yellow and black uniforms. You might have also noticed a line of men wearing military fatigues winding their way through crowds as they advanced the Capitol Hill steps. They were identified as the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia group intent on creating civil war in the United States.

Then there was the Last Sons of Liberty, an affiliate of the Boogaloo Bois movement – a loose group of anti-government militants. The Wolverine Watchmen, the group accused of plotting to kidnap The Governor of Michigan, are also associated with the movement.

Individuals from now defunct hate groups also attended, in addition to off-duty law enforcement officers.

But what has made the SPLC’s job more complicated is the overlapping of philosophies inside some groups, where white nationalism has evolved into topics around a variety of other issues, including those with an anti-government focus. 

Groups with a single focus have been around for over 150 years in the United States. The Ku Klux Klan, for example, was established in Tennessee in 1865 as a white supremacist group whose primary target was African Americans. And over the last 100 years, various iterations of the Klan have sprung up but the focus on perpetrating violence against African Americans continued.  

However, that single-issue focus has radically changed in recent years, says Hayden. 

“There has been increasingly a concern about how exactly we can begin to discuss this sort of mutation, this neo-fascist mutation that has spun out of the Trump movement that is really focused on undoing democracy,” he said. “It’s a kind of hard right authoritarian impulse that is not necessarily targeted on any one group but is targeted on our democracy and has certainly made it much more complicated for us, just in terms of how to designate things like, say, Stop the Steal movement.”

The SPLC’s online methodology for designating hate groups is a bit more involved. Much of the data on the existence of the groups comes from citizen reports, law enforcement agencies, field sources, web postings and news reports and includes organizations known to be active in 2019, whether that activity included marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, flyering, publishing literature or criminal acts, among other activities. 

The SPLC only lists groups, not individuals.

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish anti-hate group, has a broader, less defined methodology. That group directs its efforts against any organization whose goals and activities are primarily or substantially based on a “shared antipathy towards people of one or more other different races, religions, ethnicities/nationalities/national origins, genders, and/or sexual identities.

However, given the accessibility of social media and materials supporting hate, the radicalization of individuals has become an important part of how hate manifests, argues Brian Levin, director at the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

“You can get radicalizing information without joining a group at all,” said Levin, whose center does not count or categorize hate groups. “Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people at Mother Emanuel church, didn’t have a lot of peers terrestrially yet still became radicalized. He was simply interested in black on white crime,” he said of the 2015 mass murder of Black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.

“You don’t have to join the Klan to get the books and see the meetings. He just went online, he didn’t have to join the group,” added Levin, who worked for the SPLC from 1995 to 1996. “Structurally, being in a group used to have certain benefits, you could excel, you could advance through the ranks, you could get operational know-how, you could get a tightly wound and refined type of ideology.” 

“But today, you don’t need that. Today, you can be alone,” he added.

Some of Levin’s research appears to concentrate on areas the SPLC are still tussling with: subcultures, movements and the radicalization of the individual. For example, there’s a difference between a group and a movement. The Proud Boys are a group with a structured hierarchy that requires membership, which includes taking an oath, being punched in the face, starting a fight and getting a tattoo. Levin says that some people can be inspired by such groups, and this is known as an informal association.

Informal associations, Levin says, are becoming more popular because of the ease in which information can be accessed.

On the other hand, QAnon is not a group. It’s a movement that embraces conspiracy theories that has no structure or hierarchy. There’s no membership requirement, meeting spaces or hazing. 

“Those people get together online, but it really is a broad movement of ideas and philosophies, mostly conspiracy, and Trump is a cult-like figure to them,” said Levin. “So, what I’m trying to say is the whole notion of, like, a Walmart of hate nicely stacked into groups is a bit more diffuse.”

“What you can do is meet online 24 hours, seven days a week, 365 days. And you can say, ‘I hate Jews, I’m gonna say and do this.’ Then if you feel like it, you can take your ladle to another part of the hate buffet and get some anti-Muslim fruit salad, then you get some militia lettuce. You can pick and choose. Ideologies are complicated and individuals have some of the most radicalized and varied views.”

Questions about how the country got here and why it matters are complicated, according to Hayden, who points to the fading of the red line between the Republican party and far-right groups.

“There used to be strong barriers, or relatively strong barriers in place, between this sort of neo-fascist rhetoric and white supremacist rhetoric and conventional Republican politics,” he said. “There’s just certain things that were not permitted.”  

“What’s changed is that Trump tended to fuel white supremacist and far right extremists on the campaign trail when he first ran for president 2016. And that coalition sort of moved into Republican party politics where they had sort of felt that they had no home before. They were not welcome. That was the first step. And then the second step is that over the course of Trump’s presidency, the sort of Trump bubble stopped caring about those sorts of mainstream safeguards that were there prior to Trump altogether.”