In the aftermath of the tumultuous 2016 election, some Americans have become obsessed with debunking the “alt-right” — a fringe white nationalist movement that frequently espouses racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and sexist ideologies.
Though major media organizations have struggled to define the movement, the alt-right presents very little that is new: As Vox’s Jenée Desmond-Harris writes, it champions an amalgamation of various age-old positions held by white supremacist groups, and is merely marketed in a “more palatable” way.
But what are these white supremacist groups it draws from? What exactly are the distinctions among them? And which elements has the alt-right adopted from each?
What are the white supremacist factions in America?
A hate group is a faction that attacks or vilifies a sector of people based on immutable characteristics: things like race, sexual orientation, and gender.
In an extensive 2015 analysis, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) determined that 892 hate groups exist in America. Of these groups, 528 — or roughly 60 percent — subscribe to white supremacist ideologies.
“White supremacy” is a very broad term, referring to the racist ideology that whites are superior to nonwhites and should maintain political, economic, and social authority.
But under that umbrella, there are a number of factions, each slightly different in its set of beliefs. Specifically, SPLC breaks down America’s white supremacists into six subgroups: the Ku Klux Klan, white nationalists, racist skinheads, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and followers of Christian Identity.
Each of these groups is divided yet further into hundreds of regional chapters with ideologies that vary in scope and extremity. But each has a defining, core set of principles its followers tend to subscribe to:
- Historically, the Ku Klux Klan’s primary victims have been black Americans — though the group has also espoused strong anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-LGBTQ sentiments.
- Neo-Nazi groups are characterized by an idolization of Nazi Germany and a particular hatred of Jews. Racial minorities, LGBTQ people, and immigrants are also frequent targets. According to the SPLC, neo-Nazis “trace social problems to a Jewish conspiracy that supposedly controls governments, financial institutions, and the media.”
- White nationalism is the broadest category on this list, and many other groups (including racist skinheads, neo-Confederates, and neo-Nazis) might be characterized as such. Its ideology is defined by white separatism (a movement that seeks to economically and politically distinguish white people from the rest of society) coupled with the belief that nonwhites are mentally, physically, and morally inferior.
- Racist skinheads (not to be confused with non-racist skinheads) are largely migratory (meaning they are typically not associated with any one group) and espouse hatred toward racial minorities, immigrants, and, increasingly, the LBGTQ community.
- The Christian Identity ideology contends that whites — not Jews — are the true Israelites God favors in the Bible. In Christian Identity literature, Jews are frequently depicted as satanic and soulless. But what began as a strictly anti-Semitic platform has since expanded to incorporate beliefs from the KKK, neo-Nazis, and anti-immigrant militia groups. (It’s important to note that Christian Identity is almost entirely removed from mainstream Christianity.)
- Neo-Confederates romanticize pre–Civil War America and yearn to reanimate the racist aspects of the antebellum South (slavery, segregation, voting laws). They favor white separatism and contend that people of color — primarily black people — are inferior and mentally deficient to whites.
Where are these hate groups located?
The majority of these white supremacist hate groups are congregated along America’s coasts, in populous areas where people of different races and cultures coexist.
Here’s where hate groups operated in 2015:
Roughly 80 percent of all groups are in the South — specifically in ex-Confederate states that opposed the abolition of slavery.
The oldest groups have stayed central to their places of origin. For example, the KKK, formed in 1865 by six Confederate veterans from Tennessee, remains largely rooted in Deep South states. This also hold true for the neo-Confederate movement, which began to form its foundational belief system at the turn of the 20th century.
Broader groups — such as those categorized as white nationalist or neo-Nazi — tend to be more spread out.
Traditional hate groups are deceptively on the decline
Since 2000, most of these white supremacist groups have seen a significant fluctuation in size. With the exception of the KKK, which has thrived on legacy membership, all of these groups have experienced a decline in recent years.
Here’s that same area chart from the beginning of this article, broken down group by group:
According to Ryan Lenz, the editor of SPLC’s Hatewatch, this decline isn’t something to celebrate, but rather just an indication that an increasing number of would-be hate group members are becoming “lone wolf actors” — people who share an ideology but don’t formally join a group.
“There is a social stigma attached with hate groups,” says Lenz. “In recent years, people join forums online and find confirmation of their beliefs without joining a group. And now, with Trump [and his recent appointment of Steve Bannon, the head honcho of the alt-right website Breitbart], they can find it in mainstream politics too.”
The decline in traditional hate groups here may be, in part, a result of the alt-right movement’s growth. Ignited in 2010 with the creation of Richard Spencer’s Alternative Right blog, the alt-right has offered a community that both confirms its members’ beliefs and offers full anonymity.
Hate groups aren’t truly declining — they’re just becoming more covert and secretive.
There is little variation in white supremacist hate group ideologies
As much as the alt-right differs from traditional white supremacist groups organizationally, there is little difference when it comes to ideology.
The alt-right has benefited from a successful, ongoing public relations effort to rebrand various white supremacist and racist ideologies and graft them onto mainstream politics. But when compared side by side with other groups, the alt-right’s platform appears to just be age-old white supremacy served in a more palatable course.
With the help of SPLC, we gleaned each white supremacist group’s stated beliefs from public mission statements and literature, and gauged them against those of the alt-right. Note that these views reflect what leadership has expressed and may not represent the views of all members. (It is likely that many KKK members are sexist, for instance — but anti-feminism is not explicitly addressed in their ideology.)
Looking at this matrix, it is clear that the alt-right movement is heavily aligned with the ideological guidelines of its predecessors, with the addition of flagrant anti-feminism. The alt-right does not explicitly crusade against LGBTQ people (one of its quasi-leaders, Milo Yiannopoulos, is openly gay himself), but its members frequently target the gay community.
But it’s not as simple as the alt-right meshing together beliefs from other white supremacist groups. The success of the new movement has also left other hate groups like the neo-Confederates clamoring to be grouped in under the seemingly more inviting alt-right umbrella.
Ultimately, this has resulted in what the SPLC’s Lenz calls a “cross-pollination of ideologies” among groups.
“Ideas on the radical right have come together to create this maelstrom that ultimately has left little line for designation between ideologies,” he says. “They all bleed into one another and feed off each other. And that’s a very dangerous thing.”