Why white supremacist terrorism is surging

Right-wing racists are behind a surge in domestic terrorism. Why is this toxic ideology spreading?

The Tree of Life synagogue.
(Image credit: Illustrated | BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Right-wing racists are behind a surge in domestic terrorism. Why is this toxic ideology spreading? Here's everything you need to know:

Is white supremacy on the rise?

This year, there's been a horrifying spate of killings driven by racial and anti-Semitic hate. In February, prosecutors said, a white Coast Guard lieutenant in Maryland stockpiled an arsenal of weapons and researched how to get access to Democratic lawmakers, liberal Supreme Court justices, and TV journalists; the alleged perpetrator had also done an internet search for "white homeland" and "when are whites going to wake up." In April, the 21-year-old son of a deputy sheriff was charged with burning down three black churches in Louisiana. Later that month, a white man shot up a synagogue in Poway, California, after posting a manifesto online that said "Every Jew is responsible for the meticulously planned genocide of the European race." He cited as among his inspirations the white supremacist who in March killed 51 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. President Trump has downplayed white supremacist killing sprees as the work of a few bad apples — "a small group of people." But the FBI says otherwise, announcing last week that it has 850 ongoing investigations into possible domestic terrorists, including both anti-government and white supremacist individuals and groups.

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Is that a big increase?

The number of investigations into white supremacists and nationalists has grown with great "velocity" in recent months, says Michael McGarrity, assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division. Several organizations report surges in hate groups and hate crimes: The Anti-Defamation League says right-wing extremists were behind at least 50 killings last year, the deadliest toll since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The most dangerous domestic terrorist threat today, McGarrity said, is "the lone offender who self-radicalized online [and] has access to a weapon." That also makes it harder to measure the scope of the threat. White supremacists today mostly congregate on obscure web forums, making their identities deliberately hard to trace.

How popular are those sites?

Stormfront.org, founded by a former KKK leader in the 1990s with the motto "White Pride, World Wide," grew to 300,000 members by 2017. Another highly trafficked white supremacist forum, Daily Stormer, was booted from the internet after the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The ban came in response to the site calling the murdered counterprotester Heather Heyer "a fat, childless 32-year-old slut." The "politically incorrect" message board on 4chan is another major hub for far-right-wingers, all done anonymously through posts that quickly disappear. In January 2018, the N-word appeared 115,000 times on 4chan, a fivefold increase since 2015.

Why does racism flourish online?

Feeling safe because of the relative anonymity of the internet, participants — most of them young white men — seek attention by saying shocking things in these online forums. A culture of crude one-upmanship encourages them to talk about rape, racism, and genocide — desensitizing one another to violent ideologies. White nationalists are known to recruit lonely internet gamers and fans of music genres like death metal, by encouraging them to villainize "normies" — or people who buy into social norms. That escalates into violent fantasies about getting even with women who won't date them, and about mass shootings of Jews and nonwhites.

What's their recruitment pitch?

On Twitter, the most popular hashtag among white supremacists is #whitegenocide. This is the conspiracy theory that Jews are plotting the extinction of American white Christians by replacing them with immigrants and refugees. Last October, shortly before killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history — the shooter used a far-right social media platform to vent hatred of "invaders" in migrant caravans, which he blamed on the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. "HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people," the 46-year-old said. "I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. I'm going in." The Poway synagogue shooter said he was inspired by the right-wing forum 8chan. "What I've learned here is priceless," the 19-year-old allegedly wrote hours before his attack. The first commenter encouraged him to "get the high score," as these online extremists describe a mass shooter's kill count.

What is law enforcement doing?

Law enforcement officials say they're underfunded and handcuffed in dealing with this threat. For reasons it has not explained, the Trump administration cut funding for the federal Office for Community Partnerships, which works with local governments and organizations to prevent the radicalization of Muslims and white nationalists, from $21 million in 2016 to less than $3 million in 2017. The Department of Homeland Security has disbanded a group of intelligence analysts who focused on domestic terrorism. Civil rights advocates are calling on Congress to pass a domestic terrorism statute; without one, the white supremacist Coast Guard lieutenant who allegedly was making plans to kill prominent Democrats and media figures could only be charged with illegal firearms possession. "If you're using violence as a way to intimidate or coerce," said Mary McCord, former deputy assistant attorney general for national security, "then that should just be called terrorism. Period."

The social media problem

It's hard to deter a group that thrives on feelings of persecution. After the Daily Stormer was booted by its domain host, it quickly re-emerged under the name

and raised more than $150,000 for a legal defense fund. The site releases image files that can be shared on social media without alerting censors. It's also difficult for companies that run social media sites to differentiate white supremacists from some far-right conservatives; Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), for example, has said, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?" House Republicans took away King's committee assignments after that comment, but he remains in Congress. Facebook declined for years to purge users calling "for an exclusively white state," but reversed course in March and banned "praise, support, and representation of white nationalism and separatism." That's led to accusations of partisan censorship. "This is the United States of America," Trump tweeted, "and we have what's known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH!"

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