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'Hate in America' documentary debuts as white supremacy spikes

As white supremacy spikes, a new docuseries examines the Southern Poverty Law Center's efforts to fight hate crimes across the country.
\"Hate In America\" Host Tony Harris, Founder, Southern Poverty Law Center Morris Dee, and Intelligence Project Director Heidi Beirich speak during the Discovery Communications TCA Winter 2016, Jan. 7, 2016, Pasadena, Calif. (Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty)
\"Hate In America\" Host Tony Harris, Founder, Southern Poverty Law Center Morris Dee, and Intelligence Project Director Heidi Beirich speak during the Discovery Communications TCA Winter 2016, Jan. 7, 2016, Pasadena, Calif. 

Amid one of the most racially-charged presidential campaigns in recent memory, Investigation Discovery is debuting a new documentary series looking at the Southern Poverty Law Center's efforts to fight violent hate crimes across the country.

"Hate in America," which debuts Feb. 29, digs into the case files of SPLC to look at racially and ethnically-motivated criminals and supremacist groups that not only remain active today, but according to new data, are growing in number in the wake of Barack Obama's election in 2008 as the first black president. The timing of the series couldn't be better as far as Heidi Beirich, the head of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, is concerned.

"Given the vitriol in the presidential campaign and Donald Trump’s front-runner status, it reminds us that this kind of hate can be right in the mainstream," she told MSNBC on Thursday. "White supremacists love Donald Trump ... and they are mobilizing politically."

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White supremacists have been uncharacteristically active in the 2016 GOP primaries. Although unaffiliated with Trump's campaign, hate groups have recorded robocalls on his behalf. Most recently, people in Ku Klux Klan costumes carrying pro-Trump signs were photographed at the Nevada GOP caucuses. Trump himself has twice retweeted an apparent white supremacist, and his campaign has yet to publicly disavow supporters who spout hateful rhetoric. Meanwhile, earlier in this election cycle, Trump’s rivals Sens. Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Rand Paul rejected thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Earl Holt III, the president of Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group.

Beirich believes that the failure of much of the mainstream Republican establishment to purge hatemongers in their midst speaks to the importance of the "Hate in America" series, but also the challenging climate for organizations like hers. Ten years ago, when GOPer George Allen had his infamous "macaca" gaffe, it derailed his campaign and national Republicans distanced themselves from him. But Beirich calls the relative silence of RNC chairman Reince Priebus and other party leaders on Trump's racially-charged language and policies "unheard of in modern politics."

"There is a real constituency is this country this is not comfortable with changing demographics," she said, citing widely reported exit polling data out of South Carolina from the left-leaning Public Policy Polling which showed that an overwhelming majority of Trump voters (70 percent) still support the Confederate flag and a surprising number (31 percent) who allegedly don't disagree with the notion that white people represent a superior race. When the New York Times analyzed YouGov data, it determined that "nearly 20 percent of Mr. Trump’s voters disagreed with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation," the executive order that freed Southern slaves during the Civil War. 

And on Thursday, KKK veteran and white nationalist David Duke urged listeners of his radio program to vote for Trump. “Voting for these people, voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage,” Duke said regarding the candidacies of Cruz and Rubio, who are both Cuban Americans.

According to a new report from the SPLC, first published in the Washington Post, the number of hate groups rose by 14 percent last year and the number of KKK chapters in America more than doubled from 2014 to 2015 to nearly 200. Some critics have taken issue with their methodology, as well as with the decision to count some Christian conservative organizations like the Family Research Council as hate groups, but Beirich argues there's no denying that a racial backlash to Obama's presidency and the gradual browning of America exists and that the backlash has manifested in both hateful political speech and, more disturbingly, violent crime.

Despite the preoccupation with potential acts of terrorism perpetrated by international suspects, the SPLC has long maintained that homegrown domestic threats are far more prevalent. In the past year, the massacre at a black church in Charleston and the attack on a Planned Parenthood in Colorado grabbed headlines, but were more often than not downplayed compared to threats from abroad.

"Unfortunately, our nation has a history of not recognizing the threat of hate groups and other extremists until they have lashed out with deadly violence," the legendary founder of SPLC, Morris Dees, said in a press release promoting the "Hate in America" show.

Beirich believes that "Hate In America' will remind viewers of the serious danger domestic hate groups still present. Although roughly 6,000 hate crimes are reported nationally each year, the SPLC estimates that the actual number is closer to 250,000, especially in light of the fact that many states have neglected to pass protections for LGBT citizens.

Still, despite the seemingly emboldened climate of hate that has in some ways defined the last decade or so, Beirich is still optimistic. When she sees alleged Trump backers clad in KKK outfits, she says "it’s really really upsetting but it’s almost motivating, because I do believe most Americans are disgusted by this."