The aggressiveness and ferocity of white nationalists and the “alt-right” in general is not a new phenomenon in this country.
Some are members of a reviving Ku Klux Klan. Most Americans probably understand the Klan as a southern secret society that arose after the Civil War with one goal: reimposing servitude on African Americans and preventing them from attempting to claim the rights of citizens. In its second coming, in the ’20s, the Ku Klux Klan differed in some ways yet retained a base commonality with its parent: revving up anger and fear that the country was being stolen by the wrong people.
The ’20s Klan claimed from 4 to 6 million members in the northern states (my home town, Portland, Oregon, was one of its strongholds). Not at all secret, it recruited through newspaper ads and elected 16 senators, scores of congressmen (the Klan claimed 75), and 11 governors. It declared itself nonviolent. But while Klan leaders paid lip service to nonviolence, its rhetoric was designed to instill rage and alarm.
Understanding that anti-black racism was not an adequate motivator in the North, where few African Americans lived in the early ’20s, the Klan focused its rage at Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. Understanding the power of fear to motivate that rage, it deployed a barrage of fake news to frighten its constituency.
A few examples of fabrication:
—Catholics and Jews immigrated not to find a better life or to escape from poverty and persecution, but because their overlords sent them to sabotage the nation.
—The pope was building a palace in Washington, D.C., with a throne of pure gold, to prepare for a Vatican takeover of the country. Ninety percent of U.S. police forces were run by Catholics in the service of this takeover.
—The Jews ran Hollywood—guided by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a document forged in Russia that depicted Jews as servants of an international cabal aimed at world control)—in order to undermine the chastity of American girls.
—These false religions, including also the Russian and Greek Orthodoxies, defied Prohibition in order to weaken the American fiber. In the West, Japanese-American farmers aimed to force out “100 percent American” farmers.
Experts then and now typically label the second Klan an example of right-wing populism. But if by populism we mean a movement representing the interests of the “small guy,” “the common man,” then that revived version of the Klan displayed almost nothing that was populist.
The Klan never supported reforms that could benefit the 99 percent, to use a contemporary term. By contrast, the 1890s Populist Party called for a progressive income tax, the secret ballot, direct election of senators, an eight-hour working day, and an end to taxpayer-funded subsidies for private corporations. Like the Populists, the Klan preached that the country had been stolen. But while the Populists blamed the robber barons and monopolists who gouged family farmers, workers, and consumers, the Klan blamed non-Protestants, immigrants, and urban “liberals.”
Today’s media—print, broadcast, and internet—deepens a fissure among Americans, exposing readers largely to what they agree with. The ’20s Klan media worked to do the same. It owned or controlled about 150 magazines or newspapers and several radio stations, the social media of the time. An estimated 40,000 ministers—probably an exaggeration but certainly thousands—preached Klan ideology. If Jesus were still walking the earth, one Klan minister insisted, he’d be a Klansman. The perils of “fake news” and “alternative facts” have a precedent.
Today’s white nationalists and “alt-rightists” differ in some ways, for the better and for the worse. Today the lack of a central organization under an Imperial Wizard might seem to dilute the threat, but decentralization makes it more difficult to restrain them. Some similarities are also striking: As today, some police forces harbored members or sympathizers. While the Klan toned down its anti-Catholicism in the ’30s, it never backed away from its intense anti-Semitism. (As Eric K. Ward of the Southern Poverty Law Center points out, white racism and anti-Semitism continue to be close allies.)
While the very rich were scarce among Klanspeople, many perceived that the Klan represented no challenge to their interests—and actually advanced their interests by keeping discontent aimed at “alien” races, ethnicities, and religions. This reluctance to condemn bigotry is today being repeated in the White House and among Republicans in Congress.
Policies that advantage the 1 percent travel a smoother path when Americans are encouraged to blame people of color, Jews, Muslims, women, and LBGTQ people, instead of those responsible for the loss of jobs, income, and prestige that so many feel. This blaming rhetoric, especially when offered in violent language, has consequences. And when the consequences are ignored or even denied—as when Trump’s former deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka says that white nationalists are not a problem—we are in trouble. (The Hungarian pro-Nazi group Vitézi Rend proudly claims Gorka as a member; if he is, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 should have barred his admission into the U.S.)
Closer to home, it is clear that the distance between Trump and the Ku Klux Klan is shrinking rather than growing. As David Duke, former Imperial Wizard, said just before the Charlottesville rally, “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.”