In the Shadow of the Klan
We’ve been here before.
Hatred and fear of immigrants. Hyper-patriotism. Nativism. Christian evangelism. White supremacy. Book banning. Struggles to control school curricula. Hostility to science and intellectuals. Tolerance of bigotry and violent rhetoric.
Linda Gordon in her book, The Second Coming of the Ku Klux Klan, warns us: “The Klannish spirit — fearful, angry, gullible to sensationalist falsehoods, in thrall to dangerous leaders and abusive language, hostile to science and intellectuals, committed to the dream that everyone can be a success in business
if they only try — lives on.”
In the early 1920s, the post-Civil War Reconstruction era Ku Klux Klan rebranded itself. No longer was it merely a band of Southern men intent on intimidating African Americans, so that they would be unable to exercise newly acquired rights.
The new Klan sought to gain both a broader membership and respectability in the North and West by adding to its agenda anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and racism directed against Asians and Mexicans, as well as African Americans.
They attempted to take over local governing structures: from school boards to state legislatures, by attracting the insecure — small business owners, skilled workers — anyone who felt challenged by the increasing diversity of the early 20th century America. Just as right-wing followers of Trump, threatened by non-white and immigrant groups, have been doing over the last few years, the Klan succeeded in promoting candidates loyal to them.
The 1920s the Klan not only recruited men. Much like fascists in Europe, they targeted women and youth. Initially playing a supportive role as organizers, women began to exercise their newly acquired political rights, supporting Klan approved candidates and goals, at the same time leveraging their prestige as mothers to promote their evangelical Christian views.
And just as contemporary right-wing Republicans attempt to impose their narrow morality on issues like abortion, so the 1920s Klan enforced Prohibition and tried to suppress any aspect of popular culture they saw as violating their own moral precepts. In addition, they were enthusiastic supporters of eugenics laws that sought to prevent those they deemed “unfit” to have children, which — like abortion laws — took away the individual’s legal right to control their own bodies.
It’s easy to dismiss the anger and resentment evident now among Trump supporters who insist he is being victimized by Democrats intent on prosecuting the January 6 attack on the Capitol and the transfer of classified government documents to Mar-e-Lago.
And it would be comforting to conclude that the present manifestation of intolerance among Trump loyalists will fade away as did the Klan by the late 1920s and early 1930s.
But will it?
Climate-driven migrations and wars will not disappear in the near future.
Rather than collective solutions, it seems easier for the “deplorables” Hillary Clinton once warned us about to imagine a dictator imposing order upon the intractable issues we face, to solve our global as well as regional problems with an imperious nod.
A dangerous delusion.
Still, the phenomenon of the Klan offers not only parallels to contemporary right wing movements, but lessons we can learn. By analyzing and comparing their strategies, perhaps we can finds ways to anticipate and counter them.
Can we, at last, learn from history?