When the Klan Returns

For nearly a century, the 1920s Ku Klux Klan has seemed an exception that proves a rule. Far-right movements typically eschew electoral politics, as earlier and later waves of the Klan also did. But ...

For nearly a century, the 1920s Ku Klux Klan has seemed an exception that proves a rule. Far-right movements typically eschew electoral politics, as earlier and later waves of the Klan also did. But in the 1920s the Klan ran successful candidates for state and local offices. The US far right has generally found its strength in the South, and among those who are politically, socially, and economically marginal. But the 1920s Klan built its center in the North, where it mobilized millions of people, many middle class. Safeguarding (white) masculine privilege has been a hallmark of the American far right. But the 1920s Klan enlisted perhaps as many as a million women. Extraordinarily brutal and visible violence has been characteristic of the US far right. But the 1920s Klan’s reign of terror was less based in physical aggression. Instead, boycotts meant to drive African Americans, Jews, and Catholics out of jobs and communities knit its pressure tactics into the fabric of white, native-born Protestant everyday life.

Although these oddities are striking, it is time to move beyond the story of exceptionalism. With her encyclopedic knowledge of American history, Linda Gordon, in The Second Coming of the KKK, shows how the 1920s Klan fit into the broader currents of political life that existed before it emerged and after it collapsed. Recognizing the continuities between the 1920s Klan and later far-right movements holds valuable lessons for understanding how the latter operate in the United States today.

Take the Klan’s rebirth in the 1920s after lying dormant since the 1870s. To contemporary and later observers alike, the 1920s Klan appeared to burst into public life from nowhere, catching fire in Northern towns and cities that were far from the Southern rural areas where the movement had first taken hold. Most scholars trace its explosive rise to a careful marketing program. The group’s founders, in addition to receiving their cut of Klan dues, also profited from sales of Klan robes and paraphernalia such as “Klan water,” for baptizing recruits into the racist order. The Klan’s marketing strategies not only prefigured the publicity campaigns of later far-right groups, but anticipated modern advertising campaigns for products and candidates. Attributing the Klan’s recruiting success above all to marketing, however, obscures both its influence and its political ancestors, Gordon convincingly shows.

By putting the 1920s Klan in play with other political movements, Gordon inspires reflection about far-right movements more generally. The second Klan grew out of not only the first Klan and nativism but also the more politically heterogeneous movements of temperance, fraternalism, Christian evangelicalism, and populism. Similarly complicated lineages are not uncommon on the modern far right, which draws on contradictory influences, from German World War II–era Nazism and American isolationism to nativism and global pan-Aryanism, from pre-Christian Nordic theologies to atheism. There are parallels too in how the far right today reconfigures the ideologies of other movements to fit its racial narrative.

Recognizing the continuities between the 1920s Klan and later far-right movements holds valuable lessons for understanding how the latter operate in the United States today.

The 1920s Klan drew from temperance by arguing that the ills of alcohol were the fault of Catholic bootleggers. It lured women who had been active in the women’s suffrage movement by heralding the need for white women to vote in their racial interests. Such odd configurations find resonance today in efforts by far-right movements to recruit environmentalists by positioning themselves as guarantors of racial and ecological purity.

Far-right movements, both then and today, are both bigger and smaller than they appear. The 1920s Klan was smaller in the sense that it leaked members almost as fast as it gained them, as joiners were swept into the movement before they realized the group’s full agenda. The Klan was also bigger. Even those who never took part in a Klan meeting or rally played an integral part in advancing its platform, as is the case with social movements of all stripes.

Another aspect of the far right is that membership can move participants up and down the social ladder. That is, being on the far right can be the cause, as well as the result, of one’s class position. Gordon argues, with brilliant insight, that Klan activities ushered members into new and higher class statuses; members became middle class “by being treated as an equal through the brotherhood and sisterhood of local Klan groups.”

This also happens in contemporary far-right groups, although in the opposite direction. As people become immersed in today’s neo-Nazi, skinhead, and Klan groups, they often find themselves unemployable. Racist groups encourage their members to promote aggressive and violent racism in actions and words, as well as on their bodies. Yet, people with visible swastika or Klan tattoos are not likely to be hired. And those who proclaim vile doctrines of racism and anti-Semitism or provoke racial conflicts in their workplaces are not likely to keep their jobs. Over time, racist group members slide down the economic ladder.

Gordon also turns a spotlight on the gendered imaginary of the 1920s Klan. She observes that Klan women “did not need to be vigilantes to like vigilantism.” This is true today, as women in far-right movements simultaneously act as active instigators of extremist agendas and as passive cheerleaders of the ideas and actions of their male comrades. Although men are the vast majority of those prosecuted for far-right violence in the US today, women are major players in recruiting men and organizing them into violent action.

Gordon makes more of the politics of this cultural display than do other scholars. Lavish public spectacles such as stunt airplanes and massive burning crosses were used to attract large audiences for the 1920s Klan, as well to terrorize its targets. She describes Klan members who marched in the formation of a cross as a moving “spatial sculpture,” likening the events to later Soviet and Nazi German military marches. Similar spatial sculptures continue today on a much smaller scale, with elaborately staged cross burnings that position participants according to their rank and status within the movement.

The 1920s Klan was savvy about showmanship in other ways, too, Gordon argues, particularly in broadcasting success even when it eluded them. We will never know the full damage done by boycotts that were launched quietly across networks of Klan members and sympathizers, but, as Gordon argues, it is important to remember that some boycotts fizzled for lack of support. Members did not necessarily follow the Klan’s demand that they avoid Hollywood films or the “immoral” music of jazz and blues. Nor did they always stay away from the stores that the Klan was boycotting, as evidenced in Klan chapters that denounced members who shopped in those places. Nevertheless, even weakly supported boycotts could serve as rallying cries for the organization.

Duplicity extends into claims about the inner workings of the Klan. Klan women leaders wrote often about the powerful impact that women had on the racist order. Indeed, some women’s Klan chapters did act independently of—even in opposition to—the men’s Klan, openly supporting suffrage, limits on the workday for housewives, and paid employment for white women. But, Gordon reminds us, the Klan’s propaganda is a poor indicator of its actual actions. In practice, women’s ability to sway Klan men was likely quite limited; they weren’t even able to persuade Klan brothers to come to their aid to end abuse by white men. Although women’s power was limited, their complicity was central to the Klan’s consolidation of power, as it is for contemporary far-right movements.

Of course, the elephant in the room is Trump. Careful to avoid facile historical analogies, Gordon simply observes that aspects of the 1920s Klan “echo again today.” Yet the echoes are easy to hear. A Trumpian politics of resentment engineered along fractures of race and religion is a continuity hard to ignore. Both the 1920s Klan and many Trump supporters target racial and religious minorities, with Muslims now substituting for Catholics as a mysterious, threatening people beholden to a foreign power (then, the Pope; today, ISIS). Those who are not white, nor of the desired religion, nationality, or sexuality, are described as polluting, as emitting a poison that seeps into the social fabric and must be expelled.

Similar, too, is how racial antipathy can lie dormant in the white population, waiting for awakening and direction. Sleepy small towns in 1920s Indiana that were swept into a racial hysteria over the menace of Catholic schools resemble Trump supporters who become enraged at the thought that Mexicans are surging across the border to inflict mayhem.

Far-right movements, both then and today, are both bigger and smaller than they appear.

Spectacle also runs through both movements. Immense marches then, mass rallies now. A sea of white robes then, MAGA hats now. In both, pumped-up speakers titillate with words generally avoided in polite company. They exaggerate the spectacle: The audience was the biggest ever, the most enthusiastic in history. We are unstoppable. And they lie: We are winning. Our enemies are getting stronger and determined to destroy us.

Far-right movements unite ideology and spectacle in what could be called idea-staging. Ideas are not offered for reflection and discussion, but as weapons of attack. What matters is what ideas do, not what they mean. Elites are enemies, but not always. Bad elites are intellectuals, professionals, cosmopolitan, secular, those who might be expected to support racial tolerance, and those who, it goes unmentioned, include Jews. But not all elites are bad. The 1920s Klan carefully avoided mention of capitalists and industrialists in its sweeping condemnation of elites who oppress white native-born Protestants. Trump denounces the elites of Wall Street, while insuring that they will benefit from his policies.

Righteousness and conspiratorialism work well in idea-staging. They make facts irrelevant, bothersome irritants. No accusation or assertion can be disproved, so proving is rendered pointless. Belief matters, not evidence. Relying on conspiracy, far-right thinking creates its own narrative of reliability based on the absence of evidence. Can’t identify the Jews who are training people of color to fight an apocalyptic war to gain world control? No problem, that just shows the incredible power of Jews to operate invisibly. In this circle of logic, experience and evidence are illusions. Truth rests, instead, in the pronouncements of the powerful leader.

Understanding far-right politics requires looking deeply at its local as well as its national expressions. Again, Gordon does not disappoint. She picks Oregon, both her home state and a Klan stronghold in the 1920s. Readers may be as surprised as I was to learn that through at least the mid-20th century, Oregon was arguably the most racist state outside the South. As a territory, it banned slavery but required all African Americans to leave the state. The state ratified the 14th and 15th Amendments that conveyed voting privileges to black men only in 1959 and 1973, respectively. As in other places, the racial divisions the Klan exploited in Oregon were both national and deeply local. For the broad Klan of the 1920s, blacks, Catholics, and Jews were the enemies, but in Oregon it was the state’s Japanese population that the local Klan proclaimed to be biologically inferior to whites.


Let’s Not Call Them Neo-Nazis

By Peter Kuras

Gordon argues that the Oregon Klan in the 1920s was split between “moderates” and extremists, a characterization that fits much of this Klan. Some members were eager to use violence to ensure white supremacy, others wielded white power through threats and pressure tactics. The idea that there are gradations within the far right might seem unpalatable, but understanding these distinctions offers political and analytical leverage.

Take the modern far right. Its current nature was forged in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, as “moderate” adherents slipped away during the investigation, fearing exposure and prosecution. Groups became smaller but also more dangerous, as those who remained were more committed to violence, and the movement devolved into small, unconnected groups whose activities were difficult for authorities to monitor. It is difficult to think about any aspect of the far right as “moderate.” But far-rightists are not uniformly—and in every moment—committed to the most extreme variants of violence, racism, anti-Semitism, and political insularity. Indeed, it is essential to identify such fractures in the far right in order to aid efforts to undermine far-right groups and persuade its members to leave.

Finally, Gordon shows how the 1920s Klan flowed directly into later far-right movements. The first Klan recruiter, Luther Ivan Powell, arrived in Oregon from California in 1921. He later led the paramilitary Khaki Shirts of America, the group that defined the interwar fascist vanguard. He then joined William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirt fascists in 1933. Such travels among far-right groups usher ideas and tactics across movements that extend to the present day. By reckoning with the many facets of the 1920s Klan, Gordon’s superb book help readers understand not only where today’s far right came from, but to inspire us to think more acutely about its next moves. icon

Featured image: Charles Dana Gibson, Like the Moth, It Works in the Dark (ca. 1923). Library of Congress