How the Rise of Donald Trump Inspired a Book About the History of the Second Ku Klux Klan

How did the Ku Klux Klan, which hated everything that wasn't white or Protestant, become a force to be reckoned with in 1920's America? And where does this story meet President Trump? Historian Linda Gordon explains

Members of the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan marching on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in 1928.
American National Archives

In “The Questionnaire,” we ask researchers who have published new studies on history that are significant and relevant to current affairs questions about their work.

This time, Liat Kozma and Yael Sternhell had a conversation with Professor Linda Gordon of the New York University’s Department of History, whose book, "The Second Coming of the KKK," was recently released by publishing house Liveright.  

Liat Kozma: First of all, can you briefly summarize your book to an Israeli, non-academic, reader?

The cover of “The Second Coming of the KKK,” by Linda Gordon (Liveright)

The Ku Klux Klan first appeared in the southern U.S. immediately after the Civil War, in 1865.  It was a terrorist group in the explicit sense of terrorism, lynching particular African Americans in order to intimidate all African Americans to maintain white supremacy despite emancipation of slaves. This Klan is well-known and, to most Americans, infamous.  A second Klan arose in 1920 in the northern states, and while it had as many as 5 million members, it is less well known. It accomplished its spread in large part by shifting its target: although it continued to insist on white supremacy, hostility toward African Americans would not have gained traction in the north because very few African Americans lived in the north at the time. So the northern Klan added Catholics and Jews to its hate targets.
By fusing religious with racial bigotry, selling itself as the defender of a threatened Protestantism and thereby building a huge constituency of evangelical Protestants, it became a nationally powerful political force.

This second Klan was mainly, though not completely nonviolent, and its primary strategy was electoral. It preached fear, often through outrageously fake news, that “aliens” were threatening the destiny of America. It could thus position itself as a valiant rescuer, saving America from false gods and reclaiming its destiny as a white Protestant nation.

Catholics, it argued, could not be patriotic Americans because they owed their allegiance to the Pope. Jews could not be patriotic because they were pawns of an international conspiracy, as described in the notorious forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But Klan anti-Semitism is closer to anti-black racism than to anti-Catholicism; Catholics could convert to Protestantism and become true Americans, but Jews and blacks were biologically incapable of patriotism.

Linda Gordon, expert on the Ku Klux Klan.
Shiaku Fokkada

L.K.: How does a historian of welfare, women's history, abortion etc., come to write about the KKK?

This book was originally a chapter in a larger study of social movements in the 20th-century United States. When Trump happened, engendering furious racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, several friends urged me to expand it into a book. I do not mention these contemporary developments in the book, but of course I realize that readers will see contemporary parallels.

L.K.: You define the KKK as the largest social movement of the 1920s. What happens in this period that might explain this revival?

The 1920s KKK arose in part as a response to the massive in-migration of the previous decades, and these migrants were mainly not Protestant.  It was also encouraged by a post-World War I government attack on the Left, as incompatible with American patriotism.

L.K.: How do you explain the scholarly silence regarding this movement?

It may be that the extreme violence of the first KKK eclipsed the second in historical memory. The extraordinary increase in historical scholarship about African Americans has focused a great deal of attention on racism, and other forms of bigotry have been less studied.

More recent social developments have also contributed to the relative invisibility of the 1920s KKK. As Catholics became fully accepted by almost all other Christians, the anti-Catholicism of the past has been widely forgotten.  As to anti-Semitism, the established and conservative Jewish organizations have focused so much on categorizing criticism of Israeli policy as anti-Semitism that they have downplayed or even ignored Right-wing anti-Semitism. This is highly visible, for example, in the fact that right-wing Jews such as Steven Mnuchin, Gary Cohen and Jared Kushner have not only been silent about the anti-Semitism evoked by Trump, but have even become his loyal servants.

L.K.: Would you define the KKK as reflecting a deeper essence of the American psyche?

Second wave Klan members in Colorado, 1921.
Congress Archives

I’m not comfortable with psychologizing historical developments, and besides, I have no psychological expertise. I would instead point to ideologies long embedded in U.S. political culture, such as an individualism undercutting social solidarity. More recent political developments also contribute. For example, the Christian Right’s intense hostility to sex equality and women’s sexual freedom - which has helped to distract its constituency from intensifying inequality - was not produced by its theology as much as by secular Republicans’ exploitation of these issues.

Yael Sternhell: The rise of the Second KKK has been linked to new forms of spectacle, namely the cinema. Are you drawing a similar link between the current trend of popular conservatism and the appearance of reality television and social media?

The second KKK had two adventures with cinema, one successful, one not. The Klan used the infamous, extremely racist film Birth of a Nation as propaganda to build fear and anger. Originally appearing in 1915, the Klan showed the film often as a recruiting tool. Meanwhile the Klan’s all-out attempt to boycott Hollywood, which they labeled a Jewish plot to undermine America’s morality, was a complete failure—the attractions of the movies were irresistible. The Klan even formed a film company of its own, hoping to replace Hollywood’s “immodest” films with “decent” ones, but it too was a complete failure.

Other KKK activities functioned as social media do today. It deployed hundreds of lecturers throughout the country, and they attracted large audiences. Attending lectures was a common leisure activity in these days before film and radio were widespread. Even more important were the Klan’s mass outdoor pageants which attracted tens of thousands and entertained them with games, contests, prizes, performances, band concerts, acrobats performing on airplane wings. These events concluded with dramatic nighttime parades of Klanspeople in full regalia holding torches or burning crosses designed to evoke terror and intimidation, and to make joining the Klan seem a thrilling experience.

Y.S.: You define the Second KKK as a social movement, expanding the meaning of a term that, as you say, has largely been used to define liberal agendas. Is Trumpism also a social movement?

The simplest definition of a social movement is group political activity outside electoral politics or petitioning. There have always been social movements of all political persuasions. 1920s Nazis in Germany included a social movement, offering young men the opportunity to participate in gang-style bullying and assaults on Jews. Trumpism is not exclusively a social movement, as many wealthy traditional conservatives number among his most enthusiastic supporters, but it contains social movements - for example, those of white nationalists, including but not limited to the KKK. They behave in many ways like Nazi stormtrooper gangs. Luckily, thus far these groups are small. But however limited their numbers and their violence, they make their greatest impact through the legitimation of overt, loud racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism. They are not only trying to legitimate bigotry, not only intensifying it through their harangues, but also creating bigotry among people who had not previously been bigots by blaming racial/ethnic/religious minorities for economic problems.

Y.S.: How has the idea of “Americanism” changed (if at all) between the Second KKK era and today?

In branding white Protestants as the only “100% Americans,” the Klan foreshadowed the McCarthyist hysteria of the following decades in which political dissenters were labeled “Un-American.” Today the notion of “true” Americanism lives on, but more often in a racial rather than an ideological “other.” For example people of, say, Asian descent are often called “Asian Americans” or simply “Asians,” while those of, say, Norwegian descent are just called Americans.

Y.S.: The second KKK was not as violent as the first, but it definitely used violence and intimidation to advance its goals. What is the role of violence in today’s cultural and political conflicts? Have other means, like gerrymandering, proven more useful as ways to silence African-Americans, immigrants and liberals?

The second Klan’s approach to violence resembled that of Trump himself, claiming to stay within the law while simultaneously using rhetoric that functions as incitement to violence. Thus far, however, the violence is less threatening to democracy than legal gerrymandering and voter suppression. An example about gerrymandering: In 2012, Republicans won 60 of the 99 seats in the Wisconsin Assembly despite winning only 48.6 percent of the state-wide vote; in 2014, they won 63 of the 99 seats with only 52 percent of the state-wide vote.  As to voter suppression, here is another Wisconsin example: Trump won the state of Wisconsin by 23,000 votes.  But in the heavily African–American city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 41,000 fewer people voted in 2016 than in 2012, and it seems probable that many or even most of those non-voters were prevented from voting by the new requirement of official identification cards. African Americans are 50 percent less likely than whites to have such identification documents, because so many African Americans do not own cars and thus do not have drivers’ licenses, the main form of identification in the U.S.

L.K.: Given the ongoing interest in Israel in the abduction of Yemenite and Mizrahi children in Israel in the 1950s, can you give us some highlights from your book on the Arizona orphan abduction?

There has been a world-wide pattern of more privileged people’s seizing children from the less privileged. Children were taken from American and Canadian Indians, from Australian aboriginal people, from Argentinian opponents of military dictatorships, to name just a few historical episodes. In the courts, the “best interests of the child” concept has often been used to justify these seizures; it is a premise than can justify taking children from the poor and disadvantaged on the grounds that children are always better off with wealthier and whiter parents.

L.K.: What’s your favorite anecdote from the book?

One KKK minister retold the biblical story of Jonah and the whale: Jonah emerged whole not because of a miracle or God’s favor, but because Jews are “indigestible.” The indigestibility is a metaphor for the claim that Jews could never be assimilated.

Linda Gordon is a Professor of History at New York University, winner of two Bancroft Prizes and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her latest book is The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition. Liveright Publishing, 2017.

Yael Sternhell is a senior lecturer in History and American Studies at Tel Aviv University. Her book, Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South, was published by Harvard University Press in 2012.

Liat Kozma is an Associate Professor in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and co-editor of the Social History Workshop.

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