Trump's Rise Signals the Renaissance of the Ku Klux Klan

White supremacists' support for a leading mainstream presidential candidate is unprecedented, an American scholar says.

A Ku Klux Klan rally in South Carolina, July 2015.
AFP

Since former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke declared his support for Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential race, Trump has spent the past month or so trying – without any real success – to distance himself from any connection to the white supremacist organization.

However, Prof. Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at the California State University, San Bernardino, says Duke’s announcement is just the tip of the iceberg of the support for Trump within the racist organization. “We are seeing a large number of Klansmen supporting a mainstream candidate, something that has just not happened previously,” Levin tells Haaretz.

“We are seeing a galvanization of support for a mainstream candidate. In three decades,” says Levin, “I can’t remember this kind of support gravitating toward one candidate, except perhaps George Wallace, maybe Pat Buchanan. But none of them was a leading candidate in his party.” Levin adds that while Trump has been on the rise, the KKK has also enjoyed a renaissance of sorts this past year.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the leading organizations for tracking the activities of hate groups, warned last month that the number of KKK chapters in the United States had grown significantly in 2015, from 72 to 190; it also estimated that the number of Klansmen is now between some 5,000 to 8,000.

The organization has also been spotted in areas where it had not been witnessed for many years. Levin, who has studied the group for 30 years, was surprised to hear last month that the KKK was planning a rally in California – a state where the white robes and hoods have not been seen in a long time.

But even though the group’s activities are on the rise, the number of KKK members at the actual rally was less than the number of protesters demonstrating against them. When they appeared, the Klansmen were attacked by protesters, and Levin himself was forced to protect one of the extremists. “You know you’ve fallen on hard times when you need a Jewish man as your wingman,” Levin laughs.

He says that although the support for a leading mainstream presidential candidate by groups such as the KKK has historic importance and mustn’t be ignored, the immediate danger actually comes from other, more powerful organizations. In California, for example, the real danger comes from white supremacists, neo-Nazis and others who are unaffiliated but with similar beliefs, Levin explains.

“I want to put this in perspective: there are more rotary dial phones in the United States than Klan members. We have much more danger from unaffiliated haters, skinheads, and neo-Nazi and white supremacist criminal syndicates” says Levin, noting that these groups are smart enough not to have rallies.

Donald Trump speaking at the rally in Bethpage, Long Island, April 6, 2016.
AP

At a time when the KKK and its support for Trump is attracting headlines, it is important also to examine the Republican candidate’s influence on other hate groups in the United States – those who don’t shield their delight that the New York billionaire has made statements against minorities part of the mainstream political discourse.

The Daily Stormer, the leading neo-Nazi website in America, has been calling Trump the “Glorious Leader” for weeks. And members of other racist groups have also begun appearing at Trump campaign rallies. James Edwards, whose far-right Political Cesspool radio program hosts such groups as skinheads, neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, broadcast live from various Trump events in Memphis, Tennessee (which is also Edwards’ hometown).

“There is not a candidate today that has more unambiguous support from white nationalists and neo-Nazis than Donald Trump: Klan folks, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the Daily Stormers,” warns Levin. “When you have prominent ‘White power!’ chants at your rallies, or white supremacists showing up at your rallies and manhandling people, that’s something. I’m not saying Trump is a white supremacist; I’m saying he is transmitting a message that appeals to them.”

Experts are concerned that Trump’s primary victories may encourage aggressive behavior from these groups, or individual supporters, who may decide to take the law into their own hands and deal with the “rapists, animals and terrorists” that Trump refers to in his speeches. But it’s hard to prove a direct link between hate crimes and the Trump campaign, particularly because of a lack of reporting, says Levin.

Felipe Huicochea, an activist with the Hacktiva and Latino Vote organizations fighting for the rights of Latino immigrants in Texas, says he’s worried about racist attacks. Dallas was always fertile ground for hate groups, and racist organizations have recently begun acting with greater courage than before, Huicochea notes. He believes that with people seeing Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz on television expressing racist opinions and grabbing votes, such extremist behavior has somehow become acceptable. “We see incidents all across Texas – in Irving, Texas, for example, we have seen people carrying guns outside of a mosque. It’s concerning, and recently it has become more extreme,” says Huicochea.

Demonstration of devotion

Thousands of New Yorkers demonstrated their devotion to Trump this week when they waited for hours in the freezing cold, in order to get into a rally for the Republican candidate in Bethpage, Long Island. The line of buses waiting to get in stretched out for a kilometer.

In his speech in front of more than 10,000 supporters on Wednesday, Trump explained to the enthusiastic crowd that he was one of the few who had recognized the danger of Osama bin Laden even before 9/11. He then recites the lyrics from a 1968 soul song by Al Wilson, called “The Snake.” The song’s lyrics concern a “tender-hearted woman” who takes in a “poor, half-frozen snake” and saves his life – and he repays her kindness by biting and killing her.

People protesting against Donald Trump at Bethpage, Long Island, April 6, 2016.
AP

“‘Oh shut up, silly woman,’ said the reptile with a grin / ‘You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in,’” Trump told the assembled crowd, delivering his metaphor for Syrian refugees in particular, and illegal immigrants in general.

Some of the anti-Trump protesters, who had arrived early, began to disperse when they saw the organization of the pro-Trump camp – who were mostly white men, many of whom drank alcohol while waiting to enter the event. “It started to flare up, a little too much in our opinion,” said one of the organizers of the anti-Trump protest.

However, hundreds remained to protest in a special area that was well guarded by the police. Adam Friedman, a local resident carrying a sign saying “Stand Against Islamophobia,” called the mood scary. “I’m a white man, but the atmosphere here was a bit ‘Third Reich,’” he observed, adding, “I wouldn’t want to look at someone the wrong way.”