“No Sense of History”
By Glenn Young
Today, the Ku Klux Klan (or KKK) is portrayed mainly just as a far-right wing hate group; a white nationalist terrorist organization with few members and limited support. We, as a nation, want to ignore the fact, that at one point, the Klan was one of the most powerful political organizations in the nation (not just the South); and their anti-Black; anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic (and so on) views were considered mainstream, and widely supported by millions. In 1924, around the height of their power, some 6,000,000 people, or about 15% of eligible voters in the nation were “card carrying” members of the Klan; with millions more in sympathy with their concepts of “Americanism.”
The Klan saw themselves then as so important they referred to themselves as being the “Invisible Empire.” And, in fact, for a while, the Klan was that powerful. In that era, the late teens and 20’s of the 20th century, the Klan was possibly the most important political force in many parts of the nation, not just the South. it was the KKK that determined much of our national domestic policy; including immigration laws.
What we are seeing today, through the Presidency of Donald Trump. is really the re-empowerment of the Klan’s ideology from one hundred years ago;
Or to use a Star Wars analogy – what we are experiencing now is the “Invisible Empire strikes back.”
Through Trump, the Klan ideology, in what ever name or organization it presents itself, has reached beyond its Southern base, to again control the Presidency and its awesome powers. For, after all, another thing we don’t want to remember is, that for sixteen years in a row (1912 – 1928) all the Presidents of the United States (one Democrat, and two Republican) Wilson, Harding and Coolidge were overt Klan members, and openly supported much of the Klan agenda.
Harding had his Klan membership ceremony conducted inside the White House, by the serving Imperial Wizard.
President Coolidge allowed cross burnings on the Capitol steps; and sat in the reviewing box for massive Klan parades of 1925 and 1926 in Washington D.C.
For a while, the Klan grew to be so dominant in the national Democratic Party, that the 1924 presidential nomination convention was referred to the “Klan-bake.”
Two points here –
The “Klan” I am referring to is not the group from to the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. In this essay, I am discussing the second version of the Klan; the one that was kickstarted in large part by the “heroic” portrayal of older version of the Klan in 1915 movie, “Birth of a Nation.”
The rapid fall of this second Klan (based on several scandals) cannot be discussed in the limited space available. However, the decline of the organization was not based on loss of support for the ideology, only matters of internal corruption.
This second version of the Klan, when expanding outside of the traditional South, into areas with few African Americans, expanded their objects of hated beyond the descendants of former slaves; in a great part of the country, the new Klan mainly focused their anger against immigrants. This focus worked, and became the underlying basis for the Klan’s rapid rise.
This new Klan helped elect all levels of politicians to office; and in return, demanded legislation that reflected their concepts. These Klan dependent politicians passed local laws throughout the nation that overtly discriminated against those groups target of the Klan. The “Invisible Empire” was so influential, the Federal, and even most state governments, was blocked by them in any effort address the overt racism of Jim Crow laws; the Klan was so successful governments failed to even to pass anti-lynching laws, leaving generations of Black Americans to live a life in fear and truly, at best, “second class citizens.”
But because of the need to maintain support for those outside the South, the Klan did not stop with “Southern issues.” On the national level, the Klan had its greatest success; (besides the appointment of very conservative judge) with the passage of perhaps the most overtly racist national legislation in post-Civil War America history - the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 (Johnson–Reed Act), which included as subparts -“the National Origins Act, and Asian Exclusion Act.” These racist anti-immigrant laws:
Limited immigration of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Jews, and virtual banned all Muslims;
Completely banned the immigration of Arabs, as well as people from China, Korea, and Japan; and severe restrictions on immigration from most other areas of Asia.
Severely limited immigrations from Southern and Eastern Europeans, especially Italians and Slavs, as well as immigration of Black Africans.
Back then, the “exclusionist” Klan demanded immigration policies aimed at the populations that seemed to be coming to America from the “shit hole” countries of the time, and of people practicing religions that seemed to “threaten” America’s values. But, in 1924, those countries included not just people with “non- white” skin, but people even with dark hair (such as Italians); and the unacceptable religion was not just Islam, but Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Judaism. While the policies under the 1924 law did not overtly state we wanted more immigrants “from places like Norway,” the law made it clear that preference to the limited immigration allowed was for countries whose population was white, Anglo-Saxon, or at least Nordic or German, and of course Protestant.
With the understanding of the existence of the Klan immigration laws, Trump’s immigration policy and overt efforts (the Travel Ban, ending DACA and TPS protections, and his “skills based” approach to immigration) can, and should be seen, as not just “Trump being Trump,” but simply a repeat of the Klan’s policies (with a few changes, to meet the current times). With the understanding of the “Invisible Empire” policies on immigration from some 100 years ago, we recognize that Trump’s policy towards immigration, and existing immigrants, is not new at all; Trump is simply trying to undo the reforms of the 1960’s, that attempted to end racial discrimination in immigration policy. Trump is clearly trying to reinstate the policy of the Klan from the 1920’s. He has become the vehicle by which the “Invisible Empire strikes back.”
To better understand Trump as a continuation of the Klan, and the return of “the Klan Presidency” we need to recognize that there this concept of “American Tribalism,” which is being used to explain our current social divisions is also nothing really knew; from the founding of the Republic and through every crisis this nation has experienced, there have been “multiple” sides to the issues, often in violent opposition to each other. We can boil the “sides” down to those who were primarily “racist” in nature (not just against Blacks, but Native Americans and all forms of immigrants), and those who have been, well, perhaps, at times only a bit less racist, but maybe better said “more inclusionist.”
The clashes over issues have clearly not just been rhetorical, but overtly violent; our history is filled with anti-immigration riots, lynching and “race riots” (used here in the older meaning of white attacking Black populations), and the terrorism of the first Klan, and of course a massive civil war. I would be remiss, if I didn’t specifically include the racist attacks on Native Americans, and primarily in the West, against Asian immigrants and “guest workers.”
Again, what we do not want to remember is that except for a few “inclusionist bubbles;” on the Federal level before the Civil War, and from the time of post-Reconstruction till the mid 1960’s, the racist philosophy dominated in our government. However, some changes started to happen in American culture because of World War II, and the embarrassment the US faced from having such overt racist policies. Racism itself started to become a “national security issue” in the light of the Communist efforts to win the hearts and minds of the “Third World.” In addition. the “Great Migration” (1917-47) of Blacks out of the South, created a new “freed” electorate, that Northern and Western politicians became dependent upon. Still, with all of these changes, the Klan inspired Segregationist hold on the South, as well as racist elected officials from all over the country, kept major federal changes from occurring.
It was not until the modern Civil Rights movement, which was greatly aided by the sympathy created by the Kennedy assassination, and later the killing of Martin Luther King, and others, and the televising of the wide spread use of terror against Black protesters, that the racist “normalcy” of the United States, began to transform. We then entered a period of what should be seen in American history as a “Progressive Bubble;” when, through the civil right acts, and the ending of overt discrimination, as well as “War on Poverty,” and so much more, America moved away from a racist regime.
However, the resistance to this “progressive” transformation by the racist has never stopped; and the desire to fight back against the “inclusionist” has never ceased. Over the years, the rhetoric of resistance has changed, and the “framing of the issues” have moved away from overtly racist terminology; but the fundamental message of this “resistance” is directly linked to the ideology of the Klan of the 1920’s. The rhetorical changes have that taken on many forms that cannot be fully addressed here; but it includes “state’s rights” on through “Christian values,” now on to protecting the borders, or simply national defense.
The resistance to the “Progressive Bubble” has long been evident. Over the decades we have watched as the Klan concepts were maintained through the George Wallace Campaign, and through to the TEA Party movement, and now the constantly support by the FOX News propaganda machine. In the past, it was presented through many faces; ranging from the first “America First” Movement in the 1930’s, to the Dixiecrats of the 1940’s and 50’s, and then with the Silent and later, the Moral majorities. But to steal a slogan from the Left, to the minds of the racist faction of America, the issues of immigration from the Klan era of power and in this time, are really an example of “same struggle, same fight.”
For those voters of today still loyal to the premise of the second Klan, the “progressive bubble” is not the real “norm” of American history, but the “historic outlier.” To these people, having a president who is in support of the ideology of the Klan is actually “normalcy.” For these people, the Trump presidency, to steal yet another slogan, this one form the campaign slogan of one of the Klan presidents, is a “return to normalcy.”
These Klan-like thinkers thought they had won back “their” presidency with Nixon, and then Reagan, and then Bush II, only to be disappointed on those presidents’ failures to be overtly racist, and extremely hard on in the areas of immigration (of persons of color). Through Trump, for the first time in perhaps close to one hundred years, they have gotten a president in full support of their old Klan like beliefs, and so far, has not become a traitor to their cause. In this case, through Trump, it’s not that the “South shall rise again,” it’s more that the Klan’s national values are back in power again; it really is the case of the “Invisible Empire Strikes back.”
All this Klan revival momentum (along with outright voter repression and Gerrymandering) the values of the Klan of the 1920’s, have in fact regained the Presidency, along with much of Congress (and state governments). Now, back in power, they have mounted attacks on so many fronts against the institutions developed by the “Progressive Bubble” (Health care in general and Medicare in particular, welfare, expanded voting rights, anti-union, anti-immigrant, etc.) And, while many of us who were part of the “progressive bubble” see these changes as shocking and frightening – for them, these followers of the Klan values, this is in fact a “return to normalcy.”
The fact that Trump is mimicking these former Klan presidents, (especially on immigration) goes by without real specific Klan comment of connection. Due to the social revolution of the past seventy-five plus years against racism (or the Progressive Bubble we have trouble thinking about the fact that Washington and Jefferson were slave holders; we, therefore basically refuse to remember when the Klan was not only acceptable, and even dominant, but that many of our early 20th century presidents (and so many other politicians) were members of the Klan. Therefore, without this understanding of the extensive influence of the Klan back then, we fail to understand Trump’s role model for his actions; and the full ideological bases for his approach.
Perhaps, the one clear and direct way to try and defeat these revitalized Klan like efforts is to have a public discussion asking if we as a nation really want to recreate the situation of the 1920’s when the KKK dominated our politics; and determined our immigration policies. This discussion needs to be phrased in that exact fashion – linking Trumps approach to that of the Klan of the 1920’s, and specifically the 1924 immigration act.
It does us little good to just have discussions of if Trump’s policies are “right” or “wrong;” such a discussion always degenerations into opinion. The discussion that is need is really directly based on an ugly point in American history, but one that is based in facts;
Trump policies on immigration is replicating the Klan policies that long-ago era; and
Do we as a nation really want to return to that type of Klan inspired society?
We need to try and use factual and painful history to prevent a repeat of those horrid times. We must clearly state and discuss that history, so we can stop pretending that Trump is an “oddity” or “something unique.” Neither he, nor his proposed policies, are new, and what he says and does is not unique. His is overtly trying to replicate a time most of us simply want to forget – a time when the Ku Klux Klan dominated American politics.