Trump’s Legitimization of White Nationalism Harkens Back to the KKK’s “Invisible Empire” of the 1920s

Ku Klux Klan protesters at the “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally, July 8, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)

Miguel Hernández
University of Exeter

Earlier this month, President Donald J. Trump lent further credence to various figures in far-right politics by retweeting the complaints of prominent far-right activists recently  banned from social media platforms. In late April, he also doubled down on remarks he originally made in the wake of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one counter-protester dead and many others wounded, after which he infamously stated “You also had some very fine people on both sides.” These are of course, just the latest instances in a long line of Trump’s support for American white nationalism, from his prominent role in the “Birther” movement during the Obama years, to his lukewarm condemnation of David Duke’s endorsement of his campaign in 2016, to his references as president that “people from shithole countries” in Africa and the Caribbean should be kept from immigrating to the US, that Haitians “all have AIDS,” and defending his earlier claims that Latin American men were a bunch of drug traffickers and rapists. As these examples highlight, the President’s career and the media’s coverage of his election and tenure in office have often provided oxygen, publicity, and legitimacy for once discredited white nationalists and other far-right activists that seek to re-establish themselves as respectable and mainstream under their preferred label of the “alt-right.”

Unsurprisingly, there is little new about the American far-right’s contemporary campaigns to court the media and edge their way into public discourse. In the 1970s, neo-Nazi and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke earned notoriety and found moderate success by reviving and re-branding the KKK to appeal to different audiences. In public, Duke disavowed violence and tried to present his group as a peaceful civil rights group for white Americans. The Klan’s ranks were opened up to Catholics, once reviled because of their supposed allegiance to the un-American Papacy, while women were welcomed as new soldiers in this white supremacist “Invisible Empire.” Nonetheless, David Duke’s publicity stunts, such as the infamous “border patrols” where the Grand Wizard posed for cameras in California while on guard for illegal crossings, often attracted more reporters than supporters. He ultimately failed to transform the Klan into the publically respectable group that could influence mainstream institutions and gain electoral victories. Duke now distances himself from his past leadership of the Klan, and like others in the contemporary far-right movement, seeks to avoid any association with the infamous terrorist group.

Yet the Klan was once able to attract millions of ordinary white Protestant Americans to its ranks in the not-so-distant past, swaying elections at the local, state and national level. The Second Invisible Empire, founded in 1915 and reaching the apex of its power between 1921 and 1925, became a force to be reckoned with in all corners of the country, with especially strong chapters in Indiana and Texas. The 1920s Klan espoused a broad conservative ideology with a range of different priorities, advocating unabashed white supremacy, strict “100 %” Americanism and aggressive Protestantism. Their successes, as some have recently noted, have been echoed but not matched by the contemporary far-right.

The order’s sudden and short-lived rise to power in the early Jazz Age remains a contentious topic of debate among historians. Most agree that the many pivotal changes in American society and the wider world during the First World War, such as the revolutionary activity across Europe or the postwar economic slump, were contributing factors to the rise of this Second Invisible Empire. However, my new book, Fighting Fraternities: the Ku Klux Klan and Freemasonry in 1920s America (2019) focuses on a facet of the 1920s Klan that has received relatively little scholarly attention but which was fundamental for its growth into a more mainstream mass-movement, namely its status as a fraternity and its relationship with other orders such as the Freemasons.

At the time, the KKK’s many acts of vigilante violence and harassment in the 1920s were often overlooked by an American public that fell victim to this group’s claims that such accusations were unfounded or concocted by Catholic or Jewish interests. Many others simply could not believe a fraternity to which so many apparently respectable Freemasons belonged could be responsible for such acts. Fraternities, though popular since the colonial period, had become a fixture of the American social and cultural landscape in the years after the Civil War. Some, like the Freemasons, were quite exclusive and joining them was considered a marker of respectability and affluence. Like many other American men, the Second Klan’s founder, William Joseph Simmons, had joined several of these orders throughout his life. Simmons would incorporate many of the traditional features of these groups into his own order, but would elaborate on others and break conventions to produce a fraternity that although familiar to many, was unique. In particular, although all fraternities practiced rituals and promoted fraternal values, the Second Klan was unique at the time in its explicit idealization of white masculinity and its militant politics. While other orders actively discouraged or forbade members from interfering in political matters and other potentially divisive issues, the Klan distinguished itself by pushing members to reform their communities and defend white Protestant American values.

Klansmen initiate new recruits in an outdoor ceremony near Washington D.C. (1920s)

This distinct form of militant fraternalism proved to be very attractive for many American white men, especially for those who already belonged to established fraternities such as the Freemasons. The rituals inculcated the necessity for vigorous action and other manly duties amongst its members, while the order itself promoted crucial fraternal values that helped to bind individuals to the Invisible Empire and each other. Nonetheless, the order’s status as a fraternity also offered other critical advantages that helped to make the order a success. By establishing themselves as a fraternity, the Klan’s leaders were able to justify and excuse several of their objectionable practices as customary for such a group, including their bizarre regalia, strict membership requirements, or secret gatherings. More importantly, by aligning themselves alongside other well-known orders of the period, the Second Klan was able to market themselves to the public as a respectable group.

In fact, the Second Klan deliberately targeted local fraternal lodges, particularly those of the Freemasons, to establish themselves in unfamiliar communities and find new members. This recruitment strategy was widely successful, and this new book demonstrates that around a third of the Invisible Empire’s members also belonged to the Freemasons. Although most Freemasons condemned the Klan, the impression that the two groups were somehow tied was so widespread that one Masonic leader even complained that local schoolchildren seemed to believe it. By exploiting Freemasonry’s impeccable credentials and heritage as an American institution, this book shows how and why the Klan was able to fend off the frequent criticisms that their order was composed of violent thugs, or that they were dangerous or un-American.

In an age when white supremacist groups are flourishing and carrying out an increasing number of deadly terrorist attacks, it is high time that we re-examine how such organizations work to disguise their violence, normalize their rhetoric, and legitimize their existence to avoid public scrutiny. There are indications that elements of the far-right are reviving such approaches to try and mirror the Invisible Empire’s successes. Most prominently, the Proud Boys, a group that describes itself as “World’s Greatest Fraternal Organization,” and embraces and celebrates chauvinism and Western masculinity through rituals and violence, has gained many supporters. Along similar lines, internal messages leaked from the white supremacist group “Identity Evropa” have revealed how this organization targeted college campuses to hopefully infiltrate local young Republican societies. Their ultimate goal, according to these messages, appears to have been to radicalize the Republican Party further towards the right. Much like the Second Klan did in the 1920s, such groups exploit existing social channels and the very democracy they hope to subvert in order to gain adherents and spread their ideology. As well as paying close attention to the extraordinary and everyday acts of violence carried out by white supremacists, to understand the current resurgence of the far-right it is vital that we examine how and why such groups succeeded or failed in the past.

3 thoughts on “Trump’s Legitimization of White Nationalism Harkens Back to the KKK’s “Invisible Empire” of the 1920s

  1. Like in the past, I wonder how much of the far-right revival is simply a backlash to (global) capitalism. Bear in mind that the deep south was Washington-Wall Street’s first colony.

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