"It's important to get history right."
So quoth Jeffrey Lord, the conservative CNN analyst, on Tuesday during a noteworthy exchange with liberal commentator Van Jones. It's noteworthy because -- in stark contrast to his own admonition -- Lord had tried peddling an up-is-down, reality-inverted version of history in that segment (and on CNN the day before), namely, his claim (while attempting to defend Donald Trump for his refusal to disavow the endorsement of far-right extremists) that the Ku Klux Klan was "a leftist terrorism organization."
This is not just flat-out false, it is an outrageous inversion of historical reality: the Klan was not just a self-described "conservative," right-wing organization, it probably was one of the earliest iterations of the most extreme known form of right-wing politics, fascism. Both CNN and Lord owe their audience (and Jones) an apology for spreading known falsehoods on the air.
Yes: there Lord was, berating Jones because he wasn't admitting that the Klan was leftist. "And you don't hide and say that's not part of the base of the Democratic Party," he shouted. "That has been, they were the military arm, the terrorist arm of the Democratic Party according to historians. For God's sake, read your history."
Of course, Rush Limbaugh immediately piled on by embracing Lord's claims: "It was focused on Trump. It was focused on the Klan. It was focused on how the Democrats do this, that they get this idea in their heads and no matter what they fit every event into their narrative. And in this case the KKK is a bunch of right-wing terrorists. It doesn't matter where they were formed. It doesn't matter who formed 'em."
Lord had first tried peddling this nonsense (which he hasn't yet committed to print, apparently, other than in brief references) Monday on CNN, telling Margaret Hoover that it was a "leftist hate group": "It is a racist hate group from the left. And that counts. That is important to understand. It is not conservative. It has nothing to do with conservatism. All of these Klan members who have been elected to Congress and U.S. Senate and governorships over the years, supporting Franklin Roosevelt because they like Social Security. Let's get our history straight."
It doesn't take much straightening to realize that Lord is just trying out a KKK version of Jonah Goldberg's gambit, in which he successfully persuaded large numbers of conservatives, through a historically inept and misbegotten travesty titled Liberal Fascism, that "properly understood, fascism is a phenomenon of the left." That is, he's simply inverting historical reality on its head and claiming to be ingenious and insightful.
Lord's real problem is that, while Goldberg could at least reference some early organizing documents and distort the presence of a "socialist" element within early fascism into something more meaningful, there is not a scintilla of evidence to support Lord's claims about the KKK being a "leftist" organization with a "progressive" agenda. (Goldberg, for his part, tries to dispose of the presence of the Klan by dismissing them as a mere "creepy fan subculture" -- while it should be obvious that the KKK was much, much more than that.) Of course, it's useful to recall that prior to the 1980s, both parties had both conservative and progressive wings. Lord deliberately manipulates his terminology to obscure the fact that while, yes, in the South of the 1920s, the Klan was a militaristic and terroristic wing of the Jim Crow-loving Democratic Party there, in no shape, form, or fashion was this the "leftist" wing of the Democratic Party. When the members of the Klan were Democrats, as in the 1920s, as well as in the '40s when they called themselves "Dixiecrats," they were conservative Democrats. And ever after the Southern Strategy-fueled party switch of the 1960s and '70s, those conservatives have now become uniformly Republican. Lord plays juvenile word games to pretend that the Democrats of the '20s Klan were "leftist," when they were anything but.
Next, it's important to understand that, as Mark Potok explained to Slate's Leon Neyfakh, the Klan has gone through four distinct historical phases:
- The first came in the immediate wake of the Civil War, when night-riding lynch mobs of masked men did their utmost to undo the gains under Reconstruction for black people (and ultimately succeeded).
- The second phase came in the 1920s, when a group of men reconstituted the idea of the Klan in the wake of D.W. Griffith's homage to the original Klan, The Birth of a Nation. The other event that inspired the founding of this Klan, besides Griffith's movie, was the lynching of Leo Frank in Alanta in 1915. By the mid-1920s, this version of the Klan had 4 million members, with chapters in every state of the Union, and it enjoyed nationwide respectability -- though that largely had vanished by the 1930s.
- The third phase came when a group of Atlanta racists revived the Klan locally, once again, in the postwar period, whence it spread throughout the South and was deployed primarily as a murderous and threatening gang of thugs, ultimately responsible for the deaths of numerous black people and white activists during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s.
- The fourth phase -- the current one -- features a mostly diffuse Klan organization, comprised of 30 or so individual groups that favor their own versions of Klan ideology. While the levels of violence emanating from these groups is relatively low-level (the groups are mostly content to hold annual barbecues in which they inevitably complain about minorities and liberals, and then wrap it all up by lighting a cross), these groups attract and harbor violent personalities who frequently act out their beliefs violently, sometimes as "lone wolves."
David Chalmers, in his Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, is unequivocal in placing the Klan, in all of its iterations, firmly on the right of the political spectrum:
- Throughout its history, the Klan has been a conservative, not revolutionary, organization. As a vigilante, it has sought to uphold "law and order," white dominance, and traditional morality. To do this it has threatened, flogged, mutilated, and on occasion, murdered. The main purpose of the Klansmen, Kligrapps, Kludds, and Night Hawks, Cyclopses, Titans, Dragons, and Wizards assembled in their Dens, Klaverns, and Klonvokations, rallying in rented cow pastures, and marching in solemn procession through city streets, has been to defend and restore what they conceived as traditional social values. The Klan has bascially been a revitalization movement.
The precepts of this Klan at its founding were as follows:
To protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless from the
indignities, wrongs and outrages of the lawless, the violent and the
brutal; to relieve the injured and oppressed; to succor the suffering
and unfortunate, and especially the widows and orphans of the
Second: To protect and defend the Constitution of the United States ...
Third: To aid and assist in the execution of all constitutional laws, and to protect the people from unlawful seizure, and from trial except by their peers in conformity with the laws of the land.
- ... makes no apologies for its members' attempts to impose their views upon "liberals," immigrants, Catholics, Jews, or peoples of color. Instead it sounds a clarion call for the Klan's "progressive conservatism" and celebrates its influence in American public life.
This is the only reference in any Klan literature to inclining toward anything "progressive" (and in today's politics makes about as much sense as "liberal conservatism"). As history played out, what became clear was that the Klan's idea of "progressive conservatism" was similar in tenor to modern-day "compassionate conservatism" -- the adjective serving mostly to soften and broaden their appeal, while remaining adamantly "conservative." That is, right-wing.
We nowadays think of the Klan as primarily a racial-terrorism organization, but in the 1920s it became about much more than mere racism. Rather, racial intimidation was more an expression of its larger mission -- enforcing, through violence, threats, and death, "traditional values" and "100 percent Americanism." It was essentially populist, certainly, but there was no mistaking it for anything "progressive." The latter, in fact, became its sworn enemy.
Chalmers describes (pp. 32-33) how Col. William J. Simmons, the man most responsible for the revival of the Klan in the 1915-20 period, and the leader of that group that burned a cross atop Stone Mountain in honor of the Frank lynch mob, shifted the Klan's focus from merely attacking blacks to a very broad menu of targets:
being introduced to an audience of Georgia Klansmen, Colonel Simmons
silently took a Colt automatic from his pocket and placed it on the
table in front of him. Then he took a revolver from another pocket and
put it on the table too. Then he unbuckled a cartridge belt and draped
it in a crescent shape between the two weapons. Next, without having
uttered a word, he drew out a bowie knife and plunged it in the center
of the things on the table. "Now let the Niggers, Catholics, Jews, and
all the others who disdain my imperial wizardry, come on," he said. The
Jews, Mrs. Tyler told newspapermen during a shopping trip in New York,
were upset because they know that the Klan "teaches the wisdom of
spending American money with American men." To be for the white race,
she continued, means to be against all others. Clarke suggested
sterilizing the Negro. Simmons explained that the Japanese were but a
superior colored race. Never in the history of the world, the Klan
believed, had a "mongrel civilization" survived. The major theme,
however, was the rich vein of anti-Catholicism, which the Klan was to
mine avidly during the 1920s, and it was this more than anything else
which made the Klan.
To the Negro, Jew, Oriental, Roman Catholic, and alien, were added dope, bootlegging, graft, night clubs and road houses, violation of the Sabbath, unfair business dealings, sex, marital "goings-on," and scandalous behavior, as the proper concern of the one-hundred-percent American. The Klan organizer was told to find out what was worrying a community and to offer the Klan as a solution.
Simmons' conception of the Klan as a special secret service bustling about spying on radicalism and questionable patriotism and generally reliving its wartime grandeur, was translated into a more enduring system of societal vigilance. The Klan was brought to Muncie, Indiana, by leading businessmen to cope with a corrupt Democratic city government. It entered Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Herrin County, Illinois, to put down bootlegging. When a newly formed Klan chapter would write to Atlanta for suggestions as to what to do first, the response was almost unvaryingly to "clean up the town," an injunction which usually came to rest it emphasis on the enforcement of the small-town version of the Ten Commandments.
- Marketed like any other business or lodge association, the Klan was eventually franchised in twenty-seven states and varied its purpose to confront a wide palette of enemies. To a town inundated with unemployed blacks, one historian has pointed out, it was the Klan of the Griffith film; if bootleggers ran amok, the Klan was an auxiliary police outfit; in the face of labor activism, Klan members became corporate thugs and enforcers; where immigrants threatened to overwhelm a city, the Klan stood ready to publicize 100 percent Americanism. As the organization served as a kind of enforcement group for godly values, many clergymen became Klan members of boosters. Jesus Christ himself, it was said, would have been a Klansman.
message was clear--the new Klan was going to mean business. And that
soon meant expanding its list of enemies to include Asians, immigrants,
bootleggers, dope, graft, night clubs and road houses, violation of the
Sabbath, sex, pre- and extra-marital escapades and scandalous behavior.
The Klan, with its new mission of social vigilance, soon had organizers
scouring the nation, probing for the communities' fears and then
exploiting them to the hilt.
And the tactic was an overnight raging success. By the late summer of 1921 nearly 100,000 people had enrolled in the invisible empire, and at ten dollars a head (tax-free since the Klan was a "benevolent" society), the profits were impressive. While Simmons made speeches and tinkered with ritual, Clarke busied himself with expanding the treasury, launching Klan publishing and manufacturing firms and investing in real estate. The future looked very good.
...And its violence was clearly revealed. Under Evans a wave of repression punctuated by lynchings, shootings and whippings swept over the nation in the early and mid-1920's and many communities were firmly in the grasp of the Klan's terror. The victims were usually blacks, Jews, Catholics, Mexicans and various immigrants, but sometimes they were white, Protestant, and female. Klansmen attacked people they considered "immoral" or "traitors" to the white race.
In Alabama, for example, a divorcee with two children was flogged for the crime of remarrying, and then given a jar of Vaseline for her wounds. In Georgia a woman was given 60 lashes for a vague charge of "immorality and failure to go to church." And when her 15-year-old son ran to her rescue, he received the same treatment. In both cases the leaders of the Klansmen responsible turned out to be ministers.
But such instances were not confined to the South--in Oklahoma Klansmen applied the lash to girls caught riding in automobiles with young men, and the Klan in the San Joaquin Valley in California were know to flog and torture women.
In a period when many women were fighting for the vote, for a place in the job market, and for personal and cultural freedom, the Klan claimed to stand for "pure womanhood" and frequently attacked women who sought independence.
Although politicians became increasingly uncomfortable with Klan allies as a result of the turmoil, the success of the Klan candidates across the nation in 1924 buoyed Evans' spirits. His notoriety peaked with a parade of 40,000 Klansmen down Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue to the Washington Monument in August 1925. Evans boasted of having helped re-elect Coolidge, of having secured passage of strict anti-immigration laws and of having checked the ambitions of Catholics and others intent on "perverting" the nation. All in all, the Klan was riding high in the saddle.
As we previously noted, this Klan briefly became a real political force: a nationwide organization with chapters in all 48 states that briefly became a political powerhouse in a number of states, including Oregon, Indiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Maine, where the Klan played a critical role in the 1924 election of Owen Brewster to the governorship. That same year, the Klan made waves at the Democratic Convention when the Klan-backed candidate, William Gibbs McAdoo of Georgia, declined to denounce them. Al Smith of New York managed to block his nomination, largely on these grounds, and West Virginia's John Davis emerged as the compromise selection. He lost to Calvin Coolidge.
As Chalmers records:
- In 1922, the Klan helped elect governors in Georgia, Alabama, California, and Oregon, and came close to knocking Missouri's Jim Reed out of the U.S. Senate. It was reported that perhaps as many as seventy-five members of the lower house had received help from Klan votes. An undetermined, and unguessable, number of congressmen, veterans, and newcomers, had actually joined the hooded order, and E.Y. Clarke was asking the local chapters to suggest likely candidates for the future. The next year, the Klan continued to expand, with its greatest strength developing in the upper Mississippi Valley and in the Great Lakes kingdom of D.C. Stephenson.
[More photos from the riot here.]
Klan violence clearly was not relegated strictly to the South, but its was particularly intense there, especially the use of cross burnings to threaten and intimidate blacks. This became especially the case in the 1930s and '40s, when the Klan rose to attempt to stem the oncoming tide of the Civil Rights movement; and in the early 1950s, the Brown v. Board of Education ruling ordering the desegregation of Southern schools actually produced a second revival of the Klan, all of it focused on the "traditional values" of white supremacy and its fruits: Jim Crow, segregation, lynching.
There were thousands of these lynchings. They are the human victims, like Leo Frank, of the Klan who Jeffrey Lord so casually and carelessly whitewashes into victims of leftist violence.
And it is not as if the Klan has gone away since. In the ensuing years, it has remained the implacable enemy not merely of civil rights for blacks, but for any minority, including gays and lesbians. Its activities have remained associated with violence of various kinds, including a broad gamut of hate crimes committed against every kind of non-white, or non-Christian, or for that matter non-conservative.
In the recent past, it has revived its nativist roots by becoming vociferously active in the immigration debate, openly sponsoring anti-immigrant rallies at which the Klan robes have come out:
Somewhat predictably, immigration has become a major point of recruitment for the Klan and other white supremacists. And just as predictably, a sharp spike of bias crimes against Latinos has followed in their wake.
Those are the historical details. Moreover, the Klan in every incarnation -- its original, its second, and its current, has been a creature of right-wing politics. Consider its current program:
- -- Anti-Semitism
-- Racial separation
-- The quashing of civil rights for minorities
-- The destruction of federal government power
Moreover, the Klan, as Robert O. Paxton explains in his 2004 book The Anatomy of Fascism, was probably the first real manifestation of fascism as an organization, not just in America but anywhere:
- ... [I]t is further back in American history that one comes upon the earliest phenomenon that seems functionally related to fascism: the Ku Klux Klan. Just after the Civil War, some Confederate officers, fearing the vote given to African Americans by the Radical Reconstructionists in 1867, set up a militia to restore an overturned social order. The Klan constituted an alternate civic authority, parallel to the legal state, which, in its founders' eyes, no longer defended their community's legitimate interests. In its adoption of a uniform (white robe and hood), as well as its techniques of intimidation and its conviction that violence was justified in the cause of the group's destiny, the first version of the Klan in the defeated American South was a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe.
- Although one can deduce from fascist language implicit Social Darwinist assumptions about human nature, the need for community and authority in human society, and the destiny of nations in history, fascism does not base its claims to validity upon their truth. Fascists despise thought and reason, abandon intellectual positions casually, and cast aside many intellectual fellow-travellers. They subordinate thought and reason not to Faith, as did the traditional Right, but to the promptings of the blood and the historic destiny of the group. Their only moral yardstick is the prowess of the race, of the nation, of the community. They claim legitimacy by no universal standard except a Darwinian triumph of the strongest community.
- Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal constraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
And no, despite any ahistorical poppycock that Jonah Goldberg and Jeffrey Lord might try to sell you, fascism and its iterations are NOT a "phenomenon of the left" at all. Fascism is, and always has been, a cancerous, metastasized version of right-wing populism.
Donald Trump, of course, is currently reminding us all about how that particular beast arises -- and where it comes from. Which is why getting the historical record right, as Lord suggests, really does matter.