By Tobin Miller Shearer
In Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (Oxford: 1994), historian Nancy Maclean compares the second KKK to European Fascist movements in general and Hitler’s Nazi regime in particular. When I first read the book in graduate school in the early 2000s, my classmates and I debated whether this was a fair or accurate comparison. Many felt that it was simply unrealistic.
At this present moment, the comparison feels all too prescient.
It also holds important lessons for responding to the fascism before us.
One of the most important ways we can learn from the past and adapt for the future is to recognize the markers of fascism as they recur. Maclean notes that the second KKK, at the height of its power in 1924 and 1925, shared with Nazism a number of all too familiar themes:
1. A common reactionary populism;
2. Reason displaced by passion and emotionalism;
3. Conspiratorial theories over careful analysis;
4. Strong anti-Semitism;
5. Backing by members of the elite.
Every one of those particular markers are present in President Trump’s rise to power and in the opening days of his administration. The white supremacists that have risen to power along with Trump have likewise legitimized another marker of the KKK and the Nazi regime: a common positing of race as the source of the best of humanity’s history and culture.
In addition to identifying fascism and its attendant racism when we see it, we can also adapt from history by understanding how it has been defeated in the past. Maclean notes the inadequacies of explanations for the KKK’s demise in the U.S. soon after 1925. Some historians have pointed to the hypocrisy of the Klan’s leaders, the factionalism internal to the organization, or the effective resistance posed by local residents, the press, and civic leaders. Others have noted the failure of Klan leaders to deliver on their promises, a decrease in crime, or, perhaps most problematically, the intrinsic nature and values of the Klan itself as fundamentally anti-American.
Maclean picks apart these explanations with ease but reserves her most bracing critique for the sentiment that the Klan was somehow antithetical to American values and thus bound to self-destruct. As she notes, “from the time of the republic’s founding, American ideas of middle-class standing and citizenship rights were coded in racially exclusive ways” (187). In other words, the Klan was as likely to remain strong and popular as it was to fall out of power because racism has been so deeply ingrained in what it means to be American and white.
The other lesson we can take from this unstated desire to see anti-racist values in American identity and institutions is that we cannot afford to be naïve. Not now. Not ever. There is too much at stake.
Maclean in the end argues that it was broad-based social movements advocating for social and economic reform that checked and ultimately defeated reactionary populism. She emphasizes the polymorphous nature of those Popular Front movements—they were a “class struggle waged by the propertyless, many of them African Americans, Catholics, and recent immigrants” (188).
What such a movement will look like in 2017 remains to be seen, but if Maclean’s argument is as pertinent to our present moment as I am arguing that it is, then we should look to similar broad-based coalitions that offer real alternatives to our present social, political, and economic order as the best way to defeat the fascism before us.
If we hope to defeat fascism now, we will have to remember how others arrived in similar situations and how they got themselves out of them. That is the gift history has to offer in this here and now.