America’s Brush With Fascism

The second KKK shared a disquieting kinship with European fascist movements. Why did it fail to take over American politics?

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock and United States Library of Congress.

Klan members hold a night rally in 1920.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock and United States Library of Congress.

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Adapted from Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan by Nancy K. MacLean. Published by Oxford University Press.

Historians have explained the demise of the second Ku Klux Klan within a decade of its 1915 founding in a variety of ways. Many have pointed to internal problems such as hypocritical leaders and factionalism. Others have cited effective opposition from the press, civic leaders, or residents in particular locales. Some have argued that the very success of Klan politicians in winning office bred demoralization, as once in power they failed to furnish the dramatic changes they had promised. Similarly, some point to the subsiding of local problems such as crime or to how experience exposed the falsity of Klan claims.1 One writer has even suggested that the Klan’s very nature doomed it.2

If that particular assertion seems wishful thinking, many of the other observations are apt. But the main problem with prevailing accounts of the Klan’s decline is the parochial vision that serves as their starting point. State or local in conception, almost none of the scholarly studies on the Klan examines the American movement in its international setting.3 They make no effort to come to terms with the Klan as an expression of what European historian Arno Mayer refers to as “the General Crisis and Thirty Years’ War of the twentieth century.” Bounded on one end by the First World War and on the other by the Second World War, this epoch was marked by pervasive social change and political crisis, above all by the contest between right and left, “the ideological struggle,” as Mayer sums it up, “between fascism and bolshevism.” That match ultimately yielded the regimes of Mussolini in Italy, of Franco in Spain, and of Hitler in Germany.4

If historians have largely overlooked the common ground occupied by European fascist movements and the Klan of the 1920s, many contemporaries did not. Some Klan spokespeople recognized the kinship between their movement and those of Mussolini and Hitler. The Klan newspaper Imperial Night Hawk asserted that Mussolini’s fight to crush “communism and anarchy” was “an entirely worthy cause.” The Rev. Charles Jefferson of New York stated the relationship most aptly. “The Ku Klux Klan,” he explained, “is the Mussolini of America,” the organizational expression of the “vast volume of discontent in this country with things as they are.”6 Moreover, when, after the onset of the Great Depression, organizations emerged in the United States that openly identified with fascists across the sea, the Klan came to their aid.

The reason for the crossover is not hard to find. The Mussolini-inspired American Order of Fascisti, or Black Shirts, which enlisted several of these Klan stalwarts, proclaimed its commitment to white supremacy. It campaigned to solve white unemployment by taking jobs from blacks and defended racist murders.

The Klan had much in common with German National Socialism and Italian fascism not only in its worldview but also in its dynamics as a social movement. All three movements emerged from the crucible of world war and grew in times of economic difficulty, class polarization, and political impasse. Each mobilized men and women from a broad spectrum of the population but had particular attraction for the petite bourgeoisie. Each of these movements also enlisted the active backing or toleration of important members of the established elite and gained strength from the legitimacy thus bestowed. They also exerted particular appeal for members of the police and armed forces, who in turn provided aid and cover for the movements’ extralegal terror. Finally, all three movements had similar organizational styles in their conscious emphasis on the irrational, on liturgical rituals, and on public displays of power.11

Much more than American historians have realized, Klan ideology shared common features with its Nazi contemporary.7 Like the Klan, Hitler embraced a reactionary populism that blended outspoken resentment of established elites with vitriolic anti-communism. Regularly exaggerating the power and prospects of the left, he was obsessed with destroying the organized workers’ movement. Like the Klan’s criticisms of America’s economic system, his attacks on Germany’s were superficial and his positive proposals vague. In place of reason, Hitler exalted passion and advocated a propaganda geared to the emotions. He recognized and exploited the power of symbolism and such rituals as torchlight parades. In place of careful analysis, he pushed conspiratorial explanations. In place of a parliamentary democracy he declared mired in corruption and soft on communism, he called for a strong man to take charge. In place of the rule of law, he substituted the calculated paramilitary terror of the Brown Shirts. And, finally, in place of the notion of fundamental human equality: strident nationalism and murderous racism.8

Indeed, as they were for the Klan, nationalism and racialism were National Socialism’s means of countering the class divisions it so abhorred. Race was posited as the wellspring of human culture and history. Demonizing Jews, in particular, as the source of all the purported evils of modernity—from materialism, to Bolshevism, to changes in sexual mores and mass culture—Hitler positioned them at the core of his revolutionary counterrevolutionism, a lightning rod to give it mass appeal.9

Of course, to highlight the family resemblance is not to assert that these movements were similar in all respects. Italian fascism, for example, did not rely on anti-Semitism and other racialism the way that the Klan and National Socialism did.12 And the Klan differed in some important ways from those two prototypical fascist movements. Not least, the Klan’s class politics were more ambiguous. Here the Klan bore the marks of its birthplace. Operating in a nation with much lower levels of working-class organization and consciousness, the Klan sometimes even posed as the friend of “organized labor” in the face of common enemies.13 More commonly, the Klan took advantage of the deep racial, ethnic, and skill divisions in the American working class to advance its project, especially in the South. It preyed on the narrow craft-union consciousness of native-born, Protestant, white, skilled workers in efforts to turn them against black, foreign-born, and radical workers. The Klan’s greatest successes among trade unionists tended to follow disastrous defeats, sometimes involving strike-breakers from other ethnic groups, which left some native-born white workers casting about for scapegoats and alternatives to class-based politics.14

There were other contrasts as well. Klansmen seemed less inclined than their continental peers to welcome the idea of dictatorship, even if that was the conclusion their leaders’ screeds against impotent government pointed to. Klan spokespeople sometimes criticized Mussolini, not only for being an “ally of the Pope” or a rival nationalist who might appeal to Italian Americans but also for being a despotic ruler.15 And however hedged in formulation and belied in practice, Klan leaders’ declared regard for the Constitution meant that they at least feared appearing to deviate from it. Finally, the Klan’s reverence for Protestantism also distinguished it. Seeing established churches as competing centers of belief or power, Nazis were far less inclined to accept them.16 Future research will undoubtedly uncover more contrasts.

The point is thus not to argue for absolute homology. It is rather to insist that the Klan was not a movement sui generis: It had enough in common with contemporary European mass movements of the far right to make for meaningful comparison. The family resemblance between the Klan and classic fascism, however, puts the problem of interpreting the Klan’s demise into a whole new light.

Once the Klan is viewed in transnational perspective, a more chilling hypothesis emerges about why Klan strength waned so quickly right across the country after mid-decade. The causes usually adduced for this decline may be incidental to the simple fact that circumstances in the United States never reached the point that they did in the nations where fascism ultimately triumphed. After all, as late as the elections of 1928, the Nazis took only 2.6 percent of the total vote and were seen as “a minor, and declining splinter party.” By contrast, in 1924, a Klan write-in candidate for mayor was able to attract more than one-third of the vote in Detroit, the fourth-largest American city. Had the Depression not hit Germany as hard as it subsequently did, National Socialism might today be dismissed as the Klan sometimes is: a historical curiosity whose doom was foreordained.17

In the United States, on the other hand, the social conditions that once fueled Klan growth had largely abated by mid-decade. In the nation at large, the postwar recession gave way to boom and renewed growth by 1923. The economic crisis loomed larger and longer in the South and in farming regions of the Midwest than in the industrial North, not as dependent on the “sick” industries of agriculture, textiles, and mining. Yet, even in the South, the sense of economic apocalypse had faded by mid-decade. By 1925, the regional economy had rebounded, and the press was reporting with palpable relief the revival of crop values and textile demand.18

The pitched class conflict of 1919–1921 also rapidly abated, as employers, with the aid of the government Red Scare and new technology, regained the upper hand. By 1924, the offensive against labor and the left had largely succeeded. For the first time in American history, unions failed to grow during a time of relative prosperity. Socialist Party membership in the nation as a whole dropped drastically from 110,000 in 1919 to 12,000 four years later; the Communist Party, for its part, never amassed more than 20,000 members at any point in the decade. By contrast, the German Communist Party in the ’20s—the smaller of the country’s main left-wing parties—enlisted a membership that ran as high as 380,000 and drew as many as 3 million votes.19

Like the struggle for “industrial democracy” in the United States, the wartime and postwar offensive for racial equity had clearly run aground by a few years into the new decade. Despite determined, often heroic, efforts, blacks had been unable to attract enough white support to dismantle any of the apparatus of white supremacy, as the federal government’s unwillingness to pass even mild anti-lynching legislation attested. The NAACP lost almost 200 branches by 1923, and over 70,000 members—or more than two-thirds of its 1919 roster—over the decade. The hemorrhage was especially severe in the South, where both challenge and resistance had been greatest.20 The discouragement of blacks, like that of labor, no doubt undercut the urgency many of the Klan’s followers and sympathizers had hitherto felt.21

Without the extra charge that came from association with labor militancy and black struggle, the changes in gender and generational relations came to seem less threatening. As important as feminism, the so-called sexual revolution, and the spread of the commercial leisure industry had been in winning the Klan a mass following, neither their continued spread nor the ongoing and widespread defiance of Prohibition proved sufficient to keep Klan members mobilized after the other challenges had receded. Here, in fact, if in few other areas, the Klan defeat was unambiguous. The persistence of bootlegging and gambling, the popularity of dancing and movie-going, and young women’s enthusiasm for the social freedom and sensual pleasures symbolized by the flapper all made clear the tenuousness of the family values the Klan stood for.

In short, on most fronts, Klansmen could feel, if not triumphant, at least relieved by mid-decade. As the sharp polarizations of the postwar years abated, their movement must have come to seem like overkill to all but the most devoted. Without extreme conditions, extreme measures enjoyed less legitimacy. But that change in circumstances leaves open, for us, an unsettling question: What if the interwar social crisis had reached the scale in America that it did in Italy or Germany? How might native-born, middle-class whites have reacted?

We know enough to make easy optimism untenable. Indeed, what emerges most forcefully from this study of the Klan is the wealth of cultural material at hand that a movement like the Klan could build on. Under conditions of economic uncertainty, sharply contested social relations, and political impasse, assumptions about class, race, gender, and state power so ordinary as to appear “common sense” to most WASP Americans could be refashioned and harnessed to the building of a virulent reactionary politics able to mobilize millions. What appears distinctive about the Klan is less the specific ideas it stood for than the way it synthesized them. But those ideas themselves, at least in more understated form, had a long-standing and widely accepted place in the dominant culture.

Indeed, what seems most striking in this story is the adaptability of many conventional American sensibilities to a reactionary populist project. The core elements of Klan ideology were not as aberrant as one might imagine. Generations of observers of American culture, for example, have remarked on what one writer calls “the imperial middle”: the pervasive assumption that America had always been and should stay a middle-class society, and the corollary denial that other classes had valid interests of their own. In times of pitched struggle, such as that which followed World War I, those axioms could easily slide into an insistence that class conflict was illegitimate, even treasonous, and should be suppressed.

The unusual sway of individualism, moreover, made the United States fertile terrain for racialist explanations of why some people succeeded and others failed, explanations that ranged from Manifest Destiny to Social Darwinism and eugenics. Indeed, historians have lately become more aware of how, from the time of the republic’s founding, American ideas of middle-class standing and citizenship rights were coded in racially exclusive ways. So, too, was American middle-class consciousness molded and galvanized, from its very origins, by notions of appropriate gender roles and moral respectability.22 The evangelical strain so prominent in American culture could also play its part in establishing an indigenous form for the apocalyptic, anti-rational, and Manichean emphases of fascist thought. And it would not be such a long leap from the many American varieties of vigilantism—not only lynching but also white-capping, anti-labor citizens’ committees, and, more generally, the veneration of rough-and-ready frontier “justice” in popular culture—to the “politics of the piazza” characteristic of fascism in its mobilization phase.23

Of course, to say this is not to imply that all elements in American culture worked to the Klan’s advantage or even that all of those that did necessarily did so, that they could not have led to different conclusions. Here I am much persuaded by the accounts of European fascism that reject fatalistic readings of the proclivities of the petite bourgeoisie and stress, instead, contingency: the degree of organization of anti-fascist forces and the political choices made by their leaders mattered very much.24 Even in the narrowed political spectrum of the 1920s, Klan leaders confronted some ideas and values that defied their ambitions. Majority rule, religious tolerance, and regard for the rule of law, for example, all had significant, if not majoritarian, followings.

Among the reasons ordinarily cited by historians for why the United States bypassed the road some of its great-power peers took is the fact that a strong and inclusive working-class movement was able to pose an alternative to both the far right and the discredited status quo during the Great Depression. As civil rights movement veteran Anne Braden once observed, the times when the Klan has failed to grow are as instructive as those when it has. In neither the 1930s nor the 1960s did it make much headway, she argues, because in each period “strong mass movements advocated real answers to social and economic problems” at the same time as “there was a strong offensive against the ideology of racism.”25

If this analysis has merit, then the irony is acute. That phenomenon deemed least American by the dominant culture from the founding of the republic forward—class struggle waged by the propertyless, many of them black Americans and recent immigrants—may have contributed more than we will ever know to keeping reactionary populist movements at bay in the United States during the Great Depression. Perhaps, after all, it was those with the least “stake in society” who had the most stake in defending democracy.

Adapted from Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan by Nancy K. MacLean with permission from Oxford University Press. © Oxford University Press 1995.

1. Hux, “Klan in Macon,” 21; Loucks, Klan in Pennsylvania, 164; Moore, Citizen Klansmen, 184-86; Goldberg, Hooded Empire, 58, 94-95, 178-79; Gerlach, Blazing Crosses, xvi-xvii, 8; Jenkins, Steel Valley Klan, 153; Alexander, Crusade for Conformity, 27.

2. The Klan’s “ultimate weakness,” maintained Kenneth Jackson, “was its lack of a positive program and a corresponding reliance upon emotion rather than reason.” “The genuine American sense of decency,” he concluded, “finally asserted itself and consigned the once mighty Klan to obscurity.” Jackson, Klan in the City, 254-55. For similar, if less cheerful, views, see Gerlach, Blazing Crosses, 8, 83.

3. To the extent that scholars of the Klan make the comparison, they tend to dispose of it quickly and speciously. See, for example, Cocoltchos, “Invisible Government,” 626. Exceptions to the prevailing provincialism are Robert Moats Miller, “The Ku Klux Klan,” in Change and Continuity in Twentieth-Century America: The 1920’s, ed. John Braeman, Robert H. Bremner, and David Brody (n.p., 1968), 215-55; Victor C. Ferkiss, “Populist Influences on American Fascism,” Western Political Quarterly 10 (June 1957), 350-73. Both of these works are now quite dated; Ferkiss’s work is particularly flawed by its one-sided caricature, taking off from Richard Hofstadter, of the Populism of the 1890s and its assertion of a direct, unmediated link between it and the fascisms of the twentieth century.

4. Mayer, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken 31. For discussion of the international retreat in recent years from comparative study of these movements, see Tim Mason, “Whatever Happened to Fascism?” Radical History Review 49 (1991), 89-98. For the differences between counterrevolution, reaction, and conservatism and why they matter, see Arno J. Mayer, Dynamics of Counterrevolution in Europe, 1870-1956: An Ana- lytic Framework (New York, 1971).

5. Quoted in James R. Green, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943 (Baton Rouge, 1978), 401-5; Siegfried, America Comes of Age, 134; Arthur Corning White, “An American Fascismo,” Forum 72 (1924), 636-42. See also Atlanta Independent, 21 Dec. 1922, p. 1; “Our Own Secret Fascisti,” Nation 115 (15 Nov. 1922), 514; Burbank, “Agrarian Radicals and Their Opponents”; see also DuBois, “The Shape of Fear,” 293; Bohn, “The Klan Interpreted,” 397. The discussion that follows concentrates on the commonalities between the Klan and fascist movements, not fascist governments in power, given the changes in composition, ideology, and object that occurred once fascist leaders assumed direction of the state.

6. Searchlight, 4 Nov. 1922, p. 4; Imperial Night Hawk, 4 April 1923, p. 2; Kourier, June 1925, p. 10; Jefferson, Roman Catholicism and the Ku Klux Klan, 145.

11. For analyses along these lines of fascism as a social movement, see Allen, Nazi Seizure of Power; the essays in David Forgacs, ed., Re- thinking Italian Fascism: Capitalism, Populism and Culture (London, 1986); Giampiero Carocci, Italian Fascism, trans. Isabel Quigly (Baltimore, 1975), esp. 7-27; Childers, The Nazi Voter: The Social Foundations of Fas- cism in Germany, 1919-1933 (Chapel Hill, 1983); Mayer, Dynamics of Counterrevolution; Trotsky, Struggle Against Fascism in Germany; idem, Whither France (1936; reprint, New York, 1968); Daniel Guerin, Fascism and Big Business, trans. Frances and Mason Merr (n.p., 1973); Felix Mor- row, Revolution Counter-Revolution in Spain (New York, 1974). For a dissenting view about lower-middle-class dominance in Hitler’s popular following, and emphasis, instead, on upper- and upper-middle-class back- ing, see Richard F. Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler (Princeton, 1982).

7. The discussion of Nazi ideology in this and ensuing paragraphs builds heavily on Mayer, “The Syncretism of Mein Kampf,” chap. 4 of Why Did the Heavens Not Darken 90-109. Hereafter, it will only be cited when quoted; other sources will be cited as appropriate.

8. Quotes from Allen, Nazi Seizure of Power, 22; Mayer, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken! 98. See also Mosse, Nazi Culture, 319-22; Mayer, Dynamics of Counterrevolution, 64; Gunter W. Remmling, “The Destruction of the Workers’ Mass Movements in Nazi Germany,” in Dobkowski and Walliman, Radical Perspectives on the Rise of Fascism, 215-30; Kurt Patzold, “Terror and Demagoguery in the Consolidation of the Fascist Dictatorship in Germany, 1933-34,” in loc. cit., 231-46.

9. The phrase “revolutionary counterrevolutionism” comes from Mayer, who uses it to capture Hitler’s self-representation as “a revolutionary against revolution.” (Mayer, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken! 94). On Nazi racialism, see Mosse, Nazi Culture, 2, 57-60.

12. Roderick Kedward, “Afterword: What Kind of Revisionism,” in Forgacs, Rethinking Italian Fascism, 198; Mayer, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken! 54-55.

13. See, for example, Searchlight, 22 July 1922, p. 4.

14. For illustrations, see Duffus, “Klan in the Middle West,” 365; Gladys L. Palmer, Union Tactics and Economic Change (Philadelphia, 1932), 38-44; Cocoltchos, “Invisible Government,” 194-96, 260-61, 331.

15. Kourier, Dec. 1929, p. 4; also Imperial Night-Hawk, 4 April 1923, p. 2; White, Heroes of the Fiery Cross, 79-84.

16. For examples from Athens, see ABH, 21 Jan. 1925, p. 1; J. T. Jones o Exalted Cyclops and Klansmen of Athens, 1 June 1925, box 1, AK. Nationally, see Klan, Georgia, Official Document, Nov. 1926, pp. 1, 2—3; Klan, Official Monthly Bulletin, 1 Dec. 1926, pp. 1, 2. On churches, see Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power, 272; Mosse, Nazi Culture, 235-40.

17. Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler! 3; Jackson, Klan in the City, 137-38. On conditions in Germany at the time of the election of 1932, see Childers, Nazi Voter, 192-93. In terms of social setting, the American experience of these years was more like that of England. Victors in the war, both of these countries developed similar movements of the far right, yet the impasse was less severe and their systems more able to accommodate the strain.

18. See, e.g., ABH,5 April 1927, p. 1; ABH,20 Jan. 1930, p. 1.

19. Leo Wolman, The Growth of American Trade Unions, 26, 33-37; Barnett, “American Trade Unionism”; Montgomery, Fall of the House of Labor, 453-54; Bernstein, Lean Years; and Dunn, Americanization of La- bor. The rout of labor in the South was especially thorough. See Layne, Cotton Mill Worker, 203-6; Evans, “History of Organized Labor,” 90; Yabroff and Herlihy, “History of Work Stoppages,” 368-70. On the Left, see Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 187, 513; Stein, World of Marcus Garvey, 130-31; Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler!301.

20. Stein, World of Marcus Garvey, 162; McMillen, Dark Journey, 314-16.

21. For the rise and demise of black militancy in the postwarU.S., see Stein, World of Marcus Garvey, esp. 129-32. For Garvey’s accommodation to the Ku Klux Klan in the South, see ibid., 153-54, 159-60; Zangrando, NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 91.

22. The phrase comes from DeMott, Imperial Middle. For growing militarism and antipathy to labor struggle in the larger, multi-million- member fraternal tradition, see Clawson, Constructing Brotherhood, chap. 8, 26-28; Lynn Dumenil, Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880—1930 (Princeton, 1984), 147; and chap. 4. For American racialist traditions, see, for example, Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, rev. ed. (Boston, 1955); Stephen Steinberg, The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America (Boston, 1981); Higham, Strangers in the Land; Gordon, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, 136-58; Thomas G. Dyer, Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race (Baton Rouge, 1980). On the face-coding of class, see Jordan, White Over Black; Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom; Ronald T. Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 1979); Alexander Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (London, 1990); David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London, 1991). On gender and middle-class consciousness, see, for a start, Mary P. Ryan,’ Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (Cambridge, Mass., 1981); Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (New York, 1986).

23. James Weldon Johnson, testimony before United States Senate, To Prevent and Punish the Crime of Lynching, Hearing before a Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate, 69th Congress, 1st session, 16 February 1926 (Washington, D .C ., 1926), 24. For the cultural legitimacy of such violence, see, in particular, Richard Maxwell Brown, Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism (New York, 1975), esp. chap. 6, “Lawless Lawfulness: Legal and Behavioral Perspectives on American Vigilantism.”

24. Allen, Nazi Seizure of Power, esp. 276; David Forgacs, “The Left and Fascism: Problems of Definition and Strategy,” in Forgacs, ed., Re- thinking Italian Fascism; Mabel Berezin, “Created Constituencies: The Italian Middle Classes and Fascism,” in loc. cit., esp. 158; Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler esp. 422,441;Rudy Koshar, “On the Politics of the Splintered Classes: An Introductory Essay,” in Koshar, ed., Splintered Classes, esp. 6, 15; and the tragically prescient commentary by Leon Trotsky, Struggle Against Fascism in Germany.

25. Anne Braden, “Lessons from a History of Struggle,” Southern Exposure 8, n. 2 (Summer 1980), 56. There are even some reports of former Klansmen in the South crossing over to the interracial Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Socialist and Communist Parties. See Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 207; Green, Grass-Roots Socialism, 414; Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammmer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, (Chapel Hill, 1990), 28, 61. For an extraordinary, suggestive recent example of such a turn, see “ ‘Why I Quit the Klan’; Studs Terkel Interviews C. P. Ellis,” Southern Exposure 8, n. 2 (Summer 1980), 95-98.