For many Americans, the recent movement of white supremacy from the margins into the mainstream has been a staggering development. Under the guise of countering a “political correctness” run amok, topics that were long considered taboo have lately been broached publicly and proudly. Fringe organizations dedicated to white supremacy have mobilized with surprising strength, while the politics of racism have been revived and rationalized at the highest levels of power.
For white supremacists, Donald Trump’s victory last fall was both revelatory and revolutionary. “Trump has unquestionably brought people to our ideas,” enthused Richard Spencer, the white-nationalist leader who coined the term “alt-right.” Emboldened by the Trump administration—which, until recently, included alt-right allies like Stephen Bannon—white supremacists stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight. “It’s been an awakening,” Spencer raved at a celebratory rally after Trump’s election. “This is what a successful movement looks like.”
That movement, of course, led to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists gathered for a “Unite the Right” rally this past August. According to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, the protesters went there “to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” and “take our country back.” To the shock of onlookers, clean-cut young men marched through the streets of the college town in a torchlight parade, their faces contorted in anger as they shouted “Blood and Soil!”—the old Nazi slogan rendered in German as “Blut und Boden!” The following day, the demonstrations turned deadly when a 20-year-old alt-right supporter drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters, killing one.
With any other American president, the obvious response would have been a quick and clear condemnation of the white supremacists. But Trump, as he often reminds us, is like no other president. His initial comments parceled out blame to the “many sides” involved in the confrontation and were so lightly drawn that the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer saw his words as a sign of support. To make matters worse, Trump then insisted that “some very fine people” had participated in the white-supremacist protest. Naturally, alt-right leaders were flattered. “Really proud of him,” said Spencer.
To many Americans, the warm relationship between the White House and white supremacists appears to be a new and shocking development. But as Linda Gordon reminds us in The Second Coming of the KKK, white-supremacist politics have entered our political mainstream before. The “second Klan” of the 1910s and ’20s—unlike the vigilante group that preceded it in the Reconstruction era or the racist terrorists who targeted the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s—operated largely in the open and with broad support from white society in general and white politicians in particular. Moving beyond the regional and racial boundaries of the South, this version of the Klan spread across the country, targeting a broader range of enemies: Asians and Latinos alongside African Americans, as well as large swaths of religious minorities like Catholics, Jews, and Mormons. At its peak, the second Klan claimed to have between 4 and 6 million members nationwide, although Gordon makes a persuasive case that this was “certainly an exaggeration.”