The ability of Trump’s snake-oil coalition to take over the leadership of the Republican party is no surprise. Grifting and right wing politics go hand in hand. Glenn Beck, Dick Cheney, and Newt Gingrich all took the strategy of manipulating and stoking the fears of conservatives to new extremes in the twenty years prior to Trump. Rush Limbaugh died with $600 Million in the bank. Before that, Pat Robertson formed the “Moral Majority” in conjunction with the Theocons to sell the party to evangelicals as the only home for Christians. They were paid beautifully for it as Pat Robertson’s net worth will show.
Historically, grifting is only a modern Republican phenomena but has proven to be at the core of conservatism. It is now the standard practice of the GOP because they have hoarded the most gullible groups to their side for the promise of whatever vague individualist principles they wish fulfilled. Before any one party owned the grifting practice, it was still most effective when used on the right. There is no better example of the marriage between grifting con-artists and right wing politics than the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan in the early twentieth century.
In the early twentieth century, fraternal groups were a major aspect of setting social status. This was especially true for the middle class that was evolving out of the industrial boom at the time. Many of these fraternal organizations are still around today, such as the Freemasons, Woodmen of the World, or Shriners. After the release of The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the reported popularity of a small resurgence of the Klan outside Atlanta, two grifters saw their opportunity for a major business move.
The birth of the Klan in 1915 is shrouded in racist myth. Thanksgiving night, the premiere of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation brought hundreds of excited Atlanta citizens for an exhilarating show. At the conclusion of the film, the crowd, inspired and emotional, left the theatre to gaze in awe at a burning cross shining above Stone Mountain, Georgia. Enthusiastically, every man there sought to bring back the Klan of their fathers and grandfathers and continue the proud tradition of preserving white supremacy. Or, so the story goes.
In reality, The Birth of a Nation, did serve to refresh the KKK of the Reconstruction period with a new look and new motivation. The film pitches the KKK as glorious saviors against the freed slaves who are shown as taking full advantage of their freedom by voting and lusting after white women. (Two themes that continue to terrify white supremacists). The white sheets with pointed hats, the burning cross, and the honorable vigilante were all new tropes associated with the group who used to simply murder freedmen looking to partake in the programs of Reconstruction.
These new symbols of the KKK were ripe for commercialism. The film inflamed the Jim Crow sympathizers of the era. Even President Woodrow Wilson felt the need to host the film at the White House, declaring, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” The history was not true, but it did offer a clear path for exploitation.
The burning cross of Stone Mountain was in fact set ablaze on Thanksgiving night, by William Simmons and a small group of men. But The Birth of a Nation wouldn’t reach Atlanta till December 6th. Simmons, of Harpersville, AL, spent the next few years building up a mythos for his new club. He wrote the Kloran (yep, named after the Quran), a guidebook detailing all the secrets and rituals that the members would honor. He created the hierarchy of the society, naming himself imperial wizard, and set out recruiting for the fraternal organization with a mission he believed in: securing white supremacy. During World War I, Simmons was able to add in some new enemies to the Klan’s book of villains namely Jews and Catholics. But, he saw little success.
After the war, the Southern Publicity Association led by Edward Young Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler saw the opportunity to expand the Klan nationwide. Taking a quarter of all dues for themselves and guaranteeing forty percent to local recruiters (known as Kleagles), the Klan was set up as a pyramid scheme. They knew that fear, anger, and their symbols would sell. The leaders began hammering racial divides. Conspiratorial Jews, self-righteous African Americans, and a neverending wave of immigrants were the primary victims. Sound familiar?
Within eighteen months the total number of members had surpassed five hundred thousand. The publicity increased. A new film was commissioned, The Face at Your Window (1920), to try and recapture the urgency of The Birth of a Nation. Pamphlets, books, and essays were mass produced. To attract mid-westerners, Catholics were targeted with claims that the Pope burned Bibles and the immigrants wanted to instill a Roman Catholic government. Membership skyrocketed.
The publicity led to more militant wings popping up within the organization. With reports of money laundering by Simmons, Clarke, and Tyler, a demand for change was called. In 1923, all three were removed from control of the organization. The fraternal aspect of the group was no longer the priority; it was a political movement. In 1924, the Klan brought in over eight million dollars and boasted membership of more than 3 million. It had the money and power to support its own candidates for office. Three years later, it would be only three hundred thousand members.
Why the sudden drop? Lack of coherent vision, lack of singular leadership, and a failing of the initial vision (the grift). The leadership of the three grifters understood that money would be the key to growth and they were incredibly successful. What the new leadership didn’t realize was that the conspiratorial nature that got them all hooked in the first place couldn’t be converted to a real political movement. The true believers lost sight of the profits and didn’t realize the weaknesses of their conspiratorial world view. They could not transition from defence to attack.
W.E.B. Du Bois argued it was black success that drove the KKK to form and that “the mob can only be stirred by wholesale lying […] by secret underground whispering, the methods of night and mask, the psychology of vague and unknown ill, the innuendo that cannot be answered.” We are still in the midst of Trump’s stranglehold on the United States and Republican Party. It is those who learn to make a profit from their “wholesale lying” that always seem to create a new branch of right-wing fanaticism. But as it stands today, it would seem the message is cloudy, the leadership suffers infighting, and the original message has been forgotten. I can only hope that this means it will follow the similar path of the second wave of the KKK.
Author’s Note: I did not spend much time discussing the violence towards African Americans, Jews, or Catholics during this essay. I must point out that the racist vigilantism was at an extreme level for the second wave of the Klan. The effects of that vigilantism were generational. Many regions, communities, and families have still not recovered. Those victims deserve a longer history and reflection, and I’m sorry I have not provided it here.
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Dixon, Thomas. The Clansman; an Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, M E Sharpe Inc.: New York, 2000, 324-327.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Shape of Fear.” The North American Review, Vol. 223, No. 831 (Jun. – Aug., 1926), 291-304.
Fleming, John Stephen. What is Ku Kluxism? Let Americans Answer. Aliens only Muddy the Waters. Birmingham, Ala.: Printed by Masonic Weekly Recorder, 1923.
Horowitz, David A. Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of a Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.
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Moseley, Charlton. “Latent Klanism in Georgia, 1890-1915.” The Georgian Historical Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Fall, 1972), pp. 365-386.
Tucker, Richard K. The dragon and the Cross: the Rise and Fall of the Ku Klux Klan in Middle America. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1991.Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Oxford University Press: New York, 2002.