“Through a clear and dispassionate comparison of the ascendance of the Klan in the 1920s and Trump in 2016, McVeigh and Estep trace the roots of white nationalism in American politics. They show how opportunistic leaders combined race, economics, culture, and religion to mobilize white resentment.”
~Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Duke University
This past weekend’s shooting in El Paso, Texas has added fuel to the ongoing controversy about President Trump’s words and their influence on white supremacists. In their new book, The Politics of Losing: Trump, the Klan, and the Mainstreaming of Resentment, Rory McVeigh and Kevin Estep trace the parallels between the 1920s Klan and today’s right-wing backlash, identifying the conditions that allow white nationalism to emerge from the shadows. Their sociological analysis of the Klan’s outbreaks sheds light on how Trump’s rise to power was made possible by a convergence of circumstances. In the guest post below, Nancy Reeves Dreux Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, Rory McVeigh, discusses Trumps base and the politics of losing.
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The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan pledge themselves now and forever to stand between our country and any agency, anywhere, which seeks to lay its hands upon our Holy American Institutions.
— Imperial Night-Hawk, March 28, 1923
“Klan Needs to Ride Again,” proclaimed the headline of an editorial from February 2019 in the Democrat-Reporter, a small town newspaper out of Linden, Alabama. The op-ed drew appropriate condemnation from mainstream media outlets and cost the editor his job. And perhaps we should simply dismiss it as a holdover from a bygone era, an old newsman out of step with modern sensibilities.
But Americans have a long history of calling upon the lawless to restore the law. If we examine this tendency, we might solve some segment of the puzzle of Donald Trump’s unshakable core supporters. Could he really shoot a man on Fifth Avenue and get away with it? It certainly seems like more than one-third of Americans are willing to overlook the many ways that Trump breaks the rules that the rest of us have to follow. But why?
Trump practices a style of politics that I call the “politics of losing,” a strategy of political mobilization we have seen many times before. I am a political sociologist who studies social movements—especially right-wing social movements—in American history. If I had to pick the single closest analog to Trump’s rise to the presidency, it would be this: the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
This Klan—the second of three iterations—was the largest, and it spread the farthest. It recruited millions of dues-paying members and established chapters in every state in the nation. As many as one in twenty-three Americans was a member. It grew particularly strong in such Midwestern states as Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Klan members took it upon themselves to enforce moral codes, at times violently. They held countless marches and rallies that drew as many as fifty thousand. But they also held social events like picnics, concerts, ball games, and rodeos.
“If I had to pick the single closest analog to Trump’s rise to the presidency, it would be this: the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.”
In 1924 they turned their attention to politics, aiming to elect “100 percent Americans” to offices as low as the county clerkship and as high as the presidency.
Klan leaders of the day had discovered a winning formula, one that could foment a powerful political movement. They enlisted recruiters—whom they called Kleagles—and sent them out across the country, paying them a commission on every ten-dollar membership fee they collected from new Klansmen. Their marching orders were simple: Enter local communities and find out what is troubling people. Then promise that the Klan, and only the Klan, can fix it.
The Kleagles unearthed deep pockets of anger and resentment everywhere in America. They found it was deepest among middle-class white Protestants.
Much like today, the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties was uneven. The economy was shifting from skilled craftsman to mass-production manufacturing. Urban centers in New England, the heart of the factory economy, were booming. But this success came at the expense of many Midwestern economies that had no factories and rural towns struggling through an agricultural recession. Their power was slipping away, and they were looking for someone to blame.
Those who would turn to the Klan resented the European immigrants—predominantly Catholic but also Jewish—who labored in the factories and fueled industrial expansion. From 1900 to 1914 the average number of immigrants just from Italy topped 200,000 annually. This fell off sharply during World War I, but after the armistice immigration from Europe surged again. Potential Klansmen sensed that the steady flow of immigrants into the country had diminished their influence in politics, diluted the power of their vote, and eroded their status as a white, native-born, Protestant majority.
“Their marching orders were simple: Enter local communities and find out what is troubling people. Then promise that the Klan, and only the Klan, can fix it.”
These conditions made them receptive to an organization that promised to restore them to their former supremacy in America and, in their eyes, make the country great again.
One hundred years later, the shifting global economy was once again generating winners and losers. American manufacturing was moving overseas. Extractive industries such as coal mining and logging were hobbled by environmental regulations and pushed aside by fracking and cleaner alternative energy. After the deep recession from 2008 to 2010, the slow recovery reached Americans unevenly.
Whether you were better off in 2016 than you were in 2010 depended upon one thing: whether you went to college. The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University reports that, in that span, the pool of workers who held at least a bachelor’s degree enjoyed a net gain of 8.4 million jobs. The pool of those without college degrees gained only 80,000 jobs—and they had lost 5.6 million jobs in the recession. The jobs that replaced the lost manufacturing and extractive jobs are often lower paid and less stable, often in retail or fast food. In the primaries and the general election, Trump performed extraordinarily well in counties with low percentages of college graduates.
“One hundred years later, the shifting global economy was once again generating winners and losers.”
Instead of the native-born, white, middle-class Protestants of the 1920s, it was now the small-town, high-school-educated, white working class. Once again, they looked for someone to blame and found immigrants, whom they accused of stealing jobs. This time, rather than European Catholics, it was Central and South American immigrants.
The country is becoming demonstrably less white. Approximately 85 percent of voters were white in the mid-1980s. By 2012, that number was 74 percent. By 2045, it is projected that fewer than half of American voters will be white.
So like the Klan Trump emerged as a beacon of hope. He promised to bring back the kinds of jobs that are not coming back and to reclaim America for his white supporters. As Trump said just months before the election, “I will be the greatest president for jobs that God ever created.”
“So like the Klan Trump emerged as a beacon of hope.”
Practitioners of the politics of losing capitalize on the anger and confusion that attend declining power. That power may be economic, and it can also be rooted in the privileges of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Sociologists have studied how, over time, people experience group dominance as natural, lawful, even ordained by God. It is not surprising, then, that the loss of this power can feel like usurpation, a perversion of all that is right and good.
These feelings of injustice have manifested in political movements many times in American history, often alongside vigilante justice. We have seen this not only in the 1920s but also when the Klan rose in the South during Reconstruction in the 1860s and again to stymie civil rights advances in the 1960s. Now we see it, or a version of it, in a feckless real estate tycoon in the White House.