By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
The central message of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland has been nothing short of apocalyptic. Former Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell summed it up ominously, proclaiming, “The world outside our border is a dark place, a scary place.” According to RNC speakers, and in particular Mr. Donald Trump, very scary things can happen inside our borders as well and it is illegal immigrants that are chiefly to blame. Of course, anti-immigration discourse is not a new phenomenon in American politics. Different periods of global change and economic insecurity throughout history have engendered demagogue agents with similar xenophobic sentiment. The atmosphere of fear and loathing that has pervaded the RNC is reminiscent of the tactics used in the1920s by the Ku Klux Klan.
From the very beginning of his campaign, Trump’s rhetoric has resembled that of the 1920s Klan. To understand the basis of these similarities it is important to examine the challenges facing American white middle and lower classes at the time that in many aspects closely mirror the challenges facing contemporary Americans. The Klan responded to changes in economic structure that were threatening small business owners, rapid urbanization and the fear of urban criminality, and an unprecedented wave of immigration. Trump consistently highlights the same issues in his speeches, appealing primarily to white men without a college education.
Of course, the KKK is most identified with white supremacist violence. In the South the Klan did employ violent discourse and methods, and members of the movement were involved in a myriad of violent attacks including public lynching. In other parts of the US however, the movement’s focus was different, and closely resembles Trump’s current narrative. Though the Klan of the 1920s is less well known than the Klan of the 1860s or 1960s, it was in fact a hugely popular movement that managed to recruit up to five million members across the United States. While the Klan spread fear of Catholics and Jews, who they argued presented a threat to American values and the American way of life, current Republicans spread fear about Latin American immigrants and Muslims.
“Illegal immigrants are roaming free to threaten innocent citizens,” Donald Trump announced in his concluding remarks at the RNC. Senator Jeff Sessions gave a speech denouncing “lawless” immigrants who claimed are stealing American jobs. Sessions concluded his speech with a rousing “Donald Trump will build a wall. Donald Trump will make America great again!” These sentiments, which are the defining feature of the RNC agenda, closely resemble Klan statements in the 1920s. Klan Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans proclaimed, “…we believe that all foreigners were admitted with the idea, and on the basis of at least an implied understanding, that they would become a part of us, adopt our ideas and ideals, and help in fulfilling our destiny along those lines, but never that they should be permitted to force us to change into anything else.”
In a 1923 statement to the New York Times about the movement, a member of the Klan said “Their membership is drawn from the body of the people…the kind of men who made America great. I consider the organization a splendid influence for God and a strong factor in maintaining Americanism.” The protection of “Americanism” and rejection of multiculturalism is also a strong theme of current day Republican rhetoric. The Klan’s “100% Americanism” campaign echoes both Republican “American exceptionalism” mantra and the exclusionary message neatly folded inside it.
The comparison is bittersweet. On the one hand, the Klan’s success was finite: membership peaked in the early 1920s and the organization nearly vanished entirely by 1925. On the other hand, the sentiment of hatred and exclusion is persistent and can have long lasting consequences. The Klan’s success led to tensions within communities and the xenophobic and racially discriminatory Migration Act of 1924, which took decades to overturn. While Trump and his rhetoric might disappear in the near future, they are bound to leave a scar on an already troubled nation.