Breitbart carried an article last week saying that American liberals are in despair. It might be a bit late with that headline though. Now they are faced with the reality of Donald Trump’s presidency, his opponents are shaking themselves out of their despair and are starting to fight back. There are good reasons for them to be optimistic, not least of which is the president’s tendency to over-react and waste energy on trivial issues.
But history offers some perspective too, for America has been here before. Well, OK, not quite here but somewhere very similar.
In the 1920s, a determined minority imposed on the rest of America one of the most draconian restrictions on personal freedom ever enacted in a modern democracy. I’m talking, of course, about prohibition. The forces behind prohibition may sound familiar. Its supporters were mostly white protestants from rural and small-town America. Many people were disturbed by rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and immigration. They felt that their America was under attack. Campaigning organisations like the Anti-Saloon League were able to link their anti-alcohol aims to wider fears about immigration and social change. Many immigrants came from countries with drinking cultures and the increase in immigration at the end of the 19th century coincided with a rise in the consumption of alcohol. The cities with their crime, low morals, drunkenness and immigrant populations contrasted sharply with the small towns with their social order, morality, temperance and Anglo-Saxon protestant populations. It was a powerful story. Drink and drunkenness became identified with things urban and foreign. A range of social and political concerns thus crystallised around a single issue. Prohibition became part of a nativist fightback against the encroachment of immigrants and their un-American city ways.
While the story of prohibition is familiar to most people, perhaps less well-known is the power wielded by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. These days, the Klan is a series of somewhat ridiculous dressing-up societies, prone to the occasional outburst of localised violence. In the 1920s, though, it was serious and organised, with paid officials and a national structure. And, the most important difference from today, it was mainstream.
Exploiting similar fears and social forces to those which led to the enactment of prohibition, the Klan grew rapidly. It burst out of its Deep South homeland and formed powerful chapters in such unlikely places as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Oregon. It took control of state governments and courts in Colorado and Indiana. In some parts of the country it became like the Nazi Party in Germany or the Baath Party in Iraq. You had to join it if you wanted to get on. There is even a story that Harry S. Truman was advised to join the Klan when he was a judge in Missouri, as someone might suggest joining the freemasons or the Rotary Club.
By the mid 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was a national organisation. Some historians believe that around 15 percent of white protestant men were members. This graphic shows how the Klan grew from a purely southern movement into a nationwide organisation.
— Umbra Search (@UmbraSearch) August 12, 2016
In the early to mid 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was in the ascendency and its opponents were cowed. Resistance to the Ku Klux Klan was met with violence and, in areas where the organisation controlled the courts and police, the power of the state. In 1924, it sent a number of delegates to the Democratic Convention, coming close to securing its candidate’s nomination and in 1925 a “full mile of Klansmen” marched through Washington DC. Few would have bet against the continuing rise of the organisation and its reactionary and racist politics.
Yet less than ten years later, the Klan had collapsed and Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office, implementing his programme of liberal social and economic reform. Some of this is due to the sheer ineptitude of some of the KKK leaders. If you claim to be upholding American morality but your senior figures keep getting convicted for corruption, eventually even your most loyal supporter start to lose faith. Despite the Klan’s grip on many US states, the dogged determination of its opponents, such as the journalists Grover Hall, gradually exposed its leaders. Once its image became tarnished, its ‘respectable’ supporters, the politicians, lawyers and businessmen who had given it cover, melted away. By the mid 1930s it had almost ceased to exist. The year that Roosevelt became president also saw the repeal of prohibition.
Both prohibition and the rise of the KKK were symptoms of a nativist backlash against immigrants and social change. There are clear parallels with what has happened in the US and elsewhere in the last year. The lesson from the 1920s is that there is no quick fix. Those who want to fight back just have to find the loose threads and keep pulling at them until they unravel. As Tim Mullaney says, by keeping the heat on, Donald Trump’s opponents have already made a pretty good start. America saw off reactionary nativism once before. It should be able to do so again.
John Verley pointed me to this piece on the alliance between the Ku Klux Klan and the Anti-Saloon League.
Drinking was something that was most closely associated with blacks and immigrants such as the Irish and Italians (both largely Catholic). These were the very groups targeted by the Klan, and so the Klan was strongly pro-Prohibition.
Nativism (anti-immigrant activism) could find no better running mate than Prohibition. In many towns there was little distinction between membership in the Klan and in an ASL-affiliated church.
The social and political forces behind prohibition and the KKK’s revival in the 1920s were very similar.