Trump and the Klan: A New Controversy with Old Roots

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Donald Trump at a press conference at the Trump International Golf Club, West Palm Beach, Florida, March 5, 2016. 

Donald Trump’s failure to swiftly disavow his endorsement by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke drew swift condemnation from Republicans and Democrats alike. GOP Senator Marco Rubio called Trump “unelectable.” Bernie Sanders branded him a “hatemonger” on Twitter, a denunciation that Hillary Clinton promptly retweeted. Also on Twitter, Mitt Romney called Trump’s initial statement that he would need to “research” white supremacist groups like the KKK “a disqualifying and disgusting response.” Trump has since overtly disavowed Duke and the Klan, but his campaign continues to give other white supremacists priority access to events.

Lost in the latest Trump uproar is that the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists have been significant players in our national politics for a century, engaged in debates over not only race and region but also over immigration, culture, and American identity more broadly. Indeed, just under a century ago, the Klan muscled its way to center stage at a national political party’s convention in a moment that captured the hate group’s tenacious national presence. Back then it was the Democrats, not the Republicans, struggling to quell the divisions within their ranks. But the story speaks volumes about the racial tensions that continue to tear at the national body politic.

It was 1924, and the Democrats were holding their national convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden, a political brawl that ran continuously for more than two weeks and required a record 103 ballots to nominate the party’s presidential candidate. The two frontrunners coming into the convention were William Gibbs McAdoo, a California businessman and future U.S. senator who had served as Woodrow Wilson’s Treasury Secretary, and New York Governor Alfred Smith, a Catholic vehemently opposed by the Ku Klux Klan. The delegates linked with the Klan, which had over the preceding decade had gained significant, controversial national influence in the Democratic Party and beyond, supported McAdoo. Like Trump when first asked about David Duke, McAdoo did not disavow or decline the endorsement.

From June 24 to July 9, Catholics, immigrants, and other coalitions within the party fought the Klan delegates in a series of back-and-forth nominations of Smith, McAdoo, and a number of other candidates. The result was a convention that broke all records for length, came to be known as the “Klanbake,” and eventually nominated a broadly unpopular alternative candidate, namely former West Virginia Congressman John W. Davis. Davis went on to lose the presidential election to Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge by a margin of nearly 250 electoral votes.

That historic convention serves as a reminder that white supremacists have been tied to both major parties, and that Democrats have not been immune from ugly racial attacks. Indeed, the Klan and its ilk were most prominently associated with the Democratic Party until at least the 1948 “Dixiecrat” revolt, when segregationist Democrats nominated Strom Thurmond as a third-party presidential candidate. (To be clear, this does not mean, as the recent comments of CNN analyst and Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord suggest, that the KKK is a “leftist” organization; the hate group has always been and remains thoroughly reactionary.) Yet the 1924 convention also illustrates the nation’s ongoing struggle with itself over immigration and visions of our collective identity. The Klan’s rise a century ago went hand in hand with the passage of the first comprehensive national immigration law, the Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as the Johnson-Reed Act).

At the time, the 1924 law extended and made permanent the so-called Emergency Quota Act, a 1921 law that had established immigration quotas based on national origin. The central arguments for both creating a national immigration law and basing it on such quotas were openly racist, as reflected in a speech delivered on the Senate floor by then-South Carolina Senator Ellison Durant Smith, himself a white supremacist dedicated to “keeping the niggers down and the price of cotton up.” Smith, one of the 1924 law’s more ardent supporters, argued that “the point as to this measure … is that the time has arrived when we should shut the door. … Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock; certainly the greatest of any nation in the Nordic breed. It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation in her progress and in her power.”

Such demagoguery by Smith and his allies led to the Act’s passage in 1924 Act, creating a national immigration system based on ethnic preferences and discrimination. Although nations in the Western Hemisphere were initially exempt from those quotas, white supremacists continued to advocate for extending the law’s exclusionary effects. In 1928, Texas Congressman John Box, the son of a Confederate veteran and another overtly white supremacist lawmaker, delivered a speech in the House of Representatives that made these goals clear: “Every reason which calls for the exclusion of the most wretched, ignorant, dirty, diseased, and degraded people of Europe or Asia demands that the illiterate, unclean, peonized masses moving this way from Mexico be stopped at the border. … The protection of American society against the importation of crime and pauperism is yet another object of these laws. Few, if any, other immigrants have brought us so large a proportion of criminals and paupers as have the Mexican peons.”

Today, it’s easy to hear echoes of Box’s speech in Donald Trump’s descriptions of Mexican immigrants as “people that have lots of problems,” and as threatening arrivals who “are bringing drugs and crime” and “are rapists.” Disturbingly, xenophobia, cultural definitions of American identity, and white supremacy have long gone hand in hand, and remain vital forces in 21st century American politics and society. Yet these forces of hate have never gone uncontested. At the 1928 Democratic National Convention, held in Box’s own state of Texas, Alfred Smith, whom the KKK had worked so tirelessly to defeat in 1924, was nominated as the party’s presidential candidate. It remains to be seen whether Republicans can rise above Trump’s racially tinged attacks and unify behind a more uplifting vision of the nation’s future. In the meantime, the 1924 convention and the Immigration Act serve as uncomfortable reminders that both parties share in the divisive struggles of the past.

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