Gordon, an NYU history professor, provides a timely history of the Klan during its revival in The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (Liveright, Oct.).
Why did you refrain in the book from comparing the 1920s KKK and the current white-nationalist movement?
People expect me to be an expert on the “alt-right” or white nationalism today and I am not. I have neither the time nor the stomach to devote myself to that project. And while I assumed that a lot of readers would see the connections, I wanted them to see those connections for themselves. I also didn’t want it to appear that I think that President Trump is the same as the KKK; that is not what I think—I think it is much more complicated. So those two factors led me to decide very early on to avoid making any of those contemporary connections.
Did you worry that your comments on the effectiveness of Klan organizers in the 1920s would be taken as support for them?
Frankly, no. One of the reasons I did this is to clarify a theme that is very important in histories of the 20th century. That is, I don’t think it is right to call the Klan antimodernist. They might not have loved evolutionary theory, but they loved every tiny piece of new technology. They loved radio, cars, airplanes. In that sense they aren’t antimodern at all. There may be a risk that some people will read [the comments] as positive about the Klan, but there is nothing I can do about that. I did worry that I might be misunderstood in the chapter about Klan “feminism.” While this is not my kind of feminism, I’m not going to deny that the Klan women’s auxiliary had a desire to have greater equality between the sexes.
What was your reasoning for discussing the parallels between the Klan of the 1920s and the rise of fascism in Europe?
The word fascism gets used a lot and while I don’t think the KKK was a fascist organization, I do think there were fascistic aspects of it. I wanted to make clear that, and I’m paraphrasing Umberto Eco, “fascism comes in various plumages.” For too long we have used either Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy as the definition of fascism. That is really not right and I think that fact is very important. I wanted to distill very briefly the characteristics that I would call fascistic. I didn’t think the Klan matched every one of them but I did think the Klan had fascistic aspects.
What forces are at work today that were not in the 1920s?
My impression is that the bulk of white nationalists today are young. The Klan of the 1920s did not necessarily recruit young people, because of relatively high dues that Klan membership required. This has implications because I do think that men are more inclined to violence when they are young than when they get older. Also, today’s groups are much, much smaller than the Klan was and what is hugely different is that they are not at all centralized. But I think the biggest bolstering effect comes from President Trump.