There’s a 1920s Klan pamphlet, The Menace of Modern Immigration, that is worth recalling in the lead-up to the current presidential election. Written by H.W. Evans, the second Imperial Wizard of the second incarnation of the Klan, the cover features a dragon with horns, fangs, and sharp claws vomiting people, instead of fire. A steady stream of immigrants, dressed in supposedly ethnic fashion, flows out of its jaws.
Evans wrote that America was founded by white Protestant patriots “with an inherent, kindred reverence for rightly established institutions.” Immigrants, he sounded the alarm again and again, would destroy everything that white Protestant men held dear: America, religion, traditional norms of femininity, masculinity, and patriotism. For the Klan, immigrants proved dangerous because they could change not only the demographics, but also the culture of America. If the nation were to remain white and Protestant, immigration could not be allowed. Much of what the Klan feared was the demise of the power and privilege of white Christian men.
“God,” Evans wrote, “never imposes insuperable burdens and obstacles upon his children.” God, then, would allow the nation to survive the perils of immigration. The nation did survive, but the 1920s Klan did not.
So when Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign in a speech laced with hostile remarks about immigrants, I found the sentiments both surprising and familiar. My 2011 book, Gospel According to the Klan, analyzed the group’s appeal to Protestant America. The subset of the Klan that I studied fell apart by 1930, but blaming immigrants for the nation’s woes continued long after their demise. While the Klan is only one of many movements to capitalize on this anxiety, it felt like Trump was taking cues from them, dressing up the old intolerance of immigrants for modern audiences. Where the 1920s Klan sought legal obstacles against immigration, Trump peddles a literal wall against immigrants.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the Republican nominee finds support for his position from avowed white supremacists. Former Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke hopes that Trump’s campaign will open the door for public acceptance of his white nationalism. White supremacist groups, which generally don’t endorse presidential candidates, have thrown support behind Trump. But some of the most vocal support, especially in online forums, comes from the nascent “alt-right” movement. Rosie Gray of Buzzfeed reports, “Trump is a hero on the alt right and the subject of many adoring memes and tweets.” This movement, she continues, is “white supremacy perfectly tailored for our times.”
The alt-right, which is most often labeled a white nationalist movement, appears at first glance to be the same old white supremacy. One might well assume that the alt-right would resemble other white supremacists I have researched, acting as a new state-of-the-art version of the Klan that make the internet and social media work for them (in contrast to contemporary Klansmen who remain dedicated to their brand: wearing hoods and robes, burning crosses, and passing out fliers) This assumption, however, turns out to be wrong. While the alt-right has resonances with historical white supremacist movements, they are also creating a newer form of white nationalism that realizes stark differences from the Klan’s legacy of white supremacy and religious nationalism.
Richard Spencer, who the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “one of the country’s most successful young white nationalist leaders,” created the term “alt-right” in 2008. His goal was to differentiate a movement from establishment conservatism and emphasize the importance of white identity and the preservation of Western civilization. Unlike the 1920s Klan, which was a national order with local chapters, the alt-right is a diffuse network of leaders and supporters who claim the alt-right mantle. They rely on Twitter (especially hashtag campaigns), online journals, blogs, and even think-tanks like the National Policy Institute to distribute their message. In Spencer’s Radix Journal, Alfred W. Clark, a promoter of the alt-right, writes about the variety of groups that make up the movement: “identitarians and archeofuturists, race realists and HBD [human biodiversity] bloggers, the European New Right (ENR), edgelords, neo-reaction (NRx) and reaction (Rx), trad Christians, neo-pagans, white nationalists, PUAs [pick-up artists], etc.”
What these supporters have in common is a belief that white identity is under attack in the increasingly multicultural and globalized world. They are bound together often not by what they are for, but what they oppose: immigration and the resettlement of refugees, feminism, identity politics, “social justice,” and “political correctness.” The alt-right catalogs these supposed affronts on whiteness, particularly from the Left, academia, and “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs).
White people, the alt-right suggests, are constantly under attack and disenfranchised in American society. The movement, then, stands up for white identity against all supposed threats. They’ve been involved in GamerGate, created hashtags about the threat of white genocide, and visited college campuses to stir up controversy and draw attention to their message. In their campaigns against SJWs, feminists, and Black Lives Matter activists, they assert that these groups are the victimizers and that white people are the actual victims. Like the Klan, they claim to be the victims of culture wars, struggling to defend whiteness. Unsurprisingly, neither group acknowledges the historical power and privilege associated with white identity or admits the privilege that white skin still allows.
Still, the alt-right’s white supremacy strikes a different tone than that of Duke and previous versions of the Klan. While the alt-right and other white supremacist groups may generally agree on their support for some of Trump’s policies, the movement often distances itself from other white supremacist groups. In “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” a manifesto of sorts, Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart write, “What little remains of old-school white supremacy and the KKK in America constitutes a tiny, irrelevant contingent with no purchase on public life and no support from what the media would call the ‘far-Right.’” The alt-right wants us to know that they are over the Klan, a group that younger racists, according to Brian Palmer at Slate, understand as “their grandfathers’ hate group.”
Identity aside, the alt-right pursues a form of white nationalism distinct from the Klan. While both the alt-right and the 1920s Klan were avidly against immigrants and immigration, Klansmen and Klanswomen were champions of American exceptionalism. To them, America appeared as a nation founded and nourished by white Protestant citizens. They believed themselves to be patriots saving America from immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and African Americans. The Klan promoted democracy as the means to govern the nation, even as they feared the influence of Catholic voters.
The alt-right, however, is against both American exceptionalism and democracy. Spencer is more concerned with a generic “Western civilization” as a whole than with the fate of the American nation. He looks to Europe as the beginning of white identity, which the Klan saw originating in the United States. Alt-right leaders even express concerns around core national fundamentals, discussing the overthrow of democracy for an authoritarian regime and holding up Russia’s Vladimir Putin as an exemplary leader.
But one of the major differences between the alt-right and the old Klan regards religion. For the Klan, white nationalism was attached to Protestant Christianity. The 1920s Klan offered up theological arguments to support their positions on race, gender, and nationalism. In the pages of The Imperial Night-Hawk, a Klan newspaper, leaders encouraged members to emulate Jesus because he should be the masculine role model for all of their actions. Klan fliers urged Klansmen to go to church, and Klansmen relied on their Bibles (one of the seven symbols of the Klan, alongside the cross) to legitimate their racism and support their concerns about “miscegenation.”
The role of religion within the alt-right is much more complex. The movement leans more toward the philosophical than the theological. Michael Knowles of The Daily Wire notes the alt-right “loves Christendom but rejects Christianity.” They suggest that Christendom helped unify Europe, leading to the creation of their cherished white European identity. Thus rather than being an essential component of the alt-right movement, Christianity appears more often as a historical artifact leading to the white identity that they celebrate and protect. At the Radix Journal, Clark argues that the alt-right isn’t anti-Christian, but against “mainstream Christianity today where you have ‘Christian leaders’ supporting the Third World Immigration invasion of the West and telling white people that they should adopt non-whites instead of procreating and white babies [sic].” Clark’s comments are hypercritical of Christianity as he sees it being practiced. Clark further notes that the alt-right is “diverse” when it comes to religion. The movement includes atheists, agnostics, Identity Christians, traditional Catholics, neo-pagans, and some harsh critics of Christianity. He continues: “Much of modern Western Christianity has become suicidal and the alt-right is correct to mock and criticize it.”
Christendom matters more than Christianity to the alt-right’s white nationalism. Whiteness appears primarily as a racial category that emerges out of European roots and echoes the far right traditions of that continent. Yet there are still anti-religious positions within the alt-right that reflect Christian intolerance of other religious movements. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, within the alt-right, there’s “some disagreement with regard to Jews, and whether to blame them for the perceived plight of white culture—a belief that has undergirded many sectors of white nationalism for decades.” While Jared Taylor, founder of the white supremacist American Renaissance website, regards Jews as white people, Spencer regularly relies on anti-Semitic speakers at his events and excludes Jews from his vision of a white ethno-state. Muslims also appear dangerous, threatening, and suspicious to the alt-right. The alt-right’s platform against immigration, particularly the resettlement of Syrian refugees, is about how Muslims might also change the demographics of the nation. They’re worried that white men will soon be outnumbered by people of different religious, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. This principle is shared with the Klan. Decades apart, both the 1920s Klan and the alt-right promoted a fear that a changing nation would have an adverse effect on white men. In 1924 and in 2016, both movements feared the victimization of white men, the possibility of a fall from prestige, power, and relevance.
However, the alt-right’s lament about the supposed decline of white people is very often a gendered lament; they’re not concerned about whiteness and masculinity separately, but specifically about white masculinity. Where the Klan and other groups purported to defend white womanhood, femininity, and virtue, the alt-right cares particularly about the supposed attacks on white men in public life. When women emerge in the conversation at all, it’s as a threat (dangerous feminists) or a possible hook-up (for pick-up artists). It shouldn’t be surprising then that the alt-right appears to lack women leaders and supporters. The Klan seemed to realize the importance of mobilizing white women to their cause and created a women’s auxiliary, the Women of the KKK. The alt-right emerges as a white men’s movement devoted to shoring up the power of white men.
The alt-right yearns for a return to their interpretation of what is “traditional.” They seek a version of Western civilization that keeps the current social and technological advances while getting rid of egalitarianism and universalism. In this narrative, they are allowed to return—as white men—to the total power and privilege they feel that they’ve lost (albeit, still ignoring the reality that white men still dominate positions of power in the U.S.). They want a modern society with our technical conveniences, but without the inconvenience of gender and racial equality. They bemoan some lost glory, although whether it’s a broader philosophical lament or a sense of personal entitlement is often hard to distinguish.
The Klan at its height waged a significant press campaign, defending their theological positions on race, religion, gender, culture and nation. They helped to elect politicians and pass national legislation. Speaking to both men and women and painting themselves even in broad Protestant brushstrokes, they died off and have never regained the membership of that decade. It seems unlikely that the alt-right, a group of white men speaking only for themselves, will do much better. At least, that’s what I hope.
Kelly J. Baker is the author of Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 and The Zombies are Coming! The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture. She’s also the editor of Women in Higher Education.