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White Supremacists of Politics Past

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Donald Trump’s embrace of white supremacists reminds Ben Railton of that mostly forgotten election year of 1924, when the KKK dominated the Democratic Party and anti-immigrant politics won the day, closing the American borders to most immigrants for four decades.

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.”

I doubt I’m the only who could see Trump making speeches very similar to Ellison Durant Smith.

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  • Rob in CT

    We’ve got the best stock, the classiest stock…

    • ExpatJK

      YUUUUUGE stock

  • Quehashecho

    This is great stuff, Erik, thanks.

    One question on the immigration bill. The Republicans of the day must have signed off on it, no?

    • Republicans tended to support immigration restriction at far higher rates than the Democrats, which traditionally largely opposed it since immigrants were a large part of the coalition. What happened in 1924 was that both parties became rabidly anti-immigrant and thus the legislation could easily pass.

      I don’t know the vote on the 1924 bill, but the 1917 precursor for instance was passed over Wilson’s veto.

      • Hogan

        308-62 in the House (Republicans 163-27, Democrats 145-33), 62-6 in the Senate (Republicans 35-5, Democrats 33-3).

        • Wow.

        • Charlie S

          “Bi-partisanship” in action!

          • LosGatosCA

            Hate is a great unifier a lot of the time.

            The folks don’t even have to hate the same things to feel the bond with other haters.

            On the other hand there’s a lot of diversity on the like/love side and it’s hard to get everyone to pull in the same direction.

            • postmodulator

              It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that when everyone in the American government is on the same side, they’re up to no fucking good. The only exception I can think of is something like WWII.

              • LosGatosCA

                I remember reading something in the Rolling Stone when I was a child to the effect:

                Whatever bad stuff you think the government is up to, it’s a lot worse.
                And anything you have faith that the government is doing to help people, it’s doing a lot less.

                I’ve never applied that rule in error.

                And I apply it every day.

        • CP

          Holy crap.

          I assumed what Loomis meant was that one of the two wings of the parties (Southern, white Anglo-Protestant) had gotten strong enough to overrule the other (Northern, immigrant and heavily Catholic or Jewish). But those numbers are phenomenal – looks like more than can be explained by something like that. How did the Northern Democrat wing get that weak?

          • Yeah, that surprised me too, although the 1917 override of Wilson’s veto should have meant I wasn’t surprised.

          • Steve LaBonne

            Pulling up the ladder after you’re safely on board is a time-“honored ” American tradition.

          • Manny Kant

            Looking at the numbers, the Democrats had:

            41 Congressmen from the Northeast

            135 Congressmen from the South and border states

            13 Congressmen from the West

            19 Congressmen from the Midwest

            So, basically, the vast majority of Democratic Congressmen were from the South, with a nice scattering of likely not terribly pro-immigrant western and midwestern ones. Nearly all of the votes for the bill from Democrats could have come from southerners.

            Whenever the Democrats were in the minority in the House, they would have been unbelievably dominated by southerners, because a Republican majority had to be built with virtually no southern support, which meant that Democrats everywhere else had to be decimated for the Republicans to get a majority.

            • CP

              Whenever the Democrats were in the minority in the House, they would have been unbelievably dominated by southerners, because a Republican majority had to be built with virtually no southern support, which meant that Democrats everywhere else had to be decimated for the Republicans to get a majority.

              Ah, well spotted. The Solid South did have a tremendously distorting effect on politics.

        • Bill Murray

          308-62 in the House (Republicans 163-27, Democrats 145-33), 62-6 in the Senate (Republicans 35-5, Democrats 33-3).

          these split numbers don’t add up. The House n(308-62 vs. 308-60) is possible if 2 non-D or Rs voted against, but the Senate split numbers add up to 68-8 not 62-6

          • Hogan

            Yeah, I think I mistranscribed the Senate breakdowns. But there were two Farmer-Labor senators (who voted yes), and three or so Farmer-Labor and Socialist representatives.

  • SullenHoo

    Erik, aren’t you fond of saying that history never repeats itself? How would you classify a recurrent pattern like this?

    • That people are racist and sometimes they gain enough power to enact that racism. But there’s no “pattern” of any kind that is anything more useful than a drunken bar conversation.

      • pianomover

        Yes doesn’t repeat itself just keeps on happening.

        • LosGatosCA

          Correct.

          Some time the tide is out and all the rocks are visible,

          Some times the tide is in and the rocks disappear.

          But the rocks (the dark sides of human nature) are always there.

  • pianomover

    Has the Republicans or Democrats ever completely disavowed themselves of the opportunity to have a member of a racist organization vote for them?

    For instance would the Democratic Party make the statement to the effect that if you or your organization harbor racist views we ask that you do not vote for us.

    • CP

      I don’t know what they’ve said.

      I think what I’d probably say in their position would be “look, people can vote any way they want to. If I’m elected, I will try to make everyone’s life better, including theirs, and if there are KKK members who want to vote for me because of that, good for them. But let me make it clear that I am not going to enact any of their racial platform, and if they’re voting for me in the expectation that I will, they are mistaken.”

      It’s not like there are no racists in the Democratic voter base, after all. There are such things as racists who aren’t stupid enough to destroy their own economic security just on account of their racial grudges. Not many, but some.

    • Phil Perspective

      For instance would the Democratic Party make the statement to the effect that if you or your organization harbor racist views we ask that you do not vote for us.

      Didn’t John Edwards make a statement saying as much in 2008(Yes, before his campaign went poof)?

      • LosGatosCA

        But what about his stance on adulterers?

        Party, party, party!

  • Well, we’ve sure come a long way since those days!

    Oh…….wait……

    • Rob in CT

      Well, a short way at least.

    • They don’t hold hands during their marches any more.

      Because they’re cradling rifles.

      • LosGatosCA

        Well, they still do march in parades some times, dressed in different uniforms – as policemen.

        Easier to blend in.

        (Not saying all policemen are racists)

  • gratuitous

    For many years, the Klan found a comfortable home in the Democratic party. They found the reception less friendly over the years, however, and tried a full-on frontal attack for party control. They failed. After a brief sojourn in the political wilderness, they found their promised land in the Republican party and have been there ever since.

    For more than half a century, the Klan and other racist elements have found a congenial atmosphere in the GOP, and appear very close to declaring unchallenged supremacy in a major political party. Instead of mounting opposition to the racists, the party leadership is working double-time to maintain the friendly atmosphere and trying to accommodate the racists.

    We’ll see how that works out for a party desperate to make inroads with minority voters.

    • LosGatosCA

      We’ll see how that works out for a party desperate to make inroads with minority voters.

      Hardly.

      Maybe they will be desperate in a few more cycles – but now? No.

      There are a tiny group of some Republicans who would rather short cut the cycle of pain before it happens, but those folks have been ostracized, like Frum.

  • SullenHoo

    Anyway, my favorite story about this:

    ” As the Convention labored through 103 ballots, Alabama, as the first state alphabetically, cast its votes first. The delegation’s leader, Governor William W. Brandon, reported the state’s unanimous vote tally each time without variation: “Alabama casts 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood.” Underwood became a symbol of the Convention’s deadlock.”

  • Bruce Vail
    • Bruce Vail

      Historical Trivia Mencken Point:

      Mencken mocked and taunted the Klan in 1924. In 1948, the last presidential campaign he covered as a journalist, he backed Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats as the reasonable compromise between the New Deal Trumanites and the dull-witted Dewey Republicans.

  • SatanicPanic

    Wait, are we admitting that the KKK were Democrats now? I thought we were supposed to be sweeping that under the rug. I must have missed the memo.

    • Manju has finally convinced us.

    • leftwingfox

      Not just Democratic, but left wing!

      Well, at least according to the squealing of Jeffrey Lord and Rush Limbaugh:
      http://dneiwert.blogspot.ca/2016/03/no-ku-klux-klan-has-never-ever-been.html

    • Bruce Vail

      Well, yes, I’m admitting that the Jefferson-Jackson Democratic Party was the party of the slavocracy. And yes, I’m admitting that Democratic Party of 1865-1945 was the party of the KKK and Jim Crow (although we had Bryan and Smith too).

      But gee, I thought the transition of the Democratic Party through the crucible of 1960s was well known and well understood.

      Have you ever heard of Hubert Humphrey?

      • CP

        And yes, I’m admitting that Democratic Party of 1865-1945 was the party of the KKK and Jim Crow (although we had Bryan and Smith too).

        Though let it be noted that during its 1920s revival, the Ku Klux Klan expanded from the South to the rest of the nation, and that good respectable white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the North tended to be Republicans, with everything that implies for the local Klaverns’ party memberships. (The Catholic and Jewish immigrants that they liked to target up there, OTOH, were more likely to be Democrats).

        • Manny Kant

          Right. The revived Klan were not a solely Democratic phenomenon. This gentleman, for instance, was briefly a big shot in Indiana Republican politics.

      • Bill Murray

        Have you ever heard of Hubert Humphrey?

        wasn’t he the main male character in Lolita?

      • SatanicPanic

        I was making a sarcastic reference to a certain felonious filmmaker named D’Souza

        • Bruce Vail

          Sorry…sometimes I get confused between the sarcasm posts and troll posts. Sigh, I’m getting old….

    • tomstickler

      Dinesh makes a big deal of this in the trailer for his new film.

  • anonymous

    Despite his flirtation with racists and White supremacusts. Trump is going to become POTUS.

    This is because he is doing what no other Repug figured out until now which is how to mobilize the racist base while also flipping Dems with leftyish economic populism. These Dems aren’t racist per se as many even voted for Obama but will vote based on Trump’s economic populism while tuning out the racism.

    Trump will put blue States in play and realign politics for decades to come.

    • Would you care to name any economically populist positions of Trump’s that differ from, say, Romney or McCain’s positions? Bonus points if they’re even remotely to the left of Clinton.

      • anonymous

        Trump is against free trade. He opposes NAFTA and TPP. He rants about how corporations are exporting jobs and we need to punish them for doing so by enacting import tariffs.

        No Repug candidate has ever held these positions, not McCain and definitely not Mitt Romney!

    • efgoldman

      Trump will put blue States in play and realign politics for decades to come.

      And I’m going to hit the powerball, discover the fountain of youth, and breed unicorns in my back yard.

      • Where can I donate to your campaign?

    • There is no evidence of Trump flipping any Democrats. There are plenty of lifelong Republicans who love his anti-free-trade rhetoric and have been starved of it for years. There is no reason to believe that anti-free-trade Democrats are jumping ship; they’re just voting for Sanders.

    • SatanicPanic

      Oh yeah, here in California we just love Trump. soooo muuuuuch

    • witlesschum

      Should I, as a lib, perhaps bookmark this post?

  • efgoldman

    Pierce has a good piece today on Father Coughlin, who (I didn’t know) started out as fiercely against the Klan.

    • Well, yeah, Catholic? The KKK were rabidly anti Catholic.

    • koolhand21

      Yeah, well reactionaries ultimately found common ground together, just as today the Catholic Church can align itself with GOP abortion stance and manage to ignore the social services stances.
      Of course my personal experience of said church is that many of its members are wholly comfortable with the racist stance of the GOP front runner.
      YMMV.

      YNWA

      • efgoldman

        the Catholic Church can align itself with GOP abortion stance and manage to ignore the social services stances.

        Not to mention the death penalty, on which, at least, the church has been consistent.

    • galanx

      Coughlin died in 1979! I always associated him with the Depression, and figured he was gone long before that.

    • Manny Kant

      Did Coughlin ever become pro-Klan? That seems unlikely for a Catholic priest.

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