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.