KKK book is a reaction to today’s politics


MILWAUKEE — Professor Linda Gordon, the New York University feminist and historian who taught at University of Wisconsin – Madison for many years, planned to make it a short book chapter.

But when Donald Trump’s run for the presidency seemed connected with ethnic resentment, she decided to turn her short chapter idea into a short book idea, she said. The short chapter was for an uncompleted project. The book idea is “The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition,” coming out this month.

She typically comes back home to Madison every summer, but she’ll be in Wisconsin soon for an event marking the release of the new book. She calls the 1920s KKK “the largest social movement of the 1920s” and she’ll discuss it at the Women’s Philanthropy of Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Lion of Judah & Pomegranate Society event on Tuesday, Oct. 17.


Her book tells the story of how a new Ku Klux Klan arose in the early 1920s, a less violent descendant of the smaller, terrorist Klan of the 1870s. This “second Klan” largely flourished above the Mason-Dixon Line ― its army of four-to-six-million members spanning the continent from New Jersey to Oregon, its ideology of intolerance shaping the course of mainstream national politics throughout the 20th century.

Gordon said she deliberately drew no parallels between politics today and the 1920s in her book. “I think they’re probably obvious to a lot of people,” she said.

“I wrote it totally because of what’s going on today,” she said. “There’s one big difference in terms of who the bigotry is directed at. In the 1920s Catholics along with Jews were the major enemies.”

But anti-Catholic sentiment has been pretty much permanently delegitimized, she said. Also, Catholics, she said, can convert. The KKK has viewed being Jewish as something that can’t be changed, she said.

The new 1920s Klan was not secret. Far from it, the Klan recruited in daylight, through newspaper ads, in churches and through extravagant mass “Americanism” pageants. The pageants were often held on Independence Day. These “Klonvocations” drew tens of thousands and featured fireworks, airplane stunts, children’s games and bake-offs. The Klan controlled 150 newspapers.

Linda Gordon

Working on the book was actually depressing, she said. “I have never before written about something so ugly and I don’t intend to ever do it again.”

But she felt it was so relevant to today.

People in the establishment can act as enablers for racist and anti-Semitic sentiment, she said. “There are plenty who are anti-racist who are racist,” she said.

“I could see the nature of his appeal was very, very similar,” she said, referring to the president. “His appeal had to do with the racism toward Latino immigrants and Muslim immigrants.”

“One of the things today that I find really, really ironic, is that we have increased simultaneously anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiment.”

She said the 1920s KKK made use of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”

“The Klan was very much like not only Trump but a lot of Trumpists,” she said. “They could make the most absolutely outrageous claims.”

The claims can be based on conspiracy theories, she said.

“They’re completely in a realm that has nothing to do with evidence.”

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Jews who like President Donald Trump

Professor Linda Gordon, who is Jewish, is not a Trump supporter. But there are Jews who view the president’s job performance favorably – 21 percent of Jews, according to an American Jewish Committee poll posted in September. The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles interviewed Jews who support Trump. A common theme emerged in the Aug. 24 story – some said Trump’s alleged failure to single out neo-Nazis for condemnation after the Charlottesville, Virginia white supremacist rally was just another example of the liberal media and the Democratic establishment blowing things out of proportion.

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How to go

What: “The Second Coming of the KKK” speaker event, organized by the Lion of Judah & Pomegranate Society of Woman’s Philanthropy of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

When: Tuesday, Oct. 17, 11:30 a.m.

Where: The Wisconsin Club – Country Club, 6200 W. Good Hope Road, Milwaukee.

Cost: $54, plus a minimum contribution to Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Annual Campaign.

RSVP by Oct. 6: MilwaukeeJewish.org/LionPom