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Populism and fascism: Lessons from the 1920s Ku Klux Klan

Populism and fascism: Lessons from the 1920s Ku Klux Klan

While fascists are often populists, many populisms are not fascistic. I would argue that violence, in ideology and/or practice, is fundamental in any attempt to identify what is fascistic.

Now that the label “fascist” is back in widespread use, it seems useful to understand what we mean by it, because it is so often used as a condemnation without analytic or even descriptive clarity.

My concern about this vagueness arose from my recent study of the massive 1920s Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the northern US, which I have now extended into an examination of the fascist groups that arose in the US in the 1930s. Many are familiar with the original, southern KKK, known as the first Klan — a terrorist group that arose after the American Civil War, dedicated to maintaining white supremacy. Its white robes and hoods were meant to terrify, but also, ostensibly, to hide identities, though white southerners typically knew who the local Klansmen were.

The second Klan was a different beast. It was entirely public and mainly non-violent. Though it sparked occasional vigilante actions, it made its impact through a massive media empire and sophisticated electoral campaigns. (It elected some 16 senators, scores of Congressmen, 11 state governors, and thousands of state, county and municipal officials, and these openly declared Klan membership or support.)

Threat of ‘outsiders’

While as racist toward people of colour as its southern parent, it focused its bigotry on Catholics, Jews and immigrants, managing to create fear that these “outsiders” presented an acute threat to the “real” US.

This strategy, combined with its evangelical Protestant revivalism, allowed it to accumulate between three and six million members. Today’s white nationalism inherited its bigotry, with a few changes — it shed anti-Catholicism to concentrate on virulent anti-Semitism and racism.

Unsurprisingly, these recent developments raise the question: what exactly is fascism? I argue here that that is not a useful question.

Today, any discussion of fascism must also consider another common label: populism. In the US, that label once referred to the Populists of the 1890s, a largely progressive movement that expressed the economic grievances of small grain and cotton farmers, coal miners, railroad workers, industrial workers and small businessmen against big finance and big business. While there are still some left-wing populists, today the term refers to regimes, political parties and social movements that use demagoguery to promote bigotry, create authoritarian demagoguery, and often reject the rule of law and the classic liberal guarantees of due process and civil liberties.

Both fascism and populism vary and mutate in different contexts, so they must be treated as cluster concepts; ie, concepts with variants that share some but not necessarily all attributes. For that reason, I argue that the adjectives “fascist” (or “fascistic”) and “populist” are more useful than the nouns “fascism” and “populism,” because they recognise differences and discourage essentialising.

Ideological features

This chapter uses the 1920s KKK as a foil to encourage more rigour in using these labels. I begin with a very condensed list of the Klan’s, and most populism’s, ideological features:

  • Amassing large populations of supporters and mobilising them into activism (of course this has often been characteristic of left-wing movements as well);
  • Claiming to speak for “the people” (also found on the left);
  • Bigotry, often relying on eugenical notions of human character;
  • Fear of diversity, insistence that it weakens a nation;
  • Defining “the people” so as to exclude immigrants, people of colour, etc;
  • Claiming that “the people” are victims of these “outsiders”;
  • Claiming a national “destiny” that is threatened by “outsiders”;
  • Claiming a “tradition” that must be reclaimed;
  • Willingness to discard civil liberties and the protection of minorities;
  • Willingness to abandon the rule of law;
  • Claiming that the political establishment has been corrupted by “outsiders”;
  • Anti-intellectualism and distrust of “experts” and elites;
  • A “class analysis” that positions these “elites” as the most powerful, as opposed to big capital;
  • A propensity for conspiracy theories;
  • Extreme nationalism, often called patriotism;
  • Isolationism and hostility to foreign cultures;
  • Venerating agrarian communities or small towns over big cities;
  • Demagoguery and hyper-masculinism, through sensationalist and often angry performance that uses aggressive vernacular gestures, poses and gestures (as opposed to the polite language of elite conservatism); and
  • Authoritarian leadership demanding loyalty, even submission, as the ultimate form of patriotism.

These characteristics also demonstrate the affinity between today’s populist movements and the historic fascist movements in Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan. But fascistic movements have typically encompassed additional features that distinguish them from populist movements:

  • Using the concept of national destiny to justify territorial aggression;
  • Viewing the state and ruler as an expression of popular “will”;
  • Obsession with purity of “blood”;
  • Glorifying violence, exalting military prowess and using fear of outsiders to elicit violence against them;
  • Legitimising and encouraging vigilante violence, as in pogroms; and
  • When fascists are in power, they threaten and attempt to rid the country of those considered undesirable outsiders.

Allow me to expand on a few of the features I have listed. Populist and fascist gender politics vary, from extremes that would confine women to seclusion and insist on female self-sacrifice and chastity, to iterations in which women can be bold leaders. Ideals of masculinity can also vary, from the Klan’s rituals and secret codes to vigilantism and organised violence, but populist movements can also be entirely sex-integrated.

Deformed class analysis

Populist and fascist movements often share what one might call deformed class analyses: they view those with power as, variously, intellectuals, “elites” and/or members of despised groups that have “infiltrated” government. By contrast, large corporations and banks, for example, are often respected and become enemies only when they are run by Jews or others not of “the people”. Among populists, anger is often evoked by the tendency of these “elites” to denigrate “the people” as backward and unintelligent.

Conspiracy allegations also characterise the populist and fascistic. The Klan promoted these masterfully, and they abound among white nationalists today, impervious to evidence. These sometimes preposterous allegations are credible because of their source, which is often a demagogic leader. Such leaders typically demand loyalty above all, and loyalty to a leader becomes fused with patriotism.

But while fascists are often populists, many populisms are not fascistic. I would argue that violence, in ideology and/or practice, is fundamental in any attempt to identify what is fascistic. Consider for example the differences in anti-Semitic proposals: the populist KKK sought to exclude Jews from political and economic power, while fascist movements sought to strip them of legal rights, tolerated vigilante violence against them, or attempted to annihilate them.

True, bigotry, or “hate speech” as it is misleadingly called in the US, is the motor that drives and justifies racist violence. Still, violence is of a different magnitude and far more dangerous than speech. By this criterion, today’s violent white nationalist groups are more fascistic than the non-violent northern KKK with its millions of members.

Normalised bigotry

But the populist KKK created greater long-term damage by normalising bigotry than the white nationalists have done so far. One concrete example: in 1924 the Klan was instrumental in passing an immigration restriction law that set large quotas for white Protestants and tiny quotas for others. This law was in place for 40 years. Among its damages is one that shows how populisms can support fascisms: the law became the basis for turning away Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. DM/MC

Read Destroying Democracy Part One here.

Linda Gordon is professor of history and the humanities at New York University. Her most recent books are The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan and the American Political Tradition (Norton, 2017) and Feminism Unfinished. Others are listed on her website.

This is the second in a series of 10 essays by authors of chapters in Destroying Democracy, neoliberal capitalism and the rise of authoritarian politics, Volume 6 in the Democratic Marxism series recently published by Wits University Press and edited by Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar. The sixth volume centres on how the global democratic project is being eroded by decades of neoliberal capitalism and how authoritarian politics are gaining ground. The essays focus on four country cases — India, Brazil, South Africa and the US — in which the Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled the pre-existing crisis. They interrogate issues of politics, ecology, state security, media, access to information and political parties, and affirm the need to reclaim and rebuild an expansive and inclusive democracy.

Destroying Democracy is an invaluable resource for the general public, activists, scholars and students who are interested in understanding the threats to democracy and the rising tide of authoritarianism in the global south and global north. It is freely available as open access at


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