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What Does Donald Trump Mean to the KKK?

Attention, mostly. And validation.

Armin Rosen
November 02, 2016
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Miami, Florida, November 2, 2016. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Miami, Florida, November 2, 2016. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Ku Klux Klan’s endorsement of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump appeared online earlier this week, prompting Trump’s campaign to repudiate the hate group’s support. The October issue of The Crusader, the Harrison, Arkansas-based Klan newsletter that carried the endorsement, includes a second notable item as well: Thomas Robb’s eulogy for Klan leader Willis Carto, the white supremacist author and Nazi enthusiast whose newsletters once reached 400,000 subscribers, and whose writings and ideas have inspired half-a-century’s worth of politically engaged racists. Robb, citing a line from book of Proverbs, praised Carto as “a wise son who faithfully listened to the instructions of his fathers.”

Carto was a towering figure on the white nationalist fringe, but a shadowy one. “The slippery eels of our bigoted id swim below the surface, but they occasionally surface,” Tablet’s Mark Oppenheimer wrote in November of 2015, after Carto’s death. “Carto, who was allergic to personal publicity, would have been a tough profile to write, but I wish someone had tried. I wish I had.”

Carto’s cameo alongside the Klan’s official Trump endorsement is a reminder that concerned citizens no longer have the luxury—or maybe never had the luxury—of ignoring the beliefs and activities of the ever-encroaching political fringe. Trump clearly means something to America’s white nationalists: “Make America Great Again!” trumpets the headline topping the front page The Crusader, with the Republican candidate flashing a thumbs-up just inches below.

The white supremacist predilection for Trump’s campaign, and the candidate’s occasional failures to sufficiently distance himself from their support, has been a recurring theme of this election season. As The Daily Beast reported this week, the Trump campaign hasn’t returned all of the donations it received from William Johnson, a white nationalist organizer who funded a recent series of homophobic pro-Trump robocalls. Trump, who disavowed former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke’s support earlier this year, also denounced this endorsement. But the candidate’s repudiations can’t mask the fact that America’s racists see something of themselves in him.

As the noted extremism scholar John Berger recounted in a deeply researched story for Politico on the attitudes of white nationalists towards Trump’s presidential campaign, the nation’s most committed and politically-engaged bigots were initially skeptical of Trump, and weren’t fully convinced of his racialist bonafides until deep into the Republican primary. Yet Trump “slowly but relentlessly overcame widespread distrust and contempt, as white nationalists came to believe he was their candidate—or at least the best candidate they could realistically expect.” Thanks to Trump’s “steady, consistent push for an anti-immigration platform, one of the central policy pillars of the nationalist right…white-nationalists began to rally around Trump as its closest political ally in a generation” and “began to detect what members called ‘wink-wink-wink’ communications from the candidate.” White nationalists believe that Trump has given them the mainstream acknowledgement and validation that they’ve always craved.

Some residual skepticism persists in The Crusader’s endorsement issue: a story on page 11 claims that neither Duke nor Robb, who authored the front-page article, has formally endorsed Trump yet, but lauds the candidate for “moving the dialogue forward” on the Klan’s suite of issues. Even the front page story expresses some lingering doubt as to whether Trump really grasps the stakes of America’s ongoing race war: “Making America great again…is not dependent on a Trump presidency but whether you and I can regain the spirit of our forefathers,” Robb’s article reads. “I am afraid most conservatives (including Trump) have no understanding of this racial time bomb that is ticking.” But in Robb’s view, Trump at least motions towards making America great again—which is enough for people who see a clear connection between America’s greatness and its racial composition. As Robb writes, Trump’s slogan “appeals to people who are sadly realizing that something has happened to America. And it’s not good!” Trump isn’t one of us, Robb is saying—but hey, close enough.

The Crusader also offers a rich, if deeply unedifying, contextualization of Robb’s mindset. Racism is a family affair: just try and count the number of Robbs who appear in this issue, or the number of times that a member of the Robb family is mentioned. (This nepotism could be a logical extension of the Klan’s blood-and-soil-obsessed politics, but it’s possibly also a sign of the movement lacking in new membership). The Crusader is flush with mundane details about Klan life: “As a Klanswoman in the Knights, I wanted to thank you for accepting my son and daughter into the Crusader Youth Corps,” Laura from San Diego writes on page 2. The paper betrays a candid self-awareness of the Klan’s profound branding problems: “We fully recognize the disadvantages that sometimes comes with the name KKK,” one article notes. The photos from the 2016 Faith and Freedom Conference could document any wholesome church retreat, if you just ignore the Confederate flags, or the fact that the founder of Stormfront appears in one of them.

The Klan projects their own prejudices onto their opponents: “Mothers of the Movement are perhaps one of the highest profiled [sic.] hate groups in America today,” we learn of the Black Lives Matter-affiliated organization, on page 3. The Crusader is scornful of “non-white immigration,” and of any conceivable racial or sexual minority. But only the Jews get the full-page treatment: George Soros’s Jewish origins are noted on page three; an item connecting Jews to Bolshevism takes up a page-and-a-half. The Crusader is a Christian-nationalist publication, and the Jews are its go-to racial-theological enemy.

But there’s one weird source of potential encouragement (if you can really call it that) within the morass of this issue, and it has to do with Carto. The godfather of white nationalism kept a low profile, but in The Crusader, we get a reminder of where his earthly remains ended up, at least: Arlington National Cemetery. Carto earned a Purple Heart after being injured fighting in the Philippines in World War II, but as The Huffington Post reported, he later joked that he had been fighting on the wrong side of World War II, and wanted to be buried in Arlington for the irony: “‘I’m probably America’s biggest Hitler fan, but I’ll be buried alongside all these World War II vets,’” one of Carto’s colleagues recalled him saying. No matter: In America, even virulent, unapologetic racists with an openly scornful relationship towards their own country can be interred in the nation’s most sacred ground, so long as they’ve served the country honorably. The head of the Klan can even give the eulogy.

One can debate the merits of this weirdly egalitarian policy, which enabled the grotesque spectacle of a professional Klansman lauding the achievements of a professional Nazi sympathizer mere meters from John F. Kennedy and the Unknown Soldier. It’s perhaps a sign of America’s civic weakness that it still has to encompass and contain such deep and galling contradictions—but a sign of its health, perhaps, that it can even encompass them at all. Of course, that might not remain true forever. Election day is in less than a week, after all.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.