— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) March 2, 2016
The above video is infuriating, disappointing, troubling, and largely inaccurate.
Mr. Jeffery Lord, a vocal Donald Trump supporter and pundit we’re supposed to take seriously because he’s on CNN, lectures Van Jones to “read your history” while making a rather sad argument about the historical legacy of the Ku Klux Klan, attributing all their wrongdoings to “progressive”Democrats. While it’s factually true that white supremacist elements within the Democratic party have historically had a troubling connection to the KKK, Lord’s interpretation of that fact stretches and breaks the boundaries of reality. Such terms like “leftist” and “progressive” would have been shocking to KKK members in 1870. This interpretation also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how history and political discourse work. Historical “facts” do not exist in a vacuum or constitute true historical knowledge. “Read your history” is not simply being ready for a trivia night. Historical thinking requires an interpretation of facts that places them within a proper context, taking account of how these bits of information fit within the broader picture of how a society functioned at the time. Facts gain their significance through the ways we interpret their meaning, and not all interpretations are equal (read historian Richard Evans’ discussion of the interplay between fact and interpretation here). To argue that the KKK is a violent, racist organization (fact) supported historically only by Democrats and “Progressives” (wild interpretation) is as silly as arguing that Steph Curry is a great three-point shooter (fact) but a terrible basketball player (wild interpretation). Why else would Lord assert that the KKK was a creation of leftist progressives unless he’s suggesting that the KKK has no association with the Republican party or conservatives more broadly? In that case, Mr. Lord may need to read some more history.
Anyone who actually bothers to explore the history of the KKK understands that there have been at least three different versions of the Klan in American history. The first version emerged in the 1860s and 1870s in opposition to enhanced civil rights for blacks, particularly the right to vote for black males through the 15th Amendment. The third version of the KKK emerged in the 1950s and 60s in response to racial desegregation, social change, and Civil Rights legislation. But the second version of the KKK that emerged in the 1910s and 1920s was slightly different. Their campaigns were anti-black but also included opposition to Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and strong support for prohibition. These appeals to the power of White Anglo Saxon Protestant society gained popularity throughout the entire country. The second KKK was particularly popular in the Midwest in places like Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The group gained such a stronghold in Indiana that, according to Leonard J. Moore and other scholars, election to public office in the state was impossible without the support of the KKK. And which party, you might ask, held a majority of the KKK-backed seats in the state legislature and supported a KKK-backed Governor in his successful 1924 election? The Republicans!
The point here is not to save the Democrats from their history. The point is that Lord’s argument is lazy and dishonest. The KKK has been a fabric of our culture for 150 years thanks to the support of white supremacists of all different political persuasions. Equally important, political coalitions and parties are not static entities that never change over time. That Donald Trump–the leading front-runner of what was once the party of Lincoln and Grant–cannot publicly condemn the support of KKK leader David Duke is a testament to the ever-changing nature of political platforms and party dynamics. But Trump can get away with his nonsense because partisans like Jeffery Lord will do the dirty work of manipulating the past to place their preferred candidate on the right side of history at any cost. I’m tired of partisans who dishonestly view the world with red- and blue-tinted glasses shaped by ideological dogmas rather than reasoned reflection and nuanced consideration of context and substance. Historians are often skeptical of the ways politicians abuse history to justify their own ends, but the same skepticism should be applied to the talking heads who spew nonsense on our radios and televisions 24 hours a day. Give me a break.