It has been over six months since Donald Trump was elected, and the so-called alt-right is still with us. Their "God Emperor" having been elected president, these 21st-century American Nazis aren't looking to crawl back under their futons. Instead, they are expanding: propagandizing, holding recruitment rallies, and starting violence around the country. And yet, with their troll ethics, gladiator costumes, and frog-god iconography, it can be very hard to take them seriously as a threat to public safety or national democracy. The alt-right is a bunch of clowns—how dangerous could they be?
To get a sense of the historical context behind today's alt-right, I spoke with Elaine Parsons, a professor of history at Duquesne University and author of Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan in Reconstruction. The book is an excellent history of the 19th-century Klan and the rise and fall of its wave of terror between 1867 and 1872, and in the year since its release, Parsons' book has acquired new significance as white-identity politics have declared themselves openly. Most of our ideas about the Klan come from the 20th-century version, and especially from the civil rights movement, but the original group is probably more relevant to our present moment. The parallels between the Reconstruction Klan and the milk-chugging Proud Boys are not a stretch—they're undeniable.
The goofiness and so-called irony with which the alt-right goes about fascism can seem distinctly postmodern and Internet-forged, but a similar humor animated the Reconstruction Klan. All the Klannish affectations and accoutrements that seem so ridiculous today—the alliterative k's, the costumes, the Magic: The Gathering titles like "Grand Wizard" and "Exalted Cyclops"—were ridiculous, and self-consciously so. One of the functions of humor for the Klan, Parsons says, was to mark their transgressions as acceptable. "The right believes in the truth of racial and gender inequality and the legitimacy of domination as the engine of change," she says, "but in America after the Civil War, stating that openly becomes more taboo. So they used humor to shake loose people's refusal to talk about inequality, playfully illustrating what they thought should be reality. They creatively destabilized norms to shake people loose of comfortable pieties." Like the Klan, the Proud Boys actually do think that patriotic militias of white men should be the foundation of American political society, and as long as they perform it as a circus show, they can avoid some of the consequences for acting out that fantasy.
The architects of the Reconstruction Klan weren’t revanchist Southern gentlemen; they were memelords.
Wearing wacky costumes is associated more with the far left (think climate activists dressed as polar bears) than with the far right, yet during the latest fascist/anti-fascist confrontations, it has been the latter working harder on their outfits. They've stirred together an aesthetic mélange of sports equipment, American flags, Internet memes, Greco-Roman battle wear, Nazi iconography, and fetish gear. It looks laughable and absurd, but they're humoring themselves first and foremost. The Reconstruction Klan learned their costume tradition from actual costume parties of the sort that rich Southerners used to throw, and they attempted a more unruly set of ensembles than even today's alt-right: not just the infamous white-hooded ghosts, but moon men and demons and cross-dressers. "The Klan served an energizing function in part by building a new Southern white male identity that was drawn self-consciously from the newest trends, from popular entertainment to contemporary forms of organizational structure" Parsons writes in the book. The architects of the Reconstruction Klan weren't revanchist Southern gentlemen; they were memelords.
Based on her research, Parsons has come to think that costumes also fulfill another function for the far right. "Costumes tell the viewer that the thing the wearer is trying to do is cultural, that it's not a political or violent attack," she says. "They suggest that the wearer is trying to convince, or engage. If you're wearing a costume, you're thinking about the viewer, you're imagining yourself in conversation with someone else. But what people fail to understand is that cultural control is a question of power." The playful outfits give the rest of us a false sense of security by tricking us into thinking the performers are acting within the liberal symbolic order. They indicate an expressive speech-act is occurring. "Costumes tell us that they're performing, that they can come back from what they're doing," Parsons says. "But why should that be reassuring? Military uniforms are costumes in the same way." Just because it's a performance doesn't mean it's not real.
When media outlets first started talking about Richard Spencer, the white supremacist who coined the term "alt-right," the profiles framed him as the "dapper fascist": a stock character in American entertainment (from Law and Order to Sons of Anarchy) who preaches faith and family while wearing a suit and pocket square, yet holds atrocious views. But as Spencer's character came into focus (jobless heir to a plantation, failed academic aesthete, more interested in young men and frog memes than in his wife and child), he started to look more like one of the bored musicians who formed the original Klan than a 20th-century chairman of the local White Citizens Council. During Reconstruction, Parsons says, white Southern men (reasonably) believed that their time for prosperity had passed, that their leadership roles in the family and community were being usurped. "They thought there was nothing for them to do," Parsons says. "These groups emerge when white men feel they can no longer exercise legitimate democratic authority, and some of them turn to violence." Purposeless losers are extremely easy to mock, and that can sometimes obscure just how dangerous they are.
Think of Jeremy Christian: Most of the pictures we have of the man who stabbed two men to death on a Portland train are from one of these Nazi costume parties that their attendees call "free speech rallies." The images are of Christian standing alone, wearing an American flag around his neck, throwing up a heil with his right hand. Only anti-fascists have seized on video from the event, where you can see Jacob Von Ott, organizer and spokesman of Identity Europa (a pseudo-intellectual white supremacist group that targets college campuses), go up and shake his hand, which Christian lowers from his Nazi salute. There is no bright line distinguishing the current state of affairs from one in which white-power militias stalk the country intimidating, harassing, and even killing their enemies. Don't let the silly costumes fool you; we are already there.*
Fortunately, there are some encouraging lessons from the 19th century. Though the federal government betrayed Reconstruction, the Klan's reign was short-lived. "I don't want to sound like I'm suggesting anything," Parsons says, "but speaking as a historian, violent resistance was very effective. We've told ourselves a story about the Klan facing cowering victims, but people organized, fought, and defeated the Klan constantly." Black Americans in the Reconstruction South were often armed, not just as individuals but as communities, for collective self-defense. "There were places the Klan couldn't go," Parsons says, "people who, according to their code, they should have attacked, who they didn't."
Fighting back also dispelled the air of comedy. In 1868, when costumed night-riders showed up at Bob Anderson's home in Knoxville, Tennessee, he came out shooting. The local liberal paper celebrated Anderson, writing, "We wonder now if the Conservative papers will deny that the Kuklux sneak about the country in the unhallowed business of stealing from the freedmen. A Kluklux has been killed, laid low by the bullet of a brave colored man who had courage to defend his home from the assaults of reckless villains." If history is to be our guide, ignoring or laughing at the alt-right isn't going to be good enough. We have to take these jokers seriously.
*Update — June 13th, 2017: This article has been updated with the proper location where the stabbing took place.
**Update — June 14th, 2017: This article has been updated to correct an error in a Getty Images caption; the man in the picture calls himself the "Based Spartan," not the "Based Stickman."