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During the war the American people had been subjected to the first systematic, nationwide propaganda campaign in the history of the Republic. From both official and unofficial sources poured a torrent of material having the objective of teaching Americans to hate—specifically to hate Germans but, more broadly, everything that did not conform to a formalized conception of "100 percent Americanism." In the fall of 1918, just as the indoctrination process was reaching its peak, as patriotic feeling was mounting to frenzy, the war came abruptly to an end. Americans who had stored up an enormous volume of superpatriotic zeal now no longer had an official enemy on whom to concentrate this fervor.
One result was the red scare and race riots of 1919. Another, arguably, was to enlarge the number of people primed to join an organization like the Klan. The fact that the original Klan had resisted the idea of a united nation didn't matter, any more than the fact that The Birth of a Nation was overtly antiwar.
Some progressives had been antiwar as well, of course, among them the Wisconsin senator Robert LaFollette, and any argument connecting the Klan to the progressive impulse should take account of the fact that it opposed him strenuously when he ran for president on a third-party ticket in 1924. In fact, the 1924 election indicates the extent to which the Klan was entangled with the progressives. For that was the year of the Democrats' infamous "klanbake" convention, when Klansmen participated heavily as delegates and blocked a platform plank that would have condemned their order. They also entered the presidential race, mostly to oppose the candidacy of Al Smith, who as an anti-prohibitionist and a Catholic was anathema to the group, but also to back a candidate of their own. There was a southern conservative in the race, Sen. Oscar Underwood of Alabama, but he was a critic of the Klan. Instead they endorsed the Californian William McAdoo, son-in-law to the late President Wilson. The convention was deadlocked, and the Democrats wound up picking a compromise candidate, John Davis, whose other claim to fame would be to argue the segregationist side in Brown v. Board of Education three decades later.
But the important thing is McAdoo, the man the Klan actively campaigned for both before and during the convention. What were the man's most notable accomplishments? He had been one of the architects of Wilson's war collectivism, helping create the Council of National Defense and serving as head of the Railroad Administration. And as secretary of the treasury, he had been instrumental in creating one of the Progressive Era's most substantial new interventions in the economy: the Federal Reserve system.
Today the Federal Reserve is more likely to be the object of a Klan conspiracy theory than the source of its favored candidate for president. Today, for that matter, when a movie inspires people to create odd organizations and dress up in costume, they're more likely to end up at a convention devoted to Star Trek than a convention devoted to nominating a presidential candidate. A lot can change in 90 years.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker is author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).