Let's talk about the past, and let's talk about the present. Let's talk about racist terrorism, the Ku Klux Klan, and segregation. Let's talk about progressives and right wingers, and the Democratic and Republican parties. Finally, let's do it truthfully. Okay?
Speaking of truth, we didn't get a whole lot of it from Donald Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord during his exchange with fellow CNN contributor Van Jones earlier this week. They began by discussing Trump and his failure to immediately denounce former KKK grand wizard and longtime white supremacist David Duke. Let's focus here, however, on Lord's completely false presentation of the history of the KKK.
JONES: The Klan is a terrorist organization that has killed --
LORD: A leftist terrorist organization.
[snip] JONES: What difference does it make if you call them leftists? They kill people. They don't play games with that.
LORD: You're right. You don't hide and say that's not part of the base of the Democratic Party. That has been -- they were the military arm, the terrorist arm of the Democratic Party, according to historians. For God sakes, read your history.
[snip] JONES: The Klan kill people by race....
LORD: And they did it -- they did it to further the progressive agenda. Hello?
JONES: That is, first of all, so absurd.
LORD: It is not absurd.
JONES: The Democratic Party of the south of the old days was a racist party. And you are correct, sir. They were a violent party. You were correct, sir.
LORD: How do you think we got Woodrow Wilson elected?
JONES: Hold on a second. That's not the Democratic Party of today. So, what are you talking about that for? You play these games --
LORD: It is the Democratic Party of today. The Democratic Party of today divides by race.
There's a lot to unpack here. First, we're to going to explore--by taking a serious, sober look at history--what an absolute load of crap Lord's claims are. Second, and more importantly, we're going to look at how those claims are not simply the ravings of a Trumpeter--someone whom the GOP establishment rejects. Those claims, in fact, reflect standard Republican talking points.
All of the false history Jeffrey Lord presented was simply buildup to allow him to make his final, most false claim: "It is the Democratic Party of today. The Democratic Party of today divides by race." To say that the Democratic Party today is the same organization, espousing the same ideals as the organization which did rely on Klan terrorism to disenfranchise black Republican voters in the Jim Crow South--is, as Van Jones rightly said, "absurd."
While we can't use the full range of today's issues to judge the relative progressivism of parties in the post-Civil War era (think marriage equality, for example), we can certainly say that the Republican Party--which then actually was the Party of Lincoln--was the more progressive party on fundamental issues of justice and equality, while the Democrats were the conservatives who fought against racial equality at every turn.
Lord also mentions Woodrow Wilson. We know a lot more about Wilson's racism thanks to recent protests at Princeton University. He was a leading progressive in his time and, like many in that movement, he held despicably racist views. Worse, he used his power as president to act on them.
However, the real progressive in the 1912 presidential election was Teddy Roosevelt, who ran as the nominee of the Progressive Party and ran to Wilson's left. He was more progressive on economics as well as racial issues (a low bar to clear on the latter, to be sure). Remember also that he ran a third-party campaign after the Republican Party rejected him. I know I'd have voted for Teddy over Wilson in that election.
Either way, the idea that the racism of Woodrow Wilson--or the terrorism of the KKK, or Southern Dixiecrat support for segregation for that matter--has anything to do with today's progressives or Democrats is as ridiculous as saying that because Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson owned slaves, Barack Obama is the leader of a pro-slavery party, or that slavery was a "leftist" institution.
What's really important here isn't that a Trump supporter is making these kinds of statements, but rather that they represent what Republicans across the board have been doing for years, namely connecting contemporary progressivism with past racism espoused by old-time Democrats. We have elected officials like Republican State Senator Stephen Martin of Virginia claiming: "The fact is that both the KKK and Planned Parenthood are creations of the Democratic Party."
Additionally, we have the National Black Republican Association emphasizing the Klan and its Democratic Party ties, as well as conservative talk show hosts like Wisconsin's Dan O'Donnell doing the same. The point is, Jeffrey Lord was far from the first to do so. Oh, and is anyone surprised that Rush Limbaugh defended Lord, both on Trump and on his claims about the KKK and Democrats?
More broadly, we have Kevin Williamson, a major conservative polemicist who serves as roving correspondent for National Review--they put out a whole issue of anti-Trump essays under the banner "Conservatives Against Trump" if anyone remembers or actually read it. In 2012 Williamson published a National Review cover story in which he made a similar historical argument to that of Jeffrey Lord. Jonathan Chait does a terrific job demolishing Williamson here.
Let's look at how Mona Charen, also at National Review, flat out lied about historical facts:
The Democrats have been sedulously rewriting history for decades. Their preferred version pretends that all the Democratic racists and segregationists left their party and became Republicans starting in the 1960s. How convenient. If it were true that the South began to turn Republican due to Lyndon Johnson's passage of the Civil Rights Act, you would expect that the Deep South, the states most associated with racism, would have been the first to move. That's not what happened. The first southern states to trend Republican were on the periphery: North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, and Florida. (George Wallace lost these voters in his 1968 bid.)
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed on July 2. Two weeks later, the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater--a staunch opponent of the Civil Rights Act--for president. Charen is completely wrong. The states that were "first to move" were in fact the five Deep South states (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) that went for Goldwater in November 1964, four months after the Civil Rights Act passed. Every other state in the country other than Goldwater's home state of Arizona went for LBJ. Do you think that says anything about how Republican opposition to Civil Rights helped them win white Southern racists, Ms. Charen?
If Charen wants to claim she's talking about Southern states that voted for Eisenhower in the 1950s or even Nixon in 1960, then we can counter by looking at which states were really "first to move," i.e., the ones who rejected the Democratic Party in 1948--after Hubert Humphrey helped lead it to adopt a pro-civil rights plank--and, because the Republicans were also on record in their platform as favoring civil rights, had no interest in voting Republican either that year. What was a segregationist to do?
Luckily for them, Strom Thurmond ran for president as a Dixiecrat or "States' Rights Democrat" on an openly segregationist platform, declaring: "I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches." He won exactly four states in 1948. Anyone care to guess which ones? Four of the same five Goldwater won in 1964. Oh, and Thurmond himself switched from the Democrats to the Republicans in 1964, precisely to back Goldwater. Are you getting this, Ms. Charen?
Last summer, the great Heather Digby Parton dug even deeper into this Republican muck on racism. In addition to her terrific research and analysis, this quote sums up the matter quite well:
Even the trolls know that many millions of people who used to vote for Democrats switched parties after the various civil rights acts were passed in the '60s under a Democratic majority. While they deny there was ever such a thing as the "Southern Strategy," and pretend that racist appeals for votes never happened, that's also a documented fact and they know that too.
But just because conservatives are clearly playing games, it doesn't lessen the insult to African Americans when they make these inane claims. After all, if Democrats are the "real racists," then 95 percent are [sic] African Americans must be very dumb indeed.
Without question, if I were alive in 1870 I'd have been a Republican, and I suspect most progressives feel the same. Then, the Republicans were the good guys--because they were progressives, and the Democrats were the conservatives. If Republicans tomorrow suddenly espoused the ideals we progressives hold dear, and Democrats in turn embraced conservative ones, I'd become a Republican in a heartbeat. I'm not a progressive because I'm a Democrat, I'm a Democrat because I'm a progressive. You'd think Jeffrey Lord would understand this.
In fact, I'm sure he does. But he's just trying to confuse the issue and distract from the real one, which is whether Democrats or Republicans today are doing more to fight for racial justice and equality. Let's be clear that Democrats could do better--all of us, as individuals, could probably do better.
Beyond that truth, we must push back against the constant lies issued by Republicans en masse--and this goes beyond Jeffrey Lord or even Trump--about the KKK, racism, and progressives. They lie about the past in order to stop our country from moving in a more progressive direction going forward.