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America’s First ‘Fake News’ Crisis

When the Ku Klux Klan terrorized the South during Reconstruction, many people denied that the group even existed.

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Several prominent conservatives initially responded to a wave of mail bombs sent to President Donald Trump’s critics last week with literal disbelief. “Fake bombs, fake news,” Lou Dobbs, a Fox Business News anchor, wrote on Twitter. “Who could possibly benefit from so much fakery?” On Twitter last Wednesday, Turning Point USA’s Candace Owens opined that “the only thing ‘suspicious’ about these packages is the timing” and suggested it was a leftist plot to win the midterms. She deleted those tweets, and two days later hosted an event with the president.

The bombs targeted the Obamas and the Clintons, multiple black lawmakers, top Democratic donors, former intelligence officials who have criticized Trump, and CNN—all of whom Trump and other top Republicans have regularly attacked. But many on the right refused to draw the obvious connection. “Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing,” Rush Limbaugh asserted on his radio show on Wednesday. Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative filmmaker, posted a fake Peanuts comic on Twitter that mocked the bomb’s purported origins. “Why do you say they were Democrat bombs?” Lucy asks. “Because NONE of them WORKED,” Linus replies.

Conspiracy theories have long flourished on the nation’s political fringes. Infowars’ Alex Jones and other right-wing conspiracy theorists have posited that the U.S. government orchestrated the September 11 attacks and that gun-control advocates carried out school shootings to further their agenda. Trump himself became a leading figure on the American right by questioning whether Barack Obama was born in the United States. But last week’s wave of outright denial by conservatives was still stunning by modern standards.

There’s a grim historical precedent in America for such aggressive skepticism of the causes of political violence. Today it’s universally recognized as historical fact that the Ku Klux Klan was responsible for a reign of terror throughout the South during Reconstruction. But many contemporary newspapers and politicians openly doubted the truth about the Klan’s purported mission, its crimes, even its very existence. The various motivations for this campaign of denialism are all too familiar today—and more worryingly, it worked.

Elaine Frantz Parsons, a historian who studied the organization, noted in her 2015 book, Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction, that Klan denialism shaped public perceptions of the group as well as the responses to it. While journalists and federal officials went to great lengths to document the group’s atrocities, “the national debate over the Klan failed to move beyond the simple question of the Klan’s existence,” she wrote. “Skepticism about the Ku-Klux even in the fact of abundant proof of the Ku-Klux’s existence endured and thrived, perhaps because people on all sides of the era’s partisan conflicts at times found ambiguity about the Ku-Klux desirable and productive,” Parsons wrote.

There was overwhelming evidence to refute the denialists’ claims. Klansmen routinely engaged in murder, rape, and other forms of violence that left behind scars, corpses, and witnesses. Larger cells carried out massacres and skirmished with local militias and federal troops. The Justice Department, which was founded in 1870 to enforce federal anti-Klan laws, prosecuted and convicted hundreds of its members in public trials.

But still the denial persisted. Perhaps the most dramatic example came in 1872, when a joint congressional committee published a thirteen-volume report on Klan activities and trials in the Southern states. Lawmakers questioned witnesses in multiple states and drew upon testimony from them and the anti-Klan trials, aiming to produce a comprehensive and definitive account of the crisis. The majority report concluded that the Klan did exist, that many of its members had evaded punishment for their crimes, and that the “terror inspired by their acts, as well as the public sentiment in their favor in many localities, paralyzes the arm of civil power.”

The committee’s Democratic members, however, were extremely skeptical toward every claim of Klan violence that came before them. In their minority report, they ultimately took the head-spinning position that the South’s white citizenry were the real victims. Black freedmen and their white allies, who were being regularly murdered throughout the region, were cast as the real aggressors. “The atrocious measures by which millions of white people have been put at the mercy of the semi-barbarous negroes of the South, and the vilest of the white people, both from the North and the South, who have been constituted the leaders of this black horde, are now sought to be justified and defended by defaming the people upon whom this unspeakable outrage has been committed,” the committee members wrote. To white supremacists, building a multiracial democracy was tantamount to violence.

The episode underscored the stark partisan divide over the Klan, as well as the ways that Democrats had turned the group’s ephemeral nature against its opponents. “In this way, what was arguably the most ambitious investigative effort to that point on the part of the U.S. Congress, enormously expensive, time-consuming, and carefully arranged to be meaningfully bipartisan, was abruptly rejected by Klan skeptics in its entirety,” Parsons wrote. “It is hard to imagine what possible body of evidence might have stood up to such summary dismissal.” Southern Democratic newspapers, she noted, also took part in the campaign of denial.

A Georgia paper screeched in November 1871 that the Klan “has existence only in the imaginations of President Grant and the vile politicians who have poisoned his ears with false and malicious reports... The reports of collisions between armed bands of Ku-klux and federal troops are utterly false, base, and slanderous fabrication, uttered for a purpose.” Rather than retreat and regroup as more evidence slammed their position, those who were invested in believing that there was not a pattern of extreme violence against southern Republicans stood firm. As the Daily Augustus Gazette reported summing up the Ku-Klux trials, “And now, after all this has been done, and after the expenditure of a vast amount of the public money, a skeptical public are less disposed than ever to believe in the existence of a Ku-Klux organization…. True, numbers of prisoners when brought to trial have confessed…. and there has been an unlimited supply of evidence to the same effect taken, but it could not deceive anyone who desired to know the truth of the matter.”

Klan denialism and skepticism took root in a civic soil that was primed to receive it. Americans in the post-Civil War era lived in a changing information ecosystem thanks to technological advances and logistical changes brought about by the conflict. The average citizen had access to a steady stream of information from newspapers, telegraphs, and word of mouth among an increasingly transitory public. Editors and newspaper owners still operated as partisan actors, Parsons noted, but the surge in newsworthy information forced them to decide what to print and what to omit. These changes gave some Americans a new reason to distrust sensational information that they came across and question why certain stories were presented to them.

Some Americans of the era may have genuinely struggled with the idea that such a group could exist. Others downplayed its acts or discredited its victims for political purposes: Democratic politicians and newspapers aimed to undermine President Ulysses S. Grant and the Radical Republicans to weaken support for their Reconstruction policies. Liberal Republicans, led by New York publisher Horace Greeley, turned toward Klan skepticism in their bid to reassert control over the party. And Northern journalists sometimes veered into sensationalism when covering the Klan’s acts, a habit that made it harder for Americans to distinguish between genuine accounts of Klan savagery and fictional ones.

“It was a particularly ugly display of human nature, and the worst thing about it was precisely that it was not in the least mysterious,” Parsons concluded. “Ku-Klux and their suffering victims were all too human and all too plainly visible to anyone who had the fortitude to look. Folding Reconstruction-era violence into the Ku-Klux, imagining it as spectral, ambiguous, and indeterminate, enabled Americans to turn away from that unjust reality and all of the political implications and obligations that it entailed.”

There is no official death toll for the era’s spasmodic violence, which continued through other groups following the Klan’s decline after federal enforcement peaked in 1872. Contemporary estimates ran high: Robert Smalls, a black congressman and hero of the Civil War, told South Carolina’s constitutional convention in 1895 that 53,000 African Americans had been murdered throughout the South since emancipation. What’s easier to ascertain is that assassinations, massacres, and intimidation by the Klan and other groups worked. “Reconstruction did not fail; in regions where it collapsed it was violently overthrown by men who had fought for slavery during the Civil War and continued that battle as guerrilla partisans over the next decade,” historian Douglas R. Egerton wrote in The Wars of Reconstruction. “Democratic movements can be halted through violence.”

Political violence by right-wing and white supremacist groups is nowhere near as widespread today, of course. But it still exists. Republican elected officials and conservative media outlets spent the Obama years downplaying the growing threat. In 2009, a Department of Homeland Security analysis warned about a possible uptick in right-wing violence after the Great Recession began. Republicans responded by successfully pressuring the department to rescind the report.

Trump’s election only emboldened the most extreme elements of American society, and he appears to welcome the phenomenon. He frequently signals to his supporters that his disavowals of white-nationalist groups and other right-wing racists are not genuine. After a white-nationalist march in Charlottesville turned deadly last summer, he declared that there were “some very fine people” on both sides. Political figures across the ideological spectrum condemned his remarks, but white nationalists responded with joy. David Duke, a former leader of the Klan’s modern incarnation, praised Trump for his courage.

The president’s rhetoric reached its logical conclusion on Saturday when a gunman murdered eleven Jewish worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Robert Bowers, the alleged killer, had invoked anti-Semitic conspiracy theories online. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he wrote on Gab, a social networking platform that’s popular among white nationalists, shortly before the massacre. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

HIAS, originally known as the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, is a Jewish nonprofit group that helps bring refugees to the United States. It’s a common conspiracy theory among white nationalists that Jewish people are trying to replace America’s white population with nonwhite immigrants. Trump and his allies have espoused variants of this theory, often centered on Jewish billionaire and Democratic donor George Soros, who was among last week’s mail-bomb targets. The president has frequently hyped the migrant caravan traveling toward the U.S. as a purported threat to American security and even falsely asserted that “Middle Eastern individuals” were among the migrants, with the racist implication that they were terrorists.

Trump responded to Saturday’s shooting in Pittsburgh by condemning this “wicked act of mass murder” and anti-Semitism in general, but a day later he shifted responsibility for the bloodshed to mainstream news outlets.

Denial can take many forms. On Monday morning, as her boss faced accusations that he’s culpable for the violence, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway tried to craft an alternative explanation for it.

“The anti-religiosity in this country that is somehow in vogue and funny, to make fun of anybody of faith, to be constantly making fun of people who express religion, the late night comedians, the unfunny people on TV shows—it’s always anti-religious,” she told Fox and Friends. “These people were gunned down in their place of worship, as were the people in South Carolina a couple of years ago, and they were there because they’re people of faith, and it’s that faith that needs to bring them together. This is no time to be driving God out of the public square.”

Conway’s proposition is unmoored from reality. Dylann Roof, the young white man who murdered nine black parishioners in a Charleston church in 2015, left a racist manifesto online before the shooting. The common theme between these acts of violence is white nationalism, not late-night comedians.

In many ways, Trump is unlike any other president who came before him. But his approach to American politics is not wholly without precedent. There’s nothing new or special about his use of denialism, falsehoods, and bad-faith attempts to shift blame onto his political adversaries. Reconstruction’s failure shows that national campaigns to deceive and mislead the public about white-nationalist violence have worked before. This country is about to find out whether they will work again.