I have just finished reading a fascinating book about a man who, to the surprise of many Americans, became a powerful leader and controlled governmental actions and policies.
He bragged that he could commit crimes if he wanted to and get away with it.
He took regular retribution against those who stood against his large ego.
He encouraged one group of people (white) to hate other groups of people.
He had a history of sexual assaults on women, most of which he got away with -- most, but not all.
The author of the book says the man "made a mockery" of the moral principles of the nation. Indeed, if this man's lips were moving you could bet with confidence that he was lying about something.
Think you know the name of the subject? Sorry. It's not Donald Trump, though I understand why you might have thought so.
Rather, the subject is D.C. Stephenson. In the 1920s, he was the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana and had his eyes on leading all Klan members in the country and eventually being elected president of the United States. Indiana -- at both the state and local level -- in the early 1920s was deeply held Klan territory.
His remarkable -- and scary -- story is told in Timothy Egan's new book, A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan's Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them.
In many ways, it's the story of the too-frequent willingness of Americans to be taken in by charlatans selling terrible ideas, such as white supremacy.
I want to be clear about this: I am not saying that Trump is today's Stephenson. Things are much more complicated and nuanced to be able to draw such a one-to-one comparison. Besides, the point is not about two men who resemble each other in various and weird ways. Rather, the point is about the sometimes-shocking willingness of the American people to fall in behind deeply flawed leaders who seem willing and even eager to undermine the best values on which the U.S. was founded -- even as we recognize that many of those values were aspirational and still haven't been fully realized or fulfilled.
But there are echoes of Stephenson's strange life (it didn't end well) in Trump's singularly astonishing life. And there is much all of us can learn from knowing how Stephenson manipulated the American people so that they supported him, at times almost without question and with only a few voices standing against his putrid bigotry.
Egan writes that at one point in Stephenson's life, as he was becoming a major force in the emerging Klan, he experienced "mass adulation for a man who'd led a life without friends, a life devoid, by his design, of contact with the family that had raised him and the family he'd created and abandoned. He needed to be told that he was loved, that the world would know he was loved, even if the love was dictated by his own hand."
Egan calls that hidden background Stephenson's "Big Lie." And the author asks whether it would matter to the people idolizing him if they knew the truth. His answer: "They believed because they wanted to believe."
Then he adds this: "These people needed to hate something smaller than themselves as much as they needed to have faith in something greater than themselves."
To help them along with this, Stephenson found many willing accomplices among the clergy -- pastors whom he bribed to preach a gospel that was consistent with the hatred the Klan was spewing. It was way too easy to do. It wasn't the first time clergy had stood for terrible ideas (start with slavery, but don't end there). And, as we know from recent history, it wasn't the last time, either.
(Oh, by the way, Egan mentions that in October 1924, more than 5,000 delegates from around the country "gathered in Kansas City for the Klan's second national convention." Wonder whether and how we Kansas Citians will commemorate the upcoming 100th anniversary of that rancid stain on our past. Egan also mentions the great newspaper editor from Emporia, Kan., William Allen White, and his role in getting Kansas to oust the Klan legally. White was, thus, an early example of what some folks, egged on by Trump, today deride as the "enemy of the people.")
D.C. Stephenson was fond of saying "I am the law." And for a time in some places it was hard to argue with him about that. But eventually the real law woke up and did its duty, convicting him of murder in the second degree and sending him to prison.
But here's what Egan writes as he reflects on Stephenson: "Democracy was a fragile thing, stable and steady until it was broken and trampled. A man who didn't care about shattering every convention, and then found new ways to vandalize the contract that allowed free people to govern themselves, could do unthinkable damage. So now all the world knew what Stephenson had masterminded."
There are villains and heroes galore in Egan's account of Stephenson's sad and destructive life, but in the end the lessons are clear. As Egan writes, "What if the leaders of the 1920s Klan didn't drive public sentiment but rode it? A vein of hatred was always there for the tapping. It's still there, and explains much of the madness threatening American life a hundred years after Stephenson made a mockery of the moral principles of the Heartland."
So now it's our turn to unplug the "vein of hatred." I'm not giving up hope that we can do just that, but I wish I were more confident.
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A GOOD WORD OF PROTEST AT BAYLOR U
And speaking of hate, as I was above here on the blog, congratulations to more than 1,000 Baylor University alumni, faculty and staff members who have written a letter asking the university to adopt policies that treat LGBTQ+ people more equitably. The RNS story to which I've linked you reports that Baylor recently "sought — and received — a new exemption from the U.S. Department of Education to discriminate against LGBTQ students while still receiving federal aid." This kind of bigotry is rooted in a misreading of scripture, as I point out in this essay that I keep elsewhere on the blog. It's way, way past time for Baylor and everyone else to stop engaging in dehumanizing people in this way.