By Kelly J. Baker
On Friday, November 18th, vice-president elect Mike Pence attended Hamilton, the immensely popular and award-winning Broadway play, which might have been unremarkable if not for the fact that the Hamilton cast took the opportunity to speak directly to Pence at the end of the show. The New York Times reports that Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays vice-president Aaron Burr, read a “statement emphasizing the need for the new administration of President-elect Donald J. Trump, a Republican, to work on behalf of all Americans.”
Dixon said: “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.” Pence remained to listen to the whole statement and made no comment.
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, president-elect Trump took to Twitter to complain that Pence “was harassed last night…by the cast of Hamilton.” It’s a hard task to make the cast’s respectful statement to Pence appear as harassment, but Trump attempted to while further demanding an apology from the cast. According to Trump, the cast of Hamilton is “rude” and protesters of the election are “unfair.” And yet, his Twitter stream shows no mention of the sharp increase of hate crimes since the presidential election, which constitutes real harassment and endangerment. The president-elect would like to claim that he, and white America, are under siege. That white Americans are under threat from multicultural America. That white Americans are the real victims, not those so most recently victimized by hate.
Trump’s rhetoric, and his attempt to shift blame, has reminded me of the 1920s Klan, which I study, since I learned there was a chance he would run for president. His campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again” was remarkably similar to the 1920s Klan’s appeals to white Protestants.
When most people imagine the Klan, they imagine obvious and heavy-handed racism like the Klan of the 1950s and 1960s, but the 1920s order was more mainstream in their white supremacy. Their attempts to win the hearts and minds of white men and women were bolstered by the commonness of racist thought and action. And their rhetoric, emphasizing white Protestant nationalism, transformed them into victims of the changing demographics of the nation. The Klan claimed that Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and African Americans proved dangerous to a nation that the order believed was created by white Protestants for white Protestants. The Klan attempted to demonstrate they were threatened and harassed by non-white and non-Protestant people rather than being themselves threatening harassers.
One way that the Klan tried to accomplish this was relying on the language of tolerance to promote racism and religious hatred.
In 1929, the Ku Klux Klan’s national newspaper, The Kourier Magazine, hosted an essay contest, “What is Intolerance?” The editor explained, “We have always been accused of INTOLERANCE. We know we are not guilty, and this contest should make clear our position and justify it.” The Kourier offered a $50 reward to the best essay, though the newspaper never announced the winner.
For a contest explicitly about intolerance, the guidelines focused, instead, on defining tolerance. The editor urged contributors to write about whether they should tolerate people who disagree with them and when tolerance is no longer a feasible option. The essays interrogated the concept of tolerance as a method to defend the Klan’s intolerance.
In total, the Kourier published eleven essays, including “No Tolerance for Intolerance,” “The Intolerance of Christ,” and “Toleration of Cess-Pools.” The essay writers, both white men and women, attempted to define tolerance and intolerance as separate terms, but the terms emerged more often as synonyms rather than opposites.
For most of the writers, one thing was abundantly clear: Tolerance had limits. Threats to personal identity, religious faith, and nation were unbearable, and the enemies of the Klan were cast as the truly intolerant. The essayists emphasized the long history of Catholic intolerance towards Protestants while another Kourier article in the issue declared that President Lincoln was against racial equality for African Americans. One writer even argued that God was intolerant, so Klan members could be too.
The essays demonstrated that Klan members found tolerance to be an unbearable compromise that proved dangerous to their vision of white Protestant America. Tolerance allowed all kinds of social degradation. A Klanswoman argued that prejudice could be just if it was used to protect the nation’s interests, so intolerance was often righteous choice. For the Klan, particular people, Catholics and African Americans, were never tolerable because they threatened social stability. Tolerance might lead to radical changes in American society in politics, religion, and cultural norms that would displace white Christian dominance. If the 1920s Klan tolerated Catholics or granted equality to African Americans, then Klan members feared that America would decay under the assault of “foreign” peoples, ideas, and religions.
By defining tolerance as problematic compromise, intolerance became the Klan’s preferred method of engaging the world. In “The Tolerance of Protestants,” the essayist noted: “Tolerance ceases to become a virtue when it is used too extremely; when we place too much faith in our fellowmen such tolerance cannot be accepted.”
The danger the Klan feared was too much faith in fellow human beings. Suspicion of others is easier than trust. Intolerance is easier than tolerance. The Klan could claim the mantle of tolerance as long as its members did not have to practice it. Essay by essay, intolerance became a virtue and tolerance was a threat too great to chance.
To put it more starkly, the Klan could be tolerant until some idea, religion, or person questioned the order’s vaunted vision of the white, Protestant nation. When one’s values were threatened, one could no longer be tolerant.
The Klan’s rhetoric of tolerance and intolerance is much more complicated than simple admonitions of prejudice and easy labelings of victims and victimizers. In Regulating Aversion, political theorist Wendy Brown reminds us that tolerance is never an innocent virtue but rather it is a discourse of both power and de-politicization. Tolerance functions often as a supplement to equality rather than as the method to achieve civil rights for the tolerated. Thus, it should not be surprising that the “intolerant” would employ this language to secure political power, media attention, or legitimacy.
And so it is neither surprising that the president-elect, who ran a campaign emphasizing intolerance for people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, and other groups of people, would fill spots in his administration with those who profess intolerance and actively work against the civil rights of particular groups of American citizens. Like the Klan, the president-elect wants to claim that he and the vice-president-elect and their supporters are the targets of harassment from “diverse America.” Those of us who understand our diverse America and imagine a more inclusive nation, know who is actually intolerant and where the threat lies.