A new book tells a strange tale of political extremism in the Midwest.
“Why Hitler?” has probably absorbed more research energy, by an exponential factor, than any other historical question of the last 100 years. The immense, totalizing, and catastrophic evil of Germany’s National Socialist Workers Party easily justifies the investment. In most analyses, Hitler’s rise was the product of a confluence of factors including the “stab-in-the-back” mythology of Germany’s World War I defeat, the punitive Versailles Treaty that deepened a decade of economic turmoil, and the absence of a democratic tradition capable of sustaining the Weimar Republic.
This argument tends to over-stress economic factors as the principal source of Nazism’s rise. It fails to answer the question of why the most culturally and scientifically advanced society in the world at that time, a country that was home to towering figures from the arts, literature, philosophy, religion, and science, went completely off the rails in the 1920s and 1930s to cause a second world-engulfing war and the genocide of European Jewry. Other countries experienced inflation and depression without embracing dictatorship, anti-Semitism, and extermination. What made Germany so ripe for tyranny?
In his new book, A Fever in the Heartland: the Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them, Timothy Egan looks from a different angle at what drives a civilization mad. He examines America’s brush with authoritarianism in the 1920s and suggests that the roots of extremism need not be solely or even mainly economic. Rather, he argues if we want to understand the roots of extremism’s appeal we have to look beyond economics to the more basic and durable forces of society and culture.
It is helpful to consider just how dissimilar the United States and Germany were in the decade after World War I, and yet how similar their struggles with extremism were. The United States was the war’s victor, the new global colossus, and the only advanced economy the war left not just untouched, but dramatically strengthened. US casualties in the war were also light, with just over 100,000 dead compared to the 1.7 million German combat deaths, and the roughly 400,000-700,000 Germans who died of starvation during the war. While Germany struggled through deprivation and hyperinflation, the US economy roared through the 1920s. Total US GDP rose by 42 percent between 1921 and 1929, with low inflation, and, except briefly in 1919, low unemployment. Despite these strengths, the US still flirted with nativist, racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-democratic forms of extremism.
Against this backdrop, Egan traces the tawdry and frightening rise and fall of D. C. Stephenson, known in Indiana politics as “the Old Man” despite being in his thirties. Stephenson was a Texas drifter, war veteran, serial polygamist, and con artist—who between 1922 and 1925—established himself as near-dictator in Indiana and exerted substantial influence across the country via the Klan’s “invisible empire.” In Indiana alone, Stephenson’s organization recruited over 400,000 Klan members, not including the women who joined the Klan auxiliary or children and teenagers who took part in Klan youth organizations. He controlled similarly large Klan memberships in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Within Indiana, Stephenson held sway over police, prosecutors, and judges across the state. He created his own paramilitary, co-opting a vestigial police force, the Indiana Horse Thief Detective Association, and even secured a badge for himself that he flashed to police officers whenever he ran into trouble, which happened regularly. He oversaw a Klan governor and US Senator, and for a time, controlled the agenda of the state legislature.
Naturally, Stephenson sought to benefit personally from the passions he generated, collecting royalties on the sale of Klan uniforms and using the profits to buy more power, as well as a yacht and a custom-built airplane that allowed him to descend from the clouds to huge rallies. Here, assembled Klansmen and their supporters kneeled before him. He lied, Egan says, “by way of respiration.” Stephenson’s goons kidnapped a Michigan minister who spoke out against an upcoming Klan mega rally in Kokomo and left him beaten and with “KKK” branded on his back. Stephenson’s was a reign of terror.
His influence reached all the way to Washington and into the nation’s political parties. While local Republicans were absorbed into the Klan, national Republican politicians, including Presidents Harding and Coolidge, tended to ignore Klan activities. (Woodrow Wilson was more actively supportive of racist policy, re-segregating the federal workforce and hosting a White House screening of the Lost Cause propaganda film, Birth of a Nation.) The Klan wreaked havoc at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, delaying and disrupting the selection of a nominee. After 103 ballots over 16 days, the longest convention in history, Democrats chose Senator John Davis of West Virginia, who eventually went down in a historic defeat.
The social and historical context of 1920s American extremism had deep roots. In the decades preceding Stephenson’s rise, industrialization had drawn millions of immigrants from Europe and relocated millions of American citizens from farms to factories, including the Great Migration of Blacks from the South seeking both work and freedom from Jim Crow. The war heightened social tensions as white Protestants laid claim to an Americanism that excluded Catholics and Jews. Severe racial pogroms—most notably the Tulsa Race Riot—broke out after the war as demobilization forced an economic readjustment and unemployment rose, albeit temporarily. During the “red scare” that immediately followed the war, the Wilson administration unleashed federal agents to root out communist agitators supposedly seeking to overthrow American democracy. Federal prohibition agents conducted raids to try to stop the production and sale of alcohol.
Indiana, in Egan’s telling, was a microcosm of these trends. “Jim Crow,” he notes, “was able to nest easily in much of the North because the essential elements were already in place. More than two hundred towns in Indiana … had sundown laws” making it illegal for Blacks to remain in the city limits overnight. Pogroms (or threats of them) against Black neighborhoods were common. In Indianapolis, a Black dentist purchased a home in a predominantly white neighborhood only to have his new neighbors build a ten-foot-high fence around his property in retaliation. Stephenson deployed his Horse Thief Detectives to raid the homes of dissidents on the pretext of having or producing alcohol in their homes. The Klan also targeted Catholics and Jews encouraging boycotts of Jewish businesses. At one point, the Klan marched on Notre Dame University and found themselves assailed by Irish students armed with potatoes. The spuds won the day.
The explosion of Klan activity was aided and abetted by fundamentalist Protestantism in Indiana and elsewhere. Fundamentalist US churches feared and rejected the modernizing influence of “flapper” culture and the loosening of traditional gender roles and sexual mores. Stephenson’s first stop in many communities was with influential local ministers tending to culturally anxious and uncertain congregations. His generous “donations” encouraged the pastors to conflate Christian doctrine with Klan social views. From the pulpit, pastors encouraged congregants to join up.
Ennui exacerbated this social angst. Small-town Indiana, Egan says, was characterized by “fear, pride, and boredom.” Membership in the Klan with its passwords, rituals, and sporadic violence combined provided an outlet for anxiety and uncertainty, as well as a way to relieve life’s tedium. One Catholic public school teacher in Kokomo wrote the KKK “filled a need” with “hot bigotry” for residents who needed to hate “something smaller than themselves” as much as they “needed to have faith in something greater than themselves.” In an era characterized by the disruption of traditional social mores and relationships, the Klan helped shore up identity mainly by providing several “others” against whom the boundaries of self and community could be defined.
Then, at the peak of his power, in 1925, Stephenson suddenly fell. The instrument of his destruction was Madge Oberholtzer, a young Indianapolis woman of remarkable talent and personal strength working for a state adult literacy program. In an effort to protect her job, she lobbied Stephenson and was, in modern parlance, “groomed” by him, dangling the job and repeatedly asking her for dates. Eventually, Stephenson opted for force, kidnapping Oberholtzer and brutally raping her aboard a train headed to Chicago. In despair, still bleeding from bite wounds he had left on her body, she poisoned herself.
In a panic, Stephenson’s lackeys dumped Oberholtzer at her parents’ home. Over the next month, she died slowly, in an agony of mercury poisoning and sepsis from the wounds Stephenson had inflicted on her. Before she passed, however, Oberholtzer carefully swore out a statement detailing Stephenson’s assault and depravity to one of the few non-Klan prosecutors left in Indiana. Stephenson’s lawyers arranged to move the case to a Klan-friendly jurisdiction and sought to bribe and intimidate jurors. Oberholtzer’s testimony had, however, profoundly shaken the jury made up of men who believed in the morality Stephenson only pretended to. They unanimously convicted him of rape and found him responsible for Oberholtzer’s death. With his imprisonment, the Indiana Klan rapidly unraveled, and much of the rest of the non-Southern Klan network with it. The “fever” had broken.
Egan presents Stephenson’s story as a parable for the social and political stresses facing the US today, and the historical echoes he presents are remarkable. Still, it is important to remember that only the Klan is the Klan, a socio-cultural cancer unique in the depth of its racism, its power to intimidate, and its horrifying record of violence and oppression. MAGA is to the Klan as a monster truck rally is to an armored division, a source of entertainment (or disdain, depending on your perspective) not an imminent and pervasive threat to life, limb, and liberty.
Nevertheless, certain parallels remain between the reactionary politics of the 1920s and those we are struggling with today. As Matthew Continetti noted last year in his magisterial review of American conservatism, American nativism is a recurring national phenomenon. Like the Klan, the MAGA movement has taken control of the Republican Party from the inside, leveraging anxiety over social and cultural change and lingering socioeconomic distress among non-college whites, reshaping the Republican Party’s agenda along nationalist and nativist lines. As in the 1920s Klan, the MAGA phenomenon has given many a sense of belonging, community, and purpose. Much of conservative Protestantism (and a non-trivial number of traditional Catholics) have fallen in line behind MAGA-ism blending traditional doctrine with “America First” ideology. Dollars and votes flow easily and in profusion toward a mélange of MAGA personalities and candidates trying to capitalize on the moment. Extreme MAGA elements openly express racist and anti-Semitic views, leaving senior Republican leaders and elected officials with an uncomfortable choice between embracing the movement’s energy and staring thoughtfully at the ground, praying the problem will simply go away.
If history is any guide, it probably will. The legal machinery is slowly grinding forward, unearthing Donald Trump’s misbehavior and lawbreaking. It may, in time, loosen his hold on the GOP. The recent debt ceiling compromise signals that Republican leaders in Congress and a majority of its elected members are willing to say “no” to the worst of MAGA excesses on critical issues. The racially diverse, post-1964 Civil Rights Act, and increasingly secular America of 2023 is not the America of a century ago, reflected in the decisive rejection of MAGA politics in three consecutive national elections (four if one counts the 2016 popular vote favoring Hillary Clinton).
America has a tradition of keeping a short leash on populism, giving it a voice briefly and then absorbing its grievances into its politics, institutions, and governance. Our legacies of democratic participation, federalism, and the division of governmental powers all act to help isolate and dilute extreme ideologies and avoid nightmares like Nazi Germany. Over our history, these institutional resources and habits have granted reprieve after reprieve. What’s needed now is to focus hard on addressing the social and economic sources of extremism so that we do not have to rely on our good fortune to keep us from an abyss.