Collective Rebirth after Period of Decay

Chip Berlet & Matthew N. Lyons:

In our view, this backlash character stamped the Reconstruction-era Klan movement as the United States’ first significant right-wing populist movement. To take the point a step further, the Klan was not simply an oppositional pressure group but rather an extralegal counterrevolutionary force literally at war with the established government. In the United States no other significant right-wing movement would adopt this insurgent strategy until sections of the neonazi movement did so in the 1980s.

The Klan, and the wider movement to “redeem” the South, also introduced a new ideological theme into U.S. politics. This was the theme of collective rebirth after a nearly fatal crisis—what Roger Griffin has labeled a myth of “palingenesis,” from the Greek word meaning rebirth.

In the twentieth century, as Griffin has emphasized, palingenesis has been central to the ideology of fascism, whose “mobilizing vision is that of the national community rising phoenix-like after a period of encroaching decadence which all but destroyed it.”[i] (This also replicates a prophetic theme from apocalyptic Christian narratives of the final battle between good and evil.) In the United States up until 1860, no part of the White racial caste had experienced a crisis such as Griffin describes.

But the re-imposition of racial oppression in the South, after total military defeat and the “barbarism” of Radical Reconstruction, seemed to White supremacists a phoenix-like rebirth indeed.

Since Reconstruction, this palingenetic myth has provided White supremacists a model for interpreting and addressing other crises in the racial order. That is part of the reason the Ku Klux Klan, unlike many other racist organizations of the nineteenth century, has been revived again and again. And in the twentieth century the Klan myth of collective rebirth helped prepare the ground for the spread of fascist doctrines.

[i] Roger Griffin, Nature of Fascism, p. 38 (italics in original).