The White Working Class and the Legacy of the 1960s Ku Klux Klan in the 2016 Presidential Election

AuthorMattias Smångs
Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
Subject MatterContemporary Analyses and Implications
ANNALS, AAPSS, 694, March 2021 189
DOI: 10.1177/00027162211019679
The White
Working Class
and the Legacy
of the 1960s Ku
Klux Klan in
the 2016
1019679ANN The Annals of The American AcademyLEGACY OF THE 1960S KKK IN THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
This is a theoretical and empirical exploration of how
the presence of the Ku Klux Klan across southern com-
munities in the 1960s mediated electoral support for
Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The
analysis is prompted by divergent perspectives on the
impact of working-class whites’ economic grievances
and cultural identities in Trump’s victory, and by con-
jectures of a relationship between past white ethno-
racial mobilization and support for Trump. I show that
the civil rights–era Klan’s defense of Jim Crow segrega-
tion created an enduring legacy of reactionary white
collective identity and mobilization that together with
contemporary economic and demographic conditions
shaped local-level 2016 voting patterns in Trump’s
favor. I also discuss the broader implications of the
2016 U.S. presidential election and scholarship into the
temporal endurance of racism’s past forms and mani-
Keywords: 2016 presidential election; Donald
Trump; reactionary mobilization; Ku Klux
Klan; ethno-racial mobilization; abeyance
Donald Trump’s upset victory in the 2016
U.S. presidential election confounded the
expectations of academics, journalists, pollsters,
pundits, and other commentators and observ-
ers of U.S. politics. Given the election’s unex-
pected outcome, political commentators
immediately began proposing various explana-
tions for Trump’s triumph. A prominently fea-
tured view in postelection commentaries was
that Trump prevailed by drawing disaffected
Mattias Smångs is a visiting senior lecturer at New York
University, Abu Dhabi. His research interests include
racial mobilization and violence in contemporary as
well as historical perspective. He is the author of Doing
Violence, Making Race: Lynching and White Racial
Group Formation in the U.S. South, 1882–1930
(Routledge 2017) and articles in the American Journal
of Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Social Forces,
and Social Problems.
white working-class voters away from the Democratic Party to the Republican
Party (e.g., Jardina 2019; Lamont, Park, and Ayala-Hurtado 2017; McQuarrie
2017; McVeigh and Estep 2019; Mutz 2018; Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck 2018;
Stiglitz 2018). Commentaries in this vein, however, disagree on how best to
account for the white working-class voting patterns that tipped the scales in
Trump’s favor.
Postelection commentary positing the decisive role of working-class whites’
voting behavior falls into one of two perspectives: one that emphasizes economic
interests and another that emphasizes cultural identities. The former view sup-
poses that working-class whites’ support for Trump is a response to decreasing
economic opportunities and security caused by structural economic transforma-
tions in recent decades (e.g., Lamont, Park, and Ayala-Hurtado 2017; McQuarrie
2017; Stiglitz 2018). The latter view holds that support for Trump is an expression
of resentments among working-class whites who have lost long-standing privi-
leges that have formed the foundation of their ethno-racial identity at the
expense of ethnic and racial minorities. This view, furthermore, suggests that
Trump’s election campaign and victory represented a surging wave of racist and
xenophobic reactionary nativism with parallels, even links, to earlier phases of
white ethno-racial mobilization. Insofar as this view, for example, highlights simi-
larities between Trump’s appeals to and supports from working-class whites and
the 1960s Ku Klux Klan’s defense of Jim Crow segregation against African
Americans’ civil rights (e.g., Jardina 2019; McVeigh and Estep 2019; Mutz 2018;
Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck 2018).1
In light of these divergent perspectives in the postelection commentary, as
well as the commentary’s conjectures regarding links between the 2016 election
and past white ethno-racial mobilization, this article develops theoretical and
empirical lines of analysis exploring how the KKK’s presence across southern
communities mediated an association between contemporary economic and
demographic conditions and electoral support for Trump in 2016. To that end, I
take a regionally contextualized and historicized approach, departing from the
ahistorical and decontextualized approach that characterizes the economic inter-
ests versus cultural identities debate. Such an approach is much needed because
the historical legacy of racism in the United States, as well as its links to partisan
politics, is hardly uniform throughout the country but reflects regionally distinct
experiences and trajectories of racial group formation and contention.
The article’s next section is a theoretical explication of how collective mobiliza-
tion occurring as part of intergroup conflicts may shape an enduring historical
legacy reflected in similar mobilization later in time. The subsequent sections,
respectively, review the civil rights–era Ku Klux Klan’s historical context and
Trump’s appeal to working-class whites in his 2016 election campaign. Thereafter
follows a section describing the article’s statistical methodology and another one
NOTE: I would like to thank Professors David Cunningham, Hedwig Lee, and Geoff Ward for
inviting me to contribute to this volume and for their advice during the process of writing and
revising the article. I would also like to acknowledge two anonymous reviewers’ and Matthew
Salganik’s insightful comments on earlier versions of the article.

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