Donald Trump Dispute Turns Spotlight on the KKK in America

The white nationalist group follows David Duke into the presidential race.

ByABC News
February 29, 2016, 4:05 PM

— -- The emergence of the Ku Klux Klan on the presidential campaign trail has caught some people by surprise, but comes after the hate group has had something of a resurgence in the past year, experts say.

The white nationalist group found itself in the political discourse after David Duke, the former Louisiana lawmaker who was once grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, declared support for GOP candidate Donald Trump.

“What is a fact is that the racist right views Donald Trump as the absolute greatest thing since sliced bread,” Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center told ABC News today. “They're delighted. They're beside themselves.”

Even though Duke’s backing put Trump in a bind after the Republican presidential front-runner didn’t condemn Duke strongly enough to everyone’s satisfaction, Duke’s word doesn’t carry as much weight as it once did, experts say.

"Duke still portrays himself as a great intellectual leader of the racist right,” said Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate-group watchdog organization based in Alabama.

"The reality is Duke has not been important to the movement for a decade or so."

ABC News has been unable to reach Duke.

John Kneebone, a professor and the head of the history department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said Duke may view Trump as an opportunity to reclaim some of his own former standing.

"In some ways, a character like that [Duke], outside the mainstream, can aspire to more prominence by endorsing a candidate by knowing that other candidates will jump in and criticize him," Kneebone said. Duke said in a Facebook post last week that while he supports Trump, he has not endorsed him.

Duke’s declining influence has also stemmed from the Klan’s becoming less organized and formal than it once was, according to Kneebone.

“The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was -- at least they tried to be -- a centralized organization with dues and budgets and leadership hierarchy,” Kneebone said. “The Klan declined from the mid-20s on, and finally gave up its legal existence with threat of a failure to pay taxes case with the Treasury Department in the 1940s. And with that, the name Klan began to float around freely with different splinter groups taking the name."

“You don’t need white robes and hoods for people to be committed to violence and other misdeeds,” he added.

The lack of a central authority hasn’t stopped the spread of the ideology, however, with Potok pointing to his organization’s finding a significant increase in the number of KKK-related hate groups in the past year.

There were 190 “Klaverns,” or chapters, nationally in 2015, up sharply from 72 the year before, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The increase stemmed from the disintegration of the largest groups into small ones after members “redistributed themselves,” Potok said.

“There was growth in the Klan last year but it wasn’t nearly as spectacular as the numbers would suggest,” he added

The Klan also made itself visible in another way this weekend when a few KKK supporters planned a protest walk in Pearson Park in Anaheim, California.

The protest turned violent when there were clashes with counter-demonstrators, resulting in three people being stabbed, according to The Associated Press, and 12 people being arrested, though the Anaheim police department later stated it released five of those arrestees after determining they were acting in self-defense.

As for Trump, VCU professor Kneebone said he doesn’t believe the New York real estate mogul is viewed as the white nationalist presidential candidate, but that supporters of the KKK view him as "the best they can get.”

Aside from the presidential race, Kneebone said one of the biggest factors contributing to the recent growth of KKK-related groups was the debate surrounding the removal of the Confederate flag after the 2015 deadly shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, allegedly by Dylann Roof, who was believed to have white supremacist beliefs.

“That would have been a wake-up call to people [Klan supporters], that, ‘We need to defend ourselves’ and I think that has been the case,” Kneebone said.