History Rhymes: Comparing bad apples and annoying oranges

I’m going with Beau of the Fifth Column on that title: “History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.”

Throughout Donald Trump’s political campaigns, failed presidency, and countless crimes of various sordid types, many (including myself) made comparisons of him to Mussolini.  Some even compared him to Hitler.  But of all the infamous 20th century figures he has been compared to, there’s one that is far more apt and accurate: DC Stephenson.

It was 1923, a century ago, when DC Stephenson was named “grand wizard” of the kook klux klowns, their national leader.  He used his influence to place or support similar reprobates for political office, misusing them for favours and buying influence.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

It was 1925 when it began to fell apart for Stephenson.  He raped and mutilated Madge Oberholtzer, causing her death a month later.  Stephenson was then tried and convicted for her death.  His imprisonment ended not only his own political power, it also ended the influence of the KKK in Indiana, and led to massive reduction and influence nationally as well, influence that it wouldn’t regain until the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s.

As it turned out, the KKK was as much a financial scam as it was a hate group, sucking in and suckering its adherents.  Membership fees, robes, worthless junk trinkets, etc. were sold to the racists rubes who willingly threw their money at the klan.  The “grand dragons” were among the highest paid men in the US during the 1920s, pocketing huge amongs of membership donations into their own pockets.  All because racist whites believed the promise to “make america white again”.  Again, how is that any different?

One big difference: Stephenson spent 25 years in Indiana State Prison, then five more after violating parole.  Trump hasn’t yet been convicted of that, though he has been found guilty of sexually assaulting E. Jean Carroll.  I certainly hope that history rhymes again.

Three interesting excerpts from links are below the fold.

From the Smithsonian:

“Murder Wasn’t Very Pretty”: The Rise and Fall of D.C. Stephenson

The Grand Dragon of the Klan and prominent Indiana politician had a vicious streak that had horrifying consequences

On March 16, 1925, in the muted morning light of a hotel room in Hammond, Indiana, 29-year-old Madge Oberholtzer reached into the pocket of the man sleeping next to her. She found the grip of his revolver and slid it out, inch by inch, praying he wouldn’t stir. The man was D.C. Stephenson, political power broker and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in 23 Northern states. With shaking hands she aimed the gun between his closed eyes. What passed for a lucid thought came to mind: She would disgrace her family if she were to commit murder; instead, she would kill herself.

She crept into an adjoining room and faced a full-length mirror. Beneath her dress chunks of her were missing. Bite marks covered her face, neck, breasts, back, legs and ankles, a macabre pattern of polka dots etched along her skin. She was bleeding from the mouth; he had even chewed her tongue. Her hand was steadier this time, lifting the gun to her temple, when she heard a step outside the door and the squeak of a turning knob. It was one of Stephenson’s associates. She buried the gun into the fold of her dress and slipped it back into the sleeping man’s pocket. She would find another way to kill herself, if he didn’t kill her first.

It was the beginning of the end, in different ways, for both Madge Oberholtzer and D.C. Stephenson, although the politician had long believed himself infallible. “I am the law in Indiana,” he famously declared, and with reason. At age 33, Stephenson was one of the most powerful men in the state, having controlled the governor’s election and the movements of several state legislators, influencing bills on nutrition, steam pollution, fire insurance, highways and even oleomargarine, all of which would line his pockets with graft. His hand-picked candidate for mayor of Indianapolis seemed certain to win election, and Stephenson himself dreamed of running for the U.S. Senate, even president.

Stephenson’s political success was directly tied to his leadership within the Klan, which by 1925 had a quarter-million members in Indiana alone, accounting for more than 30 percent of the state’s white male population. At the height of its popularity, the Klan was a mainstream organization whose roster included lawyers, doctors, college professors, ministers and politicians at every level, most of them middle- and upper-middle-class white Protestants who performed community service and supported Prohibition. The Klan exploited nativist fears of foreign ethnic groups and religions, Catholicism in particular. (Prejudice against African-Americans was not as much of a motivating factor to join the Klan in Indiana as it was in the South.)  “Out in Indiana everybody seems to belong,” reported the New York Times in 1923. “Easterners have been surprised at the ready conquest by the Klan of a state which seemed of all our forty-eight the least imperiled by any kind of menace.”

The rise of Davis Curtis Stephenson seemed equally perplexing, especially since no one—not even those who professed to be his closest friends—knew much about him. “I’m a nobody from nowhere, really—but I’ve got the biggest brains,” he boasted. “I’m going to be the biggest man in the United States!”

From the Digital Public Library of America:

Second Ku Klux Klan and The Birth of a Nation

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is a historically violent American organization that has operated in three periods to promote white supremacy and white nationalism and resist immigration. Founded after the Civil War as a secret society by Confederate generals, the First Klan’s primary focus was subverting Republican Reconstruction policies and preventing emancipated African Americans from receiving the benefits of citizenship. Despite its success disrupting black political participation through threats and actual violence, federal government efforts to suppress the Klan in 1870-1871 forced in a major decline in its activities.


Officially reorganized as a fraternal organization in 1915, the Second Klan paid full-time recruiters and operated in every state from a national headquarters. At the peak of its popularity in 1924-5, the organization claimed four to five million men as members, or about fifteen percent of the nation’s eligible population. It espoused nativist ideologies, discriminated against any group it deemed “un-American,” and supported the culture of Jim Crow segregation with threats and violent acts, such as lynchings. The Second Klan was the KKK’s period of greatest popularity and centralized organization, which lasted until 1944. Today classified as a terrorist organization, the Third and current Klan began in independent local groups in 1946 to oppose the Civil Rights Movement, but its membership numbers remain much lower at 5,000-8,000.

And from Priceonomics:

How the KKK Scammed Its Members for Cash

Today, the Ku Klux Klan is one of the most extreme and reviled symbols of American racism. But there was once a time when the fringe hate group verged on “mainstream.” In the 1920s, its members numbered in the millions and made up a significant percentage of the US population. This is the KKK that claimed to control elections and counted U.S. presidents among its members. And it’s the predecessor to the group that, in fiction, threatened Atticus Finch in front of the steps of the Maycomb County courthouse for defending a black man.

But in 2011, Roland G. Fryer and Steven D. Levitt, the economist co-author of Freakonomics, looked into historical statistics about KKK membership and demographic, criminal and political trends at the time. And they found something surprising: a seldom-seen side of the KKK.

“Rather than a terrorist organization,” they wrote, “the 1920s Klan is best described as a social organization with a wildly successful multi-level marketing structure.” According to Fryer and Levitt, in its heyday, the KKK was a giant, perverse pyramid scheme. Instead of perpetrating a racist agenda, the KKK’s leaders exploited pre-existing, popular racism to make money.

They were very, very, very successful. At a time when per capita income in the U.S. was under $700, the Indiana Klan leader pulled in about $200,000 annually. In 2015, that’s the equivalent of more than $2.8 million.


For their research, Fryer and Levitt compiled a database of historical KKK documents, including internal censuses, member applications, and robe order forms. They cross-referenced the names on these forms with data from the 1920 and 1930 American Censuses.

From this database, which is consistent with previous analyses, we know that this new KKK didn’t really take off until about 1920. Then membership suddenly — and somewhat mysteriously — boomed. Estimates of the KKK’s size at its peak in 1924 range from 1.5 million to 4 million — 4-15% of the eligible population.

According to Fryer and Levitt, this boom was the result of an innovative new marketing campaign.

In December of 1920, the KKK hired a PR firm, the “Southern Publicity Association,” to boost recruitment. The firm had previously represented the Salvation Army and the Anti-Saloon League, but it was close to bankruptcy.

The incentives in the contract were good, possibly too good. Simmons had always made money off his Klansmen. He sold them $6 robes and Klan-branded life insurance policies at $53,000 a pop. He also charged his members $10 initiation fees. According to the contract, the Southern Publicity Association would get 80% of this initiation fee for every new member it signed up. 

When the Southern Publicity Association signed on, the full initiation fee was still $10, roughly equivalent to $125 in 2015. Eighty percent of the fee was $8, and roughly equivalent to $100. This meant the Southern Publicity Association could offer salesmen an attractive commission while keeping a substantial cut.


  1. JM says

    One difference is that the people around Trump are not making money. Trump underpays his own staff (and then complains when they turn on him) because he needs the money to keep ahead of his debts, fines and hiring new staff. It isn’t clear if Trump himself is making money, he always claims to be rich but has huge debts and unprofitable businesses.
    He has reached the point of transferring money from his campaign to pay his current legal expenses, which must be huge despite mostly using 3rd rate lawyers because nobody else will work for him. Trump doesn’t listen to the legal advice he is paying for. He says whatever he wants, including talking about current cases in any way he wants. No competent defense lawyer is going to touch a client like that.
    The people making money are the unrelated grifters that are selling MAGA labeled stuff. There are a several that imply or state they are supporting Trump and are sending no money or trivial amounts.