Note: the official websites of groups discussed in this article are not hyperlinked. Embedded links will direct the reader only to reputable sources.
“We want to state for the record that we do not endorse hatred…We belong to the Knights because we dream of a better world for our children—a safe and secure world. It is not hatred, but rather the glimmer of hope in the eyes of our children that motivates us.” So preaches Rachel Pendergraft in her “Welcome” message on the official website of The Knights Party, a well-organized and politically active affiliate of the Ku Klux Klan.
The recent resurgence of news about the Klan, such as the story of the Alabama newspaper that encouraged them to “ride again,” has been an uncomfortable reminder that America’s homegrown hate groups are alive and well. And for most of us, hearing such news does not conjure images of hope, safety, or starry-eyed children. But that is something Pendergraft, the “second ranking Klan officer in the nation,” hopes to change.
She continues: “The Knights is a love group not a hate group. We love America and the Christian foundation of our nation. We love our white brothers and sisters world wide [sic]…We are here to unite our people and to raise a standard in the land.”
Hate Never Looked So Good
At the risk of never again getting TSA pre-checked, I recently spent considerable time on the websites of hate groups like The Knights Party. In addition to a lot of grammatical errors, I discovered this baffling marketing strategy across several different sites: according to whoever writes their web content, these groups are not motivated to harm people of certain races, religions, or sexual orientations, but to spread love.
White nationalists The League of the South take a similar approach to The Knights Party, describing themselves as a “love group” and declaring “We love our People and the South.” In trying to persuade readers to join their whites-only secessionist movement, they claim it is others (read: people who are not white) who carry a message of hate: “We are being purposefully replaced by people who hate the Bible, they hate our ancestors, they hate our families, and they hate us with such a passion they would stop at nothing to see our culture and bloodline eradicated forever.”
If hate is on the offensive in this world, members of the anti-LGBTQ group the American Family Association see themselves in the role of the noble defender. They are “on the front lines of America’s culture war,” and their goal is to be “champion[s] of Christian activism” and “bear witness to the love of Jesus Christ.”
Leaders of The Institute for Historical Review, an anti-Semitic publisher of dubious literature promoting Holocaust denial, also present themselves as martyrs in the war against hate. They claim that although they “steadfastly oppose bigotry of all kinds,” they have been the “target of authentic hate groups.” But they have not let this deter them from their work “to promote peace, understanding, and justice through greater public awareness of the past.”
A More Genuine Approach in Kansas
There is one notorious group whose members do not seem to have caught the love bug: the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas, a small and brazenly homophobic church that proudly employs the word “hate” to describe itself and its mission. WBC is known for a myriad of offenses, such as picketing military funerals and preaching that tragedies like the Sandy Hook shooting are America’s retribution for sin. But they first gained national attention in 1998 when they protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student who was brutally attacked and left for dead. Shepard’s murder shifted the country’s perception of hate crime and spurred new legislation against it.
But as the nation matured in its understanding of hate, WBC continues to wear the word like a badge of honor. They maintain that because God hates sinners, church members are doing righteous work by spreading anti-LGBTQ vitriol. I have consciously chosen not to include their most commonly used motto of sorts, but it contains the word “hates,” and you can easily find it on their protest signs with a quick, depressing Google search.
Besides their affinity for the h-word, WBC differs from the previously mentioned groups in another noteworthy way. Their website makes a specific point that they are not affiliated with the KKK, neo-Nazis, or similar groups, because they “don’t believe in physical violence of any kind, and the Scripture doesn’t support racism.” Let us all take a brief, introspective moment to consider we might share an important value with some of the foulest people who walk the earth.
Shaking the Hate Groups Label
Westboro Baptists aside, it seems that for many American hate groups, there is a chasm of difference between how they present themselves to the world and who they actually are. But is this so surprising? Being labeled a “hate group” is less than flattering, and in fact most of these groups pre-date this label. According to the National Institute of Justice, the phrase “hate crime” emerged in the 1980s out of journalism and policy-making, an effort to describe a series of crimes which targeted specific racial and ethnic groups. Though difficult to pinpoint a definite origin, it appears that the phrase “hate group” also emerged around the same time as “hate crime.” The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking hate group activity since 1990. Their definition of what constitutes a hate group is similar to that used today by the Federal Bureau of Investigation:
“Hate Group—An organization whose primary purpose is to promote animosity, hostility, and malice against persons of or with a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity which differs from that of the members of the organization…”
For the KKK specifically, it is evident that brand consciousness came before “hate” labels and before the internet. In 1975 when David Duke took over The Knights Party, then called the “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan,” rebranding was his top priority. Duke called on Klansmen to “get out of the cow pasture and into hotel meeting rooms.” He wanted to project an image of Klansmen who were well-dressed, educated, and modern, even changing long-standing policies to allow women and Catholic members.
Researching hate groups for any reason is unsettling business, and trying to decipher how and why they present this love-front to the world has taken me down many dark paths. As disturbing as this project has been, the question bothering me enough to continue is this: if marketing often contains some form of deception, and brand consciousness is a feature of pretty much all organizations, is this “love angle” being used by hate groups just an old dog with a new trick, or has the amplifying power of the internet made it possible that something so despicable could really deceive people into believing it is good?
And should this effort succeed, convincing more impressionable people that they are love soldiers in a “culture war,” do we on the other side have to worry about being drafted?
Bernays and the History of Selling Bad Stuff
Desperate to find out if this technique works, I looked to the history of the marketing field itself. It turns out the idea of strategically communicating a harmful message has been around longer than you might think. And much credit for methods still in use today is due to a man whom history has almost completely forgotten: Edward Bernays.
The excellent BBC series “The Century of the Self” (2002), which provided a lot of the information for this article, details the few things we know about Bernays and his under-studied legacy. Born in Austria in 1891 and raised in the US, young Bernays had a winding early career through agriculture and journalism. He worked for a few years as a press agent, managing the careers of famous artists like the Polish ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso.
How he entered the next phase of his work is something of a mystery. Between 1917 and 1919, Bernays, then only in his mid-twenties, served on President Woodrow Wilson’s “Committee on Public Information,” a propaganda ministry which engineered public approval for WWI. In his excellent article on Wilson’s committee, Dr. Christopher B. Daly of Boston University says that “Bernays volunteered for the [committee] and threw himself into the work”; the BBC documentary implies he was assigned to the committee. How exactly Bernays became connected to the White House at such a young age is difficult to say. It seems his entire life would be characterized by this tremendous influence wielded under a suspiciously low profile.
Bernays Gets Lucky
At some point Bernays transitioned from high-level political work to private consulting, where he truly made his name and fortune. But how did this young man, whom a former employee described as “not particularly articulate” and “kind of funny looking,” become the most sought-after public relations consultant in the country?
Whether selling wars or hairnets, Bernays was driven by his perspective on human nature, a loosely-Freudian hunch that people’s innermost desires could be manipulated and controlled. I say “loosely Freudian” because Bernays, like Freud, believed people are driven by internal, primal forces. But he took this belief in a much more exploitative direction than Freud, who by the way was also his uncle.
Bernays’ genius is best illustrated by his work for Lucky Strike, a major cigarette producer of the era. In the 1920s, science linking cancer and smoking was still several decades away, and the cigarette business was booming. But technological advances spurred by WWI created a surplus for many manufacturers. Desperate for new smokers to take products off their shelves, Lucky Strike hired Bernays for a very specific purpose: change traditional gender norms and make it socially desirable for women to smoke.
To accomplish this, Bernays hijacked momentum from an important movement of the day: women’s liberation. On March 31st, 1929, during New York City’s annual Easter Day Parade, he persuaded a group of fashionable and wealthy women to march, and on his signal, they pulled out and lit cigarettes they had hidden in their dresses. In the days leading up to the parade, Bernays had started rumors in the press that a group of suffragettes was going to use the parade to hold a demonstration, lighting up what they were calling “torches of freedom.” Of course, Bernays himself had coined the phrase, and the next day newspapers across the country used it to report on this facade of a protest.
In hindsight, the strategy is clear: to persuade people to want something they do not need, or even something that will physically harm them, do not concern them with the truth of the thing itself. Rather, display it alongside something else—beauty, freedom, wealth—that feels good. By substituting emotional value for physical value, sellers could achieve something Bernays eerily called “the engineering of consent.”
After the parade, Bernays designed further marketing portraying women with cigarettes as independent and fashionable. He presented cigarettes as a means of attaining beauty ideals, designing window displays and print ads with thin women telling consumers to smoke instead of eating sweets. The stylish, sophisticated women in his ads were often dressed in forest green, which conveniently was also the color of Lucky Strike packaging.
Bernays’ legacy is a complicated one, and we do not have a lot of material to help us understand the full impact of his work on modern consumerism. I have cited the handful of sources I could find, mostly by university professors of history, journalism, or marketing who examine some of the many ad campaigns Bernays created in his life. A few major news outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times released articles when he died of bladder cancer in 1995. Though the figure of Bernays may always contain an air of mystery, one thing is certain: through emotional manipulation, large groups of people can be tricked into consuming things they do not need, even things that are contrary to their best interests.
Hate Is for Sale, But Does Anyone Still Buy It?
Perhaps trying to chase down Edward Bernays, the latest phantom in my mental opera house, was just a distraction from the ugliness of the hate group websites. I did learn more about the origins of American consumerism, but as I tried to apply this knowledge to understand how one could use love to sell hate, I came up with more questions than answers. It’s one thing to let yourself believe eating a cupcake will make you feel happiness. But can people really be convinced that if they hurt those who are different from them, they will feel love?
In addition to questioning the severity of harm, there is also an important question about the scope of influence. Though in recent years they have made headlines for an uptick of activity, modern American extremists can still only dream of audiences on the scale of someone like Bernays. In fact most major hate groups have experienced a decline in numbers for the last few decades.
In 2016, the Anti-Defamation League published a comprehensive report on the Ku Klux Klan, estimating that only 3,000 people belong to formal Klan groups. Though it is impossible to know how many other people sympathize with their ideologies, we can certainly track coordinated group activities. Acute sensitivity to the KKK means any public demonstrations or other activities quickly make headlines and are closely followed. Klan ideology—including homophobia, racism, neo-Nazism, and more recently Islamophobia—is most commonly spread through the distribution of fliers, which tend to be rapidly reported after they show up on the doorsteps of unsuspecting people.
Though making recent news for protesting the removal of Confederate monuments, white secessionists The League of the South (LoS) have been losing members for years. Like many hate groups, LoS is prone to exaggerate its size and influence, but the erratic and sometimes criminal behavior of its leadership has caused an “exodus of members.”
In spite of these promising trends, many people today are convinced that hate is on the rise in America. In November of 2018, major news outlets circulated an FBI report that hate crimes had increased for a third year in a row. But reading beyond the headlines one learns that this is partially due to increased reporting and better trained law enforcement. A similar phenomenon occurred in February of 2019, when the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the total number of hate groups in America had reached an all-time high. Disturbing though this is, and worthy of our concern, once again there is some hope in the nuance. For example, in their report on the KKK, the Anti-Defamation League notes that over half of the active Klan groups were formed in the previous five years; they argue this is not an indication of growth, but an illustration of the short lifespan of most of these movements.
The Future of Hate
After wandering through these ugly websites, then distracting myself with a peculiar but relevant historical figure, then trying to fill in the gaps with more data and research, I feel like I’m back where I started: disheartened that these groups exist at all.
Yet I’m also more optimistic about their fate. I believe the declining trends in hate group membership are a sign that Bernays’ tactics ultimately fail, perhaps not in a single person’s lifetime, but across the long and restless years that link us all. We are connected to the people in the past who started these groups, and we are also tied to the people in the future who will be the last to walk away from them.
Those who came before us and those who will follow yearn for love just like we do. But as appealing as the promise of love is, there is no avoiding the subconscious disconnect we feel when we are promised one thing but given another, at least not forever.
Even my new buddy Bernays eventually came around. Thanks in part to emerging scientific evidence about the dangers of cigarettes, and perhaps also a few decades with a guilty conscience, later in his life Bernays actually worked on anti-smoking campaigns, publicly opposing the habit that once paid his salary.
God forgive me for saying this, but there is something extremely valuable to be learned from the Westboro Baptist Church. Of all the groups discussed in this article, they are the only ones who are authentic in the presentation of their ideology. And you know what else they are? Tiny. They have fewer than 80 followers, most of whom are descendants of the founder. What they offer is a message of hate, and that is what they call it. And what is the response, from the overwhelming majority of people who hear that message? Rejection, almost without thought.
One of the greatest titles ever stamped on a book cover is this sentence written by Flannery O’Connor: “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” It is incumbent upon us all to seek out the journalism, promote the science, and vote for the policy that will raise our knowledge and awareness and force what is to merge with how it appears. Truth cannot stay hidden forever, and love can never be hate.
(Featured image: Tony Webster/Wikimedia)