I went to a KKK rally and saw the future of the alt-right

Story highlights

  • Crilly: It's hard to imagine there will be a KKK revival under Trump
  • The Klan may very well feel emboldened, but that doesn't make them any less irrelevant

Rob Crilly is a British journalist living in New York. He was the Telegraph's Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and was previously the East Africa correspondent for the Times. The opinions in this article are those of the author.

(CNN)This is small-town America in December 2016. Tinsel Christmas trees and golden stars hang from lampposts along Main Street in downtown Roxboro, North Carolina (population 8,632, according to the 2010 census).

Its short parade of shops are mostly shut. The street is deserted, apart from two car repossession men watching a parked SUV for its owner to return.
Then it happens.
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    A pickup turns left into the street, followed by 30 more vehicles in a parade of honking horns. It's hard to tell exactly how many people are in the cars. Some fly the Southern Cross -- once a symbol of the Confederacy during the Civil War; today seen by many as a badge of the racist right. Other flags are labeled with a white cross on a red background, a symbol of the Ku Klux Klan.
    As they pass, two men in black shirts lean from their windows and extend an arm into the air, raising their palms in a Nazi salute.
    This motorcade, passing in front of me in an empty shopping street on a Saturday afternoon, are the terrible dark forces unleashed by Donald Trump's election victory.
    He won, in part, through his promise to say the unsayable: Mexicans are rapists and drug smugglers; Muslims are terrorists unless they can prove otherwise; African-Americans live in ghettos.
    In the privacy of the voting booth, enough people agreed with his worldview that Trump will become the 45th president of the United States of America on January 20.
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    Since then, such private sentiments have become public. There was the Muslim woman allegedly attacked by three drunk men in New York last week as they tried to remove her hijab.
    The dozens, if not hundreds, of reports of children being bullied at school in connection with their religion or ethnicity. And the rash of swastikas daubed on buildings across the country.
    It is easy to see why. White supremacists agree with Trump. He may have condemned the KKK, but they voted for him and his brand of American exceptionalism.
    Saturday's parade -- a Kavalcade, the Klan calls it -- was a victory rally.
    Amanda Barker, Imperial Kommander, told me as much when we met on her front porch earlier in the day. She had spent the preceding days stitching blue and gold ribbons for participants to add to their Klan robes during a cross-burning ceremony to be held that evening -- if the day's high winds died down to a safe level. Even white nationalists have health and safety codes.
    Cold weather, she explained, meant that the victory parade would be held in cars rather than on foot. Klansmen, apparently, are a delicate bunch.
    Not so much Barker, who told me all this dressed only in pajama bottoms and a T-shirt as she stood barefoot on the concrete porch. It had been a late night and she had just woken.
    The truth emerged at the end of the day in a press release from the sheriff's office. Her late night was the result of a fight among Klansmen, who met at her home to plan the parade. Her husband, an Imperial Wizard of the Loyal White Knights, ended up with stab wounds, and another man was arrested.
    It turned the parade into a day of confusion. The spokesman -- or Exalted Cyclops -- told reporters the Kavalcade was canceled, and he missed it himself.
    But eventually it rumbled up Main Street in front of a handful of bemused pedestrians.
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    This is where we are now.
    Of course, not all of the millions who voted for Trump are white supremacists. The thugs of the KKK may feel emboldened, but we need not fear them. They remain a ridiculous conceit, a dressing-up club exposed as a thuggish shambles.
    When you see them up close, it's hard to imagine there will be a KKK revival under Trump.
    And there is a wider lesson as we agonize over how best to avoid normalizing those white supremacists and Internet trolls who have coalesced into the "alt-right."
    They may have replaced the hoods with the faceless anonymity of the Internet. They may look big and tough in the echo chamber of social media. They may have Steven Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, in the White House come January.
    They may very well feel emboldened, but that doesn't make them any more real. That doesn't make them a representative point of view.
    Normalizing them does not mean accepting the rebranded, suited look or the euphemistic title. The danger is in treating them as if they matter, as if they are anything other than a fringe movement and troll army. The danger is in putting them on TV and in newspapers to talk about immigration or terrorism.
    The Klansmen I saw paraded before a largely deserted street. Their raw message of hatred attracted barely any support. In the daylight they looked simply ridiculous with their black shirts and Cub Scout-style patches.
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    So too did members of the alt-right when they were exposed at a Washington conference last month giving the Nazi salute, alienating many observers and sabotaging their chances of influencing the mainstream.
    None of this is an argument for complacency. Nor is it a call to underestimate the very horrible spate of hate attacks around the country. But if I learned anything from my weekend following the KKK around North Carolina, is that their toxic message is as feeble as it is frightening.