Extremism in the United States: From the Ku Klux Klan to January 6—Syllabus

Contact Information
Instructor: Austin Clements
Email: ajclem@stanford.edu

Course Description

This course provides a historical overview and analysis of extremism in the United States from Reconstruction through the present day, looking at such figures and movements as the KKK, the First Red Scare, Father Coughlin and the Christian Front, McCarthyism, the John Birch Society, the Aryan Nations, and the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers of the present. Students will explore the following questions: what do we mean by extremism? What are the material, cultural, political, and intellectual conditions that lay the groundwork for extremism? How has the label of extremism been applied by state actors, academics, and journalists to denounce, silence, and punish movements and individuals? Is there a connecting thread spanning extremist movements across the nation’s history—say, a paranoid style or an authoritarian personality? With these guiding questions, students will be introduced to primary sources ranging from political pamphlets, diaries, religious tracts, government records, and film, alongside scholarly literature—classic texts and new, groundbreaking research—to equip them with a foundational knowledge of the history of extremism in the United States during the long twentieth century. 

This course is open to students of all or no political persuasions. While historical debates often do connect powerfully to the present moment, and can inform questions we ask of the past, you should expect that class discussions will focus on historical interpretations and research, not on current events. Students should be ready to create a classroom climate that is consciously different from the contemporary media environment. We will regularly share our tentative and provisional ideas, impressions, and writing in small groups, one-on-one, and in general class discussion. In order to create a classroom environment that supports respectful, critical inquiry, the following principles will guide our work:

  • Treat every class member with dignity and respect, even if you disagree with their opinion
  • Reasonable minds can differ on any number of perspectives, opinions, and conclusions
  • Because constructive disagreement sharpens thinking, deepens understanding, and 
    reveals novel insights, it is not just encouraged, it is expected
  • No ideas are immune from scrutiny and debate
  • No assumptions are made about the views of others in the classroom
  • Generosity and respect extend to the assigned course materials—empathy precludes understanding, and prejudice is an obstacle to analysis and thoughtful criticism
  • You will not be graded on your opinions

Course Goals and Learning Outcomes

Through active engagement with and successful completion of this course students will be able to:

  • Understand and evaluate historical and social change through empirical investigation
  • Critically evaluate research methods appropriate for social and historical inquiry
  • Analyze the origins of social institutions and social structures, and the effects of one or more kinds of social institutions and social structures on human action and behavior
  • Address challenges that emerge in interactions between people with different backgrounds, worldviews, and opportunities
  • Explore power relationships (social, political, economic, racial, gendered, and cultural) and how those relationships have changed over time in various social contexts

Course Expectations 

Readings are substantial but rewarding. To complete the course successfully, students are expected to attend lectures, keep up with assigned readings, and to submit brief (1-2 paragraph) responses to weekly readings on Canvas. Students taking History 50 for three units will write one essay of 5-7 pp. in length; students taking History 150 for five units will write a second essay of similar length. There will also be a final examination.

No laptops or phones in class. Please see me if this requirement poses any difficulties for you.


Grades in History 50 will be assigned on the following basis: 33% for class participation (including attendance and weekly discussion posts); 33% for the essay; and 33% for the final exam. Grades in History 150 will be assigned on the following basis: 25% for class participation (attendance and discussion posts); 25% for the first essay; 25% for the second essay; and 25% for the final exam. 

Course Materials

All course materials will be available online, with links provided on the syllabus and through the course’s Canvas website. You do not need to purchase any texts for class. 

Content Warning

Subject matter touched upon in this course will include violence, race and racism, hateful language, and other topics. If you anticipate that this content will cause you acute distress, please confer with me before enrolling. Please note that students may not be warned about all content of individual readings or seminars, and we will not limit discussion as sensitivity of topic may vary from student to student.

Course Schedule and Assignment / Assessment Deadlines

**NOTE** Readings for the assigned day of class should be read before class as to facilitate discussion

Week 1: Introduction and Reconstruction

6/20: Introduction and Syllabus Review

  • J.M. Berger, Extremism, Ch. 2 and 3

6/22: The Ku Klux Klan and Nineteenth-Century Nativism

  • Assorted short articles from Harper’s (1868-1870)

Week 2: Fear of a Red Planet

6/27: Anarchy in the USA

6/29: Socialism, Bolshevism, and the First Red Scare

  • Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (1931), excerpt

Week 3: The Roaring Twenties


7/6: Henry Ford, Eugenics, and the Second Ku Klux Klan

  • J.M. Berger, Extremism, Ch. 4

Week 4: Homegrown Fascism?

7/11: Fascism and Father Coughlin 

7/13: Silver Shirts, Black Legion, and America First

Week 5: The Russians Are Coming (Again)

7/18: McCarthyism Essay #1 Due

  • Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952), excerpt

7/20: The John Birch Society

  • John Stormer, None Dare Call It Treason (1963), Chapter 2

Week 6: The Radical Sixties

7/25: The Third Klan and Black Nationalism

7/27: Student Movements and the Black Panthers

Week 7: The Edge of the Millennium

8/1:  Immanentizing the Eschaton

  • Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More (1992), pp. 254-290

8/3: Aryan Nations, Ruby Ridge, and Oklahoma City

  • Andrew MacDonald (William Luther Pierce), The Turner Diaries (1978), excerpt

Week 8: The Internet Age

8/8: 9/11 and the War on Terror

8/10: The Road to January 6 Essay #2 Due

  • Samuel T. Francis, Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failures of American Conservatism (1993), excerpt 

Course Schedule Change Policy

This schedule is a guide for the course and is subject to change with advance notice.

Featured image: Members of the American Nazi Party pose with their “hate bus” in in Montgomery, Alabama, en route to New Orleans in May 1961. Joe Scherschel, Lifehttps://timeline.com/american-nazis-hate-bus-d6e1a52f6982.

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