Donald Trump and the Know-Nothings

Mark Twain is reputed to have once said, "history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes." With that in mind, Donald Trump has offered up some familiar-sounding themes in his race to become the Republican Party's nominee.
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FILE - In this Sept. 25, 2015, file photo, Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, speaks during the Values Voter Summit in Washington. Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler is asking Trump to stop using the power ballad "Dream On" at campaign events. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 25, 2015, file photo, Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, speaks during the Values Voter Summit in Washington. Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler is asking Trump to stop using the power ballad "Dream On" at campaign events. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Mark Twain is reputed to have once said, "history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes."

With that in mind, Donald Trump has offered up some familiar-sounding themes in his race to become the Republican Party's nominee for President of the United States, with none so resonant as his demagoguery against immigrants and undocumented workers.

But it was only recently--and somewhat coincidentally--that I realized Trump's uncanny semblance to the disgraceful legacy of the American Party of the 1850s, or, as history remembers them, the "Know-Nothings."

This disparaging name has its roots in the origins of the party itself, which began as a secret organization, or, more accurately, as a collection of a number of secret fraternal lodges pledged to preserve the United States as a Protestant land in the hands of "True Americans," free from the taint of Catholic degeneracy. Committed to "dark lantern" politics, or the practice of swearing a secret oath to vote for a slate of candidates that remained undisclosed until days before the election, members who were asked if they knew anything of an underground political organization were instructed to reply, "I know nothing."

This statement, initially a signal of allegiance, now reads like a confession.

When it came to Catholics, Know-Nothings recorded a lurid, paranoid imagination in fictional accounts of seditious sex acts and infanticide, stoking the enmity of nativists already not kindly disposed to people they denigrated as "papal slaves" bound to follow their priest's orders in the voting booth. The longstanding native suspicion of Catholics deteriorated to a new low in the mid nineteenth century, as 3 million immigrants escaping famine and persecution in Europe poured into cities along the Eastern seaboard. Almost half of the new arrivals were Irish Catholics. When mob violence escalated into riots, convents and Catholic churches burned; a number of Catholics were murdered. In Philadelphia, where the foreign-born population had grown from 2% of the city in 1830 to almost 30% by 1850, the Bishop briefly suspended all Catholic services after riots in 1844 because he could not be assured of parishioners' safety. Often attacks took place in full view of police and other local authorities who condoned the violence. In several cities, Catholics responded by organizing their own street crews to battle Know-Nothing toughs--and the resulting clashes, as described in the book and depicted in the film The Gangs of New York, could spark days of unrest and cycles of retribution.

Anti-immigrant feeling was the sole requisite for the spread of Know-Nothings, who eventually organized in full public view as the "American Party," and, for all we know, vowed to "make America great again." A bitter opposition to Catholic influence and officeholders mixed with different sentiments, and meant different things, in various parts of a country in the throes of early industrialization and riven with the divisive politics of slavery. Each brand of Know-Nothing organizing carried populist overtones, driven by the many failures of sectional party alignment and the malcontents in each established party. But the disruptive presence of Know-Nothings was most significant for the Northern and Western Whig Party, which had for decades relied upon an uneasy marriage between pro-business wealthy elites and crusading moralists who ascribed flaws in society to the pernicious influence of evils like alcohol, or Catholic immigrants--or both. But the Whigs soon found that, having fanned the embers of bigotry to bind divergent interests together, they could no longer control the flame. Someone could always be more anti-immigrant.

The tensions inherent in the Whig coalition beg an obvious comparison to the modern Republican Party. Yet I was slow to see it. After all, Donald Trump's florid anti-immigrant remarks do not lack for historical precedent. It was only in the midst of the recent struggle to elect a Speaker of the House that I began to draw parallels between his campaign and the Know-Nothings. (Others more alert than myself had already done so; two thoughtful treatments include Laura Reston's treatment in The New Republic and James Nevius' op-ed in The Guardian.)

When California Republican Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the race to elect a Speaker of the House, the media scrambled for historical precedents. Yet they ignored one of the most apt (though imperfect) comparisons: the 1854 election for Speaker, thrown into chaos by Know-Nothings, then at the height of their power. Though Democrats held a plurality, a coalition of Know-Nothings and the "Opposition" (mostly Whig) Party eventually banded together, over the course of many votes. Still no single candidate received a majority. After nine weeks of polling, it occurred to legislators that the contest was taking time away from regular duties. To bring the election to a close, the House agreed to elect a Speaker based on a plurality rather than a clear majority.

Today, as the House confronts the question of whether any single candidate can win 218 votes, the shadows of the 1854 debacle--including the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings--began to cross my mind. When so-called "Freedom Caucus" members pointed to the popularity of Donald Trump, and specifically his hostility to immigrants, as one reason for their rejection of McCarthy, it dawned on me that we should be alert to the possibility that Trump's candidacy augured the collapse of the Republican Party, just as the Know-Nothings had felled the Whigs with a recalcitrant commitment to jingoistic appeals the party could no longer control. In a sense, the 1854 Speaker election was the final (tortured) act of a fractured union between the Whigs and the Know-Nothings they had spawned.

Thinking about the Know-Nothings more carefully, it's easy to see a similarity between the faux populism of Donald Trump and the Know-Nothing George Law, the robber baron who fostered the movement in order to manipulate political machinery to operate in his benefit, and who, like Trump, derived much of his wealth from immigrant labor. Law even aspired to run for the presidency on the American Party ticket in 1856, but lost out to former president Martin Fillmore, who splintered the Northern vote, leaving the country in the hands of the enigmatic Democrat James Buchanan. The pressing question of slavery could no longer be avoided, despite the best efforts of Know-Nothings, who were keen to devote all their energy and animosity to immigrants. Just as it was before, so it is today: it might be comforting for some to think that the deep wounds in the American economy could be healed by ejecting undocumented workers (were such a policy even possible), but history and every reputable study of the economic impact of immigrants reveals this to be a false prophecy.

I personally do not know if any historical "rhyme" exists for the ironic detachment many in the media seem to feel for Donald Trump. But it is appropriate to note that the collapse of the Whig Party came as a great surprise to the news outlets of the day, perhaps because a news media preoccupied with performing its own spectacle failed to take proper measure of another one. Despite the sober interruption supplied by a developing culture of professionalism in the news media throughout the twentieth century, we've retuned to a kind of yellow journalism via the plethora of conservative "news" outlets that pander to a point of view, and elevate people like Donald Trump, who describes Mexicans as "killers and rapists," to a stage denoting but not deserving credibility.

If the Know-Nothing comparison is suggestive, then we should search for signs that the modern GOP has run its course--like, for instance, the inability of Republican Party presidential candidates (other than Donald Trump) to attract donations from ordinary people.

Historically, the American Party was an electoral flash-in-the-pan. As the slash-and-burn Know-Nothings diminished in influence, a newly formed Republican Party took root in the clearing. Seeking a new coalition, Republicans were forced to contend with the American Party's foul chauvinism. None did so in more searing words than the Party's rising star, Abraham Lincoln. "As a nation we began by declaring 'all men are created equal," he wrote to a southern slave owner in 1855. "We it 'all men are created equal except Negroes'! When the Know-Nothings get control it will read 'all men are created equal except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

Though Lincoln's words stand as the definitive moral rebuke, it is Ralph Waldo Emerson who supplied the pithiest political critique. Despairing of the inability of the political parties of the 1850s to provide a sound vehicle for social change, Emerson gave his own view Know-Nothings: as the Whigs "inspired no respect, they were turned out by an immense frolic."

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