Saturday, February 27, 2016

Donald Trump and the Reincarnation of the Know-Nothings

I usually don't write about politics on my blog, mainly because 1) I think it is better to talk politics face-to-face, and 2) the chances of my writing about politics on my blog actually influencing anything is extremely slim. There will probably be 20 people who actually read this post, most of whom will be my family members and close friends . . . who I would talk politics with face-to-face.

So, usually there is no need.

But I feel compelled to write something, because honestly? I am scared. The rise of Donald Trump frightens me. The thought of a President Trump scares the living daylights out of me--anyone who gets chummy with Putin frightens me, and the thought of Trump anywhere near the nuclear codes? *shudder*

But it's not just Trump who frightens me. The impulses behind his rise make me incredibly uneasy. Not only is Trump's rhetoric inflammatory, racist, sexist, bigoted, etc., etc., but, like the man they follow, Trump's supporters don't seem to care. 

Not only that, but many of them embrace the hate, even issuing death threats to people who disagree with them.

That, my friends, is scary. It is scary when anyone in society decides that the best way to deal with those who disagree with us is to silence them.

I have had an interesting perspective on this year's presidential nomination race. Since I am in England, I am slightly removed from the inside drama (but not as removed as you might think--the Brits I associate with love talking about American politics). Still, being over here has given me some time to disengage and view American politics in a more comparative light . . . particularly through the lens of history.

That will come as no surprise to many of you. I am, after all, studying history, and I often find and make connections with current situations to the past. I think it is healthy, helpful, and needful to use history as a lamp to understand the murky present . . . we're doomed to repeat the past not because we don't learn it, but because we don't care about it. I think we should start to care.

Watching the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election Campaign has helped me draw multiple connections, many of which will be left to face-to-face conversations.The connections I see, of course, don't always mean that they are useful or even right.  But there is one that I feel worth mentioning to you, my ever-loyal blog readers.

It is this: the rise of Donald Trump has been facilitated by a reincarnation of the Know-Nothings.

What? you might be asking.

The Know-Nothings, I say.

Who are they? you ask.

Well, let me tell you. Strap yourselves in, kids, and keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times. We're going on a time machine trip to the mid-1800s, when only white males could vote in America, slavery was dividing the nation, a major political party was in demise, and there were strong anti-immigration feelings throughout the Union.

In fact, the Know-Nothing Party started because of those anti-immigration sentiments, in response to a rise of Catholic immigrants from Germany and Ireland. The Know-Nothings called themselves the "Native American Party," not because they were in support of Native American rights, but because they viewed themselves as "pure" or "real" native-born Americans. They were suspicious of Catholics who were taking away American jobs and who they thought were more loyal to the Pope than to America.

[Say hello to "Citizen Know-Nothing." The Know-Nothing's ideal of the perfect American citizen. 

Because they felt their concerns were not being addressed by the Whig Party, they broke off from the Whig Party and formed their own. Their political party was supposed to be secret. When asked about their activities, they replied "I know nothing," hence, the name. (And it obviously wasn't secret, so I still wonder what the point of that secrecy was if you just told people you were part of this by saying "I know nothing." Hey, everybody! I'm in this secret society called the Know-Nothings, and I am now telling you by saying, "I know nothing!" Anyway. Moving on.) 

They enjoyed a great deal of success, especially in the North, where there were large populations of recent immigrants. The Know-Nothings took away civil rights from Catholics. They could be violent. They were certainly vitriolic in their newspapers. And they contributed to the factions in the United States, leading to stronger divisions between North, South, and West, thereby becoming a small factor in the downward spiral in the decade leading up to the Civil War. They had their own ideas of how they would "make America great again" . . . and their party was founded on  principles of suspicion, racism, and bigotry. 

Although the Know-Nothings of the 1840s and 1850s did not win a presidential election, their influence shattered the Whig Party and changed the course of American politics. This recent reincarnation of the Know-Nothings is changing the face of the Republican Party in some pretty ugly ways (of course there are other factors which have changed the Republican Party over the past 30 years, but these new Know-Nothings have certainly done a number on the Grand Old Party). It is a far-cry from the Party of Lincoln (who, by the way, wrote that he would rather move to imperial Russia "where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy" than live in an America controlled by the Know-Nothings). 

Why do I bring this up? Do I dare say that Trump supporters are ignorant "Know-Nothings"? Am I saying that Americans are on a slippery slope that will lead to our own destruction? Am I suggesting we all move to Canada, Germany, or Russia if Trump wins? 

I wouldn't be so audacious to say any of those things. Blanket statements and over-generalizations lead to trouble. Besides, a historian never tries to predict the future. We're stuck in the past, remember?

But I will say this. Know-Nothings didn't go away after the Civil War. Their remnants can be seen in anti-immigration acts at the turn of the twentieth century. Their echoes can be heard in George Wallace's "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." And yes, they can also be heard in Trump's comments today about Mexicans and Muslims.

Nativists crop up from generation to generation. Now, immigration and border control is a huge issue unto itself (and a crucial one), but the nativist sentiments put forth by Trump and his supporters is very disconcerting. It is just one more reminder that racism has not gone away. Neither has sexism or any form of radicalism. It is easy to tap into these demons of human nature. It is so easy to characterize those who are different from you as enemies. When movements are spurred by hate, vitriol, and anger, you can be sure that division follows. "The center cannot hold," and we enter a world where "the best lack all conviction while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity." (see W.B. Yeats's "The Second Coming")

Time will tell if Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination and the general election (although I certainly hope he wins neither). We can predict the future but we never know the exact results. But what I do know is that hate speech will never make America "great" again. Hate is not strength. Racism and division have never made America great. They coat democracy in hypocrisy and keep America from delivering on her promises.

We need leaders today who choose to unify instead of divide. People who truly believe in Lincoln's sentiments of "malice towards none, with charity for all."

Call me an idealist, but I still think that those people are possible to find . . . because I've met people like that. People who I believe could become those leaders; people of wit, class, leadership, kindness, and bravery whom I could fully support as world leaders, even some who I think would make phenomenal Presidents of the United States.

People who realize that politics is, as David Brooks says, about seeing people as people--in all of their forms--and treating them with dignity and respect.

*Frightening Update*
This headline: "Donald Trump Won't Condemn KKK, Says He 'Knows Nothing About White Supremacists." 


  1. I made the same Know Nothing party connection the other day; glad I'm not the only one. 😁 I think you're spot on. Of course. Derek and I have talked about how horrible it would be to explain to anyone abroad how/why Americans could elect such a horrid man, if that ever happens. Hopefully not. And while I agree he is the worst, I don't see another candidate who represents my views. It's all rather discouraging

  2. I know. It is incredibly discouraging. I was saying the other day that most of the people I know and trust to run for the presidency are under 35.

  3. Cool history I knew nothing about. Enjoyed reading this.