2016: The Year of the Know-Nothings?


Immigration during the first five years of the 1850s reached a level five times greater than a decade earlier. Most of the new arrivals were poor Catholic peasants or laborers from Ireland and Germany who crowded into the tenements of large cities. Crime and welfare costs soared. Cincinnati’s crime rate, for example, tripled between 1846 and 1853 and its murder rate increased sevenfold. Boston’s expenditures for poor relief rose threefold during the same period.

~ James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 131.

Trump is not stupid.  He’s a businessman.  My kids are born here.  I’m gonna be a citizen soon.  I’m Muslim myself.  I’m not very political, but this worries me, judging people based on religion.  In my country, we haven’t had that kind of problem since Milosevic. I just hope we don’t keep going like this, because American is that greatest country in the world.

~Handyman Alen Sabovic, The New Yorker, p. 39*

Is the history of the Know-Nothing era in mid-19th-century America a presentiment of the political year to come? Is it possibly a harbinger of a new Dark Age in American politics?
In the 1840s and ’50s, and again in the “Roaring ’20s”, immigration was a burning issue. It was the issue that put the Know-Nothings on the political map and turned xenophobia (fear of foreigners) into a cause célèbre.

Sound familiar?  Take Donald Trump, for example, who has a “bold, aggressive plan to secure the border”.  To stop illegal immigration, he would “build a fence, deploy 25,000 additional border agents, utilize Predator drones.”  But that’s not all.  He would not allow “anchor babies” (children born to illegal-immigrant mothers on U.S. soil) to be granted automatic citizenship.  By his reckoning, “Some four million anchor babies are now officially U.S. citizens.”  And forget Obama’s pie-in-the-sky Dream Act:  No more amnesty for illegal babies.  Zero tolerance for Planned Parenthood, too, which is “an abortion factory, frankly”.

“Preventing people from illegally immigrating to the United States should be the primary purpose of Customs and Border Protection,” according to Senator Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada and whose Cuban father, Rafael Cruz, left Cuba in 1957 to attend the University Texas on a four-year student visa. Rafael was granted political asylum in the U.S. before removing to Calgary for eight years during which time he obtained Canadian citizenship.

Ted Cruz also wants to protect us from “skyrocketing” health care costs and creeping socialism, which is why he filibustered against the Affordable Health Care Act. Oh, and his proposal for a flat tax would give the top 1 percent of all taxpayers a 29.6 percent increase in after-tax income, according to the non-partisan Tax Foundation based in Washington, D.C.

Trump and Cruz are only the most vociferous and shameless among the leading Republican candidates for the presidency in 2016.  They all promise to keep a tight lid on immigration – albeit with a special emphasis on Mexicans and Muslims.

Ben Carson told a Kansas City Star reporter the 14th Amendment “certainly wasn’t there to guarantee that a person here illegally could have a baby and use that as an anchor to stay.”   Jeb Bush has also made it clear that if elected he intends to be tough on illegal immigration, calling for “Better enforcement so that you don’t have these, you know, ‘anchor babies’…” and coming out against pregnant women entering the country to give birth “simply because they can do it”.

Marco Rubio, whose parents immigrated from Cuban in 1956, wants to raise the bar for citizenship because “we have a very different economy.”  Which is why, Rubio says…

Our legal immigration system from now on has to be merit-based.  It has to be based on what skills you have, what you can contribute economically, and most important of all, on whether or not you’re coming here to become an American, not just live in America, but be an American.

Got it?

If the 2016 election becomes a referendum on immigration, it will be remembered in history as the election that resurrected “nativism” in American politics and turned the Republican party into the Know-Nothing party.  What follows is thumbnail history of the Know-Nothings.

In 1835 a group of New Yorkers with an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant agenda organized a state political party, the Native American Democratic Association, which gained 40 percent of the popular vote in statewide elections that fall.  In time, the themes of hostility to Catholics and immigrants and the alleged costs associated with a constant influx of foreigners created a groundswell of popular discontent.  The movement metamorphosed into the Native American Party in the mid-1840s.

The steady stream of immigrants, Germans in the Midwest and Irish in the East, posed a perceived threat in the minds of many native-born Protestant Americans.  In 1849, a secret anti-immigrant organization called the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, founded in New York City, helped fuel a rising wave of xenophobia as lodges subsequently sprang up in major cities around the country.

In the early stages of the movement, members of local nativist societies were told to stonewall any questions with a simple reply: “I know nothing”.  In the 1850s, the Know-Nothings, rename the American Party, pushed for “restrictions on immigration, the exclusion of the foreign-born from voting or holding public office in the United States, and for a 21-year residency requirement for citizenship.”  The American Party was actually built on a base of secret anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant political organizations.  Most of its members were native-born, white, Anglo-Saxon males.

As a political movement, the Know-Nothing Party was short-lived, a victim of deep internal divisions.  But “Two other groups that took the name American Party appeared in the 1870s and ’80s. One of these, organized in California in 1886, proposed a briefly popular platform calling mainly for the exclusion of Chinese and other Asians from industrial employment.”

The 1920s saw a resurgence of xenophobia and isolationism.  Nativists feared that millions of Europeans seeking refuge in the U.S. would erode traditional American values. Groups demanding that foreigners be kept out – the Ku Klux Klan, the American Protective Association, and the Immigration Restriction League – flourished.  Not surprisingly, nativist groups gained powerful allies in Congress, leading to the passage of the highly restrictive Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the even more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924.  The latter virtually shut the door to southern and eastern European immigrants; it also severely limited immigration from Asia during the interwar years.

It’s ironic that a “nation of immigrants” continues to eye targeted groups of foreigners with such extreme suspicion.  We know why office-seeking politicians exploit this issue. We know why they whip up popular fears at election time. So why don’t we wise up?
What goes around, come around.  We can’t afford to divide this brave, new networked global village we all inhabit into “us” and “them”.  As a self-consciously open society and the most closely watched country in the world,  we cannot exhibit blind prejudice against “them” without inspiring resentment – and inviting retaliation – against “us”.

There’s always a deep pool of intolerance and bigotry below the surface of a society. The  societies that incubate the terrorists we fear most are no exception.  Which is a damn good reason not to put a Know-Nothing in the White House. Not now. Not ever.

*Quoted in Andrew Marantz, “Postcard from Trumplandia: Rubdown,”  The New Yorker, December 21 and 18, 2015.


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