In the early 1850s, members of the nativist American Party were dubbed “Know Nothings” because they’d insist they knew nothing about their anti-Catholic political agenda. Donald Trump has no such compunctions.
In recent days, the real estate mogul has advocated closing mosques, entertained a database for all Muslims in the U.S. , and called for a ban on Muslims seeking entry to the country. He claims he’s the reincarnation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt for doing so. After the Great Wall of Trump, will the next deal be the Trump Internment Towers?
The good news is that his latest exercise in nativism has forced his fellow aspirants for the Republican presidential nomination to stand up for Muslims. Marco Rubio described his immigration proposal as “offensive and outlandish.” Carly Fiorina said it would violate the Constitution, as did Ben Carson.
Jeb Bush tweeted that Trump is “unhinged.” Lindsey Graham called called him “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” Fellow also-rans Christie and Pataki and Gilmore piled on. Even mini-Trump Ted Cruz declared, “I do not agree with his proposals. I do not think it is the right solution.”
It could be argued, of course, that Trump has merely made it possible for his rivals to sound reasonable as they seize the best chance they’ve had to kill off his double-digit-leading candidacy. I’d like to believe that he has awakened them to the perils of religious demagoguery.
It’s worth recalling that the Know-Nothings arose as a movement of disaffected white Protestants — “native Americans” who with some reason felt that the economic deck was stacked against them and that the two-party system of the day was corrupt and dysfunctional. In the midterm elections of 1854, they swept to victory in many states, taking out their anger against recent Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany.
In my own state of Connecticut, where Know-Nothings captured the governorship and a majority of seats in the General Assembly, six Irish companies in the state militia were disbanded and legislation was passed that targeted the recent immigrants by increasing the period of residence for naturalization from five to 21 years and requiring literacy tests to vote.
Trump’s appeal to the disaffected native Americans of our day harks back not only to the Know-Nothings but also to 19th-century campaigns against Mormons and Asians, anti-German and anti-Japanese policies in World Wars I and II, and the Red Scares of the 1920s and 1950s. In other words, it could happen again.