In the early 1850s, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothings helped destroy the Whig Party and were then absorbed by the emergent Republican Party. This year, the DNA they left behind took over the organism.
In a word, contemporary Republicanism turns out to be the 21st-century avatar of Know-Nothingism. Reporting on survey data from the early primary period in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, political scientists Ronald B. Rapoport, Alan I. Abramowitz, and Walter J. Stone show that Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim campaign platform is overwhelmingly embraced by the party faithful.
Specifically, of those Republicans supporting someone other than Trump back in January, 86 percent backed his plan to identify and deport illegal immigrants, 80 percent backed his proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border, and 63 percent backed the banning of Muslims. This support, the political scientists conclude, made Trump’s nomination “inevitable.” The Grand Old Party had by then become the Good Ship Bigotry.
Of course, there’s more than bigotry to the Trump campaign. Just as Know-Nothingism was embraced by “native Americans” disaffected from a political system they saw as rigged against them, so Trump’s nativism is designed to appeal to similarly disaffected white people. Notwithstanding all the public dismay at his denunciation of the “Mexican” federal judge hearing the Trump University case, it’s his economic populism that really upsets the so-called Republican establishment.
In last night’s victory speech, Trump made that the basis of a straight-up appeal to supporters of the economic populist running for the other party’s nomination.
To all of those Bernie Sanders voters who have been left out in the cold by a rigged system of superdelegates, we welcome you with open arms.
And by the way, the terrible trade deals that Bernie was so vehemently against — and he’s right on that — will be taken care of far better than anyone ever thought possible. And that’s what I do. We are going to have fantastic trade deals. We’re going to start making money and bringing in jobs.
If Trump wins, his Know Nothings will do to the Republican establishment what the original Know Nothings did to the Whigs. They’re already halfway there.