The sudden implosion of the Know Nothings should also serve as a warning to Republicans that the forces that have propelled them to the apex of American politics, helping Donald Trump win the White House, can also tear them apart, leaving barely a trace. The Know Nothings today are a barely remembered footnote to American history; if it continues on its current path, today’s version could end much the same.
Much like QAnon, the Know Nothings started life as a secretive cabal convinced that the country was being controlled by an even more secretive cabal — and much like Trump-era Republicans, their anxieties were rooted in a country that seemed to be changing around them.
In the late 1840s, the United States was being flooded with immigrants, in this case from Ireland. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of poor Irish Catholics led to a rise of political groups in New York, Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia convinced that these immigrants could form a fifth column taking direction from the Pope. Under orders from Rome, the theory went, these immigrants would undo American democracy and steal jobs from hard-working native citizens whose economic prospects were hardly secure even in the best of times.
Though these groups had actual names, such as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, their membership at first was guarded and secretive. Asked about their views and political plans, members would reply only: “I know nothing.” The nickname was born.
Fringe movements need both oxygen and fuel. The panic over an influx of Irish-Catholics was the oxygen, and the fuel was provided by the break-up of one of the two major American political parties, the Whigs, after 1850. The Whig Party was never a coherent coalition, and when it finally cracked under the weight of North-South division over slavery, the Know Nothings suddenly emerged from the shadows to become a viable political force.
Given that there were both Northern and Southern contingents, the Know Nothing movement avoided the issue of slavery, instead directing the passions of its supporters toward laws against drinking (the Irish were seen as overly fond of drink; they were Catholics; they were in thrall to the Pope; hence alcohol was evil); laws against immigration; laws in cities such as Chicago banning any new immigrants from municipal jobs; laws to prevent immigrants from attaining citizenship.
These were not marginal moves. At their height, the Know Nothings, newly christened the Native American Party (long before that connoted the original inhabitants of North America), controlled the state legislatures and governorships of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maine and California. They also held numerous seats in state assemblies throughout the South, and they sent more than 40 representatives to the House and several senators, all adamant. Most of them supported stringent nativist, anti-immigrant legislation; all emerged from conspiratorial clubs that had spread theories about possible Papist aggression and plots against the sovereignty of the United States. (In their grotesque accusations about Catholic priests and nuns strangling babies and holding young women against their will, it’s not hard to see an early version of QAnon’s core obsession with imagined globalist pedophiles.) In 1856, the name was shortened to the American Party and its leaders nominated former president Millard Fillmore as their candidate for president under the slogan “Americans Must Rule America.”
And then, almost as quickly as the Know Nothings surged, they split apart. Formed from scattered groups sharing a sensibility and an animus into a loose national coalition, the party was never tightly organized, much like the Tea Party in our time. Northern and Southern branches were just as divided over the issue of slavery as was the Democratic Party in the 1850s, which also began to break apart into two distinct camps. The rise of the newly founded Republican Party in the northern states also siphoned off Know Nothing support. Fillmore managed to get 21 percent of the vote in the 1856 presidential election and win Maryland (which was then bitterly divided over slavery, which was then legal in the state). But that was not the start of national party; it was the end of one.
Though the political movement collapsed, the anti-immigrant nativism of the Know Nothings never really went away. Even during the Civil War, when all other issues were subsumed, the passions stirred by the Know Nothings were never far from the surface. The New York Draft Riots of 1863 were in part an uprising of Irish immigrants after years of discrimination, with African-Americans bearing the brunt of their rage. After the Civil War, a Republican-controlled Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned all immigration for 20 years. Those currents also worked their way into the Populist and Progressive movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, which ultimately became a prominent strain of both parties, the Republicans under Teddy Roosevelt and the Democrats during the Woodrow Wilson years.
There are lessons here for the Republican Party today. History doesn’t repeat itself. It does, as Mark Twain quipped, often rhyme, which means that its echoes resonate over subsequent generations in ways that can offer guidance, though never clear pathways. One lesson for 2021 Republicans is that being purely against something and someone can only take you so far. The Know Nothings needed that surge in immigration of the 1840s, and needed economic and political conditions to be perfectly aligned, to create an opening for a movement whose ideas were largely unidimensional, or at least monotonal.
In their policy goals, the Know Nothings were in part a reformist party representing working Americans against the elite; they ended up passing a variety of laws about working conditions that presaged the union and labor movements after the Civil War. But the movement was founded, and grew, purely on the strength of anger and resentment. And only because of instability in the political system — the collapse of the Whigs and the widening divisions between northern and southern Democrats — was there an opening for them in the first place.
Even then, populist outrage could only propel them to state houses and to the House of Representatives. Then, as now, those are the most fruitful avenues for grassroots and single-issue campaigns. Gaining larger blocs of support as a national movement is much more challenging and requires organization and coherence, and the ability to build and maintain some kind of coalition. Conspiracy theories, which were the core DNA of the Know Nothings, have coherence in their way, but they do best when they avoid the light of public scrutiny. As a local phenomenon, Know Nothingism thrived; as a national movement, it could only go so far before it splintered, fractured and collapsed.
That is one likely path for the Republican Party today, if the Trumpian-conspiracy wing keeps its vital place in the party. Trump reached office by loudly giving voice to undercurrents that the Republican Party had largely kept in check, and had he been re-elected, it’s of course possible that his long grip on power would have led to a more potent national movement. But even then, he never truly managed to deliver results, or to bend the government to his loose collection of ideas; a faction with one primary ethos subsumed to one primary leader could only have been viable long-term if Trump had actually managed to deconstruct the government systems in a way that he largely failed to do.
Without that kind of success to build a broader base, the QAnon wing now threatens to push Republicans much closer to the fate of Know Nothing Party, even though they don’t know it. Many Republican voters, like Know Nothing voters in the mid-1850s, have legitimate grievances about economic equity and opportunity, but the party itself rests on deeper and more exclusionary currents of conspiracy, us-versus-them, anti-immigration and nativism. Trump remains the party’s most important figurehead, even out of power, but the fervent supporters who keep him there aren’t mainstream voters but hard-to-control online cells and local parties.
That doesn’t mean that all GOP voters buy into all of that — not even close. But it means that the party itself will struggle to survive as an organizing force without that energy, and will be limited as a national party because of it. That limit is the lesson of the Know Nothings.
It’s possible that the Republicans will evolve, even though the Know Nothings couldn’t. It’s also possible that political movements have changed enough in the early 21st century that a minority party with a conspiratorial bent and a small menu of adversarial issues can consolidate power in a large and messy democracy. But the latter isn’t likely, and it wouldn’t be a good bet for the Republican Party to think that it found a viable model after four years of Trump.
A final lesson of the Know Nothings is that those voters aren’t going anywhere even if the party begins to fall apart. Some may be lost to conspiracy thinking and hence best not indulged; some may be racist (though some Democratic voters are all those things as well). Many are simply legitimately angry at a political class that has failed them, and an economy that has changed too quickly and too disruptively, and the vehicle they’ve chosen is a deeply flawed one. The task ahead is to address the plaints that are distinct from conspiracy and nativism — and to recognize that some of the voters do know something, even as their party knows nothing.
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