History May Not Repeat, But It Rhymes…

The quote with which I titled this post–history may not repeat, but it often rhymes–is attributed to Mark Twain, and it appears to be playing out in America’s increasingly bizarre politics.

It turns out, we’ve been here before, albeit without the extra “supercharging” provided by the Internet. Conspiracy theories and bigotries– and their effect on political life– are evidently as American as apple pie.

Case in point, the 19th Century Know Nothing Party. The parallels are striking.

The precipitous decline of the Know Nothings ought to concern today’s Republicans, because the resentments, conspiracy theories and rejection of reality and evidence that characterize support for Donald Trump all bear a striking resemblance to the resentments and angers that gave rise to the Know Nothings. As the linked article from Politico put it,

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.

The anti-immigration panic of the time coincided with the weakening and subsequent demise of the Whig Party. When the Whigs imploded, the (aptly named) Know Nothings emerged to replace them. Interestingly, the Know Nothings avoided taking sides on slavery–the issue that was genuinely tearing the country apart. Instead, it supported laws against drinking and immigration. (The anti-alcohol focus has been attributed to the stereotype of the mostly-Catholic Irish as big drinkers– a focus that gained impetus from the widespread anti-Catholic bigotry of the day.) The Know Nothings supported a wide variety of anti-immigrant measures, including 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.”

Sound familiar?

The reason so few of us know this history is that the Know Nothing party split and declined almost as quickly as it had achieved its successes. But as the Politico article recognizes, the anti-immigrant nativism that drove its adherents never went away.

The lesson for today’s GOP is that simply being against something–or even against many things–isn’t enough. Without being for something, without being able to articulate a positive vision, growth is limited. Hate, anger and resentment can only take you so far.

Ultimately, successful politics requires addition. It requires a broadening of the base of support. The GOP’s embrace of crazy conspiracies, overt racism and self-evidently preposterous Big Lies has led instead to subtraction, as rational Republicans are increasingly exiting the party.

I think this may be where we pass the popcorn and watch the show…..


  1. I grew up during World War II, a time of great patriotism. The disaster of Trump and the prevailing wicked undermining of truth, justice and peace is heartbreaking for the children of today. I have always known there is one human family, that is a basic indisputable truth. I am grateful for all who are working for truth, justice, peace and the healing of the country, the world, the planet. Your insights and wisdom are valuable. Thank you!
    Rev. Barbara Carlson

  2. Milliard Fillmore was a very bright person. His wife was a competent teacher who even worked some while her Hubbie was in the White House. However, he was among the 3 presidents (along with Pierce and Buchannan) who were literally do nothing presidents. They thought the impending war with the South was inevitable and did nothing about it. Milliard appears to have gone idiot (opportunist) after he left as the inheritor of Taylor’s death. Politics will make an idiot of a lot of people.

  3. You might want to remove this comment, “imagined globalist pedophiles,” from Q’s list of “conspiracies.”

    Have we forgotten about Epstein/Maxwell pimping out young girls to older men? It took down a Prince. By the way, here is a link to his black book. Go to Doug Bands, Office of William Clinton. Tony Blair, Mike Bloomberg, …skip around if you’d like. Pick a name and Google it:


    His hanging and all the disappearing evidence from the prison happened under Trump/Barr’s watch. Nary a word about it. This silence prompts the imagination.

    I suspect the GOP will splinter, but those influenced by Trump and QAnon will continue as long as the trust in our government and media wanes in the single digits.

    Don’t forget; billionaires are funding these far-right ideologies because they believe it too and/or it serves their agenda. Total votes for Trump again?

  4. Lots to unpack… In the midst of the industrial buildup at the beginning of WW II, racial/labor strife broke out between white machinists and aircraft unions (whites) and the newly hired African-Americans who wanted jobs building bombers, tanks and guns. The most infamous story is from the building of the Willow Run aircraft plant in (then) rural Michigan. Consolidated was so desperate for workers that they built an entire village to house workers because commuting from Detroit and other places was simply not possible. The white workers who lived in this and other worker villages refused to accept black people to live there. The unions refused to accept black members. Now it’s BLM and police brutality.

    Our original sin of slavery keeps rearing its head – a little higher from time to time – to slap us around and remind us what tribalism, ignorance and utter stupidity looks like. Today, it’s “Q” and MTG. What is next?

    In 1960, I listened to a speech – in church – from my minister who lectured the congregation about voting for JFK. His words stick in my head: “We can’t have a President who takes orders from the Vatican.” That was the last time I went to that church voluntarily.

    Where will the traditional Republicans go, if they’re leaving the party in such great numbers? What will a doofus like Kevin McCarthy do for a living if the “Q” knuckleheads really become a political force?

    Yes. Pass the popcorn. Extra butter, please.

  5. Just think, here we are, only one hundred eighty years later and one of the leaders of our current group of know nothings is an Irish Catholic. Look how far we’ve come in only that short period of time! In another couple of hundred years, we might actually have a black Latino leading the fear mongering. Is this a great country or what??!!

  6. What goes around comes around. Unfortunately the “supercharged” effect of the internet and 24/7 mass media spread as well as strengthen these looney-toons.

  7. “I think this may be where we pass the popcorn and watch the show…..”

    Thank you for those words, Sheila, they give me the perfect opening to share my thoughts this morning. Last night I watched the true crime channel, HLN, their subject was Charles Manson and his “family”; I didn’t watch the following program about Jim Jones but I put the two together as I realized the connection to Donald Trump. Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh and Warren Jeffs all used their words to lead others to do their dirty work for them, including killing Americans. And all of them created their leadership based in some warped version of racism and religion combined.

    This morning I watched the movie “The Iron Lady”; the story of UK’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and gleaned some quotes which she may have actually spoken or maybe merely words from a movie script but they fit. A member of Parliament compared her politics to America which she described as, “America is formed not by what has been but by what can be.” The Republican party lost sight of that years ago and has moved us backwards with each administration. Another quote, “Watch your words because they become actions; watch your actions because they become habit.” They are words which should be considered as we begin Trump’s second impeachment on Tuesday; he moved us back to the Jim Crow era and beyond and his words since 2015 became the actions of the domestic terrorists and the insurrection on January 6th. The fact that this government does not have laws to take action against domestic terrorism before blood is shed has allowed them to gather together in their separate groups and come together as one on January 6th to act.

    Will Trump’s impeachment history repeat?

  8. Vernon Turner, “Where will the traditional Republicans go, if they’re leaving the party in such great numbers?”
    I can tell you my fear of where they’ll go — aamof, some already have — right into the arms of the Democratic party. The ones I know of who have done so were movers and shakers in the Republican party. Will they now be content to enter my party, sit down and shut up? Not on your life. They will do their utmost to make the Democratic party over into their own image — the less radical party that it once was but still not interested in offering a hand to those “below” them economically. That gesture has not been a part of the Republican party over the course of the past century, at least.
    Lyndon Johnson got it right when he said, “We just lost the south,” after signing the Voting Rights Act. And the Republicans were more than happy to pick up where the Dixiecrats [who had often caucused with the Republicans anyway] had left off.

    And JoAnn Green: “The fact that this government does not have laws to take action against domestic terrorism before blood is shed has allowed them to gather together . . . .”

    And even after blood is shed they still have their apologists in high places:
    Witness the fur-hat guy who has been moved to a jail that will accommodate him in his wish for organic food.
    Witness the judges who have allowed people who have maimed and killed and invaded the Capitol to go home on their own recognizance.
    Witness the current hunt for Rittenhouse who gave police an incorrect address [which they failed to check] and then simply walked away.
    Witness the woman who was permitted to leave the country because she’d already booked her “vacation.”
    White privilege is alive and well and on mass display in our justice system. The prevailing view among the police and the courts across the country is that the white supremacists who committed those crimes were just boys being boys. Give ’em a break, fergoshsakes!

    Raise your hand if you think the courts will ever again see the people who are not in jail right this minute.
    Yeah, me neither.

  9. twocrows; I am relieved that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were inaugurated safely. My pride in this country and hope for the future has helped me to feel safer; but will we ever feel secure again in our daily lives?

    My hand is in the air!!!

  10. The Rhymes in recent times began with the White Water investigation of the Clinton’s. Some how the GOP moved White Water to Monica’s dress and the attempt to remove Bill Clinton via impeachment. The Reactionary Right of the GOP had been orbit around the bible thumper’s since Raygun. Clinton’s sexual dalliances and lack of truthfulness, fused the Reactionary Right and bible thumper’s together – Clinton lacked “Family Values”.

    Skip ahead to Obama and the Birther Movement was spawned. The fact Obama was multi-racial brought out Jim Crow again.

    The Trumpet and Pastor Pence consummated the marriage between the Reactionary Right GOP and the bible thumper’s. You could be a bible thumper and yet still be in the Trump Cult, as The Trumpet maybe a flawed vessel – He was doing God’s Work via his Authoritarian Macho-Male persona – appearances were all that mattered. His photo-op as he marched bible in hand to a church in DC sent the message – I am one of You. My Reactionary “Friends” on face book posted meme after meme with Jesus placing his hand on The Trumpet’s shoulder.

    The Stop the Steal Movement was another part of Rhyme, i.e., Rhymes with the Birther Movement. Facts were and are irrelevant. The mob heard what they wanted and stormed the Capitol.

  11. Years ago I learned that Irish Catholics were sent to drain the swamps that helped spread yellow fever instead of slaves because slave owners did not want to lose their “property.”

    I believe that people who fear change and those who are different from themselves are more easily radicalized.

    It’s interesting to me to note that the divide in the Whig party led to their demise. It seems the same sort of divide now threatens the Republican party.

  12. I was wondering why more people don’t pick up on the similarities between the Trump Republican party and the Know Nothings of the mid-1800s.

    So, Todd, you actually believe that Epstein’s pedophilia ring proves to be true the Qanon conspiracy theory that “national Democrats, aided by Hollywood and a group of ‘global elites’, are running a massive ring devoted to the abduction, trafficking, torture, sexual abuse and cannibalization of children, all with the purpose of fulfilling the rituals of their Satanic faith. And that Donald Trump is the only person willing and able to mount an attack against them.” Uh, no. Epstein was a monster and the people who helped him, or looked the other way, should be held accountable. But Epstein is not evidence that advances the ridiculous Qanon theory.

  13. Sometimes I wish that I wasn’t married to science and could find entertainment on entertainment and social media that would set my imagination free to wander rather than being bound by evidence. What a marvelous world it must be to continually find things as you wish reality would be – no restrictions to truth alone which doesn’t even favor life much less me.

  14. Paul, I think you are reading too much into Todd’s comment, but Epstein, and, ironically, Trump’s connection to him do nothing to erase the conspiracists’ story.

    I have read, and thought about the Whig angle before, and hoped that the GOP would follow suit, but, if it does, it will take some time, I suppose. Hell, can they go tomorrow? The upcoming 2nd impeachment may be the litmus test for the GOP. I seriously doubt they will pass it, but humans are quite poor at predicting the future.
    The idea that the fleeing Republicans might skew the Democrats to the right is concerning. However, hopefully, as the Dems are not into feasting on bigotry, and anti-immigration, by history, perhaps they won’t adopt that foolishness.

  15. Rev. Carlson,

    Excellent sentiment! Unfortunately, a majority of those who call themselves Minister, or Rev., or Father, or Pastor, have failed their master, Jesus Christ! They follow men and strive for financial gain and power. If, these persons of faith were doing what they were supposed to be doing all along, people would not have been deceived so easily by the serpent that’s been in the White House. When those who want power take the serpent and stick it in their pocket because of its power base, why are they so surprised that it has fatally bitten them?


    I think the insanity has hit a saturation point! Something that could not have been done without social media and the 24 hour news cycle! History has always been cyclical, but this I think has reached a point where the balloon is about to burst and not just deflate. The only time a Confederate flag was waived in our capital was during the January 6 insurrection. That tells you something right there, not even during the Civil War did that happen. When society has been infiltrated by insanity, it will be every man against his brother! The immense image in the book of Daniel describes society being based on feet of clay mixed with iron, some parts strong other parts weak. And, we can see it in real time now. Society is not bound together for strength, it is very weak, society made of iron would be strong, a society of iron and clay is fragile. I think the worst is yet to come, and I don’t think it’s going to be gentle, and it might not be tomorrow, it might be in 2 years or 4 years, but is going to be bad!

  16. John,
    “The only time a Confederate flag was waived in our capital was during the January 6 insurrection.”

    It is quite possible that the Confederate flag has been in the White House several times, which is part of our Capital, although not part of our capital building.

    Lincoln’s opponents often criticized him, because Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln had relatives in the southern states who sided with the South…and who often visited her, sometimes for extended periods, at the White House. Some of the men, cousins and nephews, were known to wear small ascots that resembled Confederate flags. And who knows what loyalties-disloyalties resided in their luggage? Like a certain brand of cigar that snuggled inside a gold foil Confederate flag band. Like photos of Jefferson Davis that Mother’s southern guests could stand on the bedside table to make the Yellow Room’s Louis XVI draperies and Hepplewhite furnishings feel homey.

    Hell, cotton itself, and anything made of cotton, was as much a Confederate flag–a symbol of the rebellion–as the Confederate flag itself. And Lincoln’s father, deeply involved in smuggling southern cotton, knows how plentiful that was.

  17. I’ll be happy to pass the popcorn, as long as the Democrats remember that the people want results more than “bipartisan” bills. They seem on the way, not accepting a compromise on the stimulus bill.

    If we are lucky, and I hope so, the QOP will go the way of the American Party and the sane Republicans will either reconstitute the GOP or form a new opposition party to the Democrats. Again with luck, hard work, and demographics, we may keep the QOP down until that happens.

    JoAnn – in response to your last question yesterday – stimulus checks are not income – so no taxes

  18. Donald Trump ‘cannibalized’ the freedom and family structures of hundreds of immigrant families by caging and separating their children from them. Where was Q-Anon? The know-nothings have intimidated the GOP into submission.

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