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.”
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…..