In a recent comment, Who Cares compared the current Republican party to the Know Nothings of days gone by. I had heard of the Know Nothings and was curious about them, mainly because it was such a weird name for a political party. But I knew nothing (Ha!) about them and decided to look into this and found this article by Zachary Karabell that took a deep look at their sudden emergence in the 19th century and their equally sudden collapse. He compares them more to the QAnon movement within the Republican party rather than the party itself, but that may be a distinction without much difference.
He says that the Know Nothings made pretty impressive political gains in a short time and explains the origins of the strange nickname.
The American Party, popularly referred to as the “Know Nothings,” may not have seized the White House, but its story bears an uncanny resemblance to what’s happening within today’s Republican Party.
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.
So what caused what were initially a fringe movements to coalesce and become a major political player?
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.
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.
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.
He says that the end of the Know Nothings came about suddenly and serves as a warning ot the Republican party.
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.
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.
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.
History never quite repeats itself but it does serve to provide some insight into political developments.