Trump, Immigration, and the Return of the Know Nothings

Trump trumpets his hard-line immigration stance in Alabama.

Trump trumpets his hard-line immigration stance in Alabama.

If there’s one thing that’s always struck terror into the quivering hearts of status-conscious white American whimperers, it’s the threat of the looming “not like us” immigrant hordes. Throughout history, Real ‘Muricans of blanched complexions and insecure egos have duplicitously ignored their own non-tribal status while insisting that America should embrace the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses just so long as said masses ain’t too Catholic, too dusky, too Asian-y, too Slavic, or too Messican.’

Enter Sir Donald of Trump. In an era when the American ethnic demographic is rapidly shifting towards a non-white majority amidst an uncertain, recession-smashed 21st-century world, Trump’s hard-line immigration plan is just the sort of paranoid tonic to sooth conservative America’s anxious cultural cough.

Trump’s pandering to nativist tendencies fits squarely within a long history during which the “right” kind of Americans have done their darndest to keep the “wrong” kind of immigrants from tarnishing U.S. shores — all in the name of preserving the de-facto status quo of the day. Whether the supposed threat came from Irish and German Catholics in the 19th century or from super-scary Mexicans and other Latin American brown folk today, the white status quo has always feared the influx of people who might upend the norms of “traditional” America.

The Trump immigration plan — like most Republican policy proposals — is long on bluster but short on the details of actual implementation. It has three core pillars: 1.) Build a gimungous, Pink Floyd-style wall at the Mexican border 2.) Enforce the living hell out of the Constitution by exploding the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officers (ICE) and deporting every illegal alien within earshot of a Home Depot parking lot, and 3.) End birthright citizenship so illegal immigrants can’t use their “anchor babies” to stay in America, take American jobs, and bloat the American welfare system.

Every detail (such as there is) of Trump’s plan is geared towards maximizing conservative resentment. The overall plan will, of course, “Make America Great Again” by trying to keep the country majority-white. Trump also accuses Mexico of “using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country,” a charge that no doubt sprinkles conservative nightmare cupcakes with images of pillaging Pepper Bellies. Moreover, Trump is doubling down on the need to end the “automatic citizenship” that comes from merely being born on U.S. soil. That’s right: Mexicans will have to steal citizenship from some Injuns, just like our forefathers did!

A Know Nothing Party flag. They were Trumping long before Trump.

A Know Nothing Party flag. They were Trumping long before Trump.

Indeed, when the New Republic’s Jeet Heer describes Trump as “the voice of aggrieved privilege” who “plays to the anxiety of those who fear that their status is being challenged by people they regard as their social inferiors,” he’s recognizing a long-running trend in American politics in which nativism has been the go-to solution for maintaining existing social dominance in the face of impending demographic shifts.

One of the most virulent of all American nativist movements exploded during the mid-19th century, and it gave rise to a national political party literally called the Nativists, a.k.a. the American Party, a.k.a the Know Nothings. The Know Nothings were a semi-secret society: when pressed for the details of their activities, they commonly answered with the phrase, “I know nothing,” hence one of their more popular handles. Know Nothings resented both Irish Catholic immigrants who came to America from the 1840s onward to escape the Great Potato Famine, as well as German Catholics who fled the political unrest that ultimately resulted in the German Revolution of 1848.

Mid-19th century America was a predominantly Protestant America, and the Know Nothings feared that Catholic immigrants would bore themselves into the Lutheran wood of American culture and lay their termitic Papist eggs, thereby destroying America’s small “r” republican society and replacing it with a festering nest of idol-worshipping heretics who answered only to the pointy-hatted Roman Anti-Christ.

The funny thing is, minus the anti-Catholic stuff, the Know Nothing platform of 1856 would feel right at home when belched from the spittle-flecked maws of Trump and his lily-white followers. Among other things, the American Party favored “American Institutions & American Sentiments,” “More stringent & effective Emigration laws,” “the sending back of all foreign paupers,” and the “Formation of societies to protect American interests.” The Know Nothings signed off their 1856 platform with the slogan, “Our Country, our whole Country, and nothing but our Country.” You know, it’s almost as if the Nativists wanted to “Make America Great Again!”

Much like the way contemporary Trumpites heed their hair-pieced hero’s call to “Put American workers first” and deport brown-skinned miscreants who poach American jobs, the Know Nothings feared losing their employment to undeserving Papist peasants. In 1852, for example, one of the Know Nothing Party’s short-lived newspapers, fittingly titled the American Patriot, called for “the protection of American Mechanics against foreign Pauper Labor.” Moreover, just as Trump’s immigration platform calls for the “mandatory return of all criminal aliens” back to their home countries, so too did the Know Nothings advocate “Carrying out the laws of the State, as regards [to] sending back Foreign Paupers and Criminals.” And just as the mighty Trump doth tout the need to “End welfare abuse” by the alien invaders, so too did the Know Nothings object to “Being taxed for the support of Foreign paupers millions of dollars yearly.” Heck, it’s not hard to imagine a red ball-capped, helicopter-stroking Trump waxing apocalyptic against the filthy Irish during a mid-1850s stump speech in a WASP-nested section of the Big Apple.

A Know Nothing poster from the 1840s. Hatin' immihrants is a grand American tradition.

A Know Nothing poster from the 1840s. Hatin’ job-stealing immigrants is a grand American tradition.

Contrary to the cliché, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does echo loudly. Donald Trump’s success as a no-nonsense, semi-non-traditional candidate for the Republican presidential nomination rests, in part, on his ability to pour plenty of verbal propane on the long-smouldering fires of white American paranoia towards outsiders. Trump thrives on the raw intensity that combusts whenever privilege is threatened in American society; an intensity that emerges whenever the ruling class feels besieged by groups over whom it can’t maintain cultural dominance. As political scientist Corey Robin observes, conservatism is “a meditation on, and theoretical rendition of, the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Donald Trump is nothing less than the epitome of “traditional” privilege and power, and he’s betting that Republican voters will volunteer in droves to be his border-patrolling bricklayers.

When Trump gets on stage and vows to “Make America Great Again” by pontificating against the foreign menace lurking like fork-tongued desert rattlers in America’s unkept amber waves of grain, he’s not speaking as a Republican, a Democrat, or even an Independent: he’s speaking as an “American,” the very same type that once deemed foreign Catholics the greatest internal enemy the republic ever faced.

The Donald’s bombastic brand of “American” has consistently reared his steam-popped noggin whenever “undeserving” outsiders have threatened America’s ruling status quo, and his uncouth rise to the top of the crusty Republican crab bucket attests to the continued staying power of Know Nothingism in U.S. culture. After all, when faced with the daunting changes that come with national demographic shifts, it’s just plain easier to claim you know nothing — and then go back to building a wall.

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  1. I wonder why illegal immigration is such an important issue with these people, now, when the rate actually peaked in 2007 and the number of immigrants living in the country has decreased by almost a million people and is steadily decreasing. For some reason Trump and his idiot followers are obsessed with this subject, now, but we heard nothing from them back when the rates were steadily increasing between 1995 and 2007. Hmmm…I wonder why that could be. All of a sudden it’s a yoooge crisis and we gotta build a yoooge wall. It is similar to how Ebola became such a big issue prior to the last mid-term election and once the election was over we never heard any more about it.

    • Well, keep in mind that these people don’t care about immigration as a human phenomenon that can be measured with social statistics. They’re just looking for scapegoats, and it’s waaaay easier to point the finger at Mexicans than it is to call out the corporate American slimeballs who hire undocumented workers to save on labor costs. It’s all about targeting people who don’t look rich, white, and probably diabetic.

  2. Excellent post, Jarret. It’s really sad how history keeps repeating itself for little or no reason other than fear. It’s also ironic that the Know Nothings used the term “Native Americans” as code for “white.” And look what they and we did and are still doing to the real, original people of N. America.

    • Thanks, Bruce. If the Trump Train shows us anything, it’s that Americans have always been susceptible to the worst human impulses — just like everyone else. In some ways, we’re exceptional, in other ways, no way.

  3. I just do not see Trump getting the GOP nomination. Once the voting begins, the blood is going to flow and he will get hammered. On top of that, he is driving the independent voters to the left. At one time I didn’t think Joe Biden could win the general election, but Trump will drive voters to him.

    I’ve been saying the Teabaggers are nothing more than a new generation of Know Nothings for a while now. Naturally the conservatives do not want that association, but the more rabid ones just do not care. The problem with this crowd is they do not think. How will Trump enforce his interpretation of the 14th Amendment? I think he is just saying what the red meat eaters want to hear. Reality is an entirely different subject.

    I find it interesting that some Catholics like Trump. I tell them about anti-Catholic history and they refuse to believe it. They only want to hear what they want to hear. When the immigrants are gone, the Trump types will look for another group to attack and blame for everything that is wrong. He will tap into that anti-Catholic sentiment when he needs support. Of course, they won’t listen to it. Too many stars in their eyes.

    • I can’t envision any real scenario in which Trump gets the Republican nomination, but in some ways, that doesn’t even matter. When it comes to the Right, the so-called “acceptable” Republicans only differ from loudmouths like Trump in their general temperament. The loudest, brashest, most uncouth candidates always get the boot when things get serious, but make no mistake: the Rubios, Bushes, Pauls, Jindals, and Walkers of the world are just as crazy, they’re just better at hiding their radicalism to appear “electable.”

      And yes, the Teabaggers are the totally the Know Nothings Mache 10. Even Anti-Catholicism — an idea that’s really faded since abortion united Evangelicals and Catholics into the New Right — still emerges every now and then. Consider instances like this, when Texas Protestants found out via Facebook that Republican Governor Greg Abbott is a Papist.

  4. Kevin Drum pointed out a key to Trump’s persona that I think too many people are overlooking the influence of his Celebrity Apprentice show:

    Now, picture in your mind how Trump looks. He is running things. He sets the tasks. The competitors all call him “Mr. Trump” and treat him obsequiously. He gives orders and famous2 people accept them without quibble. At the end of the show, he asks tough questions and demands accountability. He is smooth and unruffled while the team members are tense and tongue-tied. Finally, having given everything the five minutes of due diligence it needs, he takes charge and fires someone. And on the season finale, he picks a big winner and in the process raises lots of money for charity.

    Do you see how precisely this squares with so many people’s view of the presidency? The president is the guy running things. He tells people what to do. He commands respect simply by virtue of his personality and rock-solid principles. When things go wrong, he doesn’t waste time. He gets to the bottom of the problem in minutes using little more than common sense, and then fires the person responsible. And in the end, it’s all for a good cause. That’s a president.

    I’ve never watched a full episode of Celebrity Apprentice, and I bet you haven’t either. But a lot of people have, and to them, Trump’s a guy who gets stuff done. He’s the epitome of the “executive experience” argument Republicans were making in 2008 when they nominated a first-term governor from one of the least-populous states in the Union to be Vice President, and were desperately grasping for something in her record to justify her place on the ticket. It’s a depressing thought, isn’t it?

    • Those are some really perceptive points. As you know, the “Apprentice” idea of the presidency is the complete OPPOSITE of how the presidency actually works. I suppose that’s a massive failure on the part of our education system to teach basic civics. I actually have seen a few episodes of “Celebrity Apprentice,” though I can’t say I ever really “watched” the show. “Reality t.v.” really is the most fabricated, controlled, scripted depiction of human interaction ever invented.
      That a good many people don’t realize that Trump (who has filed for multiple corporate bankruptcies) doesn’t actually have that kind of power really shows the lack of information literacy as well as the pull of celebrity culture on the general populace. Oh, and one more thing: for all their talk about “freedom” and “patriotism,” conservatives really do seem like they’d prefer a king over a president. I guess it isn’t really that surprising though: Edmund Burke showed that hand a long time ago.

  5. I am enjoying reading your essays, as well as coming to refine my views of this situation.

    Frankly, i can definitely see where the white nationalist and neocon federate identity movements can gain traction in today’s milieu.

    Vast sectors of the U.S. Working class cannot find employment to for stable households.
    I have seen a crew of twelve African American mason workers fired on the spot (building a McMansion in an upscale gated community)–and replaced within one day with a crew of Hispanic laborers.

    I have been underbid by firms whose workers are majority of Hispanics without legal status to work.

    There is an undeniable downward pressure on wages with millions of undocumented workers from Central America and Mexico.

    Many of these workers come to the U.S. From conditions of sheer desperation: their economies flooded with big agricultural corporations flooding their bean and main markets with less expensive commodities. More, the U.S. Government has for decades forced governments that are racist and oligarchical. Deathsquad democracy.

    Because of decades of declining wages, gauged congruent with inflation, huge swaths of the domestic US workforce that are from the lower rungs of the working class don’t see a future in the industries that incorporate undocumented Hispanics. The work ethic among the lower rungs of the U.S. working class is, not surprisingly, pretty low. (Low pay, no benefits, no to little Union protection, little in the way of pay raises in the future that would allow for developing a stable household, an ownership stake and accumulation of tangible wealth).

    I despise the know nothing stupidity of the U.S. Public and I reject the Trump race-baiting and fear mongering.

    The vast majority of non-documented Hispanics are decent people whose home countries have suffered US supported political violence and various forms of terrorism–decades upon decades of US tutelage.

    There isn’t any movement that I can see that will force corporate America to pay a basic living wage and basic benefit packages. US corporations are subsidized by the amount of resources that various levels of government have to expend to attend to the well-being of their workforce.

    This on the surface subsidy is rarely even mentioned.

    But much easier to hate an Hispanic without legal papers.
    Efforts to increase the conditions and aspirations of workers will be for naught if they are racist and exclusivist–and must include legal U.S. Citizens and Hispanics and others without documents.

    • Hi Steven, thanks for reading and for the inciteful comment. I really appreciate you sharing some of those personal experiences, and when you write that “There isn’t any movement that I can see that will force corporate America to pay a basic living wage and basic benefit packages,” I unfortunately have to agree.

  6. Just like the Know Nothings, Trump showed last night he is a one dimensional candidate. He was terrible and could only make insults. His one area of conversation was immigration. He stayed out of everything else.
    It was a horrible debate for the GOP overall. Good Lord, those loons want to go to war as soon as they take office. None of them put forth anything that had substance. The fact checkers are reporting a 4% factual based rate for the debate. This was not a debate to win the hearts of minds of anyone with intelligence. It was a debate to win the votes of the lowest common denominator.

    • “The fact checkers are reporting a 4% factual based rate for the debate.” Wow, that seems suspiciously high to me…

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