The week after the election, “I know nothing” strikes home as a slogan to be embraced with a kind of sardonic dismay. Like so many others, I was blindsided by Trump’s victory.
I recall, four years ago, the rise in prominence of Nate Silver’s 538 polling website, with its increasingly sophisticated coverage of the Obama-Romney race. Silver nailed the final percentages then, state by state, with uncanny accuracy. That, despite continual carping from the right that 538 was skewing its totals unfairly. Silver’s subsequent popularity led him to leave the position he had taken as the New York Times’ lead polling analyst to set up his own shop; and after he departed, the Times replaced him with a new regular feature on statistical matters, “The Upshot,” while the Washington Post began its own similar operation. These sites and virtually all other pollsters gave the edge in 2016 to Clinton—until around 8:45 or 9:00 pm election night, when the inflow of returns led television pundits to become increasingly subdued over the next hour. During those same vertiginous minutes, the Times’ live blog began to discount its earlier predictions of a Clinton success, from the 80 percent range to the 70s, then the 50s…then (gulp!) to odds favoring Trump. The bicoastal elites’ collective embrace of precise statistical projection swirled downward into the abyss. And what remained in the bubbling froth was the reluctant and inescapable conclusion: “I know nothing.”
Given that ignorance, can anything be said about what’s ahead on the political scene? I’d like to adopt the historian’s traditional posture of looking forward by looking back. Because the slogan I know nothing points toward an older political movement sharing uncanny similarities with our present troubles.
Consider the following scenario. A sharp influx of immigrants prompts many Americans to rage against the influence of foreigners. Not only do they take jobs that home-grown citizens might have filled, but their strangeness itself renders them suspicious. Furthermore, these immigrants are accused of spreading crime and disorder. Worse, a foreign religion threatens the republic, a religion whose autocratic values are antithetical to democracy. Meanwhile, across the globe revolutions and environmental disasters only increase the flood of unwanted strangers.
In the face of such pressures, a new political movement spreads like wildfire, seeming to coalesce out of nowhere, upending the traditional system of political parties. The New York Times condemns the movement, noting that “bigotry and hostility to foreigners as such have had much to do” with the new party’s success. Still the movement grows. Its mem- bers particularly loathe old-style politicians and the corrupt deals they engineer. And finally, the new party’s most effective organizer is a New York merchant pursuing a fortune in real estate. He does not sell branded steaks but he is indeed also in the dry-goods business.
Welcome to the 1850s and the Know-Nothing Party, aka the American Party, aka The Supreme Order of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Earlier in the nineteenth century, immigration had proceeded at a modest pace. Between 1820 and 1840 only about 700,000 newcomers arrived on American shores. But that number jumped to 1.7 million during the 1840s. The sharp rise was fueled by difficult conditions in Europe, including a potato famine in Ireland and the failure of political revolutions in Germany which drove thousands of refugees across the Atlantic.
Anti-foreign sentiments were strongest in urban areas like Boston and New York, where the new immigrants crowded. James W. Barker, the New York real estate entrepreneur who did most to organize the new party, was described as having “an abiding faith in American nationality” and a great “energy of character.” Under his leadership the American party grew throughout the North and Midwest. By the end of 1854 Know Nothing councils had been established in every northern state. Despite a smaller immigrant population in the Midwest, the Know Nothings were popular there too. In Indiana, one observer noted, “the ‘Know nothings’ are thick as the Locusts in Egypt.” Another commented, “the native citizens of the Northern Middle & Western States are so completely disgusted with the conduct of our leading politicians in bidding for the foreign vote…they are determined to make a strong effort to place the government of the country in the hands of those to whom it rightfully belongs.”
The party organized itself as a secret society, as was the practice with many other splinter parties and reform movements of the era. Before the American Party formed, nativist organizations included the Native Sons of America, the United Daughters of America, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner and the Order of United Americans. To keep its doings secret, party members were advised, when asked about the movement, to simply reply, “I know nothing”—hence the nickname.
In addition to its anti-immigrant bias, the American Party was openly anti-Catholic, viewing the hierarchical organization of the church as a threat to democratic values. When Archbishop Gaetano Bedini (above) came to the United States as a personal repre-sentative of the Pope, his “good-will” tour through the northeast was disrupted by mobs in Boston, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Feelings ran so high in New York City that the archbishop had to be smuggled on board his ship departing for Italy. Just as many of Trump’s supporters distrust Muslims and count Sharia law as dangerous threat to American sovereignty, Know Nothings charged that “the liberty we grant to aliens of becoming American citizens has been grossly abused,” and that “the Roman Catholic vote has been held in a compact, disciplined mass, under the immediate and supreme control” of priests and bishops.
Furthermore, like so many Trump supporters, the Know Nothings looked down on established politicians of any party as all too willing to feather their own nests and cut corrupt deals. As one nativist newspaper put it, the people ”saw parties without any apparent difference contending for power, for the sake of power. They saw politics made [into] a profession, and public plunder an employment…They beheld our public works the plaything of a rotten dynasty, enriching gamblers, and purchasing power at our expense.”
Young American men, buffeted by the dislocations of industrialization and forced to compete with immigrants for work, were the movement’s prime supporters. An idealized portrait of one such, “Citizen Know Nothing,” appeared in 1854 (below). The elections of that year swept Know Nothings into power in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Massachusetts. The Whig Party, once preeminent rival to the Democrats, tumbled toward oblivion as voters deserted it in droves. By 1855 over a million Americans had joined Know Nothing lodges and party leaders were boasting that in 1856, even the American presidency would be within reach.
There is indeed some comfort to be taken from this historical parallel, for in the end, the Know Nothings failed to create a party with staying power. It collapsed after little more than another year, due in no small part to lack of experience. Those who disdained politics suddenly discovered that governing proved more difficult than expected and, when the party’s extravagant promises went unfulfilled, its members were voted out of office. As of this writing, the transition process underway in Trump Tower seems to have been similarly roiled by battling factions and lack of governing know-how. Though the kinks may be eventually ironed out—they must be, one way or another, by inauguration day—Trump will surely find it far more difficult to govern atop an administration riven by infighting and lacking a coherent, overarching vision. Several columnists have predicted that the quarreling, lax ethical standards, potential legal scandals (the Trump Foundation, Trump University) and the hidden conflicts of interest arising from yet unknown foreign investments will lead either to impeachment or resignation within a year or two. The precipitate fall of the Know Nothings provides at least some comfort, however cold, on the order of “this, too, shall pass.”
But the past never repeats itself precisely. Barker, the New York realtor who raised the Know Nothings to prominence, was outmaneuvered and defeated even though he helped seal the doom of the Whig Party. Trump has not started a new party, he has taken over an old one. And Republican members of Congress, who spent most of the election distancing themselves from what appeared to be an oncoming train wreck, are now eagerly pulling on red caps to Make America Great. The party will control Congress and the White House, with a Supreme Court nomination soon to cement a conservative majority there too. Trump may be untutored and incompetent, but he has amassed a lot more power than the Know Nothings ever did. He has the potential, in this world of nuclear rivalries and instabilities, to inflict a world of hurt.
Moreover, it was not mere incompetence and infighting that brought the Know Nothings down. The end of the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848 reignited the question of slavery in the United States, as vast new territories were brought into the Union. Would these lands become slave or free? That debate stirred even deeper passions and interests than the issue of immigration; and the new Republican Party siphoned off more supporters than the American Party had ever mustered. As disjointed and divisive as today’s political scene appears, the 1850s were even more unstable. By decade’s end, the controversy over slavery and sectionalism led to the ultimate failure of the political system: outright civil war.
So the most disheartening side of this historical comparison is not whether Trump, riding an anti-immigrant wave, will suffer a fate similar to that of the Know Nothings. It’s whether the forces unleashed by a demagogic charlatan in pursuit of power will destabilize a political system whose shared values of freedom and equality are already under siege. As before the Civil War, there are large social forces at work in American society whose interactions are hard to predict: the increasing inequality of wealth, growing global instabilities, a free press compromised by social networks promoting fake news, elections influenced by hackers from foreign nation states, a hyper-partisan political atmosphere where extremism is encouraged by the primary system and the gerrymandering of districts. Thus far in the twenty-first century two presidential elections have produced a winner losing the popular vote. Add to these variables a faux populist leader stoking ethnic and racial resentments, and you have as frightening a scenario as the prospect of civil war in the 1850s. It is distinctly no comfort to remember that during that decade, almost all Americans found it impossible to imagine the carnage and destruction to come.
Could it happen here? Do we really face the prospect of civil war or some equally mortal threat to the republic? After the unexpected fallout from this most recent election, the unsatisfying and profoundly humbling conclusion may be, “I know nothing.”
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors