The Know Nothing Party, 2.0

Photo Credit: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

Reader, perhaps you too have turned on your television, taken in a news program, and thought, “What the hell is going on in America right now?!” Fear not. Because if history teaches us anything, it’s the sad fact that what is going on is the same thing that has always been going on in our country.

For a number of reasons, most of them having to do with television ratings and virulent racism, Donald Trump is currently the Republican frontrunner for president. Of the United States. Of America. North America. And though it seems that we have entered a brave new world where saying outrageously offensive things can only make you a shoo-in for the nation’s highest office, we are actually witnessing the slow-motion death of a venerated political institution: the Republican Party.

Like a supernova that explodes into a blinding flash of white-hot light before imploding, the Republicans have given themselves over to the last hurrah of a fading, chintzy billionaire. The rise of Trump – and the attendant rise of some of the most egregious slurs against immigrants thus far uttered by a person seeking political office – is the confluence of one man and one party raging against the light of well-deserved irrelevance.

Were he alive today, this man's hat would say

Were he alive today, this man’s hat would say “Make America Great Again.”

That doesn’t make the spectacle any less painful, or ironic. A century and a half ago, a political party along the broad outlines of Trumpism arose called the Know Nothing Party. They ran candidates on a platform of nativism and religiosity in the 1850s, as a wave of Catholic immigrants from Germany and Ireland arrived in the United States. Immigration rates were five times higher in the first five years of the 1850s than they were a decade earlier, and the newly arrived were overwhelmingly German and Irish. Some Americans were suspicious of their alien faith (Catholicism), while others took issue with the “thick brogues” they found difficult to understand.

The Whig Party, formed in opposition to President Jackson and on life support by the 1850s, sought to ally themselves with the Know Nothings. Instead, surging support for the Know Nothings destroyed the Whigs, and led to the birth of the Republican Party in its current incarnation. This should all sound familiar.

Trump, who is currently running “the most dickish campaign in American history,” draws on some of the same support that made the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings a political force in the middle of the 19th century. He enjoys strong support from evangelical Christians, who see immigration and demographic change as a moral peril. For poorly educated working-class white voters, Trump is the only candidate giving voice to their fears of increasing dislocation. And in a time where many Americans have given up on the two-party system, Trump offers a refreshing blast of authenticity swaddled in a blanket of ignorant self-assurance.

The Republicans spent the latter part of the past decade seeking electoral success by energizing the Tea Party, similarly formed in opposition to a popular president. The experience of the past three election cycles highlights the burden and glory of such a strategy. While Tea Party voters show up in higher numbers for the midterm elections, they are easily overwhelmed in presidential years. A similar dynamic befell the Whigs and Know-Nothings, who had awful luck in presidential elections throughout the 1850s.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to tell if Donald Trump’s xenophobic campaign will actually lead to a permanent shift in American politics, or if he will flame out like the various front-runners of 2012. What’s certain is that Trump’s candidacy has tapped into an atavistic undercurrent of American politics, where God and Country demand the defeat and expulsion of various others (gays, immigrants, black people – the list goes on). Whether or not the Republicans can return the genie to the bottle remains to be seen.