Is GOP Frontrunner Trump A Reality-TV Version Of 1850s Know Nothings?

220px-Fillmore2One thing is certain for the 2016 GOP presidential ticket — what it has lacked in substance it has more than made up for in entertainment. At some point Trumpisms will almost certainly surpass Bushisms with regards to the ridiculousness of their nature. But part of the great marketer Donald Trump’s appeal (to one-fourth of the GOP electorate) is his ability to say something without really saying anything at all.

Although examples of this skill are seemingly endless, one of the most recent ones came on the wake of the tragic shooting in San Bernardino when Trump, speaking at a pep rally, was asked how he would deal with the situation.

“I would handle it so tough, you don’t want to hear,” Trump said, adding as he pointed to the cameras, “You don’t want to hear how I’d handle it. I would get myself in so much trouble with them, we are going to handle it so tough. And you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to get it stopped.”

Despite sounding more like a bragging co-worker who is always going to ‘show them,’ and offering no policy or solution — the cheering crowd lapped up his rhetoric. It begs so many questions, but one is — would people really elect such a demagogue?

Well, if history is an indicator, it could happen because, in many ways, Trump’s rhetoric, is just a throwback to the platform of the 1850s American Party.

The engine that propelled the American Party was fear and nativism. The party was afraid of so many things, but mostly non-white, non-Protestant citizens. They were especially afraid of the Irish Catholic immigrants. The Know-Nothings, as outsiders dubbed the group because of the secrecy associated with the organization, latched onto the naïve belief that “all Catholics were controlled by and took orders from the pope in Rome.” One of their goals was to remove from public office any Jew or Catholic.

As a History News Network writer notes,

The 2015 Republican playbook does look as if it is drawing on several themes and tactics from the 19th century movement, most notably anti-immigration and the rejection of traditional politics. The third pillar of the Know Nothings, anti-Catholicism, could easily be updated using the “replace all” function on a computer, substituting in the word Muslim for the earlier threat to Protestant values.

As the American Party pushed it politics of fear, it found early success and within a few years — 1855 —  43 members of the House of Representatives and five Senators were American Party members. But fear can only motivate voters so long especially when the priority of what to fear is called into question. Within a year, the Party split into factions over the issue of slavery. The party backed Millard Fillmore for president (he won Maryland) and by 1859, the Party opposed to so much and fearful of even more was finished — just a forgotten footnote in American history.

How about the modern marketer Trump and his nativism? Will Christians continue to flock to him, despite the fact that he took nearly a month to come up with his favorite Bible verse. Will the billionaire — whose abrasive, ‘speak my mind’ approach to politics has defied predictions — lead the country down a well-worn path of exclusivity?

Hopefully not, but it’s happened before.

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Categories: American History, Politics | Tags: , , , , ,

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