The New, Not Conservative, Radical Right Know Nothings

America’s first “third party” began life as a secret society called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. If an outsider asked anything about it, its members were to answer “I know nothing”.

From Ohio History Central (the former Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society):

The Know-Nothing Party, also known as the American Party, was a prominent United States political party during the late 1840s and the early 1850s….The Know-Nothings feared that the Catholics were more loyal to the Pope than to the United States. More radical members of the Know-Nothing Party believed that the Catholics intended to take over the United States of America. The Catholics would then place the nation under the Pope’s rule. The Know-Nothing Party intended to prevent Catholics and immigrants from being elected to political offices. Its members also hoped to deny these people jobs in the private sector, arguing that the nation’s business owners needed to employ true Americans.

From the Smithsonian’s magazine:

At its height in the 1850s, the Know Nothing party … included more than 100 elected congressmen, eight governors, a controlling share of half-a-dozen state legislatures from Massachusetts to California, and thousands of local politicians. Party members supported deportation of foreign beggars and criminals; a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants; mandatory Bible reading in schools; and the elimination of all Catholics from public office…. only those with the proper qualifications deserved full rights. Women’s suffrage was abhorrent and unnatural, Catholics were a threat to the stability of the nation, and German and Irish immigrants undermined the old order established by the Founding Fathers….

Between 1845 and 1854, 2.9 million immigrants poured into the country, and many of them were of Catholic faith. Suddenly, more than half the residents of New York City were born abroad, and Irish immigrants comprised 70 percent of charity recipients.

As cultures clashed, fear exploded and conspiracies abounded. Posters around Boston proclaimed, “All Catholics and all persons who favor the Catholic Church are…vile imposters, liars, villains, and cowardly cutthroats.” Convents were said to hold young women against their will. An “exposé” published by Maria Monk, who claimed to have gone undercover in one such convent, accused priests of raping nuns and then strangling the babies that resulted. It didn’t matter that Monk was discovered as a fraud; her book sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The conspiracies were so virulent that churches were burned, and Know Nothing gangs spread from New York and Boston to … San Francisco….

But instead of continuing to grow, the Know Nothings collapsed under the pressure of having to take a firm position on the issue the slavery. By the late 1850s, the case of Dred Scott (who sued for his freedom and was denied it) and the raids led by abolitionist John Brown proved that slavery was a more explosive and urgent issue than immigration….

But nativism never left, and the legacy of the Know Nothings has been apparent in policies aimed at each new wave of immigrants. In 1912, the House Committee on Immigration debated over whether Italians could be considered “full-blooded Caucasians” and immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe were considered “biologically and culturally less intelligent.” From the end of the 19th century to the first third of the 20th, Asian immigrants were excluded from naturalization based on their non-white status….

[Historian Christopher Phillips concludes] that those bewildered by current political affairs simply haven’t looked far enough back into history. “One can’t possibly make sense of [current events] unless you know something about nativism,” he says. “That requires you to go back in time to the Know Nothings. You have to realize the context is different, but the themes are consistent. The actors are still the same, but with different names.”

This is why another historian, Kate Antonova, argues on Twitter that we should stop referring to Republicans as “conservative”. It would make more sense to call them “Know Nothings”, not just because of their nativism, but because of their devotion to alternative “facts”.

I’m a historian of conservatism. I’d really like to see everyone stop describing the GOP today as being conservative.

Conservatism is a philosophical approach & a policy position. The GOP is a fundraising machine for a policy platform… 

Obviously, GOP is further to the right of the Dems & for most of 20th century has been more conservative than Dems in any sense of word.

But a distinct shift has been at work for several decades & leap-frogged to the fore with Trump’s election.

Ask knowledgeable philosophical conservatives & they will tell you how unhappy they are w/ how far GOP has drifted from that position.

Trump’s GOP has become a radical right. That sounds like a contradiction, but it’s an established term w/ many examples….

So here’s a little background on where the [Right-Left] spectrum comes from and the diffs btwn philosophical conservatism and a radical right.

BTW, … I frame my course on modern European history (French Revolution to the present) as an “epic battle between reason and unreason”.

IOW, the Enlightenment posed a question to Europe: what happens if we use reason (not tradition or religion) to govern ourselves?

There follows a lot of background, not a little, on the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre, Edmund Burke, Metternich, Bismarck, Konstantin Pobedonostsev (the Ideologist of Russian Reaction), the provincial gentry in 19th century Russia, the history of 20th century Europe, as well as socialism, fascism and nationalism.

And speaking of nationalism, Prof. Antonova continues:

It was always out there, not just as benign reaffirmation of the values of the Constitution every July 4 that both parties used to agree on.

There was always a resentful, white-supremacist nationalism based not on affirmation of liberalism but on hating the other.

What changed in 2016 is that a major party embraced this extreme, handed it power, and is now refusing to check that power in any way.

We have to accept that the GOP has abandoned the last vestiges of a conservatism that is cautious, that accepts the premise of rights.

This GOP is a virulent radical RT containing elements of theocracy (Betsy DeVos & evangelical base voters) & fascism (neo-Nazis)….

Current situation inherits many old battles, but is also product of new landscape brought by information revolution.

May I modestly suggest we revive the name Know-Nothings for the modern GOP? Because their denial of reality defines them, not conservatism.

European fascism twisted science to its ends, but the science it relied on – since totally debunked – was mainstream at the time.

There’s a fundamental difference in today’s radical right, which gleefully says FU to knowledge, education, demonstrable fact. 

A radical right that makes up absurd “alt facts” & presents them confidently, fully aware that base will believe literally anything… 

…as long as it’s associated with their “team” and/or serves as a hit against the other “team.” 

Liberals & conservatives in the proper sense of those words are now both (uncomfortably) covered by the shade of the Never Trump tent. 

Both accept the premise of rights & representative govt. Current president, cabinet & Congress explicitly oppose the govt they run. 

Base voters, largely white, many evangelical, cheer undermining of democracy & boo defenses of traditional American values. 

They are not conservatives. They are a radical right…. 

We’re gonna need some new words to describe this, as it continues to develop in unpredictable ways. 

But one thing is sure: the days of Reagan v Mondale are over. The Cold War is over. The “short 20th century” is over. It’s something else now.