THE BLOG
01/18/2016 01:09 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2017

The GOP: The New Know Nothing Party?

Blend Images - John Lund/Stephanie Roeser via Getty Images

In the middle part of the 19th Century a political party, formally called The American Party, but known widely as the Know Nothing Party operated on a national scale in the U.S. promoting nativist, anti-immigration sentiments. Members of the Know Nothings were elected to Congress and they even nominated former President Millard Fillmore for the 1856 election, despite the fact that he was neither a party member nor a nativist.

The party's platform emphasized purifying American politics using anti-Catholic, nativist rhetoric that pandered to popular fears about the German and Irish Catholic immigrants. The Know Nothings claimed that Catholicism was contrary to the values of a republic, because Catholics owed ultimate allegiance to the Pope. They could not be loyal American citizens.

The party, whose membership was limited to Protestant men, feared the growing flow of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere and claimed these immigrants undermined American lifestyles and values and stole jobs from "native born" Americans.

Sound familiar?

Although the Know Nothings didn't last long as a political party, their brand of racist anti-immigration policy continued in the U.S. It is evident in laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924, both of which drastically limited (or prohibited) people from China and other Asian countries from moving to the U.S. And we also see it in the forced relocation of American citizens of Japanese descent to concentration camps during World War II.

Today, we hear echoes of the Know Nothings in the words of the GOP candidates and other leaders when they promote prohibiting Muslim immigrants or building border walls.

Indeed, Republicans like Donald Trump sound a great deal like the Know Nothings of the 19th-Century when they discuss immigration. Trump, in particular, in his call for banning Muslims is a prime example of the xenophobic and hateful rhetoric that characterized the actions and statements of the Know Nothings over 160 years ago. It's nothing new in this country of immigrants to find reasons to ban particular groups from entering the country. And religions like Islam, Judaism, and Catholicism often have been targets for xenophobic and discriminatory rhetoric and legislation.

The parallels are truly striking. Like the Know Nothings, the GOP largely consists of white Protestants (now both male and female) who deeply fear their "way of life" is being challenged by dangerous outsiders. Why are they dangerous? Because they bring to our shores different religious ideas and come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

In other words, the campaign rhetoric and platform statements of the current GOP candidates have much in common with those espoused by the Know Nothings in the 19th Century.

It's interesting that the "know nothing" moniker arose because members were instructed to respond with "I know nothing," when asked by reporters and others about the group's secretive meetings and actions. When it comes to today's version of the GOP, secrecy may not apply, but the phrase "know nothing" seems to be an apt description of the ideas and policies they promote, not just in relation to immigration, but in general.

During the current campaign, when it comes to issues such as climate change, immigration policy, international relations, gun violence, income and wealth inequality, medical care, and so on, many Republican candidates seem to relish in ignorance and misinformation. They try to incite emotional rather than rational responses in followers by using inflammatory, and sometimes bigoted rhetoric designed to stimulate fear among the populace.

One would think that in the last century and a half we would have come farther than this. All that has been accomplished in the area of voter rights, anti-discrimination legislation, environmental policy and clean up, and at least a start in improving health care access, and here we are. Having to listen to a new Know Nothing Party spew its rhetoric of ignorance and xenophobia. The reason for the name may be different, but the phrase "know nothing" is an equally apt description of the party.

When we look at the GOP of 2016, it seems very much as though we are witnessing a new version of the Know Nothings of the 1850s. One can only hope that this time it is equally short-lived.