Know-nothings are nothing new in American history.
The emergence of Donald Trump as a populist leader took observers of the American political scene by surprise. Dismissed initially as a joke or fringe candidate, he is now a top contender for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. And precisely because Trump can no longer be ignored or laughed away, it would be foolish to ignore the sources of his appeal.
Above all, that attraction appears to have little to do with a detailed program or platform, and far more with Trump’s successfully projected image as a fearless man of action who will, in the words of his ubiquitous slogan, make America great again. To many Americans facing a changing world and fearing that globalization is depriving them of a fair shot at the good life, not to mention basic security, Trump’s promise to do something makes him stand apart from a political establishment, right and left, that seems clueless and adrift.
What’s more, Trump promises to do dramatic things, take drastic steps. He’ll build a wall to protect Americans from Latino immigrants, who, he says, “have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems [here].” In the wake of the shootings in San Bernardino and Paris, Trump called for stern, even unconstitutional measures, from surveilling American mosques to barring Muslims from entering the country until we know “what’s going on.” In short, Trump will build barriers between America and the wider world to protect Americans from the corrosive, debilitating, and dangerous threats posed by people beyond the country’s borders.
Trump’s crude nativism is deplorable, but it is hardly a novelty on the American political scene. Many commentators have rightly drawn parallels between his anti-immigrant statements and the nativist anti-Catholicism of the Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s. In his classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the historian Richard Hofstadter observed that American politics has time and again served “as an arena for uncommonly angry minds” engaged in “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Hofstadter recognized the civic component of that paranoid style—that citizens are concerned not only with themselves individually but also with the fate of “a nation, a culture, a way of life.” In the nineteenth century, the paranoid style gained expression among voters who worried about “a Catholic plot against American values”; in his own time, Hofstadter saw that style at work in the Red-scare hysteria fomented by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Significantly, Hofstadter argued that the paranoid style had greatest force and appeal when citizens believed they were unable to “make themselves felt in the political process.”