THR Web Features   /   November 12, 2015

What’s Behind Trump’s Wall?

Or, What We Can Learn from the Know-Nothings

Johann N. Neem

Donald Trump at New Hampshire Town Hall (August 2015). Michael Vadon via Flickr.

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 contender for the Republican party’s nomination. Yet even as his star rises, and more and more voters come to support him, he continues to be dismissed. Trump has no real platform, some say—what does he want to do?

But Trump’s platform may be beside the point if there are sufficient numbers of voters who are desperate for someone they think will stand up for what is right and have the guts to make it happen.

To his supporters, Trump is a hero, who, like Howard Roark, Ayn Rand’s protagonist in The Fountainhead (1943), actually builds things. Trump, unlike Roark, is no architect. But he understands the “art of the deal,” as the title of his 1987 memoir put it. Trump promises, in good Randian spirit, to overpower an old, decrepit system that protects the weak. His wealth, will, and intelligence, he proclaims, mean that he will not serve what Mitt Romney called the “takers”—the 47 percent of weak-willed Americans who live off the sweat of the real people.

But if Trump appeals to people for his ability to get things done—to build things in spite of and in the face of other people’s mediocrity—the appeal of his persona has less to do with the fact that too many Americans read Ayn Rand and than with the fact that America’s political elites really do seem to be adrift. Many Americans, facing a changing world, aware that globalization is taking away from them a fair shot at the good life, look in vain to find a candidate who will do something.

And Trump has promised to do something. In good Roark style, he’ll build something. He’ll build a wall to protect Americans from a dangerous world beyond their borders. He has blamed immigrants in his effort to tap into American’s basest nativist passions. "When Mexico sends its people," Trump said, "they're not sending the best. They're not sending you, they're sending people that have lots of problems and they're bringing those problems. They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They're rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they're telling us what we're getting." The wall represents both Trump’s promise to act while others dawdle and his promise to protect working Americans from the forces of globalization.

It is easy to dismiss Trump’s nativism since it is, after all, racist. But that would be incorrect. Many commentators have connected Trump’s anti-immigrant statements to the nativist anti-Catholicism of the Know-Nothing party in the 1850s. The Know-Nothings—so called because, when asked about their party, they claimed to know nothing—rose to power by exploiting fear of Irish Catholic immigrants. And they were successful. In addition to winning many local offices, in 1854 they gained the state house and almost every seat in the Massachusetts legislature, while also showing strong in Pennsylvania and New York. The following year, they gained control of most of New England. They displaced the Whig party as the Democrats’ primary opposition in other parts of the nation, and elected seventy-five representatives to Congress. Some even thought that the Know-Nothings would elect the next president.

What is most striking about the Know-Nothing movement was that it was ultimately about much more than anti-Catholicism. Instead, as historian Tyler Anbinder of George Washington University makes clear in his book Nativism and Slavery (1992), many supporters of the Know-Nothing party were voting out of frustration and disgust at the political system. The Know-Nothings promised to do something. They appealed in particular to antislavery voters who felt that neither the Whigs nor the Democratics were willing to address what they considered America’s most fundamental problem.

There can be no doubt that Know-Nothings made good on their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant promises. In Massachusetts, Know-Nothing legislators worried about how to bring Americans together. On the one hand, they passed laws requiring the reading of the Protestant Bible in public schools, an anti-Catholic measure, and on the other hand, they mandated racial integration of those same schools. Massachusetts and Connecticut disbanded Irish militia companies, while Maine mandated that no more than one third of a militia company’s members could be immigrants. In Massachusetts, Know-Nothings condemned the public cost of supporting immigrant paupers, and deported almost three hundred people back to Europe. They barred the teaching of foreign languages in Massachusetts schools. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maine all prohibited state courts from naturalizing aliens. They sought to limit immigrant voting through literacy tests in Connecticut and Massachusetts and proposed waiting periods before immigrants could vote. In almost every state, they strengthened or passed laws to limit what Massachusetts governor Henry Gardner called “the evils of intemperance.” In places, violence broke out between Know-Nothings and their opponents.

Know-Nothings no doubt focused on immigrants as a way to find someone to blame for America’s problems, but they appealed to many voters because they also spoke to people’s problems. In economic policy, Know-Nothing legislators passed laws to protect working people from creditors and, in Massachusetts, abolished imprisonment for debt and passed child labor legislation. In Connecticut, they passed a law stating that ten hours was the de facto workday. Know-Nothings also pushed for greater regulation of banks, railroads, and other corporations. Whether successful or not, Know-Nothings brought working people’s concerns to the legislative floor. They also sought to reform government to make it more accountable to voters by making more offices elective, increasing punishment for corruption, and promising to curb patronage.

When it came to slavery, Know-Nothing legislators made good on their promise to choose US senators who would oppose slavery’s expansion. In New York, for example, Know-Nothings divided over re-electing Whig senator William Henry Seward, who as governor had proposed offering public funds to Catholic schools. Ultimately, however, Seward, who was one of the nation’s most vocal opponents of slavery, kept his seat. In Massachusetts, Know-Nothing legislators passed resolutions calling for the restoration of the Missouri Compromise (to prevent slavery’s expansion), preventing illegal proslavery voters in Kansas, and repealing the Fugitive Slave law. They also passed a personal liberty law to prevent slave catchers from rounding up runaway slaves without giving African Americans due process.

None of this is to celebrate nor even to defend the Know-Nothings. They appealed to some of the darkest impulses in American politics. They scapegoated. They hurt many people. But context matters. The Know-Nothings did not win only because they were anti-Catholic but also because they appealed to and spoke for a wide number of white northerners who felt adrift and were seeking solutions to a wide range of important public problems. Hostility to immigration served as a way to bring together these diffuse concerns.

Ultimately, however, the Know-Nothing movement could not sustain itself. As Mark Voss-Hubbard writes in Beyond Party: Cultures of Antipartisanship in Northern Politics before the Civil War (2002), Know-Nothings had come to power “with their millennial appeal to purify politics and governance,” but found that the real work of change was much harder than they anticipated. Like the Tea Party members of Congress today, they were frustrated by the challenges of governance, by arcane committee rules, and by the difficulties of holding together a diverse constituency.

To the extent that Trump’s supporters represent a new Know-Nothing movement, the lesson is clear. Overemphasizing Trump’s nativist appeal does not address the real problems that voters are facing and, in fact, exacerbates them. Instead, the real issue is voters’ sense of powerlessness and betrayal, their feeling that the political elite is not interested in helping them and that the country is adrift. Nativism shifts the blame to other people, but underlying it, for many voters, is a desire to have policymakers do something about the problems Americans daily face.