U.S. Know-Nothings Are Back in Charge: Immigrants Beware

“It is one of the consequences of aggression that it hardens the conscience as the only means of quieting it.” (James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer)

 “My greatest fear is that we are all suffering from historical amnesia. [Because   of] a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who deserves to be forgotten …” (Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan author)

America seems poised to make a monumental leap backward.  The second coming of the nativist frenzy that consumed large parts of the American public over 150 years ago is upon us once again.  Since 9/11 and ratcheted up several notches since the 2016 election, the impetus to identify “real” Americans and call out “illegitimate” ones has swung into overdrive. It’s not only the lunatic fringe toppling over the right-most edge of the political spectrum. For once, they have lots of company. For two decades and counting, we have witnessed the rise of the super patriot mentality: now it has morphed into something uglier and more damaging to the notion of “who we really are.” (an Obama “feel-good” neologism)

Don’t let the patriotic palaver fool you. America has always had an adversarial relationship with its melting pot “bros.”  The conditions that set off the worst excesses of immigrant-bashing (#1 on the Know-Nothing agenda) are always the same —staggering convulsions in economic, social, or political conditions.

American history is replete with examples of Americans’ distrust of those who did not look like them, spoke a different language, wore “funny clothes,” and lived together in ghettos (sometimes the only places that would have them). In the 1830s, Catholics were the prime target of immigrant bashing. In 1850, Germans, Irish, and Jews were thrust into the eye of the racist storm. In the 1870s and 1880s, it was the turn of the Chinese and other Asians who were, it was alleged, stealing American jobs. The similarity between these reviled groups? They were all immigrants.

Economic dislocations in the nineteenth century spawned an ugly chapter in American hate politics. Americans faced two major depression (in 1857 and 1873) and a score of recessions. Unemployment stalked the land, low wages became starvation wages and labor agitation increased. Perfect condition to start hunting for a scapegoat. The Know- Nothings, a movement of disaffected Americans responding to gloomy economic and social conditions in the middle of the nineteenth century, didn’t have to look far. The finger of blame quickly fastened on immigrants who, it was generally agreed, were stealing the jobs of “real” Americans and were to blame for wage cuts. In 1834, a mob of workers and townspeople in Charlestown, Massachusetts chased immigrant children and the Ursuline nuns teaching them out of town and burned down the school and convent.  By 1850, the Know-Nothing movement (as it was proudly called) was on the rise with growing support.

The Know-Nothing platform was popular with Americans who wanted restrictions on immigration, bans on foreign-born citizens holding office or even voting, and 20-year residency requirements for citizenship. Know-Nothings promised daily bible readings and restrictions on non-Protestants teachers in the public schools. As they gained a foothold in state and federal politics, the bills they promoted (mostly unsuccessfully) demonstrate how far we haven’t come in over 160 years — campaigning for laws in various states to require the registration of immigrants and literacy tests for voters., Know-Nothings quickly gained short-lived popularity as their anti-everyone-who-is-different, particularly Germans and the Irish, message caught on and spread. By 1852, their electoral successes were phenomenal.  The governor of Massachusetts and all but 2 of the state’s legislators came out of Know Nothing parties. By 1855, 43 Know Nothing legislators were elected to the U.S. House and 5 to the Senate.  In addition, during the 1850s, Know-Nothings captured thousands of state and local offices across America. The names of their local parties paid tribute to their xenophobia — The Native American Democratic Association, Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, Order of United Americans.

Today many Americans are beset by economic dislocations caused by stagnating wages, decreasing household wealth, loss of pension benefits, a union movement on life support and explosive growth of student debt. Exempt from all these headaches are the 1% who are doing just fine.  Stock market at record levels, luxury goods, automobiles, palatial estates, to-die-for trinkets in high demand, the military industrial complex and their investors raking in huge profits from a plethora of wars, CEO salaries skyrocketing with bonuses not far behind. What’s a large slice of the other 99% (aka Trump’s base) doing?  What they have always done. Finding someone to blame. Look no further than Muslims, since 9/11 prime targets. Sharing top honors with Muslims for immigrant-bashing are people from all over the globe fleeing barren wastelands that used to be homelands courtesy of the U.S. war machine.

The to-do list of the current president and his jingoistic base owes much to America’s brief flirtation with the Know-Nothings. A few ingredients have been added to the basic recipe —the vague, mostly undocumented allusions to “keeping us safe,” (by throwing 800,000 young Dreamers out of the U.S. for example) and the invocation of the old Communist menace meme refurbished as Russian plots to overthrow the U.S. government (by helping to elect our current president for example).

Where does it end? With a 55-foot border wall to keep out interlopers (later modified by the president to “only”35-45 feet) that will cost $15 billion or $20 billion or maybe more, much more. What will it do? For openers, as is usually the case with U.S. schemes, corporate
America will be in for a big payday.  What won’t get done is a new universal healthcare system with everybody in, a new tax system with no winners or losers, a federally guaranteed minimum living wage for workers, a major push to fix our crumbling infrastructure, and a federally-funded environmental justice drive to ensure a clean, healthy environment for all regardless of race, nationality, income, gender or age.

Common sense, right? On the top of every American’s wish list? Wrong! According to a Rasmussen poll two weeks ago— 51 percent of likely voters are in favor of building a wall, compared to 37 percent who are against it and 12 percent who are unsure. 

Who said the Know-Nothing movement was dead?



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