Previously I suggested that John Judis wrote the definitive historical comparison that helps us understand Trump-mania. But now Kathleen Frydi has given us another very interesting look at how, as she says, our present might be mirroring our past.
Frydi draws a comparison to the mid-nineteenth century rise of the “Know-Nothings” (otherwise known as the American Party) that sprang from the Whigs.
Doesn’t this sound strikingly familiar?
When it came to Catholics, Know-Nothings recorded a lurid, paranoid imagination in fictional accounts of seditious sex acts and infanticide, stoking the enmity of nativists already not kindly disposed to people they denigrated as “papal slaves” bound to follow their priest’s orders in the voting booth. The longstanding native suspicion of Catholics deteriorated to a new low in the mid nineteenth century, as 3 million immigrants escaping famine and persecution in Europe poured into cities along the Eastern seaboard. Almost half of the new arrivals were Irish Catholics…
Anti-immigrant feeling was the sole requisite for the spread of Know-Nothings, who eventually organized in full public view as the “American Party,” and, for all we know, vowed to “make America great again”…But the Whigs soon found that, having fanned the embers of bigotry to bind divergent interests together, they could no longer control the flame. Someone could always be more anti-immigrant.
The parallels with what is happening today continue into the current chaos the Republicans are experiencing over the election of a Speaker.
When California Republican Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the race to elect a Speaker of the House, the media scrambled for historical precedents. Yet they ignored one of the most apt (though imperfect) comparisons: the 1854 election for Speaker, thrown into chaos by Know-Nothings, then at the height of their power. Though Democrats held a plurality, a coalition of Know-Nothings and the “Opposition” (mostly Whig) Party eventually banded together, over the course of many votes. Still no single candidate received a majority. After nine weeks of polling, it occurred to legislators that the contest was taking time away from regular duties. To bring the election to a close, the House agreed to elect a Speaker based on a plurality rather than a clear majority.
How did that all end for the Whigs and the Know-Nothings?
In a sense, the 1854 Speaker election was the final (tortured) act of a fractured union between the Whigs and the Know-Nothings they had spawned…
Historically, the American Party was an electoral flash-in-the-pan. As the slash-and-burn Know-Nothings diminished in influence, a newly formed Republican Party took root in the clearing.
And who was the rising star of the newly-formed Republican Party? Abraham Lincoln. We should only be so lucky.