Of Rat Finks and Know-Nothings

In Sunday's Bergen Record, columnist Charles Stile wrote touchingly about how the patricians of an earlier incarnation of the GOP used to put down internal dissent.  Yes indeed, that class of folks well described in Tad Friend's memoir, Friendly Money, who in politics are epitomized by former Governor Christie Todd Whitman, certainly did dominate the Republican Party before the likes of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich came along.  They also lost pretty consistently and were responsible for that long dry spell without power in Congress. 

The decline of the GOP's dominance by its patrician class tracks what Friend, a staff writer at the New Yorker, calls "the last days of WASP splendor."  And while we can understand how Stile may long for those days of certainty -- for there is a kind of comfort in knowing who is who and where you stand in relation  -- we think that such a class system, one where the leadership is based on inherited status and wealth, ultimately fails.  In fact, one of the great concerns about this presidential cycle is that the role of unlimited money has led to a new order based on such a system -- where family name (Bush, Clinton) is half the battle.

It's an old debate here in America:  Should a Republic have an aristocracy and, if so, what is the selection process?

Writing in the Spring edition of the Hedgehog Review, the University of Virginia's quarterly on culture, Johann Neem makes a few points about presidential candidate Donald Trump, the voters he has energized, and the 19th century political party they are sometimes compared with.  Neem is Professor of History at Western Washington University and a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture of the University of Virginia. 

In contrast to Stile, Neem makes the case for some serious soul-searching to understand how the GOP -- and the country -- got to where the Trump candidacy "dismissed initially as a joke" became the phenomenon it is.  Neem makes some points worth considering:

"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."

"The (anti-immigration) Know-Nothings displaced the Whigs as the Democrats' primary opposition in parts of the nation, and elected seventy-five representatives to Congress."

"As the historian Tyler Anbinder makes clear in his book, Nativisim and Slavery (1992), many supporters of the upstart party voted out of frustration and disgust with the political system.  As Trump would do 175 years later, the Know-Nothings promised to do something.  They appealed in particular to antislavery voters who felt that neither the Whigs or Democrats were willing to address what they considered America's most pressing problem."

"But if Know-Nothings focused on immigrants as the main cause of America's ills, they gained a broad following because they tackled problems and concerns that went well beyond the immigrant question.  In Massachusetts, Know-Nothing legislators who sought to encourage unity among Americans mandated racial integration in the same schools in which they had imposed Protestant Bibles.  They passed laws to protect 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 successfully or not,  Know-Nothings brought working people's concerns to the legislative floor.  They also sought to render government more accountable to voters by making more offices elective, increasing punishment for corruption, and promising to curb patronage."

"Know-Nothing legislators came through with their promise to back U.S. Senators who opposed slavery's expansion. . . In Massachusetts, Know-Nothing legislators passed resolutions calling for the restoration of the Missouri Compromise (to prevent slavery's expansion) and repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act."

In the presidential election of 1856, "most Know-Nothings sided with the new Republican party's candidate John C. Fremont because they considered the issue of slavery more pressing" than the issue of immigration.  Essentially, the Know-Nothings helped destroy the old Whig Party, so that a new Republican Party could emerge.

Neem ends with this salutary warning:

"To the extent that Trump's supporters represent a new Know-Nothing movement, the lesson is clear.  Globalization has resulted in significant cultural and economic changes that many Americans feel have been hurtful not only to themselves but also to the nation as a whole.  Those same voters feel betrayed by a political elite that seems, in their view, more committed to cosmopolitanism and the international order than to national self-interest. "

"The loss of jobs and even of whole industries, drug use, violent crime, the spread of terrorism, and the challenges of an increasingly diverse society -- all of these can be connected with some of the disruptive and dislocating effects of globalization.   Trump's brand of nativism shifts all the blame for these and other problems to people and nations beyond our borders.  But it would be wrong to see his supporters' attraction to such nativism as simple xenophobia, though of course it can easily become that.  Above all, Trump's supporters want someone who will do something, almost anything, about problems they think are growing worse."