If adults don’t step in soon, the Republican Party may soon turn into the second coming of the Know-Nothing Party.
I’m not talking about Republicans’ aversion to science, facts and logic, although that is a problem, too. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was right when he urged fellow GOP leaders to stop being “the stupid party.”
But there are worse things than being stupid — such as being xenophobic, prejudiced and hateful.
Sadly, that is now the face of the Republican Party, thanks to the growing popularity of presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson.
We seem to have entered a dark time of mostly irrational fear fueled by Jihadi terrorism, economic inequality and right-wing media.
Trump’s and Carson’s anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim rhetoric to crowds of cheering fans is disturbing. Cruz is less theatrical, but perhaps more dangerous.
America is a nation of immigrants, but “nativist” politicians have always been able to stir up fear and resentment against new immigrants among the descendants of old immigrants. The demagogues’ arguments are always the same: “those people” are stealing our jobs and threatening our safety, culture, religion and “way of life.”
A frightened public needs scapegoats. We have seen it time and again: the Ku Klux Klan; the Palmer Raids after World War I, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s.
One long-forgotten example is the Know-Nothing Party. But its history is worth revisiting, in part because much of it played out in Kentucky.
The Know Nothings began as secret societies of Protestant men in the 1840s, when Irish and German immigrants were coming here to escape famine and war in Europe. Members were called Know Nothings because they were instructed, when asked about their activities, to say, “I know nothing.”
As the Whig Party collapsed in the 1850s, the Know Nothings coalesced into the Native American Party, dropping “Native” from its name in 1855.
Know Nothings feared the rising influence of immigrants, especially Irish and German Catholics, whom they accused of being hostile to liberty and controlled by the Pope in Rome. They spun conspiracy theories about the Vatican taking over the country.
Know Nothings claimed a million members in 1854 and gained considerable political influence in many states, including a sweep of the Massachusetts legislature. They rose to power in California amid fears of Chinese immigrants and captured mayor’s offices of Boston, Chicago and many other cities.
The fear and paranoia stirred up by Know Nothings soon turned to violence. There were riots in St. Louis, New Orleans and Washington, D.C. A Catholic church was burned in Maine, and a priest was tarred and feathered.
The worst violence occurred in Louisville on Aug. 6, 1855, an election day that became known as Bloody Monday.
A month before that, a mob had searched a Catholic church for weapons, but found none. Then all Catholic teachers were dismissed from Louisville’s public schools.
Know Nothings, who held many of Louisville’s elected offices, organized to suppress the immigrant and Catholic votes. They were egged on by Know Nothing newspaper editor George Prentice, whose editorials all but encouraged violence.
When Know Nothings blocked immigrants and Catholics from polling places, tensions exploded into fist fights and gunfire. By the end of the day, at least 22 people had been killed and a row of Irish homes had been burned, many with people inside.
Things got so bad that Know Nothing Mayor John Barbee had to intervene to keep the Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption and St. Martin’s Church from being burned. After the riots, about 10,000 immigrants fled Louisville for other cities.
Abraham Lincoln expressed his disgust for the Know Nothings in a letter to his Louisville friend, Joshua Speed, four months later:
“As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
But, like many Republican leaders today, Lincoln never publicly criticized the Know Nothings. He needed their votes.