By Dr Michael Herron
Donald Trump, it has been argued, is the latest in a long line of American populists. Some commentators compare him to Charles Lindbergh, leader of the isolationist “America First” party in the 1930s and 40s. Indeed, “Putting America First” has been one of Trump’s slogans. Others compare him to another figure of the 1930s, Louisiana governor, Huey Long or the Populist leader of the 1890s and champion of the downtrodden farmer against the railroads, William Jennings Bryan.
However, this article will argue that Trumpism harks back to an older strain of American populism, the Nativism of the 1840s and 50s. Indeed, it will demonstrate that a number of the reasons for the rise of Trumpism are similar to those for the rise of Nativism, with some important differences.
Ostensibly, American Nativism emerged as a response to a rapid growth of mainly Catholic Irish and German immigration into a United States that was predominantly Protestant during the 1840s and 50s. However, as Eric Foner and other scholars have argued this immigration only exacerbated an already fractious situation.
According to Foner, the seeds of Nativism had been sown by the economic depression of 1837-1842. This depression had undermined the labour solidarity of the 1830s which had tended towards greater secularism in the spirit of Thomas Paine. As this labour solidarity broke down and divided the working population on the basis of religion and ethnicity, American Protestants became open to the emerging Protestant evangelical movement, the Great Awakening. This increased enthusiasm for evangelical Protestantism then reinforced the native born American Protestant population’s hostility to newcomers with a different faith.
The fact that this immigration was on a massive scale stoked the fires of this hostility even higher. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her epic study of Lincoln, the population of the United States was 20 million in 1845. In the space of ten years 3 million immigrants came to the United States, the vast majority from Ireland and the German states. These immigrants had fled the Famine that ravaged Ireland from 1845 to 1851 and the failed Revolution in the German states in 1848.
This immigration encouraged some American Protestants to found an anti-Catholic party, the Know-Nothings. This party’s platform aimed to prevent the newcomers claiming citizenship until they had been resident for a number of years and to disqualify them from voting. It also opposed state funding to support Catholic education. This platform grew out of the general suspicion among American Protestants that the new immigrants owed their allegiance to the Pope and the Catholic Church rather than the United States.
The Know-Nothing party had widespread support in the United States in the early 1850s. It gained control of a number of cities, had strong backing in New York and won power in the state capitol of Massachusetts. At the time, there were also a number of anti-Catholic riots in a number of cities in the North.
Perhaps the high point for this party was when under the new name of the American Party it nominated Millard Fillmore for President during the election of 1856. Fillmore also gained the support of the Whigs. However, during the election the American Party only won one state, Maryland.
The party eventually split over the issue of slavery. Many of the northern Know-Nothings also opposed slavery whereas the Southern Know-Nothings supported this institution. According to Goodwin, the Northern Know-Nothings split with their southern counterparts because they viewed the extension of slavery into the new western territory of Nebraska as more important than opposition to new immigrants.
These anti-slavery Know-Nothings joined with “Conscience Whigs” who were also opposed to slavery and the “Independent Democrats who had split with the Southern Democrats over slavery to form the Republican Party. However, according to Goodwin, Lincoln in particular was as hostile to Nativism as he was to slavery stating “how can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favour of degrading classes of white people”.
Nativism lived on after the Civil War particularly in the Republican Party. It came to the fore especially in New York politics against the Democrat machine that ran New York city government, Tammany Hall. This machine derived much of its support from the Irish working class of the city. Nativist elements in the Republican Party seized upon the deaths caused by the riots over a march by the Orange Order in 1871 to oust from power Boss Tweed and to suppress Irish working class influence in New York for some time. However, Tammany Hall regained some of its influence only to have its wings clipped when Theodore Roosevelt, then a New York assemblyman introduced a bill in 1884 to allow New York City Mayors to employ or sack employees without having to consult the board of alderman which was dominated by Tammany Hall.
Extreme Nativism had been dormant within the Republican Party for some time until it has re-emerged with the rise of Donald Trump. Some of the reasons for this re-emergence coincide with those leading to the original version of Nativism, while some differ.
It is important to stress that America for some time has witnessed a rise in evangelical fervour as in the 1840s and many of these evangelicals have given their support to the Republican Party in return for the Republican Party taking their side in the so called culture wars, particularly over the issue of abortion. Recent years have also seen the rise of the Tea Party funded by billionaire donors, which has pushed an aggressive right wing agenda. There has been overlap between the evangelical movement and Tea Party membership and the Republican Party has pandered to both. The United States has also seen great demographic change in recent years with the growth of the Latino population, often as a result of migration. These are developments that Trump neo-Nativism has exploited.
Another echo of 19th century Nativism by 21st Century Trumpism is that as for questioning the loyalty of recent immigrants to the United States, Trump wants to impose a blanket ban on all Muslim migration to the US until these individuals have been proven to pose no threat to the security of the US.
Donald Trump has harnessed some of this populism but he has also manipulated opposition to globalisation among the White working class/ middle class. This globalisation, which was not so pronounced in the mid-nineteenth century has often come at the expense of the White working class. Trump has exploited populism and this issue of globalisation to push the Republican party to the extremes particularly over the issue of immigration with his call to deport illegal migrants, undocumented mainly Mexican workers and to build a wall between the United States and Mexico as well as his anti-Muslim proposals.
The lessons of the 1840s for the present day are that once the genie of Nativism is out of the bottle, it is very difficult to put back. Nativist sentiments remained strong for many years in American politics after its heyday in the 1840s and 50s. Arguably, they were only ultimately overcome with the election of John F Kennedy in 1960. Although there have been many Catholic national leaders in American public life since JFK’s death in 1963 he remains the only Catholic President to date.
Eric Foner Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976)
Doris Kearns Goodwin Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (London: Penguin Books, 2005)
Michael A Gordon The Orange Riots: Irish Political Violence in New York City, 1870 and 1871 (New York: Cornell University Press 1993)
Geoffrey C Ward and Ken Burns The Roosevelts An Intimate History (New York: Knopf, 2014)