Roger Cohen finds that everything old is new again: both the anti-immigrant passion of the late-1840s-early-1850s American Party and the America First isolationist movement of the late 1930s. Like Protectionism (which has been discredited for decades and decades after the Smoot-Hawley Tariff provoked a universal trade war which played an important role in the world-wide Great Depression), Nativism and Isolationism have been for a very long time looked upon as discredited political positions, which it would be intrinsically disgraceful and discrediting to embrace.
Donald Trump proved that none of the three grave historic fallacies of American politics was a third rail that killed candidacies any longer. His supporters in general didn’t know their history and didn’t care.
On the evidence, ethnocentrism is a pretty basic human instinct. Band together with your own. Keep the outsider down or out. In the 1850s, at another moment of American unease, the Know-Nothings swept Massachusetts and won mayoral elections in Philadelphia and Washington on a nativist platform to â€œpurifyâ€ national politics by stopping the influx of Irish and German Catholics.
Papist influence was then the perceived scourge through which the Know-Nothing movement, as the Native American Party (later the American Party) was commonly known, built its following. Today the supposed threat is Muslim and Mexican infiltration. Or so Donald Trump, the de facto Republican presidential candidate, would have us believe in his â€œAmerica Firstâ€ program.
A know-nothing tide is upon us. Tribal politics, anchored in tribal media, has made knowing nothing a badge of honor. Ignorance, loudly declaimed, is an attribute, especially if allied to celebrity. Facts are dispensable baggage. To display knowledge, the acquisition of which takes time, is tantamount to showing too much respect for the opposition tribe, who know nothing anyway.
Any slogan can be reworked, I guess. America First has a long, unhappy history, the America First Committee having pressed the view that the United States should stay out of the war to defeat Fascism in World War II. …
Well, America First is back, tweaked as Trumpâ€™s we-wonâ€™t-be-suckers-anymore ideology. …
The know-nothings are on the march. But of course they must know something. Millions of people who vote for Trump cannot be wrong. Perhaps their core idea, along with the unchanging appeal of ethnocentrism, is that politics no longer really matter. Celebrity matters.
Power centers are elsewhere â€” in financial systems, corporations, technology, networks â€” that long since dispensed with borders. That being the case, loudmouthed, isolationist trumpery may just be a sideshow, an American exercise in aprÃ¨s-moi-le-dÃ©luge escapism.
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