BY ED FELIEN
“You gotta fight like hell, or you won’t have a country anymore!”
“Immigrants are poisoning the blood of America.”
Trump’s racist and nativist appeal is not new. It was the crusading ideology of the Know Nothing Party prior to the Civil War.
From “Mitch and John” by Ed Felien:
“Cincinnati had race riots in 1829 when a thousand blacks were driven out of town, and again in 1839 when several blacks were killed. In 1841 blacks and their white supporters used a cannon to hold off an angry mob. But in April of 1855, the day after the municipal election, an angry crowd of white Protestant nativists marched on the new German immigrant neighborhood. Several people were killed, and the nativists, or Know Nothings, managed to destroy election ballots in two German precincts.
“The Know Nothings were a secret society. They were anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant and racist. When asked about their organization, they replied, ‘I know nothing,’ which could also mean, ‘I, Know Nothing’ (or ‘I am a Know Nothing’). The Know Nothings were supporting the American party in opposition to Andrew Jackson’s Democratic party that was supporting Irish and German immigrants. Just a few months later in Louisville, on Aug. 6, 1855, a day that has come to be called Bloody Monday, the Know Nothings attacked Irish neighborhoods. The fighting between supporters of the American party and supporters of the Democratic party in the city elections left 22 people dead.”
James Buchanan won the 1856 presidential election, defeating Millard Fillmore (who represented a coalition of Know Nothings and Whigs) and John Fremont of the new anti-slavery Republican Party.
Lincoln wins in 1860 with the support of the Know Nothings and the Whigs. The South almost immediately secedes and begins the Civil War. The Know Nothings in Kentucky are stuck supporting Lincoln. He assures them the Civil War is about preserving the Union. He doesn’t publish the Emancipation Proclamation until 1863, and then, he freed only slaves in the Confederate states—not in Kentucky.
By the turn of the century, nativism and racism had spawned hatred of immigrants (“The Yellow Peril”—fear of the Chinese) and the lynching of Blacks (more than 2,000 lynchings, three in Duluth in 1920).
From “Mitch and John”:
“D.C. Stephenson was a charming and charismatic sociopath. He quickly made a fortune selling memberships to the Klan. Membership cost $10. The Kleagle, the Klan organizer selling the memberships, got half, and half went to the national organization.
“In Akron, Ohio, the Klan boasted 50,000 members (the largest in the country—the mayor, judges, county commissioner, etc. were all members).
“Stephenson switched the allegiance of the Klan from the Democratic to the Republican party, and soon it was white suburban Republicans versus inner city Democrats. The southern Klan stayed Democratic until LBJ signed the Civil Rights Bill in 1964.
“Stephenson was probably the most powerful political figure in the Midwest at this point. He controlled the destinies of governors, mayors, legislators, judges and lesser luminaries. And then he got busted.
“At the height of his popularity, in March of 1925, Stephenson kidnapped Madge Oberholtzer, a schoolteacher, took her on his private railroad car and raped her. She was so distraught she took mercury chloride to poison herself. Stephenson’s associates took her back to her home where they assumed she would die. She died from mercury poisoning and from a staph infection caused by Stephenson biting her, but before she died she gave a full description of the event to the police. The sensational trial marked the end of the Klan’s wild popularity in the Midwest. Stephenson was convicted of rape and second-degree murder. He expected the governor to commute his sentence. But his influence had gone from a Midas touch to a lightning rod that promised instant electrocution. In prison, Stephenson was bitter and he talked to reporters about government officials that regularly took money from the Klan. All of a sudden, in the eyes of the public, the Klan was a corrupt monster. Membership went from 6 million in 1924 to less than 30,000 in 1930. Frightened and angry white men stopped joining, but that didn’t stop them from continuing to be frightened and angry with new immigrants and blacks.”
In 1947 one of the leading characters in the Broadway musical, “Finian’s Rainbow,” Senator Billboard Rawkins says, “My family’s been having nothing but trouble with immigrants ever since they come to this country!”
Trump is the perfect racist and nativist candidate. His father was arrested in 1927 in Queens at a Klan rally for refusing to take off his hood. When Donald was asked about Klan Grand Wizard David Duke’s endorsement, he cleverly told Jake Tapper of CNN, “I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists.” I know nothing in the context of the Klan means “I am a Know Nothing.” The Klan has been called The Invisible Empire, and Trump managed to send out that nativist and racist dog whistle without Jake Tapper hearing it.
There has been a backlash against Trump among suburban women because of the overturning of Roe v. Wade. He’s trying to downplay that in the current election, but he can’t resist bragging about it on Truth Social: “I was able to kill Roe v. Wade.” Women don’t seem to be forgetting and are motivated to vote against him, but male chauvinists are still grateful to Trump for protecting the male safety deposit box (that they consider the function of a woman’s womb).
Trump is ahead in the polls because he’s so well known. He’s the lead item every night on the news. It’s always about his legal troubles, but he knows any publicity is good publicity—especially if you can spin it in the right direction. He plays the victim, fighting the evil system. People not interested in all the details find the battles quite entertaining. It’s kind of like “The Apprentice,” his old show on Fox, where he got to say at the climax, “You’re fired.” Except Trump’s legal problems are real, and the facts produced as evidence will be real, and the judgment of 12 jurors will be real, and the punishment for his crimes will be real. And he’s the one that might end up getting fired.
We all need to work on this.
We need to try to talk to the 2-3% of Trump supporters who will listen to us. We need to make them our friends. We need to hear where they’re coming from. We need to share our ideas and values, but we must not argue with our new friends. Criticism must be based on “unity, criticism, unity”: “Yeah, I hear where you’re coming from. I felt that way once, too. But have you ever thought about it this way?” We need a very peaceful but a very determined struggle with our Trump-supporting friends.
Where’s the best place to find our new friends? Can you handle going to an evangelical church? Do you know any Republican elected official? Your union? Your neighborhood organization? Your neighbor?
“Hi. What do you think about the election?”
Keep asking. And keep moving!