In the 1850s, an anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, xenophobic movement burst on the political scene in the United States. At first a secret society, the Native American Party required its initiates to present proof of a Protestant pedigree, support mandatory Bible reading in public schools and a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants, use hand signals and passwords, and promise to respond to questions from outsiders by saying, “I know nothing.”
The mantra stuck.
Before it flamed out, the Know Nothing Party sent hundreds of its members to the U.S. Congress and state legislatures.
Largely anti-immigration (from “shithole countries” ) with a significant white nationalist element, the GOP has become our nation’s 21st-century Know Nothing Party, bringing new meaning to the claim “I know nothing.” Here are five examples of invincible ignorance:
- In early 2015, before Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Super PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE entered the race, no presidential hopeful indicated unequivocal support for the science of evolution; one (Jeb Bush) accepted it with caveats; seven (Chris ChristieChris ChristieWhat New Jersey's gubernatorial contest tells us about the political landscape Christie: 2020 Joe Biden 'is now officially dead and buried' Christie, Pompeo named co-chairs of GOP redistricting group MORE, Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulVaccine 'resisters' are a real problem Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention Journalist Dave Levinthal discusses 'uptick' in congressional stock trade violations MORE, Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate GOP campaign arm outraises Democratic counterpart in September House passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure Senators call for answers from US firm over reported use of forced Uyghur labor in China MORE and Scott Walker) refused to say where they stood; and four (Ben CarsonBen CarsonRepublicans are the 21st-century Know-Nothing Party Sunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Government indoctrination, whether 'critical' or 'patriotic,' is wrong MORE, Mike Huckabee, Rick PerryRick PerryRepublicans are the 21st-century Know-Nothing Party College football move rocks Texas legislature Trump tries to spin failed Texas endorsement: 'This was a win' MORE and Rick Santorum), were evolution denialists.
- In 2019, the League of Conservation Voters identified 130 current members of Congress — all but one of whom is a Republican — who doubt or deny the scientific consensus that the planet Earth is getting warmer and the principal cause is human behavior. “I think it just goes through cycles and it has to do a lot with the sun,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.). To demonstrate that climate change is a myth, Rep. Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertHouse passes bill to end crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally Security forces under pressure to prevent repeat of Jan. 6 MORE (R-Texas) cited warm temperatures in Greenland during the Viking era. Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) declared, “I believe that climate change in this country is largely leftist propaganda to change the way we live.” Rep. Mike BostMichael (Mike) J. BostMORE (R-Ill.) said, “Some scientists do; some scientists don’t.” Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungHouse passes bill to expand workplace protections for nursing mothers Alaska tribal groups race to spend COVID-19 relief money WHIP LIST: How House Democrats, Republicans say they'll vote on infrastructure bill MORE (R-Alaska) called climate change “the biggest scam since Teapot Dome.” Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntIt's time to make access to quality kidney care accessible and equitable for all Hartzler pulls in 6,000 for Missouri Senate bid with .65M on hand McConnell gets GOP wake-up call MORE (R-Mo.) believes “there isn’t any real science to say we are altering the climate path on the earth.” Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerSenate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Lobbying world The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (R-N.D.) claims that “the idea that CO2 is somehow causing global warming is on its face fraudulent.” In 2015, Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan GOP lawmakers worry vaccine mandate will impact defense supply chain Top GOP senators want joint review of Afghan visa process MORE (R-Okla.) brought a snowball to the floor of the Senate to show that the world remains as cold as ever; three years later, Inhofe endorsed scriptural descriptions of climate change. Trump claimed that “the concept of global warming was created by the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
- As of last month, 97 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives would not say publicly if they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Asked if he was worried about the virus spreading or mutating, Cramer replied, “Nah. ... You know me. I haven’t been worried about this since the beginning.” Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonA pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Sen. Ron Johnson hoping for Democratic 'gridlock' on reconciliation package Republicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' MORE (R-Wis.) said, “I’m talking to doctors who have, since day one, been concerned about vaccinating people who’ve already had COVID-19 because you die, not of COVID; you die of the immune system overreaction to COVID.” Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) blasted the Biden administration’s plan to go door to door to urge Americans to get vaccinated: “They could then go door to door to take your guns. They could go door to door to take your Bibles.” Peter Feaman, a Republican National Committee member from Florida, recently called vaccines “the mark of the beast.”
- In early December, 220 Congressional Republicans refused to say whether President BidenJoe BidenGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Sanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE or Trump won the presidential election. After Biden secured a majority of the votes in the Electoral College, Forbes reached out to every GOP member of Congress to ask the same question again. Only nine of them responded that Biden was president. Little more than a week ago, Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsMeadows hires former deputy AG to represent him in Jan. 6 probe: report The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Altria - White House tackles how to vaccinate children ages 5+ Jan. 6 panel votes to hold Bannon in contempt MORE, former White House chief of staff (2020-2021) and congressman from North Carolina (2013-2020), told reporters that Trump is currently conducting meetings with “some of our Cabinet members” and that “we’re planning to move forward in a real way.”
- After the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiLev Parnas found guilty of breaking campaign finance laws Giuliani associate Lev Parnas won't testify at trial Four Seasons Total Landscaping comes full circle with MSNBC special MORE, Trump’s lawyer, maintained that “the riot was preplanned. This was an attempt to slander Trump.” Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksBlack Hawk pilot shot down in Somalia jumps into Alabama Senate race Democratic retirements could make a tough midterm year even worse Republicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' MORE (R-Ala.) referred to “evidence, much public, surfacing that many Capitol assaulters were fascist ANTIFAS, not Trump supporters.” Rep. Andy Clyde (R-Ga.) said, “Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall showed people in an orderly fashion, staying between the stanchions and ropes, taking videos and pictures. You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from Jan. 6, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.” Clyde recently told a Democratic colleague, “I stand by that statement.” In May, Senate Republicans shot down a bipartisan commission to investigate Jan. 6 after the commission was negotiated by Republicans themselves. Last month, when four officers testified before a select committee of the House on the assault, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyCheney reveals GOP's Banks claimed he was Jan. 6 panel's ranking member House votes to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress GOP memo urges lawmakers to blame White House 'grinches' for Christmas delays MORE (R-Calif.) told reporters he was in “back-to-back meetings” and therefore unable to watch it.
Their eyes wide shut, fingers stuck in their ears, Congressional Republicans are certain all they need to know is which way the wind is blowing — and that they shouldn’t do anything about the pandemic, the economy, voting rights or immigration because it might help Democrats.
What does it say about us that America’s 21st-century Know Nothing Party is unlikely to flame out as quickly as its 1850s ancestor?
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of "Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century."