Republicans are the 21st-century Know-Nothing Party
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 Trump entered the race, no presidential hopeful indicated unequivocal support for the science of evolution; one (Jeb Bush) accepted it with caveats; seven (Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker) refused to say where they stood; and four (Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry 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 Gohmert (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 Bost (R-Ill.) said, “Some scientists do; some scientists don’t.” Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) called climate change “the biggest scam since Teapot Dome.” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) believes “there isn’t any real science to say we are altering the climate path on the earth.” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) claims that “the idea that CO2 is somehow causing global warming is on its face fraudulent.” In 2015, Sen. James Inhofe (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 Johnson (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 Biden 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 Meadows, 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 Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, maintained that “the riot was preplanned. This was an attempt to slander Trump.” Rep. Mo Brooks (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 McCarthy (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.”