While reading The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears by Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, I found a footnote to the historic Know Nothing party of the mid-nineteenth century ensconced in a passage about the institutional history of U.S. slavery. The name of the party rang a bell in my memory, but I couldn’t come up with any particulars so I looked into it. After a few minutes of online research, I found myself wondering at the repetition of history, especially Marx’s (oft-cited) famous addendum, “…first as tragedy, then as farce.” Is not Donald Trump the new, more farcical version of John Bell who ran for president on the Know Nothing ticket in 1859, or, perhaps more accurately, the new Henry J. Gardner who became Massachusetts’s Know Nothing governor in 1854? What started off as a historical retracing of one trail of tears soon led to the recognition of another equally troubling road.
Several news outlets have posted articles and op-eds about the similarities between Trump, the current GOP, and the Know Nothings of the 1850s (see notes below and links/footnotes along the way). Such similarities include an overt racist-nationalist platform of exclusion, a party membership of mostly working class white men seeking personal economic improvement, and an honest (if not also ironic) embrace of ignorance (“I Know Nothing!”) as the party’s shibboleth. Indeed, the link between Trump and Gardner emerges from research into these similarities, specifically in the fact that, despite the party’s working class base, the eventual Massachusetts governor was a wool merchant who improved upon his already-considerable wealth thanks to his elite family’s connections. Like Trump, Gardner seemed to have had little in common with his constituents’ economic identities and needs.
My own addition to these publications comes in the form of a connection between Trump, the Know Nothings (past and present, official party members and merely like-minded), and that which Michel Foucault dubbed the “Ubus” of power. In the early lectures of the 1974-1975 academic year now published as Abnormal, Foucault links specific historical political leaders with the protagonist in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. What allows this link is Foucault’s observation of “the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor and at the extreme point of its rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited” (13). Nero and Hitler, for example, populate what Jana Sawicki calls this “tradition of vile and buffoonish sovereigns.” Hesitant to facilitate any overly simplistic connections between Trump and Hitler, thereby allowing dialogue and debate to dissolve into platitudes, I do support adding Trump to Foucault’s category of Ubu Rulers. We are witnessing not only the farcical (and, therefore, post-tragic) return of the Know Nothings today but also an index of the racist-nationalist conditions that allow such Ubus to take center stage in the U.S. theatre of politics.
Sawicki underscores a similar point in her speculation on the whereabouts of Ubu-power’s many residences: “Perhaps it also resides in a lack of critical reflection on the historical conditions in which such forms of authority arose.” Indeed, when Foucault, in his 1978 essay “What is Enlightenment?” ends by calling for a “critical ontology of ourselves,” which amounts to a historiography of the present, he is asking us all to refuse Ubu government:
The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.
The only chance we have of out-maneuvering the vile buffoonery of the persona known as “Trump” is to create a series of conditions that excoriates pride in ignorance, the likes of which we see not only in the mass of Trumpeteers but also in the belligerent leftist supporters who instigate violence at Trump rallies. As the perspicacious George Saunders has recently outlined in The New Yorker, the true damage of the current political fracas has become visible not as a divisive and sickeningly facile binary opposition between Right and Left ideologies but, rather, as a perpetuation of willful ignorance that keeps the U.S. electorate from participating in meaningful conversations dedicated to the nuanced weave of our country’s political fabric.
To my mind, the disaster that has given rise to the resurgence of Know-Nothing-ness is the evacuation of (yes, I’ll say it and mean it) critical thinking from the halls of Secondary and Higher Education. Given Foucault’s astute reference to Jarry’s theatricality, and my own predilection for performance theory and theatre historiography, I am confident that theatre education (both theory and practice) can thrive as a system capable of performing a critical ontology of ourselves, particularly through its recourse to the study of theatricality in everyday life and the performativity of language. Conversely, however, I am fearful that the ossification of theatre and performance studies in higher education, not to mention the almost complete absence of a fine-arts based critical vocabulary in primary and secondary education, can aid in the momentum of the Know Nothings. Without a self-reflexive and philosophical appraisal of the politics of representation, theatre can easily devolve into thoroughly commodified spectacle, and from there spectacle can be freed up to celebrate the Ubus of the world.
With the highly theatrical and absurd conventions of both the Democratic and Republican parties coming up, I urge us to attend to the conditions that make specific statements possible, to the representational practices that manufacture instrumental visibility, and to the everyday silences that create moral vacuums.
From Encyclopedia Britannica online
“When Congress assembled on Dec. 3, 1855, 43 representatives were avowed members of the Know-Nothing party.”
- “The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by the U.S. Congress on May 30, 1854. It allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders. The Act served to repeal the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30´.”
“In 1849 the secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner formed in New York City, and soon after lodges formed in nearly every other major American city. Members, when asked about their nativist organizations, were supposed to reply that they knew nothing, hence the name. As its membership and importance grew in the 1850s, the group slowly shed its clandestine character and took the official name American Party.”
“the American Party fell apart after 1856. Antislavery Know-Nothings joined the Republican Party, while Southern members flocked to the proslavery banner still held aloft by the Democratic Party. By 1859 the American Party’s strength was largely confined to the border states. In 1860 remnants of the Know-Nothings joined old-line Whigs to form the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell of Tennessee for president.”
- On Bell (from Wikipedia):
- “Planter,” or plantation owner; “Although a slaveowner, Bell was one of the few southern politicians to oppose the expansion of slavery in the 1850s…”
- “During his 1860 presidential campaign, he argued that secession was unnecessary since the Constitution protected slavery, an argument which resonated with voters in border states, helping him capture the electoral votes of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.”
- Speaker of the House (1834–1835)
- “briefly served as Secretary of War during the administration of William Henry Harrison (1841)”
“Two other groups that took the name American Party appeared in the 1870s and ’80s. One of these, organized in California in 1886, proposed a briefly popular platform calling mainly for the exclusion of Chinese and other Asians from industrial employment.”
From Ashefield Historical Society
“Although the Know-Nothing party or the American Party was a national political organization, it was strongest in Massachusetts. This party was based on nativistic beliefs and its members were native born male Protestants who were opposed to immigrants being able to vote or hold political office.”
“One of the most influential party members was Henry J. Gardner who was elected as the Commonwealth’s Governor in 1854. Most of the party’s members were from the working class and wished for many reforms that would affect their lives. Gardner, however, was a wealthy wool merchant and a member of the so-called Boston Brahmins (a small elite group of families who were extremely wealthy and well-educated).”
From Op-Ed in Baltimore Sun from July 13, 2016
“Eric Heavner taught political science at Towson University for 10 years and now works for a Baltimore real estate developer.”
“Perhaps Mr. Trump will skip the convention and go it alone. Such a move would appeal to Mr. Trump’s love of sensationalism, and it would it not be unprecedented. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, broke away from the Republican Party to run for president under the Bull Moose Party banner in 1912, and Strom Thurmond bolted from the Democratic Party to run as a Dixiecrat in 1948.”
“Despite the years that separate Mr. Trump and the Know-Nothing Party, they have much in common. […] their message is virtually the same: Immigrants take away jobs from true Americans and threaten the American way of life. There are other similarities. The Know-Nothings’ were anti-Catholic. Mr. Trump is anti-Muslim. The know-Nothings believed only native-born Americans should be allowed to vote and hold public office. Mr. Trump played the native-born American card by questioning President Obama’s birthplace.”
From HuffPo’s “The GOP: The New Know Nothing Part?”
January 18, 2016
John W. Traphagan, Professor of Religious Studies and Human Dimensions of Organizations, University of Texas, Austin
Conclusion: “When we look at the GOP of 2016, it seems very much as though we are witnessing a new version of the Know Nothings of the 1850s. One can only hope that this time it is equally short-lived.”