When Stephen K. Bannon launched his Sirius XM radio show Breitbart News Daily in 2015, he said it was designed to appeal to the people he referred to as “those ‘low-information’ citizens who are mocked and ridiculed by their ‘betters’ — the clueless elites.”
Time and again, once he took to the air, the former Goldman Sachs banker who is now President Trump's White House chief strategist made a point of aligning himself with the working people whom the establishment viewed as intellectually inferior.
“You got to remember: We’re Breitbart,” Bannon told Trump after the Republican candidate took a more liberal stance on high-skilled immigration than he did.
“We’re the know-nothing vulgarians,” Bannon said. “We’ve always got to be to the right of you on this.”
Bannon used similar language in an early 2016 interview with Stephen Miller, the political operative who worked for Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and is now working alongside Bannon in Trump's White House. Bannon praised “trade deals that bring our jobs and sovereignty back to the United States,” describing such “economic nationalism” as “policy that works for the vulgarians, that works for the hobbits, that works for know-nothings, that works for the peasants with the pitchforks.”
Whether intentionally or not, Bannon, who made frequent allusions to U.S. history on the show, was repeatedly evoking the fiercely anti-immigrant Know-Nothing or American Party of the mid-19th century — a group of Protestant men who feared the country was being overrun by Catholic immigrants and helped make religious differences into a political issue.
In recent days, Bannon's regular use of Andrew Jackson as a populist parallel to Trump has drawn plenty of notice. But as Trump makes good on his pledge to pursue an “America first” approach to tightening the U.S. borders — both when it comes to illegal and legal immigration — Bannon's references to the “know-nothings” seem more resonant and perhaps less of a coincidence than at first glance.
Here’s how the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the party:
The Know-Nothing party was an outgrowth of the strong anti-immigrant and especially anti-Roman Catholic sentiment that started to manifest itself during the 1840s. A rising tide of immigrants, primarily Germans in the Midwest and Irish in the East, seemed to pose a threat to the economic and political security of native-born Protestant Americans. 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. As a national political entity, it called for restrictions on immigration, the exclusion of the foreign-born from voting or holding public office in the United States, and for a 21-year residency requirement for citizenship.
If all that sounds familiar today, it’s worth remembering that the Know-Nothings didn’t last for very long. By the late 1850s, the party was torn apart by another social evil of the age, slavery: Anti-slavery Know-Nothings joined the Republican Party; many Southerners joined the then-pro-slavery Democrats.
But their anti-immigrant fervor has been recalled from time to time as Trump has pushed an array of hard-line policies and made a series of over-the-top allegations about immigrants, crime and terrorism.
In an extensive piece for the Boston Globe this week, Neil Swidey recalls the short-lived party's role on our country's anti-immigrant past, tying it all to Trump's eventual rise:
The Know-Nothings got enough traction to put the word “nativism’’ on the map. They even recruited a former president — albeit one of the duds, Millard Fillmore — to make another White House run on their behalf. Ironically, the Massachusetts Know-Nothings were responsible for the desegregation of Boston public schools, which they pushed through partly to keep black voters in their coalition.
But it’s also worth remembering how attitudes toward immigrant groups change as they assimilate into American culture. The immigrants of one generation, after all, may soon find themselves wary of immigrants of the next.
Bannon once made a reference to his own ethnicity in an interview with Bloomberg. “I come from a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats,” Bannon said.
That, by the way, makes him a modern-day member of the very group that the 19th-century Know-Nothings objected to so vehemently.