Upon reading this article on the Daily Kos, I found myself changing my mind about my next writing project. I had intended to write a piece for my blog on the admittedly esoteric philosophical question of whether a form of consensus secular ethics, "democratic ethics" if you will, could be established or whether moral/ethical questions really do become subjective in the absence of a uniform religion the way the religious right has begun to so frequently claim. I've now put a pin in that project to write on Know-Nothingism, scapegoating and the politics of immigration. Know-Nothingism has a long and rarefied tradition in American politics and it's important to understand the way Trump is tapping into this deep well of bitter political capital. It's something that everyone on the left needs to understand because it's one the issues on which a lot of Americans will really need to be educated.
The term "Know-Nothing" was originally a slur invented by political opponents of the so called "American Party", founded in various states in the 1840s. The term was used to attack them for the air of secrecy they cultivated. When asked about party activities, party candidates or party platforms before the actual campaigning started all party members were supposed to reply "I know nothing."
At various times known as "The Native American Party", "The American Republican Party" as well, their appeal was not at all secretive. Simply put, the Know-Nothings represented the deeply ingrained cultural and social prejudices of the wealthy WASP elite and the "Catholophobia" of the white protestant (not necessarily Anglo-Saxon) working class. Now Donald Trump isn't accusing illegal immigrants from Mexico of wanting to conquer the country for the Pope and convert the population by force the way the Irish were accused in their day. While most anti-Latino prejudice disguised as "immigration reform" appears to be focused on the fact that Hispanics "don't speak English" or are somehow "not white", it is an interesting coincidence that the modern Know-Nothings are also targeting a largely Catholic immigrant group in what appear to be the economic interests of the wealthy WASP elite. Donald Trump is absolutely the candidate of the wealthy WASP elite.
The economic side is simple: these people are a convenient source of cheap labor if the WASP elite is able to keep them subjugated and controlled. For Know-Nothings from the actual American Party in the 1840s-1860s to Nativist movements in the Republican (during and after WWI and WWII) and Democratic Parties (the southern, pro-KKK and lynching wing of the Democratic Party was also fiercely anti-Catholic) to the modern and sadly bipartisan "immigration reform" hokum of today the message has been clear. It's not that the elite really wants to keep Mexican immigrants out. It is that they want to keep their only access illegal access so they are easier to control and exploit. Immigration reform is today's Know-Nothing code for anti-Latino prejudice, often anti-Latino American prejudice rather than true concern about illegal immigration, in much the same way that many Nativist groups embraced Prohibition as code for anti-Irish and anti-German Catholic prejudice during the so-called "Progressive Era." Exploit them, but don't empower them.
The really important side is the cultural side. The wealthy WASP elite see themselves at the apex of a vast socioethnoeconomic pyramid. These days the "outsiders" are less outsiders because they are not themselves ethnically or racially acceptable but rather their lack of willingness to freely join and defer to the superior culture of the WASP elite. Having money and being willing to pretend to be a WASP is enough to get you in, in much the same way private clubs are no longer officially restricted but people who don't "fit the right image" still have a way of not getting in. It is this secure place of cultural hegemony that the champions of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Privilege are trying to protect. They want everyone to continue to defer to them as the moral arbiter of culture. This is why you have seen the break between the Tea Party and the Republican establishment. The Tea-Party represents the increased working class Protestant discontent with the degree to which the importance of those racial and ethnic social barriers and keeping them closed to even "culturally acceptable" members of non-white or originally non-Protestant groups.
Trump's blustering everyman rhetoric bridges the gap between disaffected working class Protestant prejudices and the broader tolerance of the WASP elite for anyone willing to conform to their cultural values. The elite see this as an expansion of their power whereas the working class, whose interests are frequently quite synchronous with those of minorities and immigrants, see the outsiders as threats to their importance to the elite and to the "received truth" they accepted from their parents at the prompting of a previous generation of the elite. This allows the elite to play a dual role of cultural champion to protect their own power, and benevolent patron to protect the position of their chosen additions to the elite. This is what Trump is really selling.