The Know Nothing Party, Part II

The Know Nothing Party Abraham Lincoln knew flourished briefly before the Civil War.  They called themselves “the American Party,” but since its inner workings were supposed to be secret, its members were supposed to say “I know nothing” [1]  That is how the party came to be called the Know Nothings.

The modern Republican party is coming very close.  This will be seen as Trump’s signature achievement.  There are four elements to it.

The first is the translation of “experts” into “elites.”  This is a substantial achievement because experts know things; can demonstrate that things are factually correct.  “Elites” by contrast, are “out of touch” because they are not part of “the common people.”  They look down on us and wish us ill, so it it perfectly appropriate that we look down on them and wish them ill.

fake news 1Is the climate of the earth changing as a result of human activity?:  When this question is raised at the local coffee shop or bar, the answer is given by people who don’t know the difference between climate and weather.  A few years ago, Sen. Imhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, took a snowball onto the floor of the Senate to refute the idea that the atmosphere has been persistently warming.

The rejection of the knowledge base of the elites has the very bracing effect of making one’s person’s opinion as good as another’s.  The opinions have the worth, in other words, that the person has, not the worth its would have if it were accurate.

“Fake news” is the next achievement.  Fake news has come a long way since candidate Trump introduced it, adding “they don’t have any sources.”  “They” refers to the owners, editors, and reporters of the major newspapers, which once provided a common source of information to citizens of all sorts.  “They” is dismissive in the same way that “elite” is dismissive.  It means “people on the other side;” people we don’t need to pay attention to.

The flaw in Trump’s notion of fake news is that it implies that if “they” really do have sources, then the news isn’t fake.  He has come up with a safety net for that (the next point) but he really hasn’t needed it because no report in any major paper can be cited to a loyal Republican as worth believing.  “The press” is a hostile force.  Therefore, what they say must be untrue, whether they have sources or not.

Third, the safety net I referred to is that criticisms are “politically motivated.”  This long antedates President Trump, I regret to say, but he has brought it to a new level because his need for it is greater than that of any president since Nixon.  Note that “politically motivated” doesn’t ask whether the assertion is true.  It doesn’t ask whether the sources are credible or whether it is supported by the views of the most knowledgeable people.  It asks only whether the motive is political.  

Rather than what? I wonder. If a member of my party is attacked, it is to be disregardedfake news 2 because the motive is political, but if he is defended, is the motive not political?  As a proposition—this can’t be true because the motive of the source is affected by his politics—it is ridiculous.  People who make their living in politics are going to have political motives.  That doesn’t mean what they are saying is false.  It just means it is political.

So the three elements of Know Nothingism I have looked at so far are: a) the substitution of “elite” for “expert;” the invention of “fake news;” and the wider use of the disclaimer, “politically motivated.”

We have one more.  In the present context, I think this is more important than any of the others, although the others may be more serious in the long run.  The new one is “stand-up guy.”

A stand-up guy is a loyalist.  His/her loyalty is to President Trump. [2]  It is not to the United States.  It is not to the authority of civilians over military control.  It is not to the independence of the courts.  It is not to law and order.  It is not to the Constitution.  President Trump is the “clan chief.” [3]  We do not consider as bad the things he has done or as wrong the things he has said.  And especially the things he has tweeted.

Those four interlocking elements are a large part of our present dilemma.  I think the chances of electing a Democrat next November are pretty good and, depending partly on who that Democrat is, controlling the House and Senate are not out of reach.  Undoing the damage of Know-nothingism is a much tougher challenge.

[1]Probably impossible for a member of the early TV era not to hear Sergeant Schultz of Hogan’s Heroes.“I know nothing” was his signature line.

[2]  Or, in the underworld context, to the head of the mob.  Al Capone valued “stand-up guys” for the same reason President Trump does.

[3]  Earlier this year, on a visit to Scotland, I learned about the history of Clan Donald—that is a real Scottish clan; I’m not making this up—and how crucial unswerving loyalty to the clan chief was to the integrity and success of the clan.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Political Psychology, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.