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The day before Election Day: If Lincoln could vote…

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Exactly one hundred and fifty-eight years ago tomorrow—November 6, 1860–the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, was elected.

The Republican Party had been founded in 1854-1855 for a simple, compelling reason: anti-slavery. Sentiment against slavery and the inclusion of new territories as slave states ran high throughout much of the county (excepting the South, obviously), but Republicans were not the fiercest anti-slavists. That distinction went to the Abolitionists, who were far more militant. Republicans by contrast were moderate on the issue. (Lincoln’s famously squirrelly statement, If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that”, illustrates how soft Republican opposition to slavery actually was.)

Nonetheless Republicans saw themselves as the moral stalwarts of politics, even while their morality was tempered by pragmatism. What strikes the observer today, looking back over those 158 years and considering the plight of the current Republican Party, is how thoroughly the GOP has shed its former idealism. It now resembles nothing so much as the political party that was its arch foe in the mid-1850s: the abysmal Know-Nothings.

This party, centered in Northern cities where Irish, and later German, immigration was highest, focused on anti-immigration issues. Its adherents were the bedrock of traditional Americanism: white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants (which all the Founding Fathers had been). While the new immigrants were Anglo-Saxon, they mostly were Catholics (especially the Irish), at a time when anti-Papism ran hot through the country. The Know-Nothings were called that, not because they were ignoramuses (although many were), but because they refrained from acknowledging their membership in a party of hate that was largely shunned by polite society: if asked, they “knew nothing” about it, wink-wink.

Let’s give credit to the first Republicans for being anti-slavery, as vanilla as it might have been. And yet this plank in their platform—the very reason for their existence—vanished almost as soon as the Civil War ended (1865) and Reconstruction resulted in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which decisively ended slavery forever. After that, the Republican Party had to find a new rationale, which it soon did: it became the party of business, a cause with which it is still associated.

This business wing of the Republican Party dominated it for more than a century, culminating in the trio of Harding-Coolidge-Hoover that brought us the Great Depression. Since then—over the last 80 years or so—Republicans have moved steadily rightward, until today, when the difference between them and the old Know-Nothings is barely discernible.

Immigration wasn’t an issue in the young American Republic. Everybody’s antecedents came from somewhere else. When the first waves of Irish arrived (some two million between 1820 and 1860, when the total population of the U.S. was only 31 million), sentiment against them was rampant, although this hatred was as much anti-Catholic as anti-Hibernian. Resentment against “the other” long had manifested itself in America in anti-Negro feelings and practices, but bigotry against other white people was something new; the nation was supposedly based on “All men are created equal,” a tenet difficult to preach if you were practicing exclusion of whole groups of Americans.

The most dexterous (or, some would say, unscrupulous) politicians, however, never had any problems balancing such opposites. Richard Nixon could call for national unity even while practicing a Southern Strategy that clearly appealed to racists by demonizing African-Americans. Ronald Reagan could speak soothingly about “a shining city on a hill,” even though his refusal to recognize the AIDS epidemic resulted in countless, needless deaths. Now, we have the heir to that tradition of hypocrisy, Donald J. Trump, picking up the corpse of Know-Nothingism and breathing it, Frankenstein-like, back to life.

There always is a bit of logic even within the most insane political posturing, and so it was with the Know-Nothings. They feared that if too many Catholics were allowed into the U.S. and permitted to vote, the country would gradually be taken over by the Vatican and ruled by the Pope. This sounds crazy to us, but it was true in the 1850s, and it remains true today, that the Vatican has an outsized influence on American politics despite our First Amendment forbidding a national religion. (For instance, the Catholic Church’s antipathy to homosexuality and abortion appeals to certain intolerant voters, and is frequently decisive, especially when joined with evangelical/fundamentalist forces.) I too am concerned by the Vatican’s conservative influence in our country, particularly given the overrepresented presence of Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court.

But this recent anti-immigrant frenzy among Republicans contains not even a kernel of logic. There is no reason in reality why the various caravans coming up through Mexico cannot be dealt with efficiently and compassionately by U.S. officials. Well, I take that back: there is one reason, Donald Trump. We long have known that he’s a racist; now, Michael Cohen, his closest confidante for a decade, confirms that. And Trump telegraphs his racism (which encompasses xenophobia) through dog whistles to his base, which pretty much is composed of the same sort of people who belonged to the Know-Nothings.

So it’s come to this bizarre twist: a Republican Party founded on sympathy for enslaved Negroes, and actively opposed to Know-Nothingism, has become a racist party trying to stop or suppress the Black vote, and is as intolerant of immigrants (in this case, brown-skinned and Islamic) as any American political party has ever been. Republicans might do well to remember the fate of the Know-Nothing party: by 1860, it had largely disappeared, rejected by all elements of the body politic. Today, “Know-Nothing” is an epithet used to describe a political movement that in stupidity and bigotry is as bad as any that ever arose in our history.

What would Abraham Lincoln think of Republicans, if he could come back and see what’s happened to his old party? I think he’d be mortified. I think he’d denounce the Republican Party and, while Lincoln was never a very good impugner of character, even those of his political enemies, I think he would find a ripe vocabulary for Trump, in particular. Abraham Lincoln today would be a Democrat.

Vote tomorrow, if you haven’t already! We shall very shortly find out if we can salvage America from the damage Trump and his Know-Nothing cultists have already caused, and rediscover our way back onto the paths of morality and righteousness from which an indecent regime has pulled us, temporarily.

 

 

 

 

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