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9 March 2016updated 06 Sep 2021 3:33pm

Know Nothings and Fire Eaters: why Donald Trump is a man of the 1850s

American populism is nothing new – Donald Trump could be reading from a script prepared in 1854.

By Ben Wilson

Sweeping all before him, Donald Trump seems like a phenomenon entirely of our time. With his enthusiastic manipulation of social media, bloody-minded antipathy to political elites and incendiary rhetoric levelled at immigrants he is gleefully prodding at an open sore. Americans facing the grim realities of economic decline and the evisceration of the middle class lap up his bombastic calls to “take back our country” and make it great again.

But Trump seems, unwittingly or not, to be following the playbook of one of the most turbulent decades in American history – the 1850s, which I explore in my book Heyday: Britain and the Birth of the Modern World. The parallels with that time are startling, and highly instructive as we struggle to understand Trump’s amazing popularity. Riven by internal discord, fracturing political parties and dislocating economic change, that time provided a happy hunting ground for opportunists and shrill demagogues happy to exploit insecurity and fear.

Trump would certainly have found the 1850s a congenial time. This was one of the most explosive periods in modern history, with proliferating technologies, shifting patterns of trade and migration on a colossal scale. At a time when the US was entering the global economy, many saw themselves as victims of the new world order. As cities were rapidly reshaped by new industries and tens of thousands of newcomers, many native-born Americans believed their wages, their way of life and even their country were being taken from them. And there were plenty of politicians ready to egg on their discontent, provoking racial prejudices to garner votes.

Today, Trump might be reading from a script prepared in 1854. The American political establishment was shocked in that year when a new political movement known as the Know Nothings sensationally won a series of local and Congressional elections. Started in secret as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner (it got its memorable moniker from the instruction given members to deny any involvement), the movement had prepared the ground well. Look at your cities, the Know Nothings told voters, with its squalor and drunkenness; look at your falling wages. Who was to blame? The answer was simple. The Know Nothings alleged that immigrants, many of them Irish Catholics, were responsible for an upsurge in crime, particularly sexual and violent crime. And as Catholics who supposedly owed their allegiance to the Pope, the migrants would fundamentally alter the character of the Protestant United States. Sound familiar?

The parallels between the Know Nothings and Trump are a reminder that populist nationalism lies close to the surface of American politics, remaining dormant most of the time. Examining the 1850s also shows what it takes to reignite this force. For many years mainstream politicians had encouraged the nativist sentiment. Then in 1854 politics reached crisis point over the issue of slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which meant that newly settled parts of the United States could become slave states, sparked outrage in the north. Here was evidence of an establishment stitch-up: the elites in Washington had conspired together in smoke-filled parlours to manufacture a shabby compromise. The over-night emergence of the Know Nothings from the shadows, with their foul-mouthed nativist rhetoric, was if nothing else a popular insurgency against those elites and it brought about the complete collapse of the Whig party and the two party system.

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In many ways the 1850s was the cauldron in which modern American politics took form, so it is not surprising that much of the language and attitudes of that time periodically re-emerge. This was a time when big issues loured over the U.S., with the nightmare possibility of outright civil war becoming ever more real. The popular response, then as now, was to seek solace in distractions. Nativism in the north was one such diversion. Southerners, however, outdid their northern cousins in emotive invective. Trump belongs firmly in the tradition of the notorious “Fire Eaters” of the southern states, men who indulged in an escalation of outrageous and provocative diatribes. Trump could very well have spent his time reading their crazed speeches and overwrought journalism, not least because they were deadly effective in capturing the emotions of their followers. The nation was under dire threat, they hectored, from abolitionist do-gooders in the northern states; the end of their way of life was nigh. Compromise was not part of their vocabulary; downright lies, conspiracy theories and preposterous exaggeration only magnified their popular appeal.

At the heart of their popularity was the ability to combine apocalyptic warnings with exaggerated promises to make America – their America – great: they would capture Cuba, Central America and Mexico, and thereby establish a mighty tropical slave empire of sugar, cotton and tobacco that would rule the world. It was all fantasy, a distraction of course, but none the less effective for it. Caught in a storm of name-calling, bullying and paranoia, politics became utterly degenerate.

Trump manages to combine the anti-elite populism of the Know Nothing insurgency and the swivel-eyed paranoia of the raucous Fire Eaters. The lessons of the 1850s are mixed. The ugly nativism of the Know Nothings proved a dead-end, and the movement was subsumed and tamed by the emerging Republican Party which focused its energies on bigger problems. The American south, however, became ever more deluded by the easy promise that their country could become great again if only the pesky do-gooders were confounded. Bewildering economic change, gnawing fears of inevitable decline and disengagement with the political process conspire together to create a volatile situation. Trump exerts such a powerful appeal not because he is doing something new, but because he knows instinctively how to tap into emotions that are deeply embedded in American political culture.

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Heyday: Britain and the Birth of the Modern World by Ben Wilson is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 10 March 2016