- - Monday, May 23, 2022

A grocery store massacre in upstate New York perpetrated by a young man who subscribed to a racist ideology has placed renewed attention on the mainstreaming of “replacement theory” in American political discourse.

As the suspected gunman’s worldview came to light, liberals condemned Republicans as well as such conservative commentators as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson for vilifying non-White migrants and normalizing racist attitudes in the age of Trump.

And Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, at odds with her party’s leadership since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, tweeted: “House GOP leadership has enabled White nationalism, White supremacy and antisemitism. History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse. GOP leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.”

The notion that powerful forces are abetting swarms of immigrants who intend to subjugate or even eliminate the White majority has a long pedigree in American history. In the 19th century, conspiratorial nativism focused not on immigration from Central or South America, but on Catholic migration from Europe.

In this episode of History As It Happens, historian Christopher Phillips discusses America’s first “replacement theorists,” the Know Nothings.

The Know Nothings were an urban movement that exploited splinterings among Whigs and Democrats and sought to preserve America’s Protestant heritage against a tide of millions of Irish and German immigrants in the 1850s.

Know Nothingism attracted temperance advocates, who were alarmed by the new immigrants’ drinking habits, and opponents of slavery. It grew to embrace positions other than the exclusion of Catholic immigrants. Know Nothing leaders condemned establishment or patronage politics as practiced by the Whigs and Democrats, and within a short time the party’s membership surpassed one million.

“When we are talking about ethnicity, as we understand it, the Catholics were seen in a racialized way,” said Mr. Phillips, a specialist in 19th century American history at the University of Cincinnati. “And the terms that are so often used in racial discourse about lower orders and unintelligent and dirty [people]… all of that was in place with the Catholics, particularly the Irish.”

The Know Nothing movement achieved meteoric political success, winning majorities in several state legislatures, capturing governorships, and electing more than 100 members of Congress. But just as quickly as the movement reshaped U.S. politics, it vanished from prominence. The rise of the Republican Party and the enormity of the crisis over slavery subsumed the Know Nothings’ focus on immigration, but the movement left its mark.

Listen to the full conversation with Mr. Phillips by downloading this episode of History As It Happens.

SEE ALSO: History As It Happens: Going deeper on immigration

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