Nativism, the belief of some Americans that immigrants are a danger to America because of their perceived Un-American beliefs, is nothing new in our political discourse. The Nativist movement was made up of current citizens who somehow forgot that they were once immigrants. In the 1830’s and 1840’s the Nativist movement targeted Catholics. At the time Catholics were viewed as unsafe for America because Catholics were Papists. A Papist was supposed to be someone who held a stronger allegiance to the Pope than to the United States. In response to the influx of Irish Catholics in the early 19th century many “natives” became violently opposed to the arrival of the Irish.
In 1834 in Charlestown Massachusetts the Ursuline Convent was burned to the ground by mostly “poor yankee laborers.” It may seem strange to our modern view of America that once Catholics were viewed as dangerous to the country. However, the reasons for this violence are clearly visible in our modern political discourse. Why would these laborers burn down a convent? The reasons are remarkably modern: laborers feared that they would lose their jobs to the Irish and the firm belief of those laborers that the Irish Catholic were beholden to the Pope.
Charlestown was not the only the city where Nativist violence erupted. The same type of violence erupted in Philadelphia in July 1844. This violence, like in Charlestown, was a backlash against Catholics. This backlash was sparked by differing views of Bible readings, “Catholic Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick (1796-1863), an Irish immigrant himself, objected to Protestant teachers’ leading students in singing Protestant hymns and requiring them to read from the King James Bible” (2) This sparked Protestant clergy to organize against Bishop Kenrick’s statements. The Protestants were the Nativists of Philadelphia. This theological schism ignited Anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia. Catholic homes and churches were attacked. To get real flavor for this era’s Nativism just watch “The Gangs of New York” and the rhetoric of Bill the Butcher.
The three forces of nativism in the 1830’s and 1840’s: job loss, the fear of otherness, in this case the Catholic Papists and religion, are clearly echoed in our time. If you have only paid the scantest amount of attention to our modern political discourse you will have heard these three themes espoused over and over. Except now some people fear that Mexican and other Central American immigrants are here to take our jobs. The other two themes are focused on Muslims. There is a palpable fear in our nation of both the religion of Islam and the cultural “otherness”. Just like in the 19th century the targets of Nativism have suffered violent reprisals.
There is one presidential candidate that has embraced the current nativism: Donald Trump. Beyond being a Nativist Mr. Trump is also a demagogue, he appeals to the countries prejudices rather engage in rational discussion. He has proposed that Muslims carry special identification cards. This idea is one step away from having Muslims wear a red crescent on their clothes. The idea is repugnant yet it resonates with many people. Simply look at the rising poll numbers for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump has also proposed that the government surveil mosques. This is a most egregious violation of the First Amendment. Imagine the backlash if he had proposed to surveil a Church or Temple. But the fear in this country accepts this type of solution.
It has been said that the bigger the lie the easier it is for people to believe. Mr. Trump has entered that territory with his latest claim that thousands of Muslim Americans in New Jersey were celebrating the downing of the twin towers. It is a big lie. But why tell the lie?
Well Mr. Trump is not only a nativist he is starting to sound like a pure fascist. Mr. Trump espouses all of the tenets of fascism laid out by Benito Mussolini, a self-described fascist. Mr. Trump is hyper-nationalistic. Just read his hat. Mr. Trump also uses xenophobia to buttress his nationalism. The final prong of fascism is the belief in the merger of government and corporations, or as Mussolini called it corporatism. Mr. Trump is no politician he is a businessman. Who better than Mr. Trump to firmly fit the hand of corporations into the glove of the government?
Watch the polls. Mr. Trump continues to rise with every lie. He rises as he exploits the fear in the country. He rises as he proposes trampling the first amendment. He rises on nationalism and xenophobia. For every point he ticks up so does my fear that we will become a pure fascist society.
This article was written by Daniel Mahan, a writer for dusk magazine.