Donald Trump released “ Immigration Reform that will make America Great Again ” last weekend – his first, detailed position paper since announcing his campaign for the Republican nomination for president. Immigration has been central to the Trump campaign from day one: he threw his hat into the crowded presidential ring with the remark that Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists ”.
Assuming a take-no-prisoners style of campaigning, Trump not only refused to apologise for the comment, he doubled-down, noting that “ it’s totally accurate ”, and his popularity among the Republican base soared. Now, with the release of his first position paper, his thoughts on immigration have taken on a touch more nuance, and he’s probably going to garner even more supporters.
Will Trump be the Republican nominee? Conventional wisdom and the deep pockets of the Republican establishment say no but, at the first presidential debate, Trump refused to rule out a third-party run . While Trump’s possible independent candidacy has been compared with that of businessman Ross Perot in 1992 , the more apt analogy is to look all the way back to 1856, when former President Millard Fillmore ran as the American Party candidate and captured 22% of the popular vote.
Fillmore – an unmemorable man with a memorable name who often finds himself on lists of America’s worst presidents – was tapped to run by the Whig Party to run for vice president in 1848 because, as a moderate northerner, his presence was supposed to balance war hero Zachary Taylor, a slave-holding southerner, on the top of the ticket. Taylor and Fillmore narrowly won in 1848 and, when Taylor died in office two years later, Fillmore became president for the remainder of the term. Fillmore’s most notable act as president was throwing his weight behind the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act, which simultaneously angered northern liberal Whigs as well as some southerners in slave-holding states.
Left off the Whig ticket in 1852, Fillmore began to align himself with the Nativist Party, then better known as the “Know Nothings”. The Know Nothings developed after America’s first major immigrant boom in the 1840s: tens of thousands of Irish began emigrating in the wake of the potato famine, followed a few years later by Germans and other Europeans fleeing the failed European revolutions of 1848. New York City’s population, for example, was approximately 371 000 in 1845; two years later – the worst year of the famine – nearly 200 000 Irish landed in New York, and many of them stayed. By 1849, when the xenophobic “Order of the Star Spangled Banner” society was formed in New York to back nativist candidates, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant tensions were running high and, over the next few years, the Know Nothings coalesced, winning numerous local and state elections.
Like Donald Trump’s campaign today, the Know Nothings (who watered down their name to the “American Party” in 1856 when Fillmore ran for president on their ticket) appealed to those who saw native-born Americans losing out to immigrants. The second plank of the 1856 party platform was “ Americans must rule America ”.
It’s a campaign slogan on which Trump could build: he advocates building a wall across the southern border and forcing Mexico to pay for it; protecting American jobs; and revoking the 14th Amendment’s clause that grants citizenship to those born on US soil. While the Know Nothings didn’t try to wall off the entire Atlantic seaboard, they did embrace similar ideas – including English-only policies (Latin mottoes were translated into English on public buildings as a result), and attempting to institute a 21-year waiting period for foreigners born in the United State to become citizens.
But the Know Nothings of Trump’s campaign share more than just anti-immigrant rhetoric: both tap into a deeper well of anger at what today would be called “politics as usual”. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, many Democrats and Whigs grew disgusted with how partisan politics was ruining America and many bolted to the Know Nothings because, while they were anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, they were also anti-slavery. To many northerners, abolitionism was the key issue by the mid-1850s and the newly minted Republican Party’s (which had also formed in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act) 1856 candidate was the relatively untested explorer John C Frémont. By contrast, the Know Nothings picked Millard Fillmore – a former president – to capitalize on his name recognition.
Like Trump – who persuasively argues for increasing the prevailing wage of those with H-1B visas in order to both preserve American jobs and encourage more skilled foreign immigrants – not every proposal of Fillmore’s American Party was without merit. American politics has long been dogged by issues of religion; the Know Nothings staunchly supported “opposition to any union between Church and State; no interference with religious faith or worship, and no test oaths for office.” Unfortunately, they did so because they were worried about the Pope’s influence on potential Catholic politicians, but the principle remains the same.
When the votes were tallied in 1856, Democrat James Buchanan won the election with just over 45% of the vote. Frémont received 33% (carrying eleven states), and Fillmore won only Maryland – but had nearly 22% of the popular vote. Even to casual observers the message was clear: had the Know Nothings and Republicans joined forces, they would have trounced Buchanan.
If Donald Trump becomes the Millard Fillmore of 2016 with his own third-party run, it seems more than likely that no matter who the Republicans and Democrats end up nominating, the Democrat will win – and the Know Nothings’ obvious heir will have served as the spoiler.