September 30, 2016
The first 2016 presidential “debate” – more World Wrestling Federation than political discourse – is history. If recent past is prologue, Hillary vs. Trump II and III will decide whether or not a Nativist candidate will take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January 2017. For any Irish Americans with even a shred of historical memory, the very real prospect of a Trump victory should give pause.
Only the truest of Trump’s true believers could believe he bested Clinton in the debate. Former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt labeled Trump’s turn at the podium “a historically bad performance”; still, lest the Clinton team celebrate too early, Mitt Romney soundly defeated Barack Obama on the first 2012 presidential debate.
Interest in Hillary vs. Trump has soared in Ireland and across the globe, Trump’s Nativism and xenophobia having rattled friends’ and allies’ collective nerves for over a year now. According to the Associated Press, Ireland’s Paddy Power betting house—they take bets on everything under the sun—took the pulse of Irish viewers to proclaim that the house’s “political traders felt that she [Hillary] was the clear winner of the debate and landed some clever blows.”
Paddy Power’s Feilim Mac An Iomaire told the AP.: “Hillary may have failed to land a knockout blow, but she was the significant points winner in the eyes of our customers who backed her relentlessly following the debate.”
Striking a grand tone for Clinton supporters, he said, “The the odds of the US having their first female president are looking much shorter now.” How much shorter? Powers contended that “Clinton’s chances of winning in November went from 63.6 percent before the debate to 71.4 percent after, while Trump’s fell from 38.1 percent to 33.3 percent.
Now, back to Irish Americans, especially Boston Irish Americans. Our ancestors, the immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s, were in many ways as reviled by “real Americans” as the “Mexicans, the Muslims, and the dangerous immigrants” who have fueled the hateful platform of Trump and a huge swath of voters whose entire ranks are not the “bucket of deplorables” of Hillary’s comment. That said, there is no question that Trump has brought the simmering stew of toxic Nativism to a fresh boil, seasoned with more than a dollop of racism.
The Irish of the mid-nineteenth century in Massachusetts were “the other” when Nativists mounted their most serious previous attempt to seize the presidency. In the spring of 1854, they carried elections in Boston, Salem, and other cities. With the fall Massachusetts legislative and gubernatorial races looming, the Nativists, or Know-Nothings, had their collective eyes on higher office, where they could enact laws targeting foreigners and Catholics. Across the nation, the movement’s ranks swelled to over a million in 1854, their confidence leading them to anoint themselves the “American Party.”
What they knew all too well was that they loathed anything Irish, anything Catholic, any immigrant except the right kind, anything they deemed “un-American.” They proclaimed that they needed to save the nation from going broke to pay for “Paddy and Bridget,” who were arriving in unprecedented waves. Anyone who was not a native-born, Anglo-Protestant was not a real American, but a threat to them. Again, the outsider, the other. In short, the Nativists “wanted their country back.” Today, the phrase has an all-too-familiar ring.
In the 1856 presidential election, the American Party, which teemed with the haters and the disaffected of the era who believed the White House was theirs for the taking, ran former President Millard Fillmore. While many Boston voters cast their ballots for Fillmore, he captured but one state, Maryland. The onset of the Civil War would shove the Nativists, or Know-Nothings, into history’s backwaters. Still, prejudice toward immigrants would endure, but it galvanized the Boston Irish to do what the Know-Nothings had done: Seize power through the ballot box. The Boston Irish proved far better at holding on to that clout than had the Know-Nothings.
That is why today’s Irish Americans should think long and hard, should remember their own families’ history, before casting a vote for Donald J. Trump. Yes, the nation needs to control its borders and find its way to a sensible and humane immigration policy. The next president and Congress must find ways to help the many Americans left behind by the economy and the politicians who enabled the suffering of millions.
As the adage preaches, we ignore the past at our peril. One hundred and sixty years ago, America’s voters rejected the Nativists. In 2016, the nation will have another chance to say no to hatred, fear, racism, sexism, xenophobia—and Nativism. If Irish Americans heed the whispers of their ancestors, today’s Know-Nothings will not hold the key to 1600 Pennsylvania come next January.