It was a turbulent time in our nation's history. One of the country's two major political parties was in its death throes, and a major faction of that party was separating and trying to establish its own identity - a group espousing nativist American values of Protestantism and anti-immigration - particularly against the German and Irish Catholics and the Chinese.
As the Whig Party lay gasping over the deep concerns brought about by competing desires to expand and contain (or eliminate) slavery, an angry fringe element began emerging. This new coalition, originally called the Native American Party (referring to Protestant European whites who had been in America for generations), later changed its name to the American Party. Because some roots of the new party sprang from a secret organization, members were instructed to answer questions about the new political party with "I know nothing." It quickly became known as the Know-Nothing Party.
Membership in the Know-Nothing Party was limited to white protestant men. The party formed in the late 1840's and was politically active across much of the country for a decade. In addition to fanning the anti-immigration fires, Know-Nothings also put forth the idea that many people voting in U.S. elections were non-citizens.
The stain of foreign immigration on white America, the growing strength of a scary religion, fears of massive voter fraud - and an angry subset of extremely patriot citizens determined to right those wrongs. Sound familiar?
The contentious and bitter reality of slavery which brought an end to the once venerable Whig Party also did in the Know-Nothings. The party was at its brief zenith in 1856 when they fielded a former President, Millard Fillmore, to run for the presidency on its ticket. He lost to James Buchanan. The following year the Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision, a move which so inflamed anti-slavery activists, that those in the Know-Nothing (American) Party who were of the anti-slavery mindset, left the party and joined the new Republican Party.
By 1860 the Know-Nothing Party was swept aside by the chaos directly preceding the Civil War - and had basically ceased to exist.
Fast forward to today. The Republican Party (sadly a hoary vestige of the once proud political group that was formed in the 1850's and put Lincoln in the White House) is, regardless of its current composition and character, wobbling on its last legs as a serious political entity. The "Grand Old Party" has, at least since the days of Nixon, slowly been tilting more and more to the right. While clearer minds have tried to prevail and hold sway over the teetering political dinosaur, this year, with the ascension of Donald Trump to the party throne, seems to clearly foretell the complete and utter demise of the Republican Party.
The new Know-Nothings have seized the party machinery and are in control. The inmates are in charge of the asylum and those with any remaining sense of honor - or decency - or reason - are fleeing. Meg Whitman says she may just vote for Hillary. Senators Sasse and Kirk say they will not vote for their party's nominee. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan uses the word racist when remarking about his party's presidential nominee. John McCain and his BFF Lindsey Graham are not happy. The Bushes, George Dubya, Jebya, and Pappy, can't even come up with a coherent statement on what they will do come November. Mitt Romney, the last presidential nominee of the Republican Party, is hosting a special conference of party bigwigs to try and formulate a plan of how to the handle the Donald Trump situation. Mitt laments that if Trump bullies his way into the White House, the nation is likely to begin suffering from "trickle-down" racism.
This morning on Face the Nation, Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake apparently called on his colleagues in the Senate to withhold endorsement of Trump.
The Republican Party is in free-fall. If it lets the racist, misogynistic Trump take the nomination, the vote in November will be a catastrophic tidal wave that will sweep the party, including its Know-Nothing captors, into oblivion. If the party establishment seizes control and rewrites the rules to deny Trump the nomination, the party will fall in upon itself with a blood-letting that will be analyzed and taught in history and political science courses for centuries.
Regardless of how the next few weeks play out, the Republican Party of today is suffering from wounds that are likely to prove fatal, and it's lunatic fringe, today's Know-Nothings, will soon find themselves being a parasites without a host. Years and years of sticking hat pins in the elephant are about to finally pay off with the death of that elephant. Then Donald, and Sarah, and Ted, and Marco, and Little Ricky, and Huckabee, and so many other suicidal dumb-asses - what will you have left?
Like their xenophobic and bigoted forebears, today's Know-Nothings rushed forward whipping up nationalist fervor and hysteria, and like their forebears they have quickly set the stage for their own extinction. They will be swept aside by a saner, calmer, and much more intelligent populace that represents modern America in a modern world.
The Know-Nothings are heading into the tar pits of time - again - and they won't be missed.