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Mind your language

The secret society that made ‘nativist’ an insult

What it means to call Donald Trump a Know Nothing

14 January 2017

9:00 AM

14 January 2017

9:00 AM

The title of America’s first woman bishop was claimed in 1918 by Bishop Alma White, leader of the Pillar of Fire Church, noted for her feminism, anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, for her alliance with the Ku Klux Klan, and for her nativism.

I was puzzled by the word. After all, Native Americans are what we used to call Indians. Native American is not a new piece of terminology. Sir Fulke Greville in his Life of Sir Philip Sidney, published in 1628, inveighed against the Spaniard as a race for suppressing ‘the poor native Americans’ with heavy impositions.

But these American Indians, no matter how heavily suppressed, hardly seemed the sort of native that Bishop White would have championed. Nor had I heard that Donald Trump was a big fan of Native Americans.


Things became no clearer last year when President Obama spoke out against people like Mr Trump denigrating immigrants. ‘That’s not the measure of populism,’ the president said. ‘That’s nativism.’

The explanation is that nativism was coined in 1844 to denote the ideology of the Native American party. ‘In a kind of feud now existing between American-born and foreign-born citizens,’ commented Notes & Queries in 1856, ‘the former are said to profess Nativism.’ In the Oxford English Dictionary, this sense of the word is marked ‘now historical’. By ‘now’ it meant 2003, when the entry was revised. But since the proposal to build a wall with Mexico, nativism is back.

Membership of the Native American Party was limited to men. Bishop White would not have approved of that. She would, though have cheered its hatred of Irish Catholics and German Catholics, the Mexican immigrants of their day, who were, of course, controlled directly by the Pope, with strings.

These nativists gained the nickname Know Nothings after the members of the secret Order of the Star Spangled Banner, who would answer questions about its activities by saying: ‘I know nothing’ (like Manuel in Fawlty Towers). So when people refer to Mr Trump as a Know Nothing, they do not mean he is an ignoramus, but a modern incarnation of 1850s nativism.


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