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Donald Trump: leader of the Know Nothing Party?

Op-ed: If Donald Trump breaks from the GOP, he should revive the Know Nothing Party of the 1800s.

As we approach the Republican National Convention on July 18, presidential candidate Donald Trump's rocky relationship with the Republican Party has become even rockier. The Republican convention is traditionally a celebratory affair, a victory lap for the presidential candidate who has amassed a majority of delegates during the primary contests. This time it's different.

The prospect of Mr. Trump becoming the GOP's standard-bearer has chased prominent Republicans away from the convention. Republican stalwarts, such as Mitt Romney and the Bush family, will skip the convention, along with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. Past corporate sponsors (Ford, GE and JPMorgan Chase) will also be no-shows. Conservative columnist George Will has renounced his membership in the party. Of those Republicans who will attend the convention, a "Never Trump" faction will attempt to derail the presumptive nominee.

Despite such opposition, the conventional wisdom says that Mr. Trump will do what most primary victors do: unite the party by making peace with those who oppose him. But since when has Mr. Trump been conventional? Perhaps Mr. Trump will skip the convention and go it alone. Such a move would appeal to Mr. Trump's love of sensationalism, and it would it not be unprecedented. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, broke away from the Republican Party to run for president under the Bull Moose Party banner in 1912, and Strom Thurmond bolted from the Democratic Party to run as a Dixiecrat in 1948.

If Mr. Trump opts for the go-it-alone route, he'll need a name for his party. The name should be catchy, recall America's past and reflect what Mr. Trump stands for. I suggest he call his new party the Know-Nothing Party, after the short-lived 19th-century party. Don't laugh. There are several reasons why the name works, including historical precedence.

Formed in the 1840s, the little-remembered Know Nothing Party achieved modest electoral success in the Northeast and Midwest. They were so named because the party began in secret societies whose members pledged not to divulge their beliefs to outsiders. When asked what they stood for, the Know-Nothings answered "I know nothing." After changing their name to the American Party, they unsuccessfully ran a candidate for president in 1856. The party eventually split over the issue of slavery and became absorbed by other parties, including the newly formed Republican Party.

Despite the years that separate Mr. Trump and the Know-Nothing Party, they have much in common. Both Mr. Trump and the Know Nothing Party's popularity were fueled by a fear of immigrants. Of course, the immigrants they feared were different. The Know-Nothings feared the wave of German and Irish immigrants arriving in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s, while Trump supporters appear to fear Mexicans and Muslims. But their message is virtually the same: Immigrants take away jobs from true Americans and threaten the American way of life. There are other similarities. The Know-Nothings' were anti-Catholic. Mr. Trump is anti-Muslim. The know-Nothings believed only native-born Americans should be allowed to vote and hold public office. Mr. Trump played the native-born American card by questioning President Obama's birthplace.

Aside from historical precedence, "Know-Nothing" is also a good name for a Trump third party because it signals Mr. Trump's emphasis on personality over policy. Unlike most politicians, Mr. Trump is largely indifferent toward policy. Sure, he makes campaign promises, such as building a wall between Mexico and the U.S., banning Muslim immigrants and creating jobs, but he fails to back those promises with detailed plans of how to accomplish them.

But those who criticize Mr. Trump for his lack of detailed policy prescriptions miss the point. Mr. Trump is not offering voters policies, or even ideas. He is offering his outsize personality, his alleged business acumen and his status as a political outsider. He's the billionaire candidate who can't be bought by special interests. Mr. Trump's message appeals to voters who are weary of the political establishment, the status quo and of policy experts. When asked about Mr. Trump's policies, his supporters can answer like the Know-Nothings, "I don't know."

A Trump third party candidacy is, of course, a long shot. The history of presidential elections is littered with unsuccessful third party presidential bids. Remember John Anderson, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader? But my take on Mr. Trump is that he likes long odds. And so far he has succeeded by breaking the rules of campaigning.

Eric Heavner taught political science at Towson University for 10 years and now works for a Baltimore real estate developer. His email is ericheavner@verizon.net.

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