You may remember from your American history classes the Know Nothing party, that anti-immigrant, mid nineteenth-century political phenomenon. Know Nothing was not the party’s official name but a nickname derived from a clandestine organization within the party’s ranks, members of which were supposed to say they knew nothing when asked about it.
And in both these ways–the xenophobic underpinnings, the pretense of ignorance–we are reminded of Donald Trump‘s candidacy.
In the Trump vernacular, the “I know nothing” of the Know Nothings is reimagined as “I don’t know anything about that,” and its variations.
He relied on this trope three times in his interview on Anderson Cooper 360 last night.
Know nothing point one was on his immigration policy. Cooper tried to clarify Trump’s recent “softening” (a word we’re putting in quotes because we’re not fans of it, even as we acknowledge its unfortunate utility as an signifier) on the idea of mass(ive) deportation.
“But if somebody hasn’t committed a crime, will they be deported?” Cooper asks Trump.
“I’ll tell you what we know, let me explain, let me tell you what, we know the bad ones. We know where they are, who they are. We know the drug cartel people. We know the gangs and the heads of the gangs and the gang members. Those people are gone. And that’s a huge number,” Trump replies.
“But isn’t that,” begins Cooper.
“No, it’s not,” replies Trump.
Cooper tries again. “But that’s Jeb Bush‘s policy. I mean, essentially,” he says.
“I don’t know anything about Jeb Bush,” says Trump about the former contender for the Republican nomination. “He wasn’t building a wall. Jeb Bush wasn’t building a wall. Jeb Bush wasn’t making strong borders. And I’m not knocking Jeb Bush, but I was with him for a long time,”
Steve Bannon, Trump’s own recently appointed campaign manager–third of a series–is the star of the second know nothing claim, about a term Bannon himself has proudly used.
“Are you embracing the alt-right movement with Steve Bannon?” asks Cooper.
Alt-right? What’s that? Is that a thing? That’s not a thing.
Or, to quote Trump directly, “Nobody even knows what it is. And she didn’t know what it was. This is a term that was just given that frankly, there’s no alt-right or alt-left. All I’m embracing is common sense,” he replies.
To which Cooper replies, “Well, Steve Bannon did say Breitbart is sort of the voice of the alt-right.”
And faced with a response from Cooper that contradicts Trump’s earlier contention, he reverts to knowing nothing, but for the fact that he draws a big crowd.
“I don’t know what Steve said. All I can tell you, I can only speak for myself. You see the crowds we have. You see the enthusiasm. These are great people. These are people that have not been heard for many years and now they have been heard, first time in many, many decades. In fact, some people say the first time, period,” says Trump, adding, “And I think we are going to do very well. You see what’s going on with the polls over the last three or four days. I think we are going to do very well.”
So the campaign is back to trusting polls now?
But surely, the man with “one of the best memories in the world,” would totally be up on his own business history, especially when it comes to the content of one of his first lawsuits (as defendent), one that “marked the first time Trump became a regular presence on newspaper front pages,” right?
Cooper begins by quoting Hillary Clinton‘s Thursday speech, in which she said, “This is what I want to make clear today, a man with a long history of racial discrimination, who traffics in dark conspiracy theories drawn from the pages of supermarket tabloids and the far reaches of the internet should never run our government or command our military.”
“Well, it’s an incorrect statement,” says Trump. “First of all, we were sued many, many years ago when I was very young by the government, sued many, many companies. You know that. It wasn’t me. They sued many companies.”
“The company–your company–was sued for not allowing black people,” says Cooper
“Excuse me, and you know what, they found nothing. They found absolutely nothing,” says Trump.
“You settled,” replies Cooper.
“They bring up the case. I settled, but no awards, no nothing,” says Trump.
“But didn’t people in your company use the words–the letter C,” replies Cooper.
“I don’t even know,” says Trump. “Honestly, what a superintendent does in a building, that I can’t tell you. But I can just tell you that they settled the case and that was the end of it. It was many years ago. And I guess they found we did nothing wrong because we didn’t have to do anything. We didn’t have any payments to make. We didn’t have to pay $20 million in fines.”
The terms of the settlement did not require an admission of wrongdoing. The company did have to do things, namely, not discriminate against people seeking housing and put up ads declaring that Trump properties were equal opportunity housing. Regardless, we have hit on an example of when Trump knows something–when the facts benefit his case.
And if Trump’s “I don’t knows” are not a trope, but a true expression of incuriosity or of being ill-informed on issues related to policy and to the activities of his own staff members, imagine the possibilities were he to be elected–all the crucial information, all the staff he will know nothing about as he stumbles through a presidency.