Takeaways From President Trump’s First Month in Office #3

Takeaway # 3: TRUMP REPRESENTS THE RETURN OF JACKSONIANISM*:

*Sorry for the late post on this, everyone. I had to deal with other matters since the previous two entries. Going forward, you should, hopefully, be able to expect at least one post a week.

Other political commentators have mentioned this in the past, but it merits repetition now that we have seen Trump in action: Trump’s presidency is the rebirth of Jacksonianism — stylistically and substantively — in both domestic and foreign affairs.

Let’s look first at stylistic similarities between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump as it pertains to their personalities. Jackson’s contemporaries — and historians since — described him as thin skinned, vindictive, and arrogant. Thomas Jefferson personally called Jackson “dangerous” saying, “He is one of the most unfit men I know for [the presidency]. He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions…his passions are terrible.” Historians that have studied Jackson have made similar remarks about Jackson’s governing style, such as Robert V. Remini who has said that Jackson “could hate with a Biblical fury and would resort to petty and vindictive acts to nurture his hatred.” These characterizations cannot be dismissed as character attacks by critics, seeing as they are grounded in Jackson’s own actions. Jackson personally went against those he felt slighted by including former Vice President John Calhoun, his opponent in the 1832 presidential election Henry Clay, and Bank of the United States president Nicholas Biddle.

If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone; Trump’s personality has been described in almost identical ways to how Jackson’s was. Former U.S. President Barack Obama has called Trump a person who is “unqualified, doesn’t do his homework, doesn’t know basic facts that you need to know if you’re going to be President of the United States.” Fifty former national security officials that worked in Republican administrations were, likewise, worried about Trump’s temperament, signing a letter saying he would be “dangerous” and “the most reckless President in American history.” Again, comments like these about Trump have been ubiquitous across the political spectrum and cannot be dismissed purely as character assassination. Trump himself has demonstrated the vindictive, petty, and arrogant character of his personality through instances in which he says “I know more about ISIS than the generals do,” demeans everyone he disagrees with as “losers” while attacking their professional integrity, and calls the idea of attacking back 100 times stronger when someone attacks him a “way of life.”

Now let’s turn to similarities in policy and governing. Many of Jacksonian democracy’s core tenets, such as populism, patronage and — to a more limited extent — protectionism have found a modern-day equivalent in Trumpism. Just as Jackson rose to power in 1828 by decrying the establishment and elevating the “common man,” so too did Trump rise to power in 2016 by espousing the idea, in his inauguration, that “for too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost” and promising that “January 20th2017, will be remembered as the day the people became rulers of this nation again.” Just as Jackson developed a spoils system that prioritized party loyalty above education and any other qualifications, so too has Trump increased the reliance on political appointees based on personal and party loyalty, including Ben Carson and Betsy Devos. Just like Jackson heeded his “Kitchen Cabinet” over official advisors, so too is Trump believed to be heeding more the opinions of informal advisors like Steve Bannon. Additionally, both Jackson and Trump share protectionist tendencies, although protectionism was not necessarily a crucial ideological component of Jacksonian democracy. Jackson personally supported tariffs as a way to protect domestic industries from British merchants and said that the economy needed to become more “Americanized” to serve its own people. Trump echoes this statement when he says, as he did in his inauguration speech, that his administration will follow the two simple rules of “buy American and hire American” and that “every decision on trade…will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”

In foreign policy too, Trumpism starkly resembles Jacksonianism, at least in respect to how political scientist Walter Mead defined the term. Mead, who believes that American foreign policy can be divided into four major schools of thought (Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, and Jacksonian), defines Jacksonianism as a populist, political philosophy whose adherents believe that the most important goal of the U.S. government should be the physical security and economic well-being of the American people, that America should not be extensively involved in the affairs of other countries unless not doing so poses a national security threat (in which case all available force must be used), and that America is a “folk community” based around the notion of white identity politics. According to Mead, Jacksonians are only “intermittently concerned with foreign policy” and coalesce more around policies rooted in a sense of “honor-driven egalitarianism and fiery nationalism.”

While we have yet to see how Trump’s foreign policy plays out in practice, his statements on the issue give every indication that he falls within this Jacksonian foreign policy tradition. Like Jacksonians, Trump sees everything through the scope of national security, and he believes that the government is justified in using any means necessary to protect Americans – and ‘American values’ – at home. This explains his willingness to use unrestrained force against ISIS including waterboarding, his desire to build a Mexican border wall to keep people he views as “rapists” and “killers” – and their culture – out of the country, and his insistence on further building up the military and the U.S. nuclear arsenal so that the country remains “top of the pack.” As the New York Times sums up, Trump is a person who takes action first, who “sees the world as chaotic and threatening and inhospitable to traditional American objectives like democracy promotion or international institutions…[and where] the United States must pursue its interests narrowly, unilaterally, and with unapologetic force.” This is as by the books of a Jacksonian worldview as it gets.

Trump is poised to bring about a fundamental shift in U.S. politics by reverting the country back to the Jacksonian tradition, but whether he will be successful in doing so and whether his legacy will be similar to that of Andrew Jackson remains to be seen. A worthwhile comparison here can be made to Richard Nixon, considered by some to be the last Jacksonian president, to whom Trump has often been compared. Nixon, like Jackson before and Trump since, had an abrasive, unapologetic personality, was considered anti-establishment, and expanded executive power. Yet Nixon in the public mindset is remembered neither for being a Jacksonian nor for the policies he enacted, instead being overwhelmingly remembered as “a crook” that used his political power for personal gain. True, Jackson’s legacy is also marred by his involvement in the forceful removal of Native Americans (Trail of Tears), but at least he is still remembered, to a large extent, for his accomplishments: serving as the president of the common man, expanding democracy, and heralding in the Second Party System.

This much is certain one month into Trump’s presidency: Trump’s persona, like those of the Jacksonians before him, will loom large over national politics for years to come – a blemish of America to some, a return to form for others – but his legacy and the lasting implications of his presidency will be judged by whether he successfully chooses to rise above his persona to genuinely address the discontent with the state of politics in the country – like Jackson did – or fails to do so and digs his own grave – like Nixon did.

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