Some Donald Trump supporters—most prominently, the attention-seeking pundit Ann Coulter—are predicting that the slaughter in Paris has clinched the election for their candidate. “They can wait if they like until next November for the actual balloting, but Donald Trump was elected president tonight”, Coulter tweeted on Friday.
Coulter’s overconfidence aside, it is possible to see how the post-Paris political landscape will be favorable to Trump. The political tradition we call Jacksonianism is emerging from its post-Iraq, post-Snowden hibernation. Issues like ISIS, immigration, and crime have been driving the Jacksonian train, and the Paris massacre seems likely to cause it to accelerate.
Trump’s appeal is primarily Jacksonian, as seen in his economic populism, his anti-immigrant rhetoric, and his proverbial middle-finger to the political establishment. But Jacksonians have historically supported at least two kinds of leaders. One is the clown populist (for example, Huey Long and Jesse Ventura), who expresses discontent and crudely validates this school’s code. Trump is a clown of this sort, a man who is transparently uninformed about even the most basic elements of terrorism and Middle East policy. This type of figure has been elected to state office, but never won a major party’s nomination, much less made it to the Oval Office. For the White House, Jacksonians tend to seek out more substantive figures, like Old Hickory himself, or Ronald Reagan. (Liberals thought of Reagan as a clown figure in 1980, but Jacksonians saw him as a successful, two-term governor of California who had restored order to the Golden State and would take on the Evil Empire).
As the Paris attacks put the evil of America’s enemies on full display, the Jacksonian impulse is rising, and many Jacksonians will still support Trump for his ability to flout norms and poke elites in the eye. But the attacks also underscore the fact that the world is a dangerous place, and that politics is a deadly serious business. Therefore, others may be less likely to support a charlatan out of protest at a time when America is confronting a cunning and determined enemy seeking the annihilation of the West.
But who, then, will they turn to? Jacksonianism is back, but where is the real leader who can harness and productively apply it, as opposed to the opportunistic, sputtering clown?