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The Jacksonian Roots of Trump’s Success

Going up against over a dozen Governors and Senators—”the deepest bench in a generation”—for the Republican Presidential nomination, Donald Trump swept the field. And he did it, TAI staff writer Nicholas M. Gallagher writes over at National Review, by exploiting a vulnerability few in the GOP were even aware existed when the race began—the fact that Republican elites had neglected, even forgotten, Jacksonian America:

After the “paleoconservatives” and Buchananites were defeated a generation ago, leading GOP politicians minimized and sometimes outright denied tensions between Jacksonian sentiment and conservative ideology. They focused on issues where the two viewpoints overlapped (from an aversion to liberal identity politics to the need to take the fight to the bad guys after 9/11), while politely ignoring (or forgetting) the important differences between the groups. This was made easier by the fact that for much of that period, a rising economic tide lifted all boats and kept the visibility of disagreements to a minimum.

Many Republicans, especially those of the “neocon” persuasion, went a step farther by denying the existence of American nationalism outright. This usually involved their contrasting nationalism, which was something bad that others (usually: Europeans) had indulged in, with patriotism, which was presented as good and American — and universalistic and ideal-based. In his first inaugural address, President George W. Bush declared: “America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens.”

It is true that America is a country uniquely rooted in ideas, with a universal message accessible to all people. It’s also true that Americans are patriotic. But for much of the Right, patriotism — love of country — itself has become identified with reverence for a specific body of ideas, including the classical-liberal, individualist, and universalist Enlightenment ideals enshrined in America’s founding documents. At its most expansive, this can include — and was read as including — a series of classical-liberal economic prescriptions, certain foreign- and domestic-policy assumptions, and even originalist judicial philosophy.

There’s something to this. Lincoln, who revered the Declaration of Independence and used its principles to animate his political views, was a better patriot than Stephen Douglas or Robert E. Lee, even though in some sense all three loved their country. But expansive rhetoric and blurred categories can muddle thinking. The conservative movement, which reveres tradition, forgot that there were other traditions of how to view one’s country and understand what binds us together. The idea that America has never had a sense of national folk identity is just plain false — and making political and policy judgments on that assumption was madness. The reappearance of naked nationalism has been a shock to those who spent decades maintaining that America’s unique and unqualified achievement has been to synthesize love of country and universal democratic ideals. Jacksonians have consistently felt that some combination of ethnicity, where you were born, and (though Bush didn’t mention it) faith unite the American people, though not quite in the same way as — and generally much more expansively conceived than — the European “blood and soil” ideologies to which President Bush alluded.

Fortunately, Gallagher continues, Jacksonian conceptions of the folk group have proven, more expansive in the U.S. than in Europe; if assimilation historically hasn’t gone as smoothly as conventional wisdom remembers (for more on which, see Gallagher’s March piece in TAI), nevertheless America’s record in that regard been an unprecedented achievement in world history.

Secondly, Jacksonian impulses have usually worked to reinforce American ideals (thus, one person may believe in free speech out of first-principles convictions, whereas another may because it’s American to do so; that’s a good thing.) But:

The tension between the two is nonetheless real and tricky to manage for a conservative movement that is, as it’s suddenly and rudely been reminded, a minority both in the country and within the Republican party. Conservatives need Jacksonian votes to form a governing coalition. Yet from trade to immigration, foreign policy to fiscal policy, Jacksonian instincts are often incompatible with conservative prescriptions.

There are lots of ways to deal with this friction. The least helpful is to pretend it doesn’t exist. Exhibits A and B of this tendency are the proposed immigration bills in 2007 and 2013, which repeated in their essentials the failed 1986 amnesty-for-enforcement bargain. More broadly, party leaders failed to take the Jacksonian base’s positions on economic policy into account or even acknowledge them rhetorically, and they failed also to respond to Jacksonian dissatisfaction with the Wilsonian aspects of the Iraq War. By the time 2016 rolled around, the Republicans — including much of their supposed anti-establishment wing — were acting as though Jacksonianism didn’t exist.

And so Trump attacked on an unguarded flank, and swept all before him. As a result, the GOP is stuck with the Donald for a season—at least—and has some serious rethinking and coalition-rebuilding to do afterward. For the ins and outs of what that will entail, and much more, we highly recommend you read the whole thing.

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  • Anthony

    “Going up against over a dozen Governors and senators – the deepest bench in a generation – for the Republican Presidential nomination, Donald Trump swept the field.”

    Agreed, the Jacksonian tradition of populism (elite vs. anti-elite) in American politics has a long history (1824 Presidential election) and may have impacted 2016 GOP Presidential contest. However, there exists another possibility: Trump,s actions and rhetoric take advantage of how our brains are wired (Trump’s Jacksonian popularity [if essay’s claims are valid] may stem from his masterful ability to resonate with their emotions). That is, “Make America Great Again” appeals to what exactly – economic anxiety, status anxiety, authoritarianism [defender of true America], anti-establishment resentment, etc.

    Perhaps with Jacksonians as with others, Trump validates emotionally via public proclamation views shared privately. In the same way, the GOP may not have lost Jacksonians as much as Trump advantaged himself via this group by appeals to emotions and intuitions maybe – intentional thinking is only a small component of our mind. That said, this is not to deny Jacksonian intentional thinking as implied above in support of Trump but to observe that supporters may see whatever they wish to see in him – a cognitive error of forming beliefs on what is pleasant to imagine rather than actual evidence. Some serious rethinking and coalition-building going forward may indeed be needed.

    • seattleoutcast

      When you say this it reminds me of how Obama masterfully used the same blank slate for many on the left. We were told time and again how he would do a, b, or c even though there was no evidence to support it. Obama too won on emotions.

      • Anthony

        Comparisons may or may not have relevance but you choose to confirm often times where you lean. President Obama becomes history shortly. Thanks.

        • Fat_Man

          But the damage he has done will linger on for generations.

          • Anthony

            The damage, what ever it specifically “is”, will be written by historians (hopefully accurately) and generations to come will see evidence more clearly. My respond to Post is Obama neutral.

        • seattleoutcast

          I do think it has relevance because we don’t know if the candidate is merely playing on emotions or is using a strain that is ignored by the party. Did Obama win because he used the voters’ emotions, or did he capitalize on some element of the democratic party?

          Is something going on right now in America that is different than previous elections, something that started in 2008? I don’t know, but these recent elections seem much different than before. I’ll take a wild guess and say that our country has no clue where it’s going and we’re grabbing “alpha leaders” rather than voting on principles–this is on both sides of the aisle. Again, just a guess.

          • Anthony

            Context, context, context; what you feel is your business and respected. Nevertheless,the Post addresses GOP and so-called Jacksonians, other ruminations (alpha males, etc.), though considered, are interposed.

          • seattleoutcast

            Sure, why not interpose? But I brought it up because you had speculated on the emotions of the republican voters.

          • Anthony


          • seattleoutcast

            I’m not a Trump fan, by the way.

  • Andrew Allison

    That the GOP leadership is completely out of touch with its constituency is news???

  • Dale Fayda

    Trump won because he took an unequivocal stance in opposition to illegal immigration and he did it early on. That’s it. That was and is his calling card and his main claim to fame in this election.

    The rest of the GOP field ranged from outright amnesty advocates (Bush, Kasich, Rubio) to fence-sitters (Cruz, Walker, Paul). If the GOP had the guts God gave an old yellow dog and showed some unity and backbone in opposing this issue, “Trump” would not have occurred.

    • FriendlyGoat

      The reason the GOP did not pursue illegal immigration with the zeal you suggest it should have is that the business-community sector of the GOP is not unhappy at all with the guest workers and their role in not allowing the development of labor shortages which would fuel wage inflation.
      What Trump’s lesser-light supporters do not understand is that Ravin’ Cavin’ Donald, even if he was to be elected, will completely cave on most of the deportations he has promised. He will also cave on the Muslim ban. He will cave on portions of the wall. He will cave and agree with the legalization of lots of guest workers. He will cave on trade agreements. He will cave his personal beliefs on virtually all social issues. He is not “special” at all.
      With any luck at all, he simply won’t be elected and the GOP will have been spoofed with the complicity of its own idiots (“more of them, it turns out, than anyone thought”, as the recent quote went).

      • Dale Fayda

        You may very well be correct on a lot of this. However, in a choice between the most corrupt female politician in American history, who has already promised to pretty much suspend border enforcement and Trump, I will choose the latter every time.

        The future is murky at best. But the past is open to hind-sight analysis. The article poses a question as to why Trump won his primary going away, with the largest vote tally of any Republican presidential primary ever, while battling his party’s craven establishment and that’s what I addressed in my post. Meanwhile, the Clinton crime family still can’t put away a 74-year old socialist, who wasn’t even a registered member of the party for whose nomination he’s running, all the while enjoying complete and fawning support of her party’s Grand Poobahs.

        • FriendlyGoat

          Bernie is to us leftists what Trump is to many Republicans—-more pure, more on point, more articulate to apparent problems. I would prefer him to Mrs. Clinton, but I’ll take her on platform alone. It’s not a surprise that you prefer Trump or some other Republican you might have gotten. It’s okay. We’re apples and oranges, and we know it.

      • Angel Martin

        America’s failed elite is now stupider than the average voter.

        A vote for Clinton is more of the same stupidity. A vote for Trump may turn out to be just a different kind of stupidity, but I’ll take any change we an get.

        • FriendlyGoat

          I’d be voting for Obama in a third term if I could. I understand that you wouldn’t.

        • Jacksonian_Libertarian

          I don’t understand where all Trump’s critics get their evidence. Trump has been in the public eye for decades, he is a wildly successful businessman. He has had to comply with agreements he has made during those years, or he wouldn’t have been successful. Contrast this with the politicians that have repeatedly lied during the campaign, and then turn around and vote the opposite way once in office. I’m much more ready to see if Trump is being truthful, than to vote for another proven liar.

          • Angel Martin

            Basically, we have a bunch of “leaders” who crashed the airplane but are saying: “we are the only experienced pilots; no-one else is allowed to touch the controls…”

            btw, I see Trump as a highly skilled and very flexible businessman, who is especially adept at operating in a fast changing environment. I was just taking the Goat’s premise as a given and saying I still wanted Trump.

            I think as a country, America is facing a period of many unexpected events: politically, economically, militarily, socially, culturally. The hidebound “elite” and their useless “experts” are the last people to be able to cope with such changes.

    • Frank Natoli

      You’re absolutely right. Curiously, nobody wrung their hands over McCain or Romney becoming the nominee, thanks to innumerable Democrat and Independent cross-over voters who had no intention of voting for them in the general. This time, cross-over voters who gave Trump his momentum have every intention of voting for him in the general, and that has to scare the daylights out of the Democrats.

  • delta 5297

    “But for much of the Right, patriotism — love of country — itself has become identified with reverence for a specific body of ideas”

    You call the Republican Party’s “patriotism” a “love of country”? No. Conservatives are gripped by a nationalism that is every bit as blood-curdling as the fascism that swept Europe in the 1930’s. Right-wing “patriotism” is not rooted in principle or the ideals of this country, but rather in ugly prejudice.

    • Tom

      And the award for “most overwrought post of the day” goes to Delta 5297.

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