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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