Andrew Jackson’s winning streak continues. Last week—just days after TAI named Old Hickory the biggest winner of 2016—President Trump has moved a portrait of him into the Oval Office. The Hill reports:
Trump’s rise has often been compared to the populist election of Jackson, including by some of the new president’s own team.
Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon called Trump’s inauguration speech on Friday “Jacksonian,” saying it struck the populist and patriotic tones Jackson was known for.
Trump has also expressed admiration for the seventh president, as well, calling Jackson “an amazing figure in American history — very unique so many ways,” through a spokesperson last week.
As Walter Russell Mead wrote as part of our 2016-in-review series:
The biggest winner of 2016 has been dead for 171 years. Old Hickory’s legacy of American populism is one of the most powerful forces in national politics. When properly harnessed, it wins wars by facing down America’s enemies with unrelenting ruthlessness. Jacksonian populists are threat-motivated at home too, and in 2016 they carried Donald Trump to victory on the back of anger about immigration, economic competition with Mexico and China, and Islamism. The establishments of both major political parties were caught completely off-guard.
The establishment always has an uncomfortable relationship with Jacksonians, but the most effective politicians are able to earn their support. [But t]he last two American presidents have badly mismanaged their Jacksonian messaging. In President Bush’s case, the failure of coalition forces to find the weapons of mass destruction the administration presented as justifying the need for war undercut Bush’s Jacksonian support. Worse was the bait-and-switch rationale the administration offered in place of WMD: building democracy in Iraq. Jacksonians like democracy, but they generally don’t think this can or should be accomplished with US troops.
President Obama never did well with Jacksonians — nor did he show much sign of wanting to. His remark during the 2008 primary about Americans who “cling” to religion and guns betrayed a disgust with Jacksonian America that President Obama has done little to hide while in office. His indifferent response to terrorism and amnesty for illegal immigrants confirmed Jacksonian suspicions. Meanwhile, Democratic pronouncements about how the multicultural Obama political coalition was rendering white America politically impotent sounded to Jacksonians as nothing less than a declaration of war on them and on their values. In 2016, they retaliated by putting the rawest Jacksonian in the White House since Old Hickory himself.
In the wake of President Trump’s inaugural, this identification of the Trump movement with Jackson’s memory has become explicit and increasingly overt. And you don’t have to love Trump—or Jackson—to find the comparison useful. In addition to Bannon’s comments, the New York Times, ran a front-page story comparing Trump’s movement to the Jacksonians in the day after the inauguration (quoting WRM, no less.) As reports of Customs and Border Patrol defiance of a court order to release detainees circulated on Sunday (a low-level snafu? evidence of more high-level defiance? it depends upon your priors), administration opponents such as Christopher Hayes reached for Jackson’s defiance of the Supreme Court as a reminder, and warning, of the populist temptation to tell judges to go to hell.
Jacksonianism is complex, and cannot be reduced to simply “whatever President Trump’s team does,” or even “whatever Trump’s supporters want.” A set of cultural sensibilities as much as a political leanings, what we now call “Jacksonianism” predated Jackson himself by over a century (as David Hackett Fisher traced in Albion’s Seed, one of the must-read books for for those trying to understand our moment). Jackson himself left a complex legacy, and his memory has been harnessed in different ways over time, by, for instance, FDR (and the Schlessingers, father and son) as much as by Trump.
That being said, at the present, Team Trump has moved decisively to embrace Jacksonianism as a way to describe their new politics. Jackson’s image, literally and figuratively, may give Trump’s supporters a symbol to rally behind, and shorthand by which to signal the hopes and expectations they have of a President who bucks the orthodoxies of both parties. It will likewise give his opponents, who’ve often been caught flatfooted trying to criticize a candidate/President they didn’t truly understand through the lens of traditional Republican conservatism, a better way to analyze him.
In honor of Jackson’s portrait-hanging, we at TAI thought we’d put together a brief reading list for those looking for more of a grounding. Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence is of course the place to go for the most in-depth treatment (particularly with regard to foreign affairs), but for those who do not have time to read a full book, here’s some of WRM’s latest article-length writing on the subject:
- “The Jacksonian Revolt” Foreign Affairs essay published on the day of the inauguration.
- “Donald Trump’s Jacksonian Revolt” a post-election essay in the WSJ that can be read as a companion piece to the Foreign Affairs essay.
- “Andrew Jackson, Revenant,” in TAI, almost exactly a year ago, is a good guide to President Obama’s relations with the Jacksonians in the latter years of his Presidency, and the growing divide between them that contributed mightily to the rise of Donald Trump.
- “The Jacksonian Tradition” in The National Interest — the 1999 essay that started it all.
Nicholas M. Gallagher has also written extensively on the Jacksonian phenomenon, both in these pages and elsewhere. (Gallagher was WRM’s research assistant from 2014-6, and thus is more than happy to give much of the credit to WRM, and accept that all of the flaws are his own):
- “Did Barack Obama See the Trump Moment Coming” in TAI—an election-day reflection on President Obama and the “Bitter Clingers” comments of 2008.
- “Donald Trump’s Jacksonian Voters” in National Review—a post-primary analysis of what went wrong
- “Immigration and the Political Explosion of 2016” in TAI—an exploration of the Jacksonian backlash that occurs when mass immigration has coincided with structural economic shifts in U.S. history.
Finally, there is Jason Willick’s astute post in TAI last week, “Is Trump an Ordinary Republican?” While it’s not explicitly a piece on Jacksonians, its broader thesis, that Trump and his political team seek a radical political realignment based on heretofore under-recognized populist ideas that throw both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans off-balance, is vital to remember (and so tempting, Willick argues, for both sides to forget.) It’s this sensibility that Bannon seeks to capture in calling Trump’s inaugural Jacksonian, rather than conservative, and it may be the same idea Trump seeks to signal in hanging Old Hickory’s portrait on his wall.
What a difference a year makes: Jackson has gone from being taken off the $20 to being put on the wall of the Oval Office. President Trump promised so much winning, we’d get tired of it. We wonder if there’s at least one cane-carrying, whiskey-drinking, duel-fighting ghost out there that thinks he’s delivered.