At least since the primary season a year ago, Donald Trump has been compared to Andrew Jackson, perhaps the most important populist and white nationalist president in America’s history. The frontier-born, military hero, and war criminal Jackson may seem an inapt reference point for a citified son of wealth who avoided military service, but the theory and practice of Trumpism do evoke the Jacksonian brand of politics that has been part of American life since the 1820s.
In many respects, Andrew Jackson should rate as a Founding Father of this country. The signers of the Declaration and the Constitution had envisioned a politics without parties, managed by the “better sort.” Jackson cared not a whit for learning or the Enlightenment ideas that animated the likes of Jefferson and Franklin. Jackson was the product of fierce political party rivalry and an era when appeals to the popular will, not knowledge of French philosophy or high birth, were necessary given the extension of the franchise to white men who did not hold significant property.
That last fact is crucial, since when Jackson claimed to speak for ‘the people,’ he was really talking about common white men. As a man who fiercely defended and tried to expand the institution of chattel slavery, he was certainly was not talking about enslaved African-American men and women. As the man responsible for the removal of tens of thousands of Native Americans against their will in a brazen act of ethnic cleansing, he certainly did not include indigenous men and women in “the people.” He was so passionate about this ethnic cleansing that he defied a Supreme Court decision, Worcester v. Georgia, to do so. And unlike the Whigs, the Jacksonian Democrats did not encourage women to take part in political activities, preferring instead to maintain white men alone as the sole political actors in the nation. To help his version of “the people” Jackson would break the law and commit violence, the ends justifying the means. His political opponents had him censured in the Senate and they decried him as a new king, but Jackson never backed down, and his voters loved seeing his more educated and more urbane opponents gnashing their teeth in defeat.
Jacksonian democracy was essentially a philosophy that held that the great mass of common white men must be elevated at the expense of others. This meant protecting their ability to own slaves, using the military to clear the land for their settlements, and even fighting a war with Mexico, as Jackson’s closest imitator James Polk did, to clear more land for settlement. The flooding of Texas by Anglo Southerners was Jacksonianism in action. Once Texas declared its independence, many Tejanos, including those who had fought against Santa Anna, found their property taken by the invaders. Texas in fact established a homestead system, almost thirty years before the fabled Homestead Act, that gave free land to white settlers at the expense of Tejanos and native people. At the same time, when Jackson destroyed the Second Bank of the United States, the “pet banks” that received the expropriated money used it to speculate on cotton and slaves, injecting the institution of slavery with capital. This was not an anti-capitalist gesture, but a naked attempt by Jackson to ensure that the specific capitalists who were politically loyal to him turned a profit.
Once Jacksonian politics remade America in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, they remained a constant influence. The Confederacy’s aim to maintain slavery and a political order based on the primacy of white manhood certainly counts, as do efforts by more progressive politicians in the 20th century. Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s 1945 Age Of Jackson, once the primary account of the era, portrayed Old Hickory as a kind of nineteenth-century FDR. (Fitting with the attitudes of the time, Schlesinger spends less than a page on Indian Removal.) While FDR did more to better the lives of ordinary Americans, it was common white men, the “forgotten man,” who were given the highest priority (though this was more a matter of the times than a characteristic specific to FDR). New Deal jobs were focused on getting men—not women—employment, and Southern Democrats were able to keep the minimum wage and social security from applying to domestic and farm workers, who happened to make up a majority of African-American workers in the South. The massive federal investments in housing and interstates that made postwar suburbanization possible were a new, automotive white settlement project.
The anti-elitism of Jacksonian politics has maybe been its most durable element. When Jackson’s supporters descended on the White House for his inauguration, dirtying its floors with their muddy boots and tobacco juice, they exalted in the horror that it caused the well-to-do. Jackson’s illegally premature destruction of the Second Bank of the United States was also couched in anti-elitist terms. Then, as now, it was a cultural elite than an economic elite that was targeted. Donald Trump is a billionaire filling his cabinet with fellow billionaires, just as Jackson owned a large plantation and several human beings. Twentieth-century reactionaries from McCarthy to Nixon to Gingrich have used the bugbear of the effete liberal to paint their enemies as elitist even while themselves doing favors for the wealthy. Attacking the cultural elite has been one of the most effective political tools that modern day conservatives can wield, and Trump often wields it capably.
This is as good an example as any of how Trump, while being very much unlike Jackson, follows in his political wake, as do a great number of modern conservatives. And like many presidents before him, Trump has explicitly tried to claim the mantle of Old Hickory. Trump recently said that he was reading Jon Meacham’s over-flattering biography of Jackson, and he also took a trip to Jackson’s plantation, the Hermitage, to pay his respects to the man he called “the people’s president” on the 250th anniversary of his birth. However, a few days later at a rally in Kentucky, Trump compared himself to native son Henry Clay, Jackson’s most bitter rival. Needless to say, the Trump presidency’s efforts to create a usable past are not coherent.
Trump’s entire message has been one of resentment: against people of color, against “elites,” against immigrants, against Muslims, against the cities and the people who live in them. He, like prior Jacksonians, panders to an ideology of white nationalism. The limitations to immigration are probably at base an attempt to maintain the United States as a white majority nation. Just as Native Americans were forced across the Missouri, Trump wants immigrants tossed behind a wall.
While Jacksonians usually preach “small government,” they really articulate a certain role for government, one that Trump also follows. While Trump has designs on gutting the social state, he is looking to spend massive amounts of money on the military and immigration control. He has vowed to maintain entitlements like Social Security and Medicare that primarily benefit the white middle class.
The Jacksonians of old fostered an extractive economy, of farmers and planters exhausting the soil of nutrients then moving on, further west. This was of course after the military had cleared the land of its native population so whites could move in. One can see the same approach in the Trump presidency, where oil and coal are promoted while environmental regulations are slashed, and elitist scientists who warn of climate change are mocked and stripped of funding.
That limited notion of freedom has long been an article of faith in the conservative movement. The marriage of Trump and the Republican Party has resulted in the kind of crass cronyism that Jackson exemplified in his treatment of the politically loyal “pet banks”. But while Jackson made some moves against concentrated financial power, Trump has made his White House a branch office of Goldman Sachs. Whereas LBJ could hang a portrait of Jackson in his Oval Office while still pushing civil rights legislation, Trump has fully embraced the white nationalism and racial resentments of Jacksonianism.
Today’s liberals resisting the Trumpist onslaught can actually learn a bit from those who stood against Jackson over 180 years ago. After Jackson’s consigliore Martin Van Buren followed him to the White House in 1836, the Whigs managed to unseat Van Buren in the 1840 election, only the second time that a sitting president had failed to win re-election. They did so with the so-called “log cabin campaign” of William Henry Harrison, another military hero, who was portrayed as a homespun man living in a log cabin slinging back hard cider. Martin Van Buren, nicknamed “Martin Van Ruin” due to the economic downturn of the Panic of 1837, was assailed for his expensive tastes and refined lifestyle. These narratives had little to do with the affluent Harrison’s actual life, and were not entirely fair to Van Buren, but showed that the Whigs had learned to win by playing by the new rules of the game.
This was not mere theatrics, though. The Whigs managed to win by making their own kind of populism, but one grounded in a different philosophy. They advocated a more activist government that would build up infrastructure and provide the means to allow individual social advancement. That philosophy was carried over into the Republicans, the political descendants of northern Whigs. The early Republicans, especially former Whig Abraham Lincoln, supported measures such as land grant universities that would bring higher learning to a broader range of people. They were also anti-slavery and supportive of greater participation by women in public life, though unfortunately “the people” for them too referred to white men.
The notion that government could be used as a mechanism to improve the lives of ordinary Americans first articulated by the Whigs was put to use in the 20th century through the progressive reformers, New Deal, and Great Society. Like Jacksonianism, that political tradition also continues to make a great mark to this very day.
It is a tradition that liberals need to get back in touch with, and one that should force them to articulate their own brand of counter-populism, much as the “log cabin campaign” did. The fact that so many Americans in “red” territories are so adamant about protecting the Affordable Care Act should be an encouraging sign. They understand how an activist government can help them, and do not want to lose that help.
Just as Trump and the right wing have promoted a narrow definition of national identity, liberals must articulate their own inclusive one. If the right is to stand for white nationalism, liberals must stand explicitly for an inclusive nation where everyone, regardless of race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity is included and protected. Just as modern Jacksonians have attacked environmental protection in the name of an extractive economic model that will supposedly shower prosperity on the people, liberals need to frame environmental protection as a people’s issue taken up to protect communities from harm as well as ensure access to the natural world isn’t an exclusive privilege of the powerful. Just as the right has tried to apply free-market strictures to health insurance irrespective of the lack of adequate health coverage this entails for the poor, liberals need to boldly promote their vision of an inclusive America where all are protected by supporting true universal health insurance through a single-payer plan or something comparable.
Liberals should not let themselves be saddled with the “big government” tag, but to promote an idea of “people’s government,” where “people” is inclusively understood. This means reducing budgets for prisons—which disproportionately house marginalized groups—and increasing budgets for schools and evidence-based educational programs. This means reforming police departments to ensure racial and social justice. This means less money for bombs and more money for infrastructure. After all, the military and criminal justice system are two of the most bloated “big government” institutions in America.
As the 2016 election showed, merely trying to sit back and watch Trump and his allies destroy themselves will not work. Last year’s electoral failures also show the dangers of a liberalism that fails to listen to the needs of its constituents. The time for policy wonkery and third way-ism is over. Liberals need to actively fight and to provide voters with a clear vision and values to counter the ones they are hearing from the modern Jacksonians. If not, the modern Jacksonianism will never face a reckoning, and we cannot afford to let that happen.
Featured image is Battle of New Orleans, by Dennis Malone Carter.