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28 February, 2016

Trump is Not the New Hitler—He is the New Andrew Jackson.



"Pegausus," Those Do Not remember the Past Are Doomed to Repeat It (2016)

Image Source: Sam Hayson, "British Street Artist Compares Trump With Hitler," Mashable (22 Feb 2016).

A Note to Readers: I wrote the body of this post several days ago on a Facebook note. Several of those who read it there have urged me to repost it here. I have added the images at the top and bottom of this piece--whose parallels are revealing in and of themselves--and a short bibliography for those wanting to learn more about the Jacksonian tradition in the American politics. Readers are encouraged to post their own favorite books on the period, if they so desire. --T.G.


Let's talk Trump and historical analogies for a bit.

A lot of people--and I have seen several just today--are writings clever jokes on their facebook feed with punchlines like: "Mein Trumpf.” The idea is not new. For months now people have been writing that Trump is fascism personified, an Adolf Hitler for America.
This idea is silly. You all know I hate Trump. Not all of you have been following me all these months, but I have been pretty loud about how much I destest the man. The anti-Trump fever pitch once grew so hot on this page that two Trump supporters defriended me in response to the Facebook Phillipics I wrote against him (this was in December, when he declared war on religious liberty). I will not vote for a loathsome character like him. 
But the comparison with Hitler is analytically sloppy. Yes, I know that Hitler=EVIL is an equation we all agree on, and I also realize that if you can link Trump to Hitler then Trump is evil too. I get. We all get it. But it is still silly. If you are raising the comparison to rally the troops and mobilize your political tribe then, fine, that's acceptable, in politics you say and do what you need to say and do for success. But if you are actually trying to understand Trump, his appeal, and his likely impact on our republic, then this analogy distorts far more than it reveals.

In truth, we do not need to look to foreign climes to understand Trumpism. Donald Trump is not America's Hitler. Donald Trump is the 21st century's Andrew Jackson.
 
Like Trump, Andrew Jackson ran for office at a time when an entrenched political aristocracy had controlled the American political system for decades.

Like Trump, Jackson's supporters had lost their faith in this system and felt utterly isolated from its ruling class.

As with Trump, Jackson was a fantastically well off in comparison to the average American, but still a considered a complete outsider in elite circles because he was crass, rude, vulgar, and stupid--in other words, a joke, someone not to be taken seriously until it was too late.
 
Like Trump, Jackson's success was built upon getting the people who the existing system excluded or ignored engaged in politics in a way they had not been their entire lives. In both cases these people tended to be less educated, not too well off, and of Scots-Irish descent.

Like Trump, Jackson was a nativist, a nationalist, and fairly racist. Both are in essence majoritarians, meaning that their main policy aim was to materially improve the livelihoods and liberties of the majority demographic, even if that comes at the expense of other groups.
 
Like Trump, Jackson used these voters to hijack a party coalition traditionally associated with limited government; like Trump, Jackson paid lip service to this philosophy (and sometimes, as with the banks, acted on his words) but possessed a temperament that put him at odds with it. 
Like Trump, Jackson did not have a firm grasp of all the issues at hand on the campaign trail (compared to his opponents, who were quite wonkish), and had a pronounced tendency to personalize all political disputes.

Like Trump, this was one of his greatest selling points with the public: Jackson was someone who spoke as a common man did while being greater than any common man was. He “told it like it is.” Both understood the media technology and news cycles of their time, and took advantage of them in novel ways to “tell it like it is” to far more people than his opponents thoughts possible. You could say that Jackson, like Trump, pioneered a new style of campaigning. By doing so he quickly learned how to outmaneuver his political opponents into oblivion.
 
Like Trump, attacks that came against Jackson in response only seemed to make him stronger, and like Trump, most of these attacks were focused less on his ideas--which were always rather nebulously defined on the campaign trail, painted in broad strokes, so to speak--than against his character, especially his (or his family's) alleged lechery, gaudiness, stupidity, or savagery.

I could go on, but you get the point.

The comparison is instructive because it gives us some insight into what a Trump presidency might look like. If Trump wins--indeed, even if he loses--his candidacy will likely change the face and demographic composition of the Republican party for a generation. Like Jackson, he'll be dependent on well connected wheelers and dealers who can catch his mood or vision and transform it into political realities (ala Van Buren). He will act as a demagogue, but be reasonably effective at what he does, and may leave an institutional legacy that lasts decades. Jackson was called a monarch; Trump would be called a fascist, though neither antebellum America or its modern descendant have necessary the political machinery for either man to set up the kind of dictatorship their critics claim(ed) they wish(ed) to establish
In other words, the republic will survive. Some parts of it might even do better than they would do otherwise, because Trump will introduce the kind of shock to the system that will force existing good boys networks to collapse, and prompt each party to change the ideas on the table. Abraham Lincoln detested Jackson. But Lincoln would not have been possible if Jackson had first established the foil Lincoln's cohort would define themselves against. 
An important fact to remember though all this: we do not live in the 1830s. In some ways that is a good thing--a very good thing! No second Trail of Tears is possible in Trumps’ America. In other ways we are ill prepared for the second coming of Andrew Jackson. We sometimes call his day "the age of Jackson," but really it was just as much the age of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster. Even with imperial Andrew Jackson at the fore, the center of Washington politics was the Senate. The executive branch had little power in comparison to its present incarnation, and federal bureaucracy (to say nothing of international surveillance networks) was practically non-existent. At that time the townships, counties, and state governments were really more important to the daily life of the average man than anything decided in Washington was. This is no longer true. Our government is over bloated and dangerously unbalanced. The only two candidates who ever showed any awareness of this institutional decay (Jim Webb and Rand Paul) have long been forced out of this election. Trump will only make this situation worse.

America was also not a super-power whose nuclear deterrent and forward deployed forces undergird the global order. The challenges Jackson faced abroad are far removed from our own. It is hard to tell what Jackson would have made of NATO or the war in Syria. I think many people will be surprised to find what Trump thinks of these things--surprised to discover that Clinton has a much tougher line on China than he does, and that in contrast, he is much more hostile towards Israel than she ever has been. But my mind keeps coming back to East Asia, and our unequal alliances with South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Trump has stated that he wants to dismantle them, or change their nature entirely. Will he? What will the consequences of that be in near and short terms? It is hard to say. Andrew Jackson offers little guidance here.


Anon, "King Andrew the First" (1832)

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTE

For those unfamiliar with Jacksonian America and its politics, I recommend Harry Watson's Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America as the best introduction to the period. Lawrence Kohl's The Politics of Individualism: Parties and American Character in the Jacksonian Era is another book that has deeply influenced my view of the antebellum republic. For a more comprehensive overview, I recommend Walker Daniel Howe's What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, which is, for what is worth, one of the best histories of any period I have ever read. A common theme that runs through all three books is that the Democratic mobilization of the masses was only possible because the vast economic and social changes of the time had changed the nature of American society in less than a generation's time, and the Democratic contingent was left adrift in this sea of change. Their political methods were modern, but their politics were reactionary, for their voters felt like incredibly insecure in this new America, where the old social rules no longer applied and the boons of economic growth always seemed to be going to someone else. Here to an analogy with Trump may be made, though I did not make it originally because this interpretation of Jacksonian politics is a controversial one in historical circles. 

The Jacksonian impulse has been a part of American politics since before the founding of the American republic, and absent secession or genocide, will be with it long into its future. David Hackett Fisher's Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America is a book anyone who wants to understand American history or modern society must read, and covers the the origins of this culture well. Walter Russel Mead tracks this strand of thought over the course of America's two centuries of foreign relations in Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World. I am unaware of any book that tracks the Jacksonian impulse throughout the history of America's domestic politics, but from what I have been told about Colin Woodward's American NationsWoodward might have done the job right.  

I have written many posts comparing and contrasting the political system and civic society of 19th century America with the present. Some highlights include:


 "Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream"
 T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 1 July 2014.

"Despots Near and Despots Far" 
 T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 16 February 2014.

T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 7 October 1015.

T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 16 September 2015.

"The Rule of Law and the Ruling Class in American History"
 T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 14 March 2013.

"Shakespeare in American Politics"
 T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 30 September 2015

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

"...these people tended to be less educated, not too well off, and of Scots-Irish descent."

Only this time that demographic isn't big enough to win a national election...I hope.

The Goat said...

There are a few glaring differences between the two. Before he became president, Jackson actually had experience in government having served in both the House and Senate and as military governor of Florida. He also developed leadership skills in a famous military career. His constituents adored him for his adherence to principles and his character, developed over a long life of hardship.

Trump, on the other hand, has no political leadership experience and somehow managed to avoid the Vietnam war. Trump's signature achievement seems to be that he took a large fortune and, over several decades, made it slightly larger before starring in his own reality TV show.

Anonymous said...

I just read the article on the US failing at regional acumen. The current lack of understanding, or perhaps refusal to understand, the regional subtleties and intricacies that foreign policy needs a grasp on, is already bad enough with American foreign policy appearing to be a gigantic, continuing disaster (to me at least). This will only be brought to a whole new level if Trump became president. Past and present governments have attempted to be smart when dealing with foreign policy (I would like to think so). Trump's whole show is about appealing to the impulses of the majority, so one can imagine how harmless the current foreign policy disaster will seem once Trump starts calling the shots.

Obama is right. Trump is a reality TV celebrity, not president material by a long shot. The current world is very different from the world 200 years ago. America's position in the world is not the same as 200 years ago. A Trump presidency won't be as simple as leaving a legacy of evolved political landscape. The world can't afford to take a chance with a loose cannon in the White House.

Peter T said...

"Our government is over bloated and dangerously unbalanced". In comparison with other developed countries, the US appears under-governed and uncoordinated - states and counties doing their own thing, competing centres of policy in Washington, major programs a spaghetti tangle of different jurisdictions and policies refereed by a highly partisan judiciary. Sadly for the Ron Pauls of this world, it is solidly established that you can't run a developed economy without a large state sector (health, education, utilities, transport and communication networks...), and the multiple US state sectors are a mess. But I have no confidence that Trump, or anyone else, will even try to fix it. The overall approach veers between patchwork (Obamacare!) and looting (education loans!).

Richard said...

Don't be so sure that a new Trail of Tears isn't possible. If Trump becomes President, his treatment of (mostly Hispanic) illegal immigrants may well be seen to be as horrific as the Trail of Tears by our descendents.

It is true that the Backcountry and Southern populatios that formed the core of Jackson's and Trump's power base is a fraction of the voter base of 2 centuries ago, though. Us, women get the vote now, so Trump is less likely to become President.