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Trump thinks he’s a populist like Andrew Jackson—but his approach to power couldn’t be more different

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History may repeat itself—but Trump's populism is a beast of its own.
Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

 

Andrew Jackson is suddenly in vogue again. His portrait hangs in the Oval Office, and members of the new administration have taken pains to draw connections between the populism that elected Donald Trump and the populism that elected Jackson US president in 1828. Jackson’s popularity is boosted in Trump circles as liberals have condemned him for decades, branding him a racist for his slaveholding, and a genocidal maniac for his Indian-removal policies. Elevating Jackson is, for the Trump faithful, another poke in the PC-police’s eye.

The Jackson-Trump comparison is worth considering, though it doesn’t work at all on the personal level. Jackson was born poor, had to struggle for everything he achieved, repeatedly demonstrated physical courage in military service for his country, spent years holding responsible civilian office, was a consummate gentleman to women, and considered his word to be his bond. Trump is, to put it kindly, rather different on each count.

But the comparison between the movement that elected Jackson and the one that elected Trump is instructive—just not in the way Team Trump envisions. Populism is by nature anti-establishment. It professes to speak on behalf of ordinary people and against established elites and institutions. But because those elites and institutions change over time, so do the anti-establishment movements.

To put the matter most bluntly, Jacksonian populism was anti-elitist and democratic, while Trumpian populism is anti-democratic and incipiently authoritarian.

The establishment in Jackson’s day was a pre-democratic system of elite preference. Since the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, presidents had chosen their successors by making them secretaries of state. Their choices were then ratified by a caucus of the Jeffersonian Republicans in Congress. The nominees were elected by slates of electors, who were mostly chosen by state legislatures. Thus Jefferson anointed James Madison, who anointed James Monroe, who anointed John Quincy Adams.

The system began eroding in the western US where new states, hoping to attract residents, expanded the franchise by eliminating property requirements for voting. Eastern states, to defend their populations, eventually followed suit. Meanwhile more states opted to let voters choose the presidential electors.

Consequently, by the time Andrew Jackson ran for president in 1824, nearly all adult white males could vote, and the people chose most presidential electors. In the 1824 election Jackson tallied the most popular votes and the most electors, but not a majority of either. The race was thrown to the House of Representatives, where the popular and electoral runner-up, John Quincy Adams, defeated Jackson in a vote brokered by House Speaker Henry Clay, who was duly appointed secretary of state by Adams.

The Jacksonians alleged a perversion of the popular will, and immediately launched their rematch campaign in the name of democracy. The election of 1828 was a rousing victory for Jackson and for the idea that in America the will of the people must prevail. Jackson was lauded as the “people’s president;” his supporters poured into Washington, at that time a small town, by the many thousands to celebrate the installment of their hero.

Jacksonian democracy became the touchstone of American politics. Candidates for president had to possess the common touch or effectively fake it. American democracy drew curious observers from Europe who sought to understand this novel phenomenon. Alexis de Tocqueville devoted two fat volumes to the subject. Democracy was the wave of the American future, and Andrew Jackson was its champion.

Trumpian populism emerged in a very different context. In 21st century America, democracy is the establishment, though it’s far from perfect. The electoral college still skews presidential voting in favor of small states, parties gerrymander when they can, and money favors incumbents. But the right to vote is essentially universal, and compared with the days of Jim Crow, for example, access to the polls is largely unhindered.

Voters complain of gridlock in Washington, but the gridlock has less to do with any frustration of the popular will than with Americans deep and almost even divide on central issues like taxes, abortion, health care and immigration. The problem for those dissatisfied with the status quo is not that government doesn’t represent the people; it is that government represents the people too well. The problem isn’t too little democracy; it is too much democracy.

Donald Trump cannot say this, of course. Democracy is sufficiently entrenched that none dare challenge it openly. But what Trump’s words and proposals reveal impatient desire to circumvent democracy. Before the election Trump declared he could only lose through voting fraud; now he alleges massive miscounting. If this is his response to an election he won, it’s easy to imagine his response to one he loses, say in 2020. At that time he would have all the presidential powers at his disposal to block a transition of power. When democracy fails in other countries, a first sign is often claims by the ruling regime that adverse election results were fraudulent. 

A second tendency of Trumpian populism is his self-declared war on the media. Anti-democratic authoritarian regimes typically claim unique access to truth, as when Trump deems unfavorable reporting “fake news.” Purveyors of dissenting opinions are denounced or worse. While Trump has not yet imprisoned dissenters, threats to imprison Hillary Clinton were a constant theme of his campaign. It would be a small step to claim the imperative of national security in the detention of dissenters on the president’s travel order.

A third trait that Trumpian populism shares with authoritarian regimes is eagerness to attack other government institutions. Trump’s denigration of America’s intelligence agencies and his swipe at the “so-called judge” who ordered a stay of his travel order fall into this category. More recently he threatened to “destroy” the career of a Texas state senator who differed with him on the seizure of alleged criminals’ assets.

A less glaring but perhaps more insidious manifestation of the same tendency is Trump’s seating of political adviser Stephen Bannon on the principals committee of the National Security Council. By statute and precedent, the NSC is supposed to be apolitical. In placing his incendiary consigliere at the table—while removing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence—Trump is grievously undermining such neutrality.

Another difference between the Jacksonian and Trumpian populisms involves attitudes toward the larger world. Populism often includes nationalism—but where American nationalism of the early 19th century was optimistic and outgoing, that of the early 21st century is fearful and shrinking. Jacksonian democracy segued into Manifest Destiny, the doctrine that God intended American democracy to overspread the North American continent. The concept was hell on the neighbors, as Mexico and numerous Indian tribes discovered. But it left untouched America’s openness to immigration and it reinforced America’s positive self-image.

Trumpian populism, by contrast, treats the world as a forbidding place filled with countries that constantly take advantage of the US. The Trumpian solution is to build walls, to reduce or terminate immigration, to withdraw from trade pacts and possibly alliances. What makes contrast with Jacksonian populism more striking is that 21st century America is far more powerful than 19th century America; Britain could have done much greater damage to the US then than al-Qaeda or ISIS can now. Yet the Jacksonians addressed the world with confidence rather than fear.

Given the differences between the populisms of then and now, can the former teach us anything about the latter? Yes, within limits.

First, populism has a shelf life in America. Americans are a restless people not easy to please, and charismatic candidates like Jackson and (in his different way) Trump can harness discontent that often lingers near the surface of American life. But sooner or later demands of daily existence distract the populists. The Jacksonians wearied of blaming the elites; they turned back to their plows and shops.

Second, the American economy has repeatedly proved its resilience. The Jackson phenomenon was triggered by the Panic of 1819. And much of Trump’s success owes to hangovers from 2008 and related recent economic dislocations. Other populist movements—of the 1890s and 1930s—reflected similar economic anxieties. In each prior economic crisis, prosperity returned and with it opportunity. As they did, the populist urge weakened. Why overthrow the status quo if the status quo is delivering the goods?

It’s not inconceivable that this time is different, that we’ve reached the end of America’s future. But such a dire fate has been predicted on numerous occasions in the past, and each time the doomsayers were wrong. If they are right this time, Donald Trump will be just one worry among many.

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