What Andrew Jackson can teach us about Trump's overthrow of conservatism
How Trump's overthrow of conservatism mirrors Jackson's demolition of the Adams tradition in American politics
President Trump rather fittingly chose a portrait of Andrew Jackson to hang in his Oval Office. It is not just the strange shock of hair that creates the affinity. Trump's house ideologue, Stephen Bannon, constantly invokes Jackson's populist example, hailing the way he smashed Washington's institutions in the name of the common man — so long as he was white.
In a way, the noisy invocation of Jackson is actually an implicit rebuke to Trump's progressive opponents who fill social media with hashtags like #thisisnotnormal. Perhaps this actually is normal. Perhaps we have actually been here before.
There are obvious parallels between Jackson and Trump. Trump has retired the Romney, Bush, and Clinton dynasties in the way that Jackson ended the grip of the Adams family, the original coastal establishment, over American life.
Trump's election overthrows or dramatically revises what we all took to be conservatism. Jackson did something similar. While his predecessor John Quincy Adams does not strike everyone as a conservative — Fred Kaplan's recent Adams biography praises him in terms that make him almost a forerunner of Barack Obama — his disputes with social reformer Jeremy Bentham, his gradualism, and his concern for refining the genteel character of the nation's future elite rhyme with the conservative ambitions in 19th century politics. They also made Adams an easy "low-energy" mark for Jackson's populist ire.
Trump's most vociferous critics allege that he is like Jackson in the way he pursues the policies of white supremacy. In Trump's determination to expel illegal immigrants, critics see an echo of Jackson's removal of Native Americans from their lands in Georgia and elsewhere to clear them for white resettlement. In his travel ban and his crude remarks about Islam — remember Trump sharing that story of pig's blood and bullets? — they see him invoking the brand of bigotry that Jackson mastered as he strengthened the position of slavery in the Union.
Jackson's White House also included all-consuming social and political feuds, much as Trump's does today. Jackson detested Washington society, and especially the way the wives of his Cabinet members shunned Secretary of War John Eaton's wife as sexually notorious. The infighting among Jackson's Cabinet over this issue was epic, and consumed much of Jackson's first year in office. Eaton himself issued two dueling challenges to other Cabinet members. Even if they do not come to physical blows, look for the fights between the members of the Republican old guard, like Reince Priebus, and Bannon to consume presidential attention. Similarly, Trump's determination to see his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner become power players in D.C. will create social friction.
Jackson's presidency was partly swallowed by his feud with the national bank. Trump has already abandoned his earlier populist attacks on hedge funds and other Wall Streeters. But we are already seeing signs that Bannon will goad Trump into an all-out war with other institutions: namely, his own intelligence agencies and the media that covers the White House.
Of course, the politics do not always line up between Trump and Jackson. Jackson who was an opponent of federal-led "internal" improvements. But Trump, like Adams, wants to see the federal government build massive new infrastructure projects.
On foreign policy, sometimes Trump allies himself to the idea of husbanding America's strength, like Adams' defense of the Monroe Doctrine. At other times, Trump echoes Jackson, relishing the cruelty he wishes to see visited on those who trespass America's honor.
John Quincy Adams, in a personal letter to his friend Charles Upham, contemplated the legacy of Jacksonianism as it would be embodied in Jackson's successor Martin Van Buren:
The American union, as a moral person in the family of nations, is to live from hand to mouth, to cast away, instead of using for the improvement of its own condition, the bounties of providence, and to raise to the summit of power a succession of presidents the consummation of whose glory will be to growl and snarl with impotent fury against a money broker's shop, to rivet into perpetuity the clanking chain of the cave, and to waste in boundless bribery to the west the invaluable inheritance of the public lands. [John Quincy Adams]
Adams was partly right. But he could not foresee that Jackson would be valorized so deep into the future. And not just by populists, but even by 20th century academic liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, whose telling of the age of Jackson was one of great democratic fulfillment. All the focus for Schlesinger fell on the way Jacksonianism trampled the power of the establishment. That the demotic force unleashed by Jacksonian democracy and universal manhood suffrage actually worsened the position of Native Americans and slaves barely merits mention.
This may be the lesson of both the Jackson and Trump administrations — that giving power to the people is a great prelude to seeing them exercise it maliciously against one another.