Want to understand the appeal of America's president? It's time to study up on Tammany Hall.
Is President Trump a populist or a plutocrat? It's one of his core contradictions — he styles himself as a man of the people, yet he's a billionaire who surrounds himself with wealthy titans of finance. He campaigned as an advocate of the working class, yet his economic policies benefit the rich vastly more than his poor and rural supporters. But somehow, despite these obvious contradictions, his popularity among his November voters remains remarkably high, around 93 percent.
How can this be?
I find it helpful to think of America's president as a Tammany Hall boss. Let's call him Boss Trump.
The Society of St. Tammany was a democratic political machine that served working-class immigrant voters, especially the Irish, and dominated New York City politics from the 1780s till the 1960s. Its leaders rewarded loyal voters with political appointments and financial perks. Tammany Hall was hopelessly corrupt. Everyone knew it. But Tammany Hall also claimed to look out for the little guy — and often succeeded.
George Washington Plunkitt, leader of the Fifteenth Assembly District in the early 20th century, was the most verbose Tammany Hall leader. He was a man, writes Peter Quinn, "more given to soliloquies than conversations." He was politically incorrect "in every sense," and made "little or no attempt to censor himself, even when it comes to offense and despicable racial and ethnic epithets."
Plunkitt also perfected the Trumpian art of dabbling in various business ventures — everything from transportation to contracting to real estate. His business acumen led him to indulge in what he called "honest graft": using insider political knowledge for personal profit.
You might argue that Plunkitt was simply pulling the wool over his constituents' eyes — claiming to be their savior while engaging in all sorts of sleazy self-enrichment. But there was more to it than that. As Quinn writes, "The people weren't fools, at least, as Lincoln framed it, not all of the time. They heard and saw enough to know what Tammany was up to. On occasion their patience was exhausted and they voted to throw the rascals out. But they perceived in Tammany an institution that, if sometimes insincere, was never condescending in the way many middle-class and upper-class reformers were."
This same dynamic is true of Trump. Is he a hypocrite? Yes, sure. Is he trying to profit off the presidency? It sure seems like it. Does he have any core convictions beyond the stroking of his own ego, polishing of his own gilded persona, and padding of his already fat bank account? Probably not.
But just like Plunkitt and the other Tammany bosses, Trump makes his supporters feel heard and seen. Trump remembers the forgotten man, and promises to do battle with the elite establishment on his behalf. Unsurprisingly, working-class and rural voters love him for it.
What's more, Trump voters and Plunkitt's constituents share a comfort with inconsistency. Trump's most fervent supporters don't see him as a hypocrite, so long as he still takes care of them (or at least promises to). If he does that, they don't mind if he pads his pockets and rewards his friends (or family) at the same time.
The bulk of Tammany Hall's supporters were Irish immigrants. Many of them were "uneducated and unskilled" folks from rural, agricultural communities. They harbored a deep resentment toward the wealthy classes that monopolized power and wealth in their homeland; many of them also felt a bitterness borne out of the famine. In this state of mind, they arrived in New York, where they confronted new racism and unkindness from the city's middle and elite classes.
Into the midst of this rancor, Plunkitt and his cohort stepped in to make amends. "The men who ran Tammany commanded the loyalty of their followers because of their power to overcome the enemy at the polls and to disburse the fruits — or spoils — of their electoral victories," writes Quinn.
Trump has similarly promised the disillusioned blue-collar worker that he will get him a job, a working economy, and an America that is "great again." Amid widespread depression and a burgeoning opioid crisis, he promises to set things right. He hasn't delivered yet, but the appeal of these promises ought to be obvious.
Like Trump, Plunkitt and his Tammany Hall peers were not idealists. There was no "Tammany Hall Doctrine." As Quinn writes, "They never claimed they had some master plan for socioeconomic reform, and they undoubtedly intuited that the American system looked far more benignly on corruption than radicalism." (Perhaps this is why Trump is president, and not Bernie Sanders.)
Plunkitt's talent for simple persuasion and voter connection gave him a deeply loyal following — much like Trump's candid (and often cringe-worthy) Twitter updates have helped build his. His accessibility and simple language have helped foster voters' perception of Trump as "one of us," despite his wealth. Like Plunkitt, Trump knows how to make his base happy: "For all its excesses, for all its thievery and knavery, Tammany afforded the poor what the rich and well-off had denied them throughout history: respect."
Many look back on Plunkitt with an air of slightly bemused, slightly horrified admiration. He was corrupt, but he was honest about it. And he did indeed care for his constituents.
It's unlikely that Trump will earn the same sort of begrudging respect from his critics. This is, most importantly, because the scale of his Tammany Hall politics is much too large: Cronyism tinged with compassion is amusing, perhaps, on a community scale. But it becomes dangerous on a national and global scale.
But whatever else you may say of Trump, one thing is certain: Just like the Tammany Hall bosses of old, he's seen his opportunities, and he took 'em.