Opinion

The GOP's future is Jacksonian, but Tom Cotton is no Andrew Jackson

He has the vision, but he won't make it to the promised land

On March 15, 1982, Ronald Reagan paid an official visit to the state of Tennessee. Upon landing, the president traveled directly to The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's historic estate. After laying a wreath to commemorate the 225th anniversary of his predecessor's birth, Reagan delivered an address to a joint session of the state legislature. "In this time when we and our people are so severely tested," he told the audience, "it will help to remember the courage that President Jackson could summon from the convictions in his heart."

Last night, almost exactly 40 years later, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) appealed to Jackson in similar terms. Speaking at the Reagan Library in California, Cotton claimed Jackson as the guiding spirit of the GOP. Noting that former President Donald Trump also placed himself in Jackson's lineage, Cotton contended "that old Democrat" prefigures the Republican future. That may well be true, but it's far from clear Cotton himself will be able to get there.

His remarks were partly a campaign preview. Despite his ritual disclaimer of interest in the presidential election, Cotton is laying the basis for a possible run in 2024 if Trump doesn't compete. Content aside, the Reagan Library event illustrated some of the obstacles he'll face. Like his Senate counterpart Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Cotton looks and sounds like a precocious high school debater.  

The speech was more interesting, then, as an intellectual exercise than an electoral one. On one level, it was an act of synthesis. Rejecting the claim that Republicans must determine whether to follow the example of Reagan or Trump, Cotton asserted "a deeper continuity in the beliefs of our 40th and 45th presidents." The title of the lecture series, echoing Reagan's 1964 speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater, is a "Time for Choosing." But though the Republican Party is still fractured by Trump's legacy, Cotton argued no choice is necessary. 

Yet the speech was also an act of intentional division. On trade, criminal justice, and, above all, foreign policy, Cotton made his now-familiar case against libertarian influences in the GOP. Demanding a general revival of toughness, Cotton even ventured to criticize Trump: The First Step Act, which eased standards for release and lowered sentencing requirements for some categories of federal crime, was the worst mistake of his presidency, Cotton charged.

Even as Cotton nudged libertarians to the fringes of the Republican coalition, though, he also developed an implicit critique of so-called national conservatives, who promote a more active role for the federal government in economic affairs while sharing some of libertarians' objections to worldwide projection of American military power. Even as he denounced "globalism" for distracting from civic responsibility and the national interest, Cotton contended that a "new Iron Curtain threatens to fall" over Ukraine. The Cold War ended while he was in middle school, but Cotton remains a hawk who instinctively divides the world into opposed camps. 

Cotton wants to perform this 21st-century balancing act draped in the Jacksonian mantle. But can he?

Part of Jackson's appeal to generations of American politicians is that his long and colorful career includes something to please almost everyone. As Cotton noted, Abraham Lincoln was inspired by Jackson's staunch support for the Union. Theodore Roosevelt admired him as an independent executive who asserted his constitutional prerogatives against a recalcitrant Congress. FDR, who helped elevate Jackson to a status equal to Jefferson as a founder of the Democratic Party, characterized Jackson as a defender of "social justice." Lyndon Johnson cited him as an inspiration to the struggle for freedom everywhere in the world. These interpretations are not identical — and, in some ways, not even compatible. 

Jackson hardly lacks for critics, either. One reason Cotton framed the speech around "Old Hickory" is that he's among the once-revered figures whose stature has been undermined by accusations of racism in recent years. Those accusations are not unfounded. Personal opinions notwithstanding, Jackson was a large slaveowner, protagonist of Indian removal, and, in consequence, responsible for the successful spread of the plantation economy to Alabama, Mississippi, and other parts of what would become known as the Deep South. The paradox — of which Jackson is hardly the only symbol — is that policies and decisions which successfully extended democracy to many Americans denied its promise to others.    

More than specific deeds, though, Jackson stands for a distinctive political disposition. "Neither an ideology nor a self-conscious movement," historian Walter Russell Mead argues, Jacksonianism is characterized by suspicion of centralized government and its credentialed functionaries, impatience with formal institutions and corresponding admiration for strong leaders, and an opposition to taxation that doesn't prevent the enjoyment of federal benefits for those who are presumed to deserve them. Sometimes described as "folk libertarianism," it's a contradictory set of attitudes that makes less sense on paper than in practice. But that's exactly why it's so appealing to the large numbers of Americans who think of politics as an exercise in common sense rather than a challenge of philosophy.

Jacksonians, so understood, don't think about the rest of the world all that often. When they do, they're sympathetic to underdogs, jealous of national honor, and predisposed to seek decisive solutions in military force rather than protracted negotiation. As in domestic affairs, the results aren't always theoretically coherent. But they are predictable. While populist figures including Fox host Tucker Carlson and Trump himself have expressed sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a student of the Jacksonian tradition would have known that the Russian invasion of Ukraine would not go over well among Americans with these inclinations. 

Cotton didn't quote Mead in his remarks at the Reagan library, but he's known to be a student of the writer's work. His argument, in effect, is that the Republican future lies with witting or unwitting Jacksonians. Such voters might have supported Democrats in the past but are alienated by that party's association with the kind of highly-educated scolds whom Jackson promised to dethrone 200 years ago. 

The analogy isn't perfect, of course. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Jacksons' supporters were a clear majority of a newly expanded electorate, albeit one limited to white males. Today's Republicans often seem more interested in restricting voting than in attracting new supporters. Moreover, 19th-century Jacksonians were mostly favorable to immigration, partly because they saw it as a source of votes. Although Cotton paid appropriate tribute to immigrants' patriotism in his Reagan Library speech, he's been a leading advocate of restricting legal immigration and stepping up enforcement against unlawful residence.

In good Jacksonian fashion, though, these tensions may be more theoretical than practical. Although the Jacksonsian disposition is historically associated with the "backcountry" culture of Scots-Irish settlers, it's proved capable of assimilating generations of immigrants and their descendants — including millions who supported TR, FDR, and Jackson himself. Precisely because new Americans are enthusiastic about American ideals and institutions, moreover, they tend to be skeptical of the iconoclastic tendencies that have been turned against Jackson himself. 

The irony of Cotton's speech is that his ability to foresee the promised land may not earn him a place in it. Whatever the strength of his historical or political insights, he lacks the personal charisma Jackson's most successful heirs possessed to such an outstanding degree. Trump was able to forge an extraordinary connection with his supporters, but turned off even more Americans than he thrilled. That leaves Republicans still waiting for a new Jackson, a more broadly appealing leader who can turn widespread discontent into a governing coalition. Cotton isn't it.

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