Donald Trump and the return of Andrew Jackson

Virtually everything about progressive politics today is about liquidating the Jacksonian influence in American life. From immigration policy, touted as ending the era when American whites were the population of the United States, to gun policy and to regulatory policy, President Obama and his coalition aim to crush what Jacksonians love, empower what they fear, and exalt what they hate…

What we are seeing in American politics today is a Jacksonian surge. It is not yet a revolution on the scale of Old Hickory’s movement that transformed American politics for a generation. Such a revolution may not be possible in today’s America, and in any case the current wave of Jacksonian activism and consciousness is still in an early and somewhat incoherent phase. In the past, moderate leaders on the center left and center right alike have found ways to capture Jacksonian energy. FDR was able to steal the demagogic energy of Huey Long; Richard Nixon marginalized George Wallace even as he responded to some of Wallace’s concerns about bussing and crime. (He did not, however, give way to Wallace on the core issue of racial equality.)

Donald Trump, for now, is serving as a kind of blank screen on which Jacksonians project their hopes. Proposing himself as a strong leader who ‘gets’ America but is above party, Trump appeals to Jacksonian ideas about leadership. Trump’s Jacksonian appeal has left the Republican Party in deep disarray, demonstrating the gulf between contemporary conservative ideology and Jacksonian nationalism. Indeed, one of the reasons that Trump hasn’t been hurt by attacks that highlight his lack of long term commitment to the boilerplate conservative agenda (either in the social or economic conservative variant) is that Jacksonian voters are less dogmatic and less conservative than some of their would-be political representatives care to acknowledge. Jacksonians like Social Security and Medicare much more than most Republican intellectuals, and they like immigration and free trade much less.