Donald Trump and Jacksonian America

Call Donald Trump’s victory the revenge of Old Hickory.  The triumph of the little guy over the elites.  The rural farmer over the multi-billion dollar conglomerates that send lobbyists to occupy the halls of the nation’s Capitol.  The one thing you cannot say is that Donald Trump does not owe his victory to Old Hickory.

Let’s dispense with some themes right now.  No, it is not fascist to call for “total allegiance” to America.  It is not fascist to say that some rights do not supersede others.  It is not fascist to argue America should practice an “America First” policy.  You know what it is?  It is Jacksonian.  To understand why we need to look at the history of the Jacksonian movement.

Old Hickory Himself

Andrew Jackson rose to power in a fashion very, very similar to Trump.  It’s no wonder they shared the same electoral coalition across generations (more on that later).  In fact, across generations, the issues most important to many in the nation were similar.

At the heart of Jackson’s appeal was a nationalistic plea to pride and country.  A former soldier, Jackson was first elected to the US House before winning election to the Senate to represent rural Tennessee.  Divided by geographic lines with fluctuating political parties (Whigs were in decline and neither modern Democrats or Republicans had yet to emerge), Jackson ran in 1824.  Unsurprisingly, Jackson’s strongest support came from rural Tennessee but also the modern deep South.

Running against entrenched interests and an American foreign policy seemingly based on helping everybody but the little guy, Jackson actually won a plurality electoral college and popular vote.  However,  due to the fact that no candidate had won a majority of the Electoral College, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives run by Henry Clay (who also ran in 1824).  Clay, who vehemently opposed Jackson’s positions on trade and tariffs, swung 13 state delegations to back Quincy Adams, enough to give him the Presidency.

Following this setback, Andrew Jackson would effectively unite various geographic Southern interests into the modern Democratic Party.  In his election in 1828, Jackson won every Southern state at the time except for Maryland.  Jackson would win reelection in 1832 with a resounding majority.

Though Jackson is credited with founding the modern Democratic Party he very much was a conservative Democrat.  His calls for decentralization of the economy were paired with government action such as supporting subsidies for small farmers.  When the National Bank’s charter was up in 1832, Jackson killed it and won reelection for it.  The Bank, perhaps like big banks today, had become seen as an institution only benefiting the wealthy and the elites.

The Jacksonian Coalition

Jackson’s coalition would outlive its President.  The same voters helped elect Martin Van Buuren and remained loyal to the party for over a century at the state and local level.  It was only in 1968, when Richard Nixon instituted his so-called “Southern Strategy,” did Jacksonian loyalties start to waver.

So what exactly defined Jackson’s coalition?  Obviously, it was heavily Southern, but it also took in rural Pennsylvania, Southern Ohio, and parts of Indiana.  At the time these places economies were heavily based on agriculture and to some degree still are today.

Secondly, these areas and their residents were removed from the seat of political power.  Much as geographical and class divisions exist today so did they in the 1820’s.  Jacksonians wanted to be left alone but they also wanted to receive assistance from the government they swore loyalty to.

Thirdly, these voters were fiercely patriotic.  I know everybody defines patriotism differently but by this I mean that a large portion of the country’ military did, and does today, hail from these areas.  When wars were fought the goal was victory at any cost.

Another attribute that defined Jacksonian America was its lack of partisanship.  While states swung back and forth until 1968 it stayed solidly blue (except for a few elections in the Reconstruction Era).  This, of course, was aided by smart politicians like Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Harry Truman realizing they could win these voters over by having the government support their interests.  For example, even as FDR and Truman pushed through desegregation in the army, they also created dozens of job-creating government agencies and programs.  Some still stand today.  Roads, bridges, subsidies for crops, were all supported by the government.  Jacksonians took it as a sign of the government looking out for them.

Jacksonian America Changes Its Tune

Starting in 2000, something extraordinary occurred that is an afterthought today.  West Virginia, a state that had not voted for a Republican since the Civil War, supported Texan George Bush over fellow Southern and Tennessean Al Gore.  All across the region, known today as Appalachia, counties that had supported Bill Clinton switched to Al Gore.

It’s tempting to argue that Gore won the popular vote.  That he was tainted by Clinton.  That he ran a piss-poor campaign.  All those could be true.  But, for the first time in modern history, a Southern Democratic Presidential nominee had not won a single Southern state in a presidential election.

Analysts of course miss this distinction.  They tend to look more at 2004 and Bush’s bigger victory against John Kerry.  They then focus on Obama’s election and the region’s run to the right.  But, all miss the mark.

If one looks at Jacksonian America’s politics in the modern era a constant theme stands out.  When they perceive their rights being trampled on, they respond.  It is illustrative to examine some of these examples.

  1. Civil Rights: Richard Nixon won reelection in 1972 due to a booming economy but also Southern support.  Southern Democrats, many who had supported George Wallace in 1968, were incensed their party was cramming law after law down their throats enticing them to end segregation.  Nixon did not promise to repeal these laws but he also promised not to create more of them.  George McGovern, a precursor of the modern Democratic Party, promised much, much more.  He lost in the worst landslide since the dawn of the 20th century.
  2. The GOP Revolution of 1994: While the South and much of Jacksonian America had supported Nixon, Reagan and HW for President they remained stubbornly loyal to their local representatives.  That is until 1994, when Democratic leadership was embroiled in scandal in the House, the party tried to push HillaryCare and a ban on automatic weapons were passed.  Revitalized through new leadership, Congressional Republicans hit on these themes and won resounding victories.  Especially in a region once so inhospitable to them down-ballot.
  3. Obama’s Midterm Doldrums: Fresh off a resounding victory in 2008, Barack Obama passed the Stimulus Package, Healthcare Reform, tried to pass Cap and Trade, instituted hundreds of new rules and regulations and, most importantly, attacked the culture of Jacksonian America.  Starting with his 2008 campaign comment, “They cling to their guns and their religion,” the President compounded it with the infamous beer summit.  Scandals such as Fast and Furious plagued his administration.  In the past, Southern Democrats were able to moderate or kill liberal legislation that was left of their districts but this time they went along to get along in the name of allowing the President to rack up policy victories.  The result was a wipe out of historic proportions.

Of course, the signs of this shift could have been noted well before 2000.  Nixon, Reagan and HW all exploited cleavages in Jacksonian America’s loyalty to their party.  Additionally, starting in the 70’s, Democrats began to run away from the populist policies of their party ancestors and adopt neo-liberal economic ideas and values.  Clinton, after 1994, reoriented his party back away from these neo-liberal, better known as cosmopolitan, values but every Democrat since has run on them.  Jacksonian America responded.

Trump and Jacksonian America

Enter Donald Trump.  The thrice married candidate was taken as a laughing stock in the GOP primary (right up until he led in the polls) because party elites convinced themselves that the electoral changes wrought since the 21st century were based on voters jumping on the free-market, pro-life bandwagon.  Talk to voters in Tennessee, Northern Mississippi or rural Pennsylvania (which neither the party nor media did) and you would have gotten a different picture.

Trump certainly struggled with the traditional pro-life, solid GOP voter, as evidenced by his loss in Iowa.  But move beyond that to secular New Hampshire, split South Carolina and the rest of the South and his appeal was real.

Just like Jackson, Trump’s appeal had nothing to do with him.  It had to do with the times.  Government, once looking out for the people, was being wielding to implement sweeping social and economic change.  Urban America had the power and its values were instilled in government to the detriment of rural (ie. Jacksonian) America.  Thus, when Ted Cruz only won TX and Oklahoma on Super Tuesday the media was shocked.  Even until Indiana there was a belief that he could be stopped.

Look at any pre-election poll and you will see that Trump resonated in not just Jacksonian but rural America.  He often ran 50 points ahead of Clinton in small towns and rural areas of swing states.

Now, the common assumption was that Trump’s appeal to voters was too narrow.  He never would be able to get rural America to turn out in force to drown out Detroit, Philly, Miami, Cleveland, etc.  Case in point.  Despite his massive leads in rural Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, not a single pre-election poll since July showed him leading in any of the three.  His leads in Northern Florida and Western North Carolina often netted him nothing better than a tie.

But, Trump recognized something all of us missed (myself included).  Our politics had changed.  Trump did not run in the primary as a traditional Republican and he certainly did not in the general as well.  Many of the common attack themes against him were cultural but not economic (unlike 08 and 12).  The debate over economics and policy had turned to one of class and nationalism.

The same thing was missed when Jackson created a new political party in 1828.  Social and economic change had created a divide among the parties that could be filled by something new.  A candidate who put America first, saw a distinction between just cutting government and cutting burdensome regulations and somebody who was not beholden to the powers that be.  Jackson represented that in 1824 and Trump did in 2016.

Old, long-gone Southern Democrats understood you could be a populist, spend money, and be a conservative.  As politics became polarized this began to get ignored more and more by the chattering class.  Well, Trump made sure it won’t be.

Where Do “We” Go From Here?

In 2004, Samuel Huntington, put forth a dubious hypothesis (at the time).  The dividing line in America would not be red vs. blue, conservative vs. liberal but rather nationalist vs. globalist through the lens of immigration.

This election proved him right.  Though immigration was an issue in 2008 and 2012 it never played as a big a role as it did in 2016 when Donald Trump’s campaign took off after he appeared at the border.  For the first time, somebody was calling a spade a spade.  From there for Trump the sky was the limit.

But the ethnic, geographic and class divides this election has exposed are deeper than any in modern history.  Immigration as a focal point for debate has not led to an election based on policy.  But, rather, it has led to an election based on cultural, geographic and nationalistic identities.  Thus, America appears more divided than ever.

How we, not just Trump, bridge this divide is unclear.  In Jackson’s time, America was diversifying but among different Caucasian ethnic lines.  America is becoming browner today making the tension more racial in nature.

A good start would be to restore trust in our institutions.  Even young liberals who supported Bernie Sanders did not trust the basic institutions of governance.  Second, maybe all of us need to take a second and realize just because you don’t agree with somebody on an issue (contraception, gay marriage) does not mean they want to trample on your rights.  That feeling led to a reaction against Obama in 2010, 2014, and last year.

Ultimately, it is up to us as Americans to unite our country.  Politics will always create division and tensions will exist between different groups.  But, through it all, we are united by our sense that share a similar story in America.  That we all deserve to be successful in America and we should have a government that allows that.  Taking down those (ie. rich and powerful) who deny the majority this right, be it through left or right-wing politics, is very much a Jacksonian, an American ideal.








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