It is not at all unusual to explain Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy in terms of a “Jacksonian” tradition that eschews global engagement but prescribes maximum lethal violence against those who mess with Uncle Sam. Here’s how I used this tradition to explain Trump’s Syria policies in the early days of his presidency when he ordered military strikes against the Assad regime:
“Jacksonians” typically oppose entangling alliances and international nation-building exercises, but not only accept but welcome massive violence when America is “crossed.” For Trump in particular, intimidation of enemies is as important to international affairs as it is to business life. That is why Trump constantly attacked Barack Obama for failing to back up his “red line” threats against Syria’s use of chemical weapons (an attack he repeated before launching the cruise missiles last night) even as Trump himself denied any interest in “taking sides” in that country’s messy civil war….
Trump sought to remove the stain to American honor caused by Obama’s inaction after threatening Assad. That is a very Jacksonian thing to do, particularly when done in a way that puts not just Assad but all potential enemies on notice that liberal “restraint” in the use of military power is a thing of the past.
The Jacksonian tradition also helps explain why Trump rarely seems to have any coherent national security strategy for much of anywhere or anything: violence and the threat of violence are all the “strategy” he thinks our country needs.
This isn’t the only Jacksonian trait Trump has clearly exhibited. As I explained on a different occasion, the two presidents share a strong antipathy for unelected federal judges who cross them — a tradition that has been a staple of both left- and right-wing “populism” throughout U.S. history.
But Washington Free Beacon editor-in-chief Matthew Continetti argues in a new typology of today’s political right, Trumpism is Jacksonism in a more systematic sense that aligns our current president with all sort of turbulent figures in both political parties:
The Jacksonians…are individualist, suspicious of federal power, distrustful of foreign entanglement, opposed to taxation but supportive of government spending on the middle class, devoted to the Second Amendment, desire recognition, valorize military service, and believe in the hero who shapes his own destiny. Jacksonians are anti-monopolistic. They oppose special privileges and offices. “There are no necessary evils in government,” Jackson wrote in his veto message in 1832. “Its evils exist only in its abuses.”
This is a deep strain in American culture and politics. Jacksonians are neither partisans nor ideologues. The sentiments they express are older than postwar conservatism and in some ways more intrinsically American. (They do not look toward Burke or Hayek or Strauss, for example.) The Jacksonians have been behind populist rebellions since the Founding. They are part of a tradition, for good and ill, that runs through William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Jim Webb, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, and Donald Trump. The Jacksonians believe in what their forebears called “The Democracy.” They are the people who remind us that America is not ruled from above but driven from below. Irving Kristol captured some of Jacksonianism’s contradictions when he described the movement as “an upsurge of revolt against the moneyed interests, an upsurge led by real estate speculators, investors, and mercantile adventurers, which spoke as the voice of the People while never getting much more than half the vote, and which gave a sharp momentum to the development of capitalism, urbanism, and industrialism while celebrating the glories of the backwoodsman.”
That’s quite a mouthful, and there are multiple counterarguments against lumping Trump together with the free-trader Bryan, the redistributionist Long or the conventionally conservative Reagan. His habit of rhetorical recklessness does indeed put him in the same class of demagoguery as McCarthy, Wallace, and Palin. But what really links the 45th president to all these pols (well, maybe all but Webb) is a talent for harnessing resentment wherever it usefully appears and redeploying it for personal and partisan benefit. Convincing people to see him as the enemy of their enemies is Trump’s true genius.
There’s also something satisfying about understanding Trump via a domestic tradition rather than by congruence with the proprietors of European or Asian authoritarian regimes. Yes, you can clearly see that Trump’s rise to power had parallels in the Europe of the 1930s and in the world’s political bullyboys today, from Hungary’s Orbán to Brazil’s Bolsonaro to the Phillipines’ Duterte, all of whom he seems to regard as natural allies. But the man is too unreflective and self-centered to have been influenced by any of them.
It’s Jackson, after all, whom Trump himself thinks of as a role model. And that’s quite bad enough, even without the coherent ideologies and often clearly articulated racism of authoritarianism elsewhere. As Dylan Matthews put it, in supporting replacement of Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill, Old Hickory was “an executioner, a slaver, an ethnic cleanser, and an economic illiterate.” That sounds like a tradition in which our current president would feel comfortable, God help us. And even if Trump is too promethean (or simply impulsive and unmoored from principle) to be captured by any set of consistent characteristics, so too was Jackson, a melancholy man chased by many demons.
What’s so strange, of course, is that Jackson rose to national acclaim as a highly successful military commander — he was known to his supporters for many years simply as The Hero. Trump was a real estate mogul who played a fake executive on television; whatever you thought of him, there was nothing heroic about his character. Perhaps what they do have in common is a possession by furies that represent the wildest and most destructive passions bred by the American experience. That would suggest that while there may, please Jehovah, never be another Donald J. Trump, others will eventually arise to take his place as exemplifying the dark side of our country’s sunny illusions.