20 March 2017

Jacksonian Trumpism

As part of the continuing effort to find fault with President Trump's every thought, Michael Gerson has identified Andrew Jackson as Trump's favorite president, on the evidence of a wreath 45 recently placed on 7's tomb. Gerson presumes that Trump admires Jackson as a macho proto-populist and the scourge of the establishment of his time. For the columnist, Trump represents the worst of the Jacksonian tradition. Old Hickory's reputation has declined since the 1940s, when Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s bestselling The Age of Jackson portrayed Andy as a precursor of the New Deal and its egalitarian vision for America. In its own time Schlesinger's book was criticized for idealizing or whitewashing Jackson, who self-evidently wasn't an egalitarian by 20th or 21st century standards. Since then, Jackson has come under regular criticism, as Gerson notes, for his cruelty toward blacks and bloodthirstiness toward Native Americans. On top of that, Jackson has also been seen as a precursor of the "imperial presidency." Dubbed King Andrew I by his Whig critics, Jackson developed the idea that the President was the unique representative of the American people as a whole, and claimed an equal right to the Supreme Court's to interpret the Constitution. Gerson passes over these finer points of criticism quickly (noting that Jackson "consistently pressed the bounds of executive authority") in his hurry to define Old Hickory as a hater.

Within the lifetimes of people still living, Andrew Jackson has gone from a role model for the Democratic party to a tar baby with which to besmirch Donald Trump by association. Jackson's status as American hero -- he was sometimes known simply as "The Hero" after the Battle of New Orleans -- has fallen to a revolution in national priorities reflected in Gerson's remark that "the dignity and value of people of color" was "the largest issue" of Jackson's own time. A historian may claim that it was the largest moral issue of the whole antebellum epoch, whether political leaders agreed or not, but it self-evidently was not the largest political issue of the Jacksonian era in the minds of its leading players, despite Gerson's efforts to put Jackson's enemies on the right side of history. He sees Trump's supposed choice of favorite President as a "self-indictment," but he arguably distorts Jackson to make him an evil proto-Trump, defined by a seemingly paradoxical populism that is anti-elitist without being egalitarian. For a historian that is presentism par excellence: judging people of the past by the standards of later times. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was no racist; for much of the 20th century he was a liberal of the liberals, from advising JFK to criticizing George W. Bush. It's probably no accident that he became a critic of "political correctness" late in life. It probably had something to do with seeing people repudiate Andrew Jackson instead of recognizing, as Schlesinger did, the progressive role he played for his own time in the democratization of America. Jackson certainly was wrong on many issues touched on barely or not at all by Gerson, but in what most likely really was the largest political issue of his time, this unrepentant slaveholder stared down fellow southerners who claimed a state's right to nullify national trade policy, despite their claims that federal power thus asserted threatened the peculiar institution itself. If President Trump could see that as a model for dealing with the conservative entrenched interests of our time when they go against the common good, we might be better off encouraging him to be more Jacksonian, not less.

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