Walter Russell Mead’s “The Jacksonian Tradition”: the essay that predicts Donald Trump

In 1999, American foreign policy academic Walter Russell Mead wrote an influential essay, The Jacksonian Tradition. In it, he identified a strand of US political thought associated with its conservative and anti-intellectual middle and working classes.

The article was highly prescient in anticipating the appeal of George W Bush as president. Now, as the US teeters on the brink of electing an unimaginably worse candidate, it’s worth reading again. Mead’s analysis turns out to be just as perceptive an insight into Donald Trump’s supporters and their political attitudes.

It is not fashionable today to think of the American nation as a folk community bound together by deep cultural and ethnic ties.

However, the seventh President, Andrew Jackson, built his political career on identifying and mobilising that community – white, Anglo-Saxon/Celtic, working and middle class – which Mead terms the “Jacksonians”.

His political movement—or, more accurately, the community of political feeling that he wielded into an instrument of power—remains in many ways the most important in American politics.

Jacksonian America has produced—and looks set to continue to produce—one political leader and movement after another.

The future of Jacksonian political allegiance will be one of the keys to the politics of the twenty-first century.

Mead explores the values held dear by the Jacksonian folk community.

The first principle of this code is self-reliance. Real Americans, many Americans feel, are people who make their own way in the world.

Hence Trump’s strong appeal as a successful businessman. The fact that he’s been serially bankrupt isn’t important.

The strict Jacksonian code of honor does not enjoin what others see as financial probity. What it demands, rather, is a daring and entrepreneurial spirit. Credit is seen less as an obligation than as an opportunity. Jacksonians have always supported loose monetary policy and looser bankruptcy laws.

This has interesting implications for the Clinton campaign’s tactics. They’ve focused on his bankruptcies and tax avoidance, and have made little headway. Perhaps instead they should have attacked the fact that his wealth is inherited.

They don’t slide by on welfare, and they don’t rely on inherited wealth or connections… Earning and keeping a place in this community on the basis of honest work is the first principle of Jacksonian honor, and it remains a serious insult even to imply that a member of the American middle class is not pulling his or her weight in the world.

Then there’s equality of dignity and opinion.

No one has a right to tell the self-reliant Jacksonian what to say, do or think. Any infringement on equality will be met with defiance and resistance.

This can be seen in the stubborn reactions of Trump supporters, every time their idol does something awful, and they’re told they should be offended or appalled.

Trump’s age hasn’t been any hindrance to his appeal either.

In fact, Jacksonian America honors age. Andrew Jackson was sixty-one when he was elected president for the first time; Ronald Reagan was seventy.

The only thing which seems to have dented Trump’s support among Jacksonian America is his sleazy bragging about sexual predation.

The Jacksonian code also mandates acceptance of certain social mores and principles. Loyalty to family, raising children “right”, sexual decency (heterosexual monogamy—which can be serial) and honesty within the community are virtues that commend themselves to the Jacksonian spirit.

Trump’s lack of political experience, and his opponent’s overabundance of it, are precisely what attract and repulse Jacksonians respectively. While the rest of the world scratches their heads trying to work out exactly what is so “corrupt” about Clinton, it’s self-evident to Trump’s power base that the very fact of her long political career is proof enough of her unfitness for office.

Jacksonians tend to see representative rather than direct institutions as necessary evils, and to believe that governments breed corruption and inefficiency the way picnics breed ants. Every administration will be corrupt; every Congress and legislature will be, to some extent, the plaything of lobbyists. Career politicians are inherently untrustworthy; if it spends its life buzzing around the outhouse, it’s probably a fly.

The sort of back-room deals which made Theresa May leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and secured Hillary Clinton’s nomination over Bernie Sanders, are generally accepted by the British as the necessary lubrication of government machinery. For Jacksonians, however, they’re unacceptable corruption.

Jacksonians tolerate a certain amount of government perversion, but when it becomes unbearable, they look to a popular hero to restore government to its proper functions.

Once the angry masses had chosen Trump as their man, it seemed he could do no wrong, even when evidence of his own corruption in business was far more overwhelming than anything Clinton has allegedly done.

The hero may make mistakes, but he will command the unswerving loyalty of Jacksonian America so long as his heart is perceived to be in the right place.

The more idiotic his proposals – like the childish idea that a massive wall is the answer to illegal immigration – the more Jacksonians love him.

The profoundly populist world-view of Jacksonian Americans contributes to one of the most important elements in their politics: the belief that while problems are complicated, solutions are simple.

Trump’s protectionist rhetoric speaks right to the heart of Jacksonian America.

Convinced that the prime purpose of government is to defend the living standards of the middle class, Jacksonian opinion is instinctively protectionist, seeking trade privileges for U.S. goods abroad and hoping to withhold those privileges from foreign exports.

As does his approach to foreign policy. While everyone else in the world is baffled and terrified by Trump’s apparently contradictory ideas for dealing with rivals like Vladimir Putin – to “be tough” with them, but also to abandon Nato allies to their fates – they appeal strongly to Jacksonians’ simplistic world view.

Indeed, of all the major currents in American society, Jacksonians have the least regard for international law and international institutions. They prefer the rule of custom to the written law, and that is as true in the international sphere as it is in personal relations at home.

Reputation is as important in international life as it is to the individual honor of Jacksonians. Honor in the Jacksonian imagination is not simply what one feels oneself to be on the inside; it is also a question of the respect and dignity one commands in the world at large. Jacksonian opinion is sympathetic to the idea that our reputation—whether for fair dealing or cheating, toughness or weakness—will shape the way that others treat us. Therefore, at stake in a given crisis is not simply whether we satisfy our own ideas of what is due our honor. Our behavior and the resolution that we obtain must enhance our reputation—our prestige—in the world at large.

Mead’s analysis of Jacksonian foreign policy gives a stark warning of the dangers of a Trump presidency, especially when Trump himself is so notoriously thin-skinned.

The political importance of this code should not be underestimated; Americans are capable of going to war over issues of national honor.

Even Trump’s conspiracy theorist tendencies are predicted.

The fear that the Establishment is relentlessly plotting to destroy American liberty is an old but still potent one. The Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderbergers, the Bavarian Illuminati, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers: these names and others echo through a large and shadowy world of conspiracy theories and class resentment.

As ever, economic impoverishment is the driver of populism and fascism. The Trump phenomenon is part of the aftermath of the Great Recession. Even if Trump loses in November, the Jacksonians aren’t going anywhere. They’ll be voting again another time, they’ll still be angry, and if the global economy takes another downturn – as well it might – they’ll be even more dangerous.

Should seriously bad economic times come, there is always the potential that, with effective leadership, the paranoid element in the Jacksonian world could ride popular anger and panic into power.

The full essay can (as of writing) be found here: The Jacksonian Tradition and American Foreign Policy, by Walter Russell Mead

It’s essential reading.

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