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Friday, December 30, 2016

Two Cheers for old Hickory: How Trump’s revival of Andrew Jackson’s patriarchal politics protects us from white nationalism

Numerous commentators have noted the psychological parallels between the individual personalities and collective followers of Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson. As individuals, both Trump and Jackson shared grandiose narcissism, unhinged anger at personal slights, and love of violence. Trump’s supporters likewise strongly resemble Jackson’s base in their geography and apparent motivation. Both groups hailed from more rural areas of the West and South and seemed motivated by resentment toward bankers and cultural elites perceived to dominate in the nation’s Eastern seaboard centers of education (Boston) and finance (New York City and Philadelphia). The authoritarian beliefs of Trump’s supporters matches the authoritarian personality of their standard bearer. As Herrington and Weiler show, Trumpistas favor “Daddy style” politics – “spanking” rather than “time out” in their memorable phrase – in which a macho leader protects the nation from treasonous insiders (“Crooked Hilary”) and dangerous outsiders. Likewise, Rebecca Edwards has shown how nineteenth century Democrats favored a politics of patriarchy, scorning Whigs and Republicans as effeminate meddlers bent on interfering with the father’s prerogatives to run his household as he pleased.

Should Trump’s opponents be sanguine or scared about the parallels between Old Hickory and Trump? Guided only by the Whigs’ predictions about Jackson’s likely behavior in office, the Jacksonian precedent should give Trump’s opponents plenty to worry about: The Whigs’ alarm sounds almost identical to today’s anxiety about the impending Trump Presidency. Like Trump, Jackson was branded by his enemies as an illiterate, impulsive, thin-skinned would-be tyrant. Jackson did not merely issue authoritarian tweets but actually acted on his authoritarian impulses, arresting a federal judge in New Orleans during his self-proclaimed regime of martial law and hanging British nationals during the Seminole War against the recommendations of his own officers. Henry Clay named his party the "Whigs" precisely to highlight "King Andrew's" allegedly despotic tendencies.

If one looks at the track record of Jacksonian democracy, however, there is reason for Trump’s opponents to take just a little heart. While embracing the same sort of macho rhetoric shared by Trump’s supporters, Jacksonian Democrats actually practiced a libertarian politics extremely friendly to Irish Catholics, the most despised of immigrant groups in the 1840s. Indeed, Jackson’s followers made rejection of Whig and American Party nativism a central plank of the Democratic Party. Moreover, nineteenth century Democrats made protection of personal liberty their Party’s slogan, fighting off efforts to abolish Catholic schools, prohibit the consumption of alcohol, or ban the teaching of the German language.

After the jump, I will suggest that the libertarian and immigrant-friendly tendencies of the Jacksonians were not mere coincidences but had a paradoxical connection to their patriarchal and authoritarian ideology. To summarize, macho patriarchy in America tends to be self-defeating, at least as a path to authoritarian domination. That self-defeating tendency was a boon to nineteenth century democracy, and it might also save us today from any European-style fascism rooted in white identity.

Consider three reasons why a constituency that favors Trump’s style of authoritarian politics is likely eventually to follow the precedent of the nineteenth century Democratic Party by (1) picking fights rather than making peace with educated white voters; (2) keeping the federal police powers relatively weak; and (2) seeking votes from recent, non-“European” immigrants. All three tendencies have the effect of undercutting the sort of white nationalism that right-wing parties in Europe are now trying to achieve.

1. In America, authoritarian patriarchy tends to alienate a wide swathe of white voters, preventing the coalescing of a unified white identity.

White nationalism, much in the news today, is nothing new in America: The creation of a white nationalist identity that would transcend class and sectional lines was the fond project of many in antebellum America, including John C. Calhoun. Calhoun’s “positive good” theory of slavery, announced in an 1837 speech, was connected to the idea that rich and poor whites could unite around a common racial identity, thereby “exempt[ing] us from the disorders and dangers resulting from [class struggle].”

Pietist Protestant reformers, however, threw a wrench into the white nationalist project. The major obstacle was the Pietists’ rejection of patriarchy. Nineteenth century pietist reforms focused on limiting domineering male prerogatives – drinking alcohol, gambling, use of prostitutes, dueling, and, prior to the Thirteenth Amendment, enslaving other humans – that endangered the welfare of women and children in the home. Pietists were a hefty portion of northern whites, spreading out in a great Yankee diaspora from New England through the “burnt over district” in New York to the Great Lakes. With their nosy intrusions into male control of the household, these reformers managed to alienate Irish Catholics and German Lutherans as well as white Southerners, thereby forging together an otherwise coalition of ethnocultural minorities intent on resisting Yankee intrusion into their home, saloons, schools, and churches. (For some standard accounts of this ethnocultural divide, see Richard Jensen, Paul Kleppner, and, more recently, Jon Gjerde).

By 1840, the Democratic Party proclaimed itself the defender of this coalition of Southerners and immigrants, declaring in its 1840 platform that

“liberal principles … which makes ours the land of liberty, and the asylum of the oppressed of every nation, have ever been cardinal principles in the democratic faith; and every attempt to abridge the present privilege of becoming citizens, and the owners of soil among us, ought to be resisted with the same spirit which swept the alien and sedition laws from our statute-book.”

In short, the Party of white supremacy was also the enemy of Pietist nativism championed by an important group of northern whites. This division in white opinion destroyed Calhoun’s dream of a unified white nation until the turn of the twentieth century. (By the 1890s, northern and Southern evangelical reformers for the first time united around a polite racism directed against both the freedmen and the new wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Abandoning both the libertarian rhetoric and blunt, anti-intellectual camaraderie of Jacksonian democracy, the Democrats eventually endorsed in 1912 the bigotry and middle-class reform of Woodrow Wilson, a genteel racist with a Princeton sheen and a loathing of both blacks and the Irish of Tammany Hall).

The same divisions between patriarchy and reform operate today to reduce the odds of a unified “white nationalist” coalition. Put crudely, the racism spouted by Trump’s supporters is accompanied by a boorish brawling masculinity that tends to repel women, people with a college degree, and anyone with a minimal sense that the fraternity antics of males should be curbed by norms of social and domestic responsibility. Wherever urbanity flourishes – college towns, big cities – Trumpism wilts. A standard-bearer peddling racism more polished than Trump’s might reduce these objections of college-educated whites – but such polish would also reduce the enthusiasm of his patriarchal followers. In short, the vice of social snobbery may have counteracted the vice of racism.

Contrary to many liberals’ fears, Trump’s enthusiasm for Queens-style pugilistic rhetoric is not an accident easily corrected: It is essential to his appeal. And that appeal is not something that Trump invented: It is instead a deep tradition of American politics with its roots in Andrew Jackson’s personality and the patriarchy that Jackson transformed into the defining characteristic of the nineteenth century Democratic Party.

2. Advocates of authoritarian patriarchy tend to be suspicious of federal bureaucrats:

Authoritarian patriarchy not only alienates a sizeable number of whites but also causes the patriarchs themselves to be distrustful of the federal government – the very instrument of national power that patriarchs need to realize their policy goals. The distrust springs from the disparity between the brusque macho rhetoric that is the galvanizing force of the patriarchs (“just do it,” in Trump’s phrase) and the norms of legal due process and rational policy analysis required by a complex organization like the federal government.

Authoritarians tend to have less formal education than non-authoritarians. The federal bureaucracy, by contrast, tends to be more educated than average American, and the disparity is (unsurprisingly) highest for officials in management positions.

One might predict, therefore, that authoritarians in America would tend to distrust the federal workforce and seek to weaken rather than exploit federal power. This was true of Andrew Jackson and his followers, and, over the long haul, it is likely to be just as true of the Trumpistas. Put simply, they know that they will never dominate the federal bureaucracy, and this knowledge dampens their enthusiasm for building up federal capacity to fulfill authoritarian goals.

Take Trump’s proclaimed their goal of speeding up the deportations of unlawfully present aliens. Toward this end, Trump promised to triple the number of ICE agents, but he has said little about clearing up the backlog of a half-million cases pending in the docket of EOIR’s immigration courts. In theory, the Trump Administration could hire several hundred more immigration judges to process cases. But why would Trump or Jeff Sessions trust them? Trained lawyers do not observe the authoritarian creed: They will likely bog the entire project down in a quagmire of due process that legally trained professionals tend to insist upon before upending a respondent's life with deportation. One might, therefore, see the goal of accelerated deportations gradually fade from Trump’s rhetoric, replaced by other policy goals that do not require the cooperation of the federal civil service.

More generally, from a patriarch’s point of view, federal agencies staffed by educated and skeptical bureaucrats are simply too unreliable a tool. Authoritarian politicians in the United States, therefore, are more likely to spike the cannons of federal power that they capture in elections rather than convert federal officials into authoritarian instruments. It is significant that the Republicans want to abolish the U.S. Department of Education rather than convert it into a tool for advancing a conservative educational agenda: They apparently distrust their own capacity to get the agency to advance authoritarian policy priorities. For parallel reasons, one might reasonably predict that Trump-style authoritarians will give up on the idea of vastly enlarging the budget or personnel of Homeland Security.

2. White nationalists just do not have enough white votes—and recent "non-European" migrants often provide the most likely supporters of their patriarchal views.

In the 19th century, the Democratic Party courted Irish Catholics because they needed electoral support against Yankee reformers. As Scott C. James has shown, Democrats could not win the Presidency relying only on white supremacists from the American South: They needed to win New York, and, to win New York, they had to have the support of Irish Catholics. Likewise, as Richard Jensen has documented, Democrats could compete in Midwestern states like Illinois only by courting German Lutherans.

Trumpistas will find themselves in the same electoral trap: They need to find some socially conservative voters to supplement their dwindling white ranks. One place to look is among Hispanic voters, whose views tend to be more conservative on family matters than the average American’s. The leaders of the nineteenth century Democracy knew that they could not fight off Pietist Yankee reformers and Irish Catholics simultaneously: They had to cut a deal with the latter to beat the former. Likewise, the more far-sighted Republican leaders know that they cannot simultaneously fight college-educated whites and ethnocultural minorities like Hispanics: From their point of view, recent Hispanic migrants are not the barbarians at the gates but rather the cavalry coming over the hill. Trump is not a far-sighted kind of guy, but even he apparently can sense that deporting Dreamers is a political loser.

In sum, the type of authoritarian politics first defined by Andrew Jackson has several qualities that render it self-defeating as a tool for European-style fascist oppression. None of this is to say that “it can’t happen here.” I do not assume that the Trump Presidency is likely, let alone predestined, to follow the precedent of the Jacksonian Democrats. I suggest only that, if Trump follows in Old Hickory’s footsteps as he seems inclined to do, then the damage that he can do to our constitutional order is limited.

So lift a glass in praise of Old Hickory and the self-defeating tradition of macho bravado that he invented. It kept America safe from a unified white nationalist party in the nineteenth century, and, with luck, it may keep us safe from the darkest dreams of white nationalism today.

Posted by Rick Hills on December 30, 2016 at 10:35 AM | Permalink


As I say, ML, I make no predictions: I'm just a "glass-half-full" kind of guy.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jan 2, 2017 5:37:04 PM

Just to play devil's advocate: a more ominous precedent is the Southern Redeemers of the 1880s, who got around their "white voter" problem by keeping blacks out of the Electorate. One might argue that the modern Redeemers have gotten around their "not enough white voters" problem with (1) voter suppression, 2) the Electoral College and (3) gerrymandering.

Posted by: ML | Jan 1, 2017 11:40:13 AM

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