Is Donald Trump a Jacksonian?
It is clear that President Trump would like to present himself to the world as the inheritor of the Jacksonian tradition in American politics. His language has always been that of a populist, of an anti-intellectual straight talker. But whilst the public personas of the two men are relatively closely aligned, to what extent does the Trump agenda genuinely reflect the worldview of the great 19th Century people’s man?
Trump and "Small Government"
One popular but bizarre argument being made to draw a comparison between the two men is that Trump, like Jackson, supports a ‘small government’ agenda. The language of ‘small government’ is thrown around very liberally in the US, and is sold to the public as ‘libertarianism’ – an agenda with the apparent aim of ‘getting the government off your back’. In truth, very few of the so-called ‘libertarians’ actually advocate a smaller government in practice. Ronald Reagan, the hero of ‘libertarian Republicans’ across the US, actually presided over what a Senior Fellow for International Finance at the Council on Foreign Relations referred to as ‘the greatest swing toward protectionism since the 1930s’.
Veteran American social critic Professor Noam Chomsky expressed the contradiction very succinctly:
[Reagan’s supporters] extolled the glories of the market and issued stern lectures about the debilitating culture of dependency of the poor at home and abroad while boasting proudly to the business world that Reagan had “granted more import relief to U.S. industry than any of his predecessors in more than half a century”
Summarizing the more general tendency for the so-called ‘libertarians’ to use ‘free enterprise’ as an excuse for cutting spending on important public services, while simultaneously actively using the government as a tool to serve the needs of business, Chomsky has said:
Nobody in the corporate world or government takes free trade seriously. The parts of the economy that are able to compete internationally are primarily the state-subsidized ones: capital-intensive agriculture, high-tech industry, etc. The government has the public pay for research and development and provides a state-guaranteed market for waste production. If something is marketable, the private sector takes it over. That system of public subsidy and private profit is what is called free enterprise.
It is clear that even the most vocal proponents of "free enterprise" and "laissez-faire" have in fact been protectionists in practice. But Donald Trump has never sought to align himself with this breed of Republican – in fact, his policies have always been quite openly more protectionist, with statements such as ‘[major companies] are not going to leave the United States anymore without consequences’. So if Trump is the kind of Republican who is willing to say in public that which the ‘free enterprise’ types will only say behind closed doors, to what extent does that align with his Jacksonian image?
The claim that Andrew Jackson advocated a "small government" is considerably more credible than the claim that Donald Trump does, as ‘small government’ – by which I assume we mean minimal regulation of enterprise and low public investment in the economy – was a significantly more relevant and practical agenda in the pre-industrial, agrarian society of early 19th Century America than it is in the modern world of manufacture, commerce and trade (where even the most vehement supporters of free enterprise are, as already established, closet-protectionists). Jackson’s Democrats were indeed for a "hands-off" approach to the economy and the continuation of the agrarian way-of-life, while the Whig Party supported modernisation at the expense of the public purse. It was the Whig agenda which ultimately allowed for the creation of the society which we now refer to as ‘Industrial Capitalism’. With this in mind, it seems clear that Jackson’s Democrats were a product of their time, and virtually all people today— particularly open protectionists like Trump—are in the Whig tradition.
The Jacksonian Spirit
So why then does Trump see himself as a Jacksonian? Most probably because whilst his overall agenda is protectionist, he does occasionally – in true Republican spirit – call for the deregulation of the private sector, most notably of banks. We can presume that this is seen as being a Jacksonian policy as it is supposedly ‘small government’. But, as we have already established, Jackson was for ‘small government’ only in as much as that he opposed the use of the institution of government as a mechanism with which to facilitate the growth and development of capitalist society. He sought not to set banks and corporations free in America, but rather to prevent them from ever existing in America.
It seems popular to take political discourse entirely out of its historical context and use it to further current political agendas, but it is not useful to meaningful democratic debate. Jackson’s ‘small government’ agenda was relevant in an agrarian society in a way that it simply isn’t in an advanced capitalist one. A Jacksonian today is surely one who embodies the populist spirit of Jackson, and not one who makes anachronistic references to his policies. His spirit was one of rugged justice and equality, and of mistrust for all things urban and corporate – particularly banks. ‘This bank is trying to kill me,’ he said of the Second Bank of the United States, ‘but I will kill it’. Trump, ultimately, is a tycoon and a demagogue who passionately supports corporate interests and seeks to deregulate the things that Old Hickory wished to kill. A Jacksonian he is not.