Yesterday, This Week with George Stephanopolous, featured a political event in Iowa. It looked sort of fun, with lots of balloons and tents and barbecue and shots of children eating corndogs and, you know, like, elephant ears. Several candidates were viewed in their natural habitat, presumably to eventually be tagged and released into the wild. And the politician/star around which all the moons revolved was, of course, that gas giant Donald Trump.
And so, journalist-turned-anthropologist Martha Radatz gathered a group (a pride, a murder, a coven?) of Trump supporters around her and asked the question bedeviling American political observers ever since His Hairness announced his candidacy: ‘what’s the deal with Trump?’ A high school girl (giddily anticipating voting for the first time), an old guy, a middle-aged woman; it was a diverse group, if one doesn’t think as ‘diversity’ as suggesting the presence of black or Hispanic or gay people. A diverse crowd of white, straight, middle-American Republicans, in other words. And they didn’t just like Trump, they really liked him; they were wildly enthusiastic about both his candidacy and what it portends. You could see it in their eyes. Genuine excitement.
And it was all about style. Every comment was some variation on a theme; he’s not an (epithet) politician. He’s not guarded in his speech, he doesn’t care if he offends people. He’s forceful, he’s tough, he’s strong, he’s direct. He’s unafraid. He says what he thinks. Nobody put it this way, but the fact that he doesn’t have the normal politician’s filter when he speaks was seen as a huge plus. Pundits have been predicting for weeks that the Trump bubble will burst, because no political figure can recover from, well, whatever. Insulting Mexicans, belittling John McCain’s military service, attacking Megyn Kelly. It didn’t matter. To the people in this focus group, what pundits might perceive as insulting and dismissive rudeness was a plus. It’s just Trump being Trump. Our country’s in a mess, and what’s needed is some plain talk and direct action.
It reminds the historian in me of the election of 1828. Look up that election on Wikipedia and you’ll learn that the key issues in that campaign was the Tariff of 1828, and also controversy over the election of 1824, an election that ended up in the House of Representatives, where Henry Clay ended up supporting John Quincy Adams, and was subsequently named Secretary of State, a turn of events that became known as ‘the corrupt bargain.’ But like the current election, 1828 was as much about style as it was about substance. Andrew Jackson was seen as a rough-hewn, plain-talking Man of the People (though, in fact, he was a wealthy plantation owner). Adams was seen as an effete Easterner, who owed his influence to wealthy bankers.
And of course, after Jackson was inaugurated, the Westerners who had supported him, uh, enjoyed a celebration. Okay, they totally trashed the White House. Margaret Bayard Smith, a Washington socialite of the period, described it thusly:
But what a scene did we witness! The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros [sic], women, children, scrambling fighting, romping. What a pity what a pity! No arrangements had been made no police officers placed on duty and the whole house had been inundated by the rabble mob.
Furniture and china was destroyed, as was the White House carpeting. Finally, punch bowls full of booze were set out on the White House lawn to lure the mob out of doors. Jackson himself, meanwhile, had to sneak away to a nearby hotel.
Okay, 1828 is not 2015, the issues of their day are not the issues of today, and I don’t think that nice Iowa focus group is interested in grinding cheese into the White House carpet, and throwing tea cups at the wall. What does seem similar is the sense that ‘our’ country is slipping away from us, that powers beyond our control have taken over the political process, that whatever prosperity we’ve achieved since 2008 isn’t necessarily shared by all Americans. That Congress and the Presidency are under the thumb of monied interests; banks in 1828, corporate lobbyists today. And what’s needed now is a harsh and liberating dose of straight talk, of political incorrectness, of power wielded for the common good. That’s what Trump (and Andrew Jackson) seem, (seemed) to their supporters, to stand for. (Though, to be fair, Donald Trump hasn’t actually shot anyone in a duel. Which Andy Jackson was kinda known for: 103 duels altogether.)
Andrew Jackson makes a lot of ‘top ten Presidents’ lists. And I suppose, as a Democrat, I’m supposed to admire the founder of the Democratic party. I don’t. The two great moral evils our country committed on its way to prosperity were chattel slavery, and the brutal mistreatment of our Native American populations. Jackson participated with great energy and enthusiasm in both. He didn’t just own slaves, he bought and sold them, and he was the author of the unspoken pact in which the Democratic party would stand by the South’s ‘peculiar institution.’ He pushed the Indian Removal Act through Congress, and was therefore the instigator of the Trail of Tears. He ignored the Supreme Court when it suited him to. He opposed the Bank of America, setting back the economy by fifty years. (I think it’s hilarious that he’s on the 20 dollar bill. The one guy in US history most opposed to a national currency got his face put on the bill we all use the most. That’s a joke that never gets old). He didn’t think the federal government should build roads or bridges.
He was, in short, a cantankerous, obstreperous, hot-headed SOB. He was wrong about pretty much every major issue of the day. So, no, I’m not saving room on Mt. Rushmore for the guy.
But at least he was decisive. Slavery, and the north/south tensions created by a slave-driven economy, was the most festering wound in our body politic in the 1830s. He dealt with it. Something had to be done about Native American populations. He did something. I think he was wrong in both instances, but that’s an easy, armchair judgment for me to make; at least the man didn’t back away from major problems.
(And, again, like Trump, he was sort of obsessed with fake/nonsense issues. For Trump, it’s illegal immigration, for Jackson, the ‘incipient despotism’ of building a coastal light house).
Look, I’m not saying that Donald Trump is the next Andrew Jackson. And I’m certainly not saying that what we need is a Jackson Democrat; a return to the common sense of average people. At the same time, I do understand being fed-up with the status quo, and I absolutely understand the desire for someone completely different, someone radical and transgressive. Maybe that person is Bernie Sanders. Maybe it’s Jim Webb. Maybe it’s someone brand new.
I do think that the pre-ordained favorites, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, are not actually reading the mood of the country very well. And, amazingly, Donald Trump is. We’re a very long way off, but already this election is . . . interesting.