Thursday, March 16, 2017

Donald Trump as Andrew Jackson? Not even in an alternative universe!

Okay, this makes me ill. Trump hails 'very great' Andrew Jackson in political pilgrimage AFP/Yahoo! News 03/15/2017:

The Hermitage (United States) (AFP) - Donald Trump hailed America's first populist president Wednesday, laying a wreath at the tomb of Andrew Jackson and waxing lyrical about the similarities between himself and the seventh US president.

On the 250th anniversary of Jackson's birth, Trump visited "Old Hickory's" Tennessee home, dubbed The Hermitage.

Praising "the very great" Jackson's willingness to take on "an arrogant elite," Trump broke away from prepared remarks to exclaim, "Does that sound familiar to you?"

"I wonder why they keep talking about Trump and Jackson, Jackson and Trump. Ooh, I know the feeling Andrew."

Since coming to office in January, Trump aides have sought to draw comparisons between the bareknuckle Democratic president and Trump.
Jackson is obviously trying to identify with the image of Andrew Jackson as the champion of the common man. And Trump probably means man, too, even though women can vote now. More specifically, white man. It's also a safe bet that Trump himself has never read a history book or substantive history article about Andrew Jackson.

I would call Jackson a proto-populist instead of "America's first populist president," as this article does. I'll let the Populist Party be the first populists. Even though William Jennings Bryant didn't make it to the Presidency. He did serve as Secretary of State, though.

Trump's ceremonial wreath-laying at Jackson's grave brings up one of my chronic laments about present-day left and center-left politics in the US. Conservatives may have some inherent advantage in evoking iconic historical figures, although I'm not willing to concede that it has to be that way. But Andrew Jackson actually was one of the founders of the Democratic Party. And Donald bleeping Trump has stolen the Jackson symbolism for himself and the Republicans.

Nicole Hemmer gives us a look at Steve Bannon's white nationalist narrative of Andrew Jackson in Jacksonian Republicans US News and World Report 03/14/217:

Jackson is an odd touchstone for Trump. He is, after all, one of the founders of the Democratic Party. But Jackson's belief that democracy and race were inextricably bound together, that whiteness was a prerequisite for self-governance, fits neatly with Trump's own worldview – a worldview that is coming to define not just Trump's administration, but also the Republican Party.

The rise of the Jacksonian Republicans is remarkable. For well over a century after leaving office in 1837, Jackson was seen by white Democrats not only as the father of the party but the man who breathed life into the country's democratic promise. Historians wrote paeans to the age of Jacksonian democracy, when ordinary white people tore power from the hands of white elites, when universal white manhood suffrage replaced property requirements to vote.
Unfortunately, Hemmer seems to accept too much of the underlying assumption of the white nationalist propaganda outlook when she writes, "Jackson's belief that democracy and race were inextricably bound together, that whiteness was a prerequisite for self-governance, fits neatly with Trump's own worldview – a worldview that is coming to define not just Trump's administration, but also the Republican Party."

Using historical imagery in politics is never going to be exactly the same as trying to understand history in a serious way. The two don't have to be disconnected. It's just two different approaches.

But that means we need to be careful with how one kind of view feeds the other. The view of history as a upward process of progress is very much an Enlightenment outlook. So is race as a way of claiming essential qualities of civilization for Europeans, including those in the New World that are assumed to be lacking in the "inferior, primitive" peoples. Even if we don't hold a view of inherent progress in history, if we also assume that democracy is a good thing, a desirable thing, then that viewpoint will in some way privilege the events, movements, processes and leaders that contributed to the development and advancement of democracy. And democracy - political, social and economic - is not a product of Immaculate Conception. It's product of a messy, complicated history made by human beings. The latter of whom are known for being fallible and inconsistent even in their best moments.

Historians use "anachronism" to refer not just to the colloquial meaning of old-fashioned. But also to describe projecting normative assumptions of the present onto the past. I can't entirely escape the suspicion that this gives conservatives an advantage over the left and center-left when it comes to appropriating iconic images of the past for present-day usage. Political conservatives in their most constructive mode want to "make haste slowly." Reactionaries want to restore a past era of glory, even when the image of that past era invariably turns out to be a very present-day adaptation of selective imaginings of the golden past. While the classic image of liberals (in the American sense), progressives, the left is more that of people who embrace change, who want to find innovative solutions to social problems and to create constructive adaptations to new problems. In that broad view, conservatives may just be more comfortable identifying with the past.

Yet if the famous statement from George Orwell's 1984 is true, "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past," then the converse is also partially true: that narratives of the past shape the present and future.

So I would prefer to see the left and center-left take a more nuanced view of the democratic traditions in the American past.

Jackson and his legacy became part of a public policy discussion with the idea of putting a black woman on the $20 bill. I certainly have no issue with putting Sojourner Truth on the $20 bill.

But there are still meaningful connections from 19th century political movements in America to the present day. The direct political ancestor of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon was John Calhoun, patron saint of white supremacy. Jackson became Calhoun's arch-enemy over the Nullification Controversy, one of the major milestones on the road to Southern secession. One side in that controversy defended the traditions of democracy, the Constitution and the Union (all still developing in 2017); the other side defended treason in support of the institution of slavery and white supremacy. When he was literally on his deathbed there just inside the house from where Trump laid a wreath at his grave, Jackson said the only regret of his life was that he hadn't hanged John Calhoun for treason over his nullification stunt.

Since I've been especially bugged by neo-Confederate nonsense since the 1990s, I've grown very fond of the image of the slaveowner Jackson taking the right side against Calhoun when events forced him to choose between Constitutional democracy, on the one hand, and the democracy-hating "Slave Power," on the other.

Yes, Jackson's Indian policy was bad. So has every other President's been from Washington to Trump. And, no, that's not an excuse for Jackson or any of the rest of them. But Democrats and progressives today don't have much trouble still seeing the New Deal and FDR's pro-union policies as important democratic moments in American history. While at the same time criticizing his questionable compromises with segregation and flat-out condemning his order to intern Japanese-Americans. The same two-steps-forward-one-step-back process was at work in the Age of Jackson, too.

There's more of a "usable past" in that era than most Dems and progressives today seem to realize. It's of some interest to me that Jackson helped the pioneering American feminist Frances "Fanny" Wright set up a Utopian community called Nashoba in Tennesse in 1825. Among other things, the project was a biracial community with an abolitionist bent. He may have assisted her more because she was a friend of General Lafayette. But he did it. But we won't hear Donald Trump or Steve Bannon praising Andrew Jackson for assisting Fanny Wright to set up an abolitionist Utopian community.

Donald Trump trying to identify himself with the image of Andrew Jackson reminds me of the pictures from the infamous German-American Bund rally in Madison Square Garden featuring a giant image of George Washington. Rare Historical Photos provides this image from that rally (American Nazi organization rally at Madison Square Garden, 1939 02/19/2014):

The article makes this observation on why the we-love-Hitler crowd might pick George Washington as a mascot (emphasis in original):

There is a reason George Washington is up there and not Thomas Jefferson or James Madison Jr. Fascism was an ideology that emphasized action and heroism over intellectualism and philosophy. This is why Hitler’s ideal Aryan concept was a strong, handsome, and physically fit person rather than someone with a mind for civics. Men of action were the ideal example figures. The other part of fascism was extreme patriotism, which is why each nation/group had its own fascist symbolism and mythology. It wasn’t like communism where concepts were supposed to transcend ethnic boundaries, but an ideology where each nation had its own flavor. Washington, as a military leader, patriotic father, and someone whom a legend of heroism and virtue has grown up around, was the ideal figure for fascist groups looking to pull a symbol out of American history.
But anti-New Deal conservatives at that time did re-imagine Thomas Jefferson as a prophet of "free enterprise" Herbert Hoover economics. But liberals and leftists in those days were at least willing to contest the historical symbolism. Today, not so much.

I don't recall ever finding a reference to Andrew Jackson as a hero of the Radical Right in the 1930s, although there may well have been.

This is a big topic. But I'll make these observations about why I think the left and left-center have trouble with defending major democratic figures in the United States prior to the Civil War.

Anachronism: I think some of it is just that people on the left are likely to make moral and political judgments about history based on cherished standards of today. And to judge them harshly because the progress of those standards was much less developed than they are now. It's not only a lazy and unrealistic way to look at history. It's also a small step from saying that we don't like any political figure before 1860 because they didn't have the prevalent 21st standards on race and women's rights to saying they discriminated against blacks and Indians and women and there's no point in criticizing it. And much more realistic approach is to look at the actual debates over issues and the positions people actually took in those debates. Northern states in 1860 were free (non-slave) states because they had abolished slavery in their states. So opposition to slavery was very much a contemporary value in 1820, or in 1776, for that matter. And there is a lot to be learned from why people - and of course we're talking here mostly about white people, and in particular white men who could vote - lined up on different sides of that issue. It wasn't only white people, though. One of the arguments against Jackson's infamous Indian Removal Act was that some Indians in the Southeastern regions affected were slaveowners, and having examples of Indian slaveowners strengthened in institution of slavery. Real history is complicated.

Superficial understanding of social change: When Nicole Hemmer writes, "Jackson's belief that democracy and race were inextricably bound together, that whiteness was a prerequisite for self-governance," a lot of readers will assume that this is a common assumption on the left. And not without reason. But the same Enlightenment worldview that promoted chauvinistic notions of European civilization and white racial superiority also promoted ideas of democracy and equality and civil liberties that wound up presenting major challenges to the restriction of the vote to white property-owning men and to white supremacy in its various forms. And with widespread segregationist voter-suppression schemes in effect and Trump Muslim ban - to take only two examples - those conflicting notions are still in contention in the United States in 2017. The varying positions people take today on such issues matters, and it mattered in the past, too. The fact that most voters in the 1932 elections were white men who assumed "that whiteness was a prerequisite for self-governance" doesn't mean that there were no meaningful differences in the positions that took on, say, the vote in the Virginia legislature in 1831-32 over abolishing slavery in that state.

Insufficient historical literacy: The fact that Donald Trump can even try to pass himself off as the Andrew Jackson of the 21st century is prima facie evidence of this problem.

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