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January 31 2017

Donald Trump and Jacksonian America

Rachel DiCarlo Currie

In late 1999, Council on Foreign Relations scholar Walter Russell Mead published a famous essay in The National Interest analyzing what he called the “Jacksonian tradition” in U.S. politics and foreign policy — a tradition defined by a uniquely American mix of populism, nationalism, and individualism that stood in contrast to “the commercial realism of the Hamiltonians, the crusading moralism of Wilsonian transcendentalists, and the supple pacifism of the principled but slippery Jeffersonians.”

As Mead described it, “Jacksonianism is less an intellectual or political movement than an expression of the social, cultural and religious values of a large portion of the American public.” While its origins could be traced back to Scots-Irish settlers and frontiersmen in the colonial period, Jacksonianism had long since become “a basic element in American consciousness that can be found from one end of the country to the other.”

Needless to say, many of Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters epitomize the Jacksonian tradition. In a new Foreign Affairs piece, Mead examines how Jacksonian populist nationalism became a “surging force in American politics.” Here’s an excerpt:

In seeking to explain the Jacksonian surge, commentators have looked to factors such as wage stagnation, the loss of good jobs for unskilled workers, the hollowing out of civic life, a rise in drug use — conditions many associate with life in blighted inner cities that have spread across much of the country. But this is a partial and incomplete view. Identity and culture have historically played a major role in American politics, and 2016 was no exception. Jacksonian America felt itself to be under siege, with its values under attack and its future under threat. Trump — flawed as many Jacksonians themselves believed him to be — seemed the only candidate willing to help fight for its survival.

For Jacksonian America, certain events galvanize intense interest and political engagement, however brief. One of these is war; when an enemy attacks, Jacksonians spring to the country’s defense. The most powerful driver of Jacksonian political engagement in domestic politics, similarly, is the perception that Jacksonians are being attacked by internal enemies, such as an elite cabal or immigrants from different backgrounds. Jacksonians worry about the U.S. government being taken over by malevolent forces bent on transforming the United States’ essential character. They are not obsessed with corruption, seeing it as an ineradicable part of politics. But they care deeply about what they see as perversion — when politicians try to use the government to oppress the people rather than protect them. And that is what many Jacksonians came to feel was happening in recent years, with powerful forces in the American elite, including the political establishments of both major parties, in cahoots against them.

Many Jacksonians came to believe that the American establishment was no longer reliably patriotic, with “patriotism” defined as an instinctive loyalty to the well-being and values of Jacksonian America. And they were not wholly wrong, by their lights. Many Americans with cosmopolitan sympathies see their main ethical imperative as working for the betterment of humanity in general. Jacksonians locate their moral community closer to home, in fellow citizens who share a common national bond. If the cosmopolitans see Jacksonians as backward and chauvinistic, Jacksonians return the favor by seeing the cosmopolitan elite as near treasonous — people who think it is morally questionable to put their own country, and its citizens, first.

Jacksonian distrust of elite patriotism has been increased by the country’s selective embrace of identity politics in recent decades. The contemporary American scene is filled with civic, political, and academic movements celebrating various ethnic, racial, gender, and religious identities. Elites have gradually welcomed demands for cultural recognition by African Americans, Hispanics, women, the LGBTQ community, Native Americans, Muslim Americans. Yet the situation is more complex for most Jacksonians, who don’t see themselves as fitting neatly into any of those categories.

Of course, the rise of populist nationalism has not been confined to the United States: We’ve seen it across the Western world — in Britain, Germany, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere — as well as in non-Western countries such as India and the Philippines. To be sure, “populist nationalism” means different things in different contexts. But the overarching trend is unmistakable.

It’s a trend that has shattered the illusions of Western elites and highlighted some previously underappreciated consequences of globalization and automation. Mead tries to put it all into historical perspective:

Over the past quarter century, Western policymakers became infatuated with some dangerously oversimplified ideas. They believed capitalism had been tamed and would no longer generate economic, social, or political upheavals. They felt that illiberal ideologies and political emotions had been left in the historical dustbin and were believed only by “bitter” losers — people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them . . . as a way to explain their frustrations,” as Barack Obama famously put it in 2008. Time and the normal processes of history would solve the problem; constructing a liberal world order was simply a matter of working out the details. 

Given such views, many recent developments — from the 9/11 attacks and the war on terrorism to the financial crisis to the recent surge of angry nationalist populism on both sides of the Atlantic — came as a rude surprise. It is increasingly clear that globalization and automation have helped break up the socioeconomic model that undergirded postwar prosperity and domestic social peace, and that the next stage of capitalist development will challenge the very foundations of both the global liberal order and many of its national pillars.

Read the whole thing.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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