Those who see Jackson merely as an acquisitive swindler—a confidence man—badly miss the point. He needed to ground acquisitiveness on a moral bedrock. The more egregious the activity, the more he engaged in falsification of memory, denial, militant self-righteousness, and projection of his own motives onto others.
With the election of Donald Trump, we have entered a new moment in American politics. Following a number of commentators, I agree that it might best be described in Jacksonian terms. Departing from their emphases, however, I would prioritise the following points. They start with the personal and move from there to the more explicitly political.
First is the question of character. Andrew Jackson’s rise to national prominence in the 1820s meant the ascendancy of a political type. Almost exactly two centuries later, we see its return. In that type, leadership finds its motive power in a kind of barely suppressed violence, an emblematic ‘short fuse’ that claims to rage against elite interests. For both Jackson and Trump, this specific form of populism short circuits the delicate ties of civil society in favour of a more immediate, emotional connection between common man and president. In our time, Twitter has become an almost perfect vehicle for this short circuiting.
Populist anger is real, even as it is lived vicariously among the so-called deplorables. Its target, however, is not the economic elite of which Trump is an obvious part. The interests of that elite will be protected and promoted. Two centuries ago, Jacksonian populism nostalgically evoked agrarian ideals as a way of assuaging white anxiety over integration into a market economy. Trump similarly promises a return to greatness by mocking and attacking the beneficiaries of a half-century of civil-rights protections. The deeper aim, however, is clear: behind the racist call to a common culture, the project of exposing individuals to market forces continues.
We are in danger of misunderstanding this reality until we look beyond the standard American racial binary and attend especially to Jackson’s so-called Indian policy. That policy had at least two aims, both of which are relevant to our own time. First was a genocidal gesture of clearing the American southeast of its Indigenous inhabitants, creating or rather imposing a space for white settlement. The real point of such clearing, however, was expropriation in service to an idea or ideal. Within that cleared space, European settlement could (and would) take place, but the agrarian virtue of ownership would immediately make way for the forces of land speculation; use-value would be effaced in favour of exchange-value. This in turn meant the mobilisation of forces that would extirpate white settlers just as easily and quickly as the tribes that came before them. Once the land was no longer productive or profitable, settlers would have to move on. Markets turned all Americans into a kind of permanent internal diaspora. The promise of a civilisational or cultural ideal in the end meant nothing compared to forces set in motion by speculation.
These lessons are not for us, to be sure, but for those who supported Trump. To them I would say the following: your marginalisation will continue. The pain of being a ‘loser’ in Trump’s America will sting all the more because you internalised a vision that aimed at your erasure from the beginning. Your feeling of satisfaction now will in the end be worthless, or worth about as much as a degree from Trump University. You will be one of the confidence man’s suckers.