In the first week of Donald Trump’s Presidency, it is becoming clearer what kind of President he will be. There are elements of Andrew Jackson – Democrats now know how John Quincy Adams’ acolytes felt when a drunken mob of Jackson’s supporters ransacked the White House. While Trump is no racist economic illiterate, as Jackson was, his election does indeed mark a sharp break from the recent past, as did Jackson’s. The era of Ronald Reagan and the two Bush Presidents now looks like the anomaly, and we are returning to the traditional Republicanism of William McKinley.
Like Trump, Jackson represented a group, the white working class, that had not previously been politically well represented. In Jackson’s case, they had been completely ignored by the Federalists, and then taken for granted by Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. When Jackson ran, there was a feeling that his supporters were in some way illegitimate, because they did not follow the gentlemanly norms of Federal-era politics and indeed seemed to hate what had gone before. In Trump’s case, the white working class, having been neglected by the Democrats since the McGovernites took over the party in 1972, had been ignored by all Presidents of the last half century, except for Ronald Reagan. As in Jackson’s time they had developed a hatred and contempt for what had gone before, especially the aggressive globalist sentimentalism of the Bush family.
However, while Trump’s support base is similar to Jackson’s, his policies appear to be very different. Jackson hated tariffs; he won election in 1828 partly based on opposition to that year’s “Tariff of Abominations.” Trump likes them. Jackson was racist and violently expansionist, engaging in several wars and near-genocidal episodes against Native Americans, and being firmly Southern on the emerging slavery issue. Trump is isolationist rather than expansionist, and has no trace of racial animus. Jackson hated the elites (although himself a major Tennessee landowner) Trump is, by birth and finances, though not by style, one of them himself. Thus, even though he has installed a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office, Trump’s resemblance to Old Hickory is only skin-deep.
Rather than to Jackson’s, Trump’s policy prescriptions are much closer to those of traditional Republicans from Ulysses Grant through Calvin Coolidge, with a particular resemblance to those of William McKinley. McKinley was a very different personality to Trump; a gentle man with enormous dignity, respected by all around him and raising the tone of politics. Yet in terms of policy, he resembled Trump quite closely. He was a strong nationalist, yet unlike his successor Theodore Roosevelt he was largely opposed to foreign entanglements – he was pushed into the Spanish-American War rather than entering it voluntarily.
Like Trump (and Alexander Hamilton) McKinley believed in developing U.S. manufacturing industry through protective tariffs. Indeed, as Karl Rove brought out well in his recent study of the 1896 election, McKinley relied heavily on his popularity with manufacturing workers in fighting off the agrarian populist William Jennings Bryan. McKinley also exhibited a traditional Republican opposition to heavy immigration, although that sentiment’s most effective result, the 1924 Immigration Act, came a generation later. Finally, McKinley was a strong supporter of the Armed Forces and of veterans’ groups, and was especially popular with them as a Civil War veteran of considerable heroism himself.
With Trump resembling McKinley, it is now becoming increasingly clear that the historical anomaly was the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes. While Reagan achieved a supply-side miracle by reducing the top rate of income tax from 70% to 28%, it had become increasingly fatuous to suppose either that miracles might be achieved by fiddling with a top marginal tax rate in the mid-30s, or that middle-class and blue-collar voters could be attracted by an economic program of which that was the centerpiece.
On other subjects, the Reagan-Bush period looks even more anomalous. On foreign policy, Reagan again achieved undying and well-deserved fame by rebuilding the U.S. defense capability and forcing the break-up of the Soviet Union. However, the subsequent efforts by the Bushes to project U.S. power globally, especially in Somalia and the Middle East, were generally unsuccessful and turned the American public against interventionism. While Trump inherits a number of questionable interventions from Obama (especially those in Syria and Libya, where arguably the U.S. intervened on the wrong side) his approach is more likely to resemble those of McKinley, Coolidge and other Republican Presidents (with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt), building and preserving U.S. power but intervening very sparingly indeed.
On immigration, Trump marks a sharp break with the sentimental globalist Chamber of Commerce policy pursued by Reagan and the Bushes, of maximizing legal immigration and failing to deter illegal immigration, thereby seriously damaging working-class U.S. living standards. Instead, Trump looks much more likely to pursue the policies of Coolidge and Eisenhower, regarding immigration to the United States as a privilege to be granted very sparingly, and illegal immigrants, as in Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback” campaign, as criminals to be dealt with accordingly.
Finally, Trump differs markedly from both Reagan and the Bushes in the matter of rhetoric, an important characteristic of a Presidency that has always acted as a “bully pulpit” in Theodore Roosevelt’s term. His Inaugural Address was notable for a lack of the flesh-creeping sentimentality that was such an unfortunate feature of the Inaugural Addresses of Reagan and both Bushes. Reagan did it best of course, but even his “shining city on a hill” made little sense when analyzed coldly – would one really want to have lived in the Boston of John Winthrop (the originator of that phrase), witch-burnings and all?
The Bushes were worse in this respect. “Kinder, gentler America,” apart from the cloying sentimentality was an obnoxious and uncalled-for insult to George H.W. Bush’s illustrious predecessor – and foreshadowed a Presidency that took far more pleasure in messing up Reagan’s achievements than in extending them. “Compassionate conservatism” was a formulation much loved by the left, because the compassion negated the conservatism. Given his foreign policy blunders, his enthusiasm for hordes of undocumented immigrants and his uncontrolled spending, George W. Bush’s Presidency did not exhibit much of either compassion or conservatism in practice. And as for Bush’s second Inaugural call to meddle incessantly in the Middle East spreading American values, it was Wilsonian nonsense that was neither conservative nor Republican, as this column said at the time (“The costs of Wilsonism,” 1/24/2005).
There would now seem very little place in American politics for much of the policy of the Reagan-Bush era. Top-rate tax cuts are off the table for at least a generation, given the appalling mess of the Federal Budget and the debt picture. Sloppy increases in Federal spending, causing the budget deficit to yawn, are equally frowned upon, though Trump’s infrastructure fetish is still a danger. Voluntary military interventions in the world’s trouble spots where there are no significant American interests are an eccentricity that will surely not be repeated in a hurry. Finally, we have a perfectly good party that wants to extend immigration to all and sundry, known as the Democrats; there would seem no reason to have two of them. So, in spite of Reagan’s triumphs, that era’s “conservatism” (which bore little relation to the true Conservatism of McKinley, Coolidge and Britain’s Lord Liverpool) is likely to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Whether Trump will be a good President depends on many factors. His lack of knowledge of the traditional Presidential skill-set, especially in foreign policy, may be less of a problem than it appeared – he is at least a quick study, with good instincts. His temperament is worrying, and tends to produce conflicts that appear avoidable. He will undoubtedly be tested by major crises in both economics and foreign policy, and his ability to react to those crises is as yet unknown.
On the other side, his appointments are encouraging, both in terms of their objective quality and from a genuinely conservative perspective. More important, his outlook appears squarely in the historic traditions of Republicanism, and those traditions have served America well in the past. The signs are beginning to multiply, and while Trump could still be a one-term, failed President; he may yet be a great one, as was his closest historical parallel, William McKinley.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)