TTP: An Open Letter To The Four Horsemen Of The Trumpocalypse

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I’m a big fan of them. For today I’ll dub John Podhoretz, Abe Greenwald, Noah Rothman, and Sohrab Ahmari as the Four Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse. They’re the commentators of Commentary, a magazine devoted to, as Podhoretz dutifully recounts in every podcast, “intellectual analysis, political probity, and cultural criticism from a conservative perspective.”

They are also fair-minded observers of Donald Trump, the Trump Presidency, the Trump Administration, and the Trump White House. They tend to be critical and, hence, my adaptation of the reference found in the Book of Revelations. That’s my last stab at humor in this post!

In listening to one of their podcasts this week, I found myself nudged to offering a few thoughts of my own. I say this as a compliment to the quartet; they are stimulating, provocative, and insightful thinkers, writers, and speakers.

Earlier this week, the four commentators of Commentary ventured into ground that particularly sparked my interest. In a fast-moving discussion of Trump, trade, and the recent decision to slap a tariff on steel and aluminum, Podhoretz mentioned that he had chatted with Walter Russell Mead a few days ago. Mead is a respected political scholar with Bard College and has written extensively on Trump’s role as a 21st century expression of Andrew Jackson. I’m guessing from Podhoretz’s recounting of the story that Mead offered Trump’s decision to adopt the tariff as evidence of POTUS 45’s Jacksonian streak. Trump has, in Mead’s opinion, many such streaks.

Podhoretz was having none of it. He denounced the notion of Jacksonianism and, by extension, the notion of Trumpianism. I could hear sounds and talked-over words in the background, which I assumed were agreement with Podhoretz’s points. I’ll quote him below.

“There is no Jacksonian tradition,” he began. “He (Jackson) built no super-structure that could follow him.” Podhoretz’s point was that a tradition requires continuation over time and Jackson didn’t erect any sort of political party or institution to sustain whatever it was he did as president.

Podhoretz dealt a second blow to the notion of Jacksonianism. Podhoretz asserted that Jackson “was anti-intellectual.” He didn’t possess a theme or big idea. Jackson’s appeal “was all emotional…a movement in the nineteenth century led by a man who could not understand the symbolic nature of currency.” The absence of political scaffolding combined with the absence of a political concept.

Such a double-void acted as a black hole. It devoured the vestiges of Jackson, snuffing out any light he could cast into the American future. Podhoretz said, “A movement like that can’t be followed by anything because it can’t create a philosophy or a set of principles that can endure.” Jackson might have a successor but he didn’t leave a tangible set of policies with a specific vision of the nation. His political heirs had nothing to remember him by, nothing to embrace and continue. It’s a view shared by many learned political observers, including Jonah Goldberg. I agree with a substantial part of it.

I’ll rephrase it this way: as a parent, Jackson produced no biological children; as a president, Jackson produced no political movement.

The conclusion, in Podhoretz’s view, was that “Jacksonianism is a tendency in American life that pops up at times of disjunction or distress….” It’s a reflex, a facial tick, triggered by periodic circumstances that emerge and disappear. A figure like Jackson—and again, I think Podhoretz implied, like Trump—tracks the rise and fall of the temporary moment.

Great stuff. Compelling, insightful, with just the right amount of sharpness. Vintage Commentary podcast. I would like to use these statements as a springboard, since I’ve reflected on Jackson and Trump in my little corner of the world for several months and have actually worked with several of my leadership clients along this line of content. As the Four Horsemen did, I too will connect Jackson and Trump.

First, a legacy can have the same effect with different forms. It’s true Jackson didn’t found a new political party or some various entities we often associate with political movements these days (for example, think tanks, advocacy groups, and so on). However, Jackson’s contemporaries—supporters and opponents alike—certainly seemed to think he dominated American political life so much that his personal presence constituted a movement. His larger-than-life persona rose high enough so as to be remembered in his own time and interpreted later on as one of the key political symbols of his age. Also, let’s not forget the next president to serve two full terms after Jackson wouldn’t happen along again until thirty-six years later with another general, U.S. Grant. (And remember, Lincoln’s re-election was not national but sectional.) Don’t dismiss Jackson’s shadow.

Second, Jackson’s impact was so substantial that his opponents decided to mimic him. The newly emerging Whig Party looked desperately for their version of Jackson and found the same one twice—William Henry Harrison. Later, Jackson’s old party, the Democrats, would successfully recapture the White House with a younger Jackson clone, James K. Polk. There is no question that Jackson failed to assemble, or more likely was incapable of assembling, a coherent set of ideas under a clear label. In the street-level brawl of daily politics in the moment, though, Jackson’s influence was unavoidable.

Third, while not presented as a set of ideas and principles, Jackson’s “ianism” was more visible than Commentary’s commentators allowed. Among other things, Jackson embodied the expansion of the vote to include white men—working class and farming class, primarily—who had previously been shut out of the political process. He shoved open the door for more people, (yes, mostly white males) to access greater power in legislation, law, politics, economy, and more. In addition, Jackson symbolized a confident, aggressive expansion of American Unionism, including its spread geographically into the “New South” and “New West” as well as a reassertion of itself in such existing states as South Carolina. Finally, Jackson personalized a tendency to see many issues in conspiratorial, them-or-us terms. His followers assumed the nerve and daring he showed in one defining part of his life (conflict, war, and war-making) would be seen in his positions on events and issues that mattered to them and to him. They weren’t wrong. Taken together, these points can also make a legacy, a thing that endures at least for a while.

I’m not nit-picking and I’m not even disagreeing entirely with the Four Horsemen. My point is to suggest that the past casts a light by more than one source. Yes, Jackson doesn’t have a legacy like Lincoln, FDR, or Reagan. But his legacy can be visible if you step back and look at the thing in a different way.

The strongest connection between Jackson and Trump flows largely from leadership. They share many important behaviors as leaders—including personalization of grudges, impulsiveness, decisiveness over deliberation, a love of a maverick status, a recognition of their individual symbolism, impatience with nuanced knowledge, to name a few. They have significant differences, too. As an aside, my view is that the biggest difference is the presence of a life-long Cause for Jackson that was an expression of the American Revolution. Trump doesn’t have a life-long Cause to match it. The Entertainment Revolution doesn’t equate.

Thanks again to Commentary’s commentators for a rousing podcast. I look forward to the next iteration!

One last thing, if you haven’t seen it already, I invite you to go here (http://historicalsolutions.com/ttp-thoughts-over-wine-tonight-the-1832-election-and-the-2020-election/) for my look at the ways in which Jackson’s re-election in 1832 can illuminate the 2020 election. Also, go here (http://historicalsolutions.com/taking-a-pick-axe-to-nine-american-presidents/ ) to read my quick overview of what nine failed American presidents say about the 2020 election.

All the best, Dan

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