I’m a huge fan of Leo McGarry, the “West Wing” chief of staff who is one of many fictitious characters I wish actually lived in the world we inhabit.
But I’m not a fan of “Big Block of Cheese Day.” Not that I mind occasionally giving people from the margins a hearing — if only because it provided for some comic relief on the show, as it punctured some of the leading characters’ sense of self-importance, which Aaron Sorkin loved to do. It’s that I connect it with the penchant of Andrew Jackson of inviting rowdy people in to trash the White House. (Yeah, I’m kind of conflating the cheese incident with his inaugural bash, but bear with me.)
My second major in college was history (I don’t think I ever declared it; I just took that many history electives), and I sort of concentrated on the early years of the United States. And I became convinced at that time that the election of Jackson was one of the great political disasters our nation has suffered. It’s been a lot of years and I don’t remember my reasons, but a lot of it had to do with Jackson being an exemplar (in my young mind) of American anti-intellectualism and John Quincy Adams one of the best-qualified men ever to offer for the job.
I am not, you see, a populist.
All of that said, I read with interest this morning this piece by Columbia native Walter Russell Mead, headlined “Andrew Jackson, Revenant,” with the subhed, “The biggest story in America today is the roaring return of Andrew Jackson’s spirit into the political debate.” Going into it, I assumed it was about Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders. (Oh, you doubt Bernie would put a Big Block of Cheese in the White House and invite folks to come and bring their knives? I don’t.)
But after saying a lot of things in general about Jacksonians in history and the present day, Mead only really got around to tying them to Trump.
But that’s appropriate enough.
One surprising thing, to me, was the several ways these Jacksonians are like me: They are not joiners. They despise both parties equally. And… OK, that’s about all we have in common, except maybe for a belief in a strong national defense, and they don’t believe in that quite in the way I do, or for the same reasons.
But it illustrates how complicated politics can be, that I can have some things in common with a movement that makes me want to hug the Democratic and Republican establishments protectively.
This excerpt offers a sense of what Mead means when he speaks of Jacksonians, not entirely unsympathetically:
For President Barack Obama and his political allies in particular, Jacksonian America is the father of all evils. Jacksonians are who the then Senator had in mind when, in the campaign of 2008, he spoke of the ‘bitter clingers’ holding on to their guns and their Bibles. They are the source of the foreign policy instincts he most deplores, supporting Israel almost reflexively, demanding overwhelming response to terror attacks, agitating for tight immigration controls, resisting diplomacy with Iran and North Korea, supporting Guantanamo, cynical about the UN, skeptical of climate change, and willing to use ‘enhanced interrogation’ against terrorists in arms against the United States.
He hates their instincts at home, too. It is Jacksonians who, as I wrote in Special Providence back in 2001, see the Second Amendment as the foundation of and security for American freedom. It is Jacksonians who most resent illegal immigration, don’t want to subsidize the urban poor, support aggressive policing and long prison sentences for violent offenders and who are the slowest to ‘evolve’ on issues like gay marriage and transgender rights.
The hate and the disdain don’t spring from anything as trivial as pique. Historically, Jacksonian America has been the enemy of many of what President Obama, rightly, sees as some of America’s most important advances. Jacksonian sentiment embraces a concept of the United States as a folk community and, over time, that folk community was generally construed as whites only. Lynch law and Jim Crow were manifestations of Jacksonian communalism, and there are few examples of race, religious or ethnic prejudice in which Jacksonian America hasn’t indulged. Jacksonians have come a long way on race, but they will never move far enough and fast enough for liberal opinion; liberals are moving too, and are becoming angrier and more exacting regardless of Jacksonian progress….
All of that and more leads up to his assertion that “What we are seeing in American politics today is a Jacksonian surge.”
But go read the whole thing.