The Man Who Put Andrew Jackson in Trump’s Oval Office (POLITICO Magazine)

The Man Who Put Andrew Jackson in Trump’s Oval Office

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A few months ago, the historian Walter Russell Mead got a text message out of the blue from an unknown number. It turned out to be White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon, not yet banished from Trump’s inner circle, had a surprising story to tell to the wonky scholar of American foreign policy: Mead, he said, was the reason that President Andrew Jackson’s portrait now occupied a controversial place of honor in President Trump’s Oval Office.

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Bannon had seized on Mead’s work as part of his war on the other factions inside Trump’s White House, and especially the hyper-entitled family members like son-in-law Jared Kushner and “globalists” like national security adviser H.R. McMaster he viewed as selling out Trump’s “America First” vision to the more conventional course preferred by the Washington establishment. In the rumpled Mead and his writings about the “Jacksonian” tradition in American foreign policy, Bannon saw a populist kindred spirit—and a suitably rabble-rousing model for the antiestablishment course he hoped Trump would follow.

Trump agreed, which is why the Jackson portrait went up and the president was visiting Old Hickory’s Kentucky home within weeks of his inauguration, never mind the instant outcry that greeted Trump’s embrace of a slaveholding, Native American-fighting early 19th century predecessor as his role model. “That’s what Steve Bannon told me,” Mead recalled in a new interview for The Global Politico, our weekly podcast on world affairs. “There was this Jacksonian moment.”

Even now, exactly a year after Trump’s inauguration, Mead says that while Bannon has been purged from the White House, Bannonism—and by extension the bowdlerized, 21st century version of Jacksonianism he was peddling—has not. If you want to understand Trump’s otherwise incomprehensible presidency, Mead argues, you need to understand America’s seventh president.

“The Steve Bannon side of the Trump presidency remains very Jacksonian. Bannon isn’t in the White House, and he’s not welcome I think, but his influence is still felt,” Mead says. “Trump’s base remains Jacksonian. And Trump knows how to play to this base. So even as Trump has kind of adjusted in some ways to the necessities of the Washington establishment and, you know, ‘Well, you can’t just completely reinvent American foreign policy,’ he continues to orient in this way.”

After all, Mead notes, Bannon may be gone, but as for the president, “He still has a portrait of Andrew Jackson hanging in the Oval Office.”

***

When Trump unexpectedly won the presidency, it wasn’t just Steve Bannon who took a newfound interest in Andrew Jackson—and Walter Russell Mead. Suddenly, old copies of Mead’s 2001 book, Special Providence, were being pulled off shelves by those who hoped to understand Trump, and Mead’s essays in places like Foreign Affairs and The American Interest and columns in the Wall Street Journal were soon required reading among those Republicans, like the young hardliner Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who sought to advise Trump and harness his message of economic nationalism and deep skepticism of immigrants and internationalists. (“Insights that have stood the test of time,” Cotton said of Mead, recommending his book to listeners of The Global POLITICO last fall; the two have become so close that Mead attended Cotton’s 40th birthday party last summer.)

For Washington’s political class, Mead provided an answer to explain the otherwise perplexing populist appeal of the brash billionaire. Jacksonianism, as Mead viewed it, was exactly the historical precedent to explain Trump, marrying grassroots disdain for elites, deep suspicion of overseas entanglements—and obsession with America power and sovereignty. “He is not the second coming of Andrew Jackson,” Mead said when we talked on the eve of Trump’s first anniversary in office this weekend. “But there was such a hunger in America for a Jacksonian figure that people were willing to project a lot of qualities onto this sort of very unlikely Queens real estate developer who becomes the folk hero of Americans who hate New York and are suspicious of big business.”

In explaining the historical antecedents for Trump’s hostility toward free trade, establishment-bashing and embrace of a certain kind of chauvinist nationalism, Mead offered an intellectual framework to understand Trump at a time when others remained simply mystified by the president. Indeed, Mead found Trump’s antagonism toward the fundamentals of the post-Cold War international order; rejection of alliances and allies; and visceral disregard for international institutions and the robust free trade made possible by it all perfectly consistent with the attributes of Jacksonianism he had first described more than a decade earlier.

For “a scholar of foreign policy,” says Mead, who is today a distinguished fellow at the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute, watching Trump’s rise was sort of an out-of-body experience, a once-in-a-career moment “where these abstract typologies that you write about suddenly seems to be happening in front of you.”

Jackson is one of four American historical figures Mead sees as archetypes of American foreign policy—but, like Trump today, he has historically been far from the mainstream. Ever since World War II, Mead argues, politicians coming from the more idealistic, democracy-promoting, free-trade-worshiping ranks of Wilsonians and Hamiltonians have reigned over Washington. Jacksonians and more libertarian-minded Jeffersonian realists have largely been relegated to the sidelines, or reluctantly enlisted in foreign adventures when they seemed justified by the bigger ideological struggle against communism in the Cold War.

But with the Cold War over, that liberal internationalist approach finally flopped with the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Mead argues, giving Trump the political opening he seized. Bush and his neocons “had little to no real success,” Mead says, with their Wilsonian project of using American power to build a more democratic Middle East. Obama, while more cautious about democracy-building, got sucked in too, leaving “wreckage” abroad and dismayed voters at home. “The gap between the establishment predictions about where the world would go and then the reality of where the world is opened a gap that enabled Trump basically to run as the little boy saying the emperor has no clothes,” Mead says.

The problem, however, is that Trump was hardly prepared to govern—which has largely been the story of his first year in office. “He ran essentially on a negative agenda, that the establishment didn’t know what it was doing. And his proposals tended to be pretty vague and often contradictory,” Mead says. “So, yeah, now he has the difficulty of, you know, ‘How do you govern?’ This is always the problem for populism: Once you’re in office, what do you do?”

Trump’s embrace of Jackson as a governing philosophy has been decidedly controversial. To critics, it’s barely veiled racism, a signaling to Trump’s overwhelmingly white political base that is hardly subtle considering Jackson’s rapidly declining historical reputation. A slave owner and general once celebrated as the conquering hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson is perhaps better known today as a fighter against Native Americans whose tactics were so brutal that the Obama administration announced in 2016 it was booting him from the $20 bill. When Trump recently hosted Native American leaders in the Oval Office and pictures circulated of them standing with the Jackson portrait in the background, Twitter was filled with commentary about the president’s boorish slight of his guests.

In our interview, Mead acknowledges the “xenophobic” side of Jacksonian populism and says that it has often been a “whites-only” political movement, but he argues most mainstream scholars – and politicians – have made a mistake by seeking to condemn this key segment of the electorate rather than trying to understand it. “America wouldn’t be a democracy without Jacksonian populism,” Mead says, arguing that it is Jacksonians who tend to fight and win America’s wars, regardless of how enthusiastic they are about starting them. “In its more negative moments you can call it xenophobic. And yet somehow the health of our democracy historically has rested in many ways on exactly this sometimes quite problematic strain in American politics.”

Even now, a year after Trump’s inauguration, Mead argues that many establishment types remain confounded by Trump and his erratic approach to foreign policy because they continue to ignore the political imperatives demanded by his Jacksonian base. For example, Mead argues that Trump’s tough talk about the world and penchant for appointing top advisers from the ranks of former generals doesn’t necessarily mean he will end up as a more militaristic president than others, but should be seen as effective political appeals to a base that respects the military more than other American institutions and sees the outside world as a source of threat and fear rather than opportunity.

“Andrew Jackson’s actual foreign policy was a lot less inflammatory than his rhetoric. And I think Trump, for one thing, understands that Jacksonians like for America to sound tough. They don’t like long, grinding wars, inconclusive wars. And, in fact, they would rather not fight wars unless America is attacked,” Mead explains. “So it’s logical in a way and it builds to his base for Trump to take a tough line, but he’s been rather cautious about where does he actually commit troops and how much war is he willing to get into.”

Then again, Mead acknowledges, Trump’s approach to the world really has been confusing during his first year in office—at least in part because many of the president’s top advisers, like McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, don’t seem to share it. There may be a Jacksonian in the Oval Office, but he’s often outnumbered when he gets to the Situation Room.

“Trump’s foreign policy team,” Mead concedes, “is not very Trumpian.”

***

Neither, it turns out, is Walter Russell Mead.

When Bannon called Mead late one night last summer, he seemed to think he had gotten an intellectual fellow traveler on the phone as he credited Mead with the White House’s Jackson infatuation and that portrait on the Oval Office wall.

Eventually, Mead decided to disabuse him of that notion. The historian may be an essential guide to understanding Trump as his bizarre brand of politics continues to confound and confuse much of the rest of the world. But he’s not a Trump supporter.

As he told Bannon, “Well, you know, Steve, I write about Jacksonianism. That doesn’t mean I am a Jacksonian,” Mead remembers telling the Trump strategist. Not only that, but “actually, I voted for Clinton in the election.”

Bannon, he said, was a “little bit shocked.”

Susan B. Glasser is POLITICO’s chief international affairs columnist. Her new podcast, The Global Politico, comes out Mondays. Subscribe here. Follow her on Twitter @sbg1.

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January 22, 2018 at 04:47AM

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