Several political analysts, such as Benjamin Welton, have attempted to label Donald Trump’s rising support across the United States as symbol of the ‘new right’ and or the ‘alternative-right’. However, from a historical standpoint, there is nothing alternative or new about Trump. In fact, the three characteristics that have strengthened Trump’s campaign – resilience, populism and attacks on political corruption – have been at the heart of American politics since the Jacksonian era of the early 19th century.
On 3 December 1828, Andrew Jackson claimed victory over John Quincy Adams after acquiring 178 electoral votes in the eleventh presidential election. For the first time in American history, the people had chosen a ‘political outsider’ to serve as the president of the United States. While this characteristic was considered a liability for the majority of presidential candidates at the time, it became one of Jackson’s primary selling points.
Following the 1824 presidential election, the Adams administration, and Washington DC had become synonymous with political corruption. In similarity to Trump’s current accusations against Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the Republican National Committee, and President Obama, Jackson and his supporters were quite livid with the ‘un-democratic’ practices of the ‘Corrupt Bargain’ of 1825. Due to the fact that neither Adams nor Jackson had acquired the 131 electoral votes needed to win in 1824, the constitution specified that the House of Representatives would have to choose the president of the United States. In exchange for becoming the next secretary of state, Speaker Henry Clay quickly convinced the House to vote for Adams. Consequently, according to historian ES Brown, this allowed Jackson to become associated with a ‘pro-democratic’ platform for the next four years.
From a financial standpoint, Jackson’s actions against the Second Bank of the United States in 1832 have also been quite similar to the Trump’s ‘America First’ policy and attacks on Wall Street since June of last year. Jackson and his supporters openly opposed the re-establishment of the national bank on the grounds that the institution’s underlying ‘friendship’ with the country’s elites violated the US Constitution’s principles of overall social equality. This helped Jackson gain support from southern farmers and northern blue-collar workers alike and Trump has been able to adopt this strategy against the ‘big banks’ and their supposed ‘puppets’ in Washington.
Aside from attacking unjust economic and political practices, Trump has also, possibly unknowingly, adopted Jackson’s unorthodox personality and approach in order to remain in the media’s spotlight. Jackson was notoriously plainspoken, at one point telling South Carolina Senator John Calhoun, ‘If you secede from my nation, I will secede your head from the rest of your body.’ In addition, Jackson quickly took advantage of Adams’ alleged sympathy for Native American populations in Georgia by openly supporting an Indian relocation programme. Regrettably, this fed the underlying desires of several southern farmers, allowing Jackson to both strengthen his own reputation as a ‘decision maker’ and an ‘American first-candidate’, and pass the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Sound familiar?
This does not mean that Jackson and Trump are completely similar. On the contrary, Jackson was genuinely born into a life of poverty in Tennessee, while Trump strikes the pose of champion of the people despite being raised in a life of luxury in New York. Nevertheless, as political outsiders, they both have, and had, the opportunities to gain support from the populist ‘common man’. Thus, the reasons behind the elites’ failure to stop Jackson in 1828 are the same reasons why Trump is rising in the polls in 2016. The American people are, once again, becoming frustrated with what they see as government’s capture by special interests and scheming politicians. Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election, political pundits must realize that, while Trump’s actions may be out of the ordinary, they are nevertheless an ingrained part of America’s national political rhetoric.