Is Trump a Jacksonian? Let’s hope.
Is President Trump a “Jacksonian”? He apparently believes so: On his fifth day in office he installed a portrait of President Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, and he recently visited the last resting place of his presidential predecessor in Nashville. His top political strategist, Steve Bannon, has said that the president likes to compare the populist movement behind him to a similar movement that supported Andrew Jackson and which infuriated the entrenched elites of his day.
And infuriate he did. Court historians and other propagandists for the state and state power have long portrayed Andrew Jackson as a country bumpkin, an ignoramus, a tool of corrupt bankers, and worse. The ultimate Ivy League snob, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was especially disdainful of Jackson in his writings. Based on this fact alone, you know the man must have been one of the better presidents.
Murray Rothbard thought so. In his book, A Monetary History of the United States (page 91), Rothbard wrote that “[N]o movement in American politics has been as flagrantly misunderstood by historians as the Jacksonians,” thanks to all the misinformation about Jackson produced by the leftist, state-worshipping history profession. The Jacksonians were not “ignorant, anti-capitalist agrarians,” or “tools of the inflationary state banks,” as some historians have incorrectly portrayed him as being. “They were libertarians, plain and simple,” wrote Rothbard. (Note to libertarian purists: Murray Rothbard did not say that Jackson and his followers were as pure as the driven snow, like yourselves. They were imperfect human beings, as most of us are, but in the grand scheme of things, their main inspiration was really Jefferson, and they arguably comprised the most libertarian political movement in American history).
Jackson’s populist movement “Favored free enterprise and free markets,” and “just as strongly opposed special subsidies and monopoly privileges conveyed by the government to businesses or any other group,” wrote Rothbard. “They favored absolutely minimal government” at the federal and state levels. This certainly seems consistent with at least some of President Trump’s words and actions, such as his call for tax cuts, for firing thousands of government bureaucrats and getting rid of many onerous and prosperity-killing regulations.
Jackson and the Jacksonians (which includes Jackson’s successor, President Martin Van Buren) advocated “separation of government from the banking system and a shift from inflationary paper money and fractional reserve banking to pure specie banks confined to 100-percent reserves.” They were sworn enemies of central banking, in other words. Indeed, Jackson vetoed the re-chartering of the Second Bank of the United States, a precursor of the Fed, leading to its complete demise a few years later. In his veto statement Jackson proclaimed that a central bank as such was incompatible with “justice, with sound policy, or with the Constitution of our country.” It was a government-orchestrated “monopoly” that enriched politically-connected private stockholders, he said. The Bank of the United States had created “a privileged order, clothed both with great political power and enjoying immense pecuniary advantages from their connection with the government.”
When the Hamilton-worshipping Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall declared the Bank to be constitutional (citing Hamilton verbatim in his declaration), Andrew Jackson responded by saying “to this conclusion I cannot assent.” He pointed out that there are three branches of government, not just the judicial, and that the citizens of the states also have equal say on matters of constitutionality under the Tenth Amendment. Moreover, he said, the states were opposed to the bank, four to one. Marshall’s pronouncement, said Jackson, was a “palpable attempt [by the Court] to amend the constitution by an act of legislation.” He concluded his veto message by reiterating that with the Bank the “rich and powerful” had been able to “bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.”
This last statement sounds almost identical to the denunciation of the entire Washington establishment by President Trump as that very establishment sat next to him during his inaugural address. President Trump is not associated with such explicit views of central banking, but he does consistently condemn the corrupt enrichment of politically-collected elites that is financed by the Wall Street/Washington, D.C./Fed complex. And he is not worshipful of Janet Yellen and the Fed, as almost all other Washington politician are.
In For a New Liberty Murray Rothbard pointed out that the Jacksonians, whose New Democratic Party was inspired by Jefferson late in his life, had a grand plan. The plan (or pipe dream) was to eliminate most government power and return it to its constitutional roots with two terms of President Jackson, followed by Martin Van Buren, and then Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. They got Jackson, of course, and then one term of Van Buren, who Rothbard called Jackson’s “heir apparent.”
Martin Van Buren’s presidency was essentially a third Jackson term. He kept America out of wars with Mexico, England, and Canada. The “neocons” of his day – early-day chickenhawks in the image of a Lindsey Graham – were clamoring for such wars. Perhaps President Trump was aware of this when he first announced during his campaign – to the shock and horror of neocons everywhere – that he preferred peace to war with Russia. If not, it is certainly consistent with that view, or the view that Van Buren expressed in his inaugural address in favor of “friendship of all nations” and “strict adherence to the Constitution.” This drew the unmitigated hatred of the statists of Van Buren’s day, which is at least a thousand times more pervasive and intense in today’s “age of Trump.”
Martin Van Buren had the misfortune of assuming office during a recession. His response to it was government retrenchment. “All communities are apt to look to government for too much,” he said in an address to Congress on the matter. Instead of Hamiltonian interventionism, as the mercantilists in Congress were itching to proceed with, Van Buren informed them that America needs instead “a system founded on private interest, enterprise, and competition” and suggested no “plan” to Congress. He stuck to his Jeffersonian philosophy of “that government is best which governs least.”
Government spending fell from $30.9 million to $24.3 million during the four years of the Van Buren administration, in which he opposed the perennial mercantilist/Whig Party agenda of protectionist tariffs and corporate welfare spending on “internal improvements.” This would be another area of separation between President Trump and the Jacksonians. So far, the president had not imposed any protectionist tariffs, but has threatened to do so, even invoking the words of the quintessential protectionist promoter of crony capitalism in all of American history, Abe Lincoln.
The second most anti-Jacksonian policy that has been embraced by President Trump is his proposal to spend untold billions on federally-funded “infrastructure.” Such “internal improvements” spending was opposed not only by the Jacksonians but also by all of their Jeffersonian predecessors. James Madison, on his last day as president, vetoed a bill that included “internal improvements” spending. Such spending was not authorized anywhere in the Constitution, said the Father of the Constitution.
Pork-barrel corporate welfare spending was the original scheme concocted by Alexander Hamilton in his quest to explode governmental power far beyond what the Constitution allowed for (along with a central bank, a large public debt, and protectionist tariffs). Perhaps President Trump’s thinking about this is clouded by the fact that he is a lifelong New Yorker. Hamilton is to native New Yorkers what Lincoln is to natives of Illinois.
Andrew Jackson also actually paid off the national debt, something that no other president has done since or probably ever will. President Trump, on the other hand, will probably not mention this fact in his discussions of Jackson in light of some of his grandiose spending proposals – for the military, the border wall, paid family leave, etc.
All in all, a good case can be made that Donald Trump is a Jacksonian – for the most part. He is undoubtedly the one president who is most hated by the entrenched Washington political establishment since Jackson. That in itself establishes a strong intergenerational kinship between the two presidents.