White House

Trump the Outsider

President Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, May 9, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The president criticizes the bureaucracy as though he’s not running it. In many ways, he’s not.

Yesterday morning, President Donald Trump offered a series of tweets complaining about what he considers the disparate treatment of his presidential campaign compared with Hillary Clinton’s:

And so on. It is remarkable how, after having been president of the United States for more than a year, Trump still tweets as if he is an outsider in the government.

In a sense, he still is.

To appreciate why this is, it is useful to compare Trump with President Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, whom Trump considers a role model.

Jackson, like Trump, was seen as an outsider, though Jackson had an extensive history of military service as well as stints in the United States Senate. Both Jackson and Trump presented themselves as representatives of the people against an established order.

But whereas Trump has mostly limited himself to complaining about the “swamp,” Jackson did something about it. For instance, he established the principle of “rotation in office,” ending the tenure of many longstanding government officials, who were replaced with Jacksonian loyalists. Rotation in office eventually evolved into the spoils system, whereby the leaders of the major political parties used federal jobs, contracts, and licenses to reward their campaign subordinates. But Jackson initially justified it in republican terms: There was no need for a single group of people to permanently occupy offices that could be held by one and all.

Jackson also moved against the Second Bank of the United States after its president, Nicholas Biddle, worked to have him defeated in the 1832 presidential election. The rivalry between Biddle and Jackson boiled down to Jackson’s refusal to sign a law rechartering the Bank for another 20 years. Biddle responded by using the Bank’s resources to campaign against Jackson and for his opponent, Henry Clay. Jackson won reelection handily and responded by removing federal deposits from the Bank, which contributed to its destruction. So intent was Jackson on this course of action that, when Secretary of Treasury William Duane refused to remove the deposits, Jackson demanded his resignation and installed at Treasury his ally Roger Taney.

No president did more than Jackson to upend the established order of American politics. Trump talks a good game and has undone many of Barack Obama’s signature policies, but he is nothing like Jackson.

Indeed, at the end of yesterday’s twitter rant against the Justice Department, Trump signaled that he would appeal to the establishment for redress of his grievances:

Something tells me that if Trump could act like Jackson, he would. But it seems he cannot, and his limitations illustrate the evolution of the presidency.

Trump faces two problems that did not confront Jackson. First, in response to the patronage system, Congress instituted regularized procedures for filling most administrative offices. The result is that most bureaucratic functions are immunized from political interference by the president because staff members are hired or fired based on merit. This is not to say that the bureaucracy cannot behave politically — it can, and many agencies are partial to liberal causes — but rather that it is often hard for political officials to influence their behavior directly. Jackson, on the other hand, could clean house because there were hardly any laws that limited presidential discretion on appointments. In the case of the Justice Department, Trump basically has to ask them to investigate themselves, rather than just fire them — as Jackson no doubt would have.

Second, Jackson’s presidency came after more than a quarter-century of one-party rule in the United States. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams were all (Jeffersonian) Republicans. During this time, the Federalist party of George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton atrophied, such that by the middle of the 1820s, many Americans thought that party politics were permanently a thing of the past. Jackson cut through this consensus like a hot knife through butter. And it was up to opponents of the new president to organize themselves into a durable political organization. This took time, and the Whig party did not take full shape until the administration of Martin Van Buren, after Jackson had left office.

Executive authority is exercised by bureaucrats who operate under legislative mandate without fear of being fired for political reasons by the president.

A disorganized opposition gave Jackson political leverage to do what he wanted — much more room to maneuver than what Trump could enjoy. When Jackson removed federal deposits from the Second Bank of the United States, for instance, he probably broke the law, and the Whig-dominated Senate censured him for his actions. But the Whigs were not yet a match for the Jackson men in terms of political operation, so Jackson was more or less able to get away with his assault on the Bank. On the other hand, if Trump were to fire Rod Rosenstein or Robert Mueller, the Democratic party could make a national issue out of it — and probably to great effect, even though he possesses the constitutional authority to fire those officers whom he appoints.

It is weird to think that the president is not as powerful now as he was in the 1830s. Certainly, the expansive PR operation currently under the president’s employ makes it seem as if he is “in charge.” And there is no doubt that the executive branch has substantially more authority today than it did back then. But that authority may not necessarily be deployed according to the personal discretion of the president; instead, executive authority is exercised by bureaucrats who operate under legislative mandate without fear of being fired for political reasons by the president. And even when the president can act directly against executive employees, the potential blowback from the opposition party may make it unadvisable.

So, as much as Trump would like to assume the mantle of Jackson, he cannot. That is why he continues to complain about the executive bureaucracy as if he were still an outsider candidate — for there is little else for him to do.

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Jay Cost is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.


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