Donald Trump clinched the GOP nomination by exploiting vulnerabilities few were aware existed. When the 2016 race began, almost no one seemed to have understood that a plurality of the Republican party had a fundamentally different set of policy preferences from those of doctrinaire conservatism. Trump saw this opening and took full advantage.
Trump’s positions follow the contours not of movement conservatism but of American folk nationalism, often known as Jacksonianism. As Walter Russell Mead, my boss over at The American Interest, has noted, Jacksonians characteristically emphasize anti-elitism and egalitarianism while drawing a sharp distinction between members of the folk group and those outside it. In domestic policy, this translates to tough-on-crime stances and stubborn adherence to traditional views on social issues (and, historically, opposition to civil rights), and to advocacy of government assistance for “deserving” members of the folk group. Looking abroad, they are uninterested in Wilsonian nation-building projects or promoting global order, but if they feel the nation is threatened, they are willing to fight back by whatever means are necessary. Sound familiar yet?
Jacksonians don’t fit easily into either the liberal or the conservative camp; they are the “radical middle.” They also don’t comport with regional stereotypes. Jacksonians are not synonymous with southerners or rednecks: Trump has performed best in northeastern states and prospered in cities. And while Trump is supported by racists (especially by the ugly little band of Twitter trolls known as the alt-right), Jacksonians cannot be dismissed as such en masse. In the past, Jacksonians have been found at the heart of the Confederacy, but they also formed the core of the Union Army, and later the one that defeated Hitler. Their motivations and history are too complex — and they comprise too wide a swath of the American public — to be rightly considered atavistic or a sectional rump.
When Jacksonians take up politics, they do so with a vengeance, and Jacksonian uprisings have overturned the American political order more than once. But Jacksonians tend to be quiet politically when things are going well. Much of the time, it’s easy for elites to misread them as supporters of other movements, forget them, or take them for granted.
And that’s exactly what Republicans had been doing. After the “paleoconservatives” and Buchananites were defeated a generation ago, leading GOP politicians minimized and sometimes outright denied tensions between Jacksonian sentiment and conservative ideology. They focused on issues where the two viewpoints overlapped (from an aversion to liberal identity politics to the need to take the fight to the bad guys after 9/11), while politely ignoring (or forgetting) the important differences between the groups. This was made easier by the fact that for much of that period, a rising economic tide lifted all boats and kept the visibility of disagreements to a minimum.
Many Republicans, especially those of the “neocon” persuasion, went a step farther by denying the existence of American nationalism outright. This usually involved their contrasting nationalism, which was something bad that others (usually: Europeans) had indulged in, with patriotism, which was presented as good and American — and universalistic and ideal-based. In his first inaugural address, President George W. Bush declared: “America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens.”
It is true that America is a country uniquely rooted in ideas, with a universal message accessible to all people. It’s also true that Americans are patriotic. But for much of the Right, patriotism — love of country — itself has become identified with reverence for a specific body of ideas, including the classical-liberal, individualist, and universalist Enlightenment ideals enshrined in America’s founding documents. At its most expansive, this can include — and was read as including — a series of classical-liberal economic prescriptions, certain foreign- and domestic-policy assumptions, and even originalist judicial philosophy.
There’s something to this. Lincoln, who revered the Declaration of Independence and used its principles to animate his political views, was a better patriot than Stephen Douglas or Robert E. Lee, even though in some sense all three loved their country. But expansive rhetoric and blurred categories can muddle thinking. The conservative movement, which reveres tradition, forgot that there were other traditions of how to view one’s country and understand what binds us together. The idea that America has never had a sense of national folk identity is just plain false — and making political and policy judgments on that assumption was madness. The reappearance of naked nationalism has been a shock to those who spent decades maintaining that America’s unique and unqualified achievement has been to synthesize love of country and universal democratic ideals. Jacksonians have consistently felt that some combination of ethnicity, where you were born, and (though Bush didn’t mention it) faith unite the American people, though not quite in the same way as — and generally much more expansively conceived than — the European “blood and soil” ideologies to which President Bush alluded.
As a form of nationalism, Jacksonianism has had two saving graces. First, it’s proven to be expandable in a way that no other folk nationalism in history has been. Although it was originally carried to America by the Scots-Irish who settled the frontier, the Jacksonian understanding of the folk group has expanded in time beyond its white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant roots to include millions of immigrants from far-flung places, such as Irish Catholics and Eastern European Jews. If this process was rougher than is sometimes remembered, and if America has not yet achieved total reconciliation on racial matters, nevertheless this record of assimilation is an immense and unprecedented achievement in the bloody annals of a fallen world.
Second, Jacksonianism has usually embraced and supported American idealistic patriotism. It’s an oversimplification to think of these as competing ideologies: One operates (mostly) at the level of feeling and the other at the level of principle. Most Jacksonians would profess to be ardent patriots and lovers of America’s founding principles, and most Americans have at least some Jacksonianism in them.
The tension between the two is nonetheless real and tricky to manage for a conservative movement that is, as it’s suddenly and rudely been reminded, a minority both in the country and within the Republican party. Conservatives need Jacksonian votes to form a governing coalition. Yet from trade to immigration, foreign policy to fiscal policy, Jacksonian instincts are often incompatible with conservative prescriptions.
There are lots of ways to deal with this friction. The least helpful is to pretend it doesn’t exist. Exhibits A and B of this tendency are the proposed immigration bills in 2007 and 2013, which repeated in their essentials the failed 1986 amnesty-for-enforcement bargain. More broadly, party leaders failed to take the Jacksonian base’s positions on economic policy into account or even acknowledge them rhetorically, and they failed also to respond to Jacksonian dissatisfaction with the Wilsonian aspects of the Iraq War. By the time 2016 rolled around, the Republicans — including much of their supposed anti-establishment wing — were acting as though Jacksonianism didn’t exist.
Meanwhile, structural shifts in the economy, from globalization to automation, have been breaking down traditional sources of blue-collar and clerical employment, even as 50 years of mass immigration — a large chunk of it not sanctioned by law — have altered the nature of the American folk group. The latter has weakened social cohesion, and the former not only grates on Jacksonians’ sense of economic security but undermines their very identity as industrial workers and providers. Meanwhile, the perception that the world abroad was threatening and thankless grew even as confidence in the efficacy of conservative foreign and military policy waned. The conditions for a Jacksonian revolt were ripe.
While conservatives are more than within their rights to write off Trump, they would be neither wise nor justified to write off the Jacksonians. They may be disgusted with Trump’s antics, and they may find some Jacksonian positions inchoate, wrongheaded, or unfulfillable. But after the dust from this election settles, it will be urgently necessary to once again fuse patriotic, idealistic, and inclusive conservatism with Jacksonian nationalism.
Ideals need gut instincts and folk tradition on their side in order to be efficacious. The Jacksonian sense of common American identity enables self-governance, charity, and neighborliness; for many — including groups that the GOP has been trying to court for years, such as Hispanic Americans and single women without college degrees — it gives important meaning to life. And Jacksonian support will also be necessary to addressing our pressing foreign-policy problems.
For now, Jacksonianism lies closer to conservatism than it does to the identity-politics Left, and one may reasonably hope for a “best of both” compromise between intellectual conservatism and Jacksonian impulses. It will take some time to work out the details, but time is something we conservatives will have a lot of as we spend the rest of the 2016 presidential campaign in the political wilderness. Consider it the price of ignoring political reality for a generation.
– Mr. Gallagher is a staff writer at The American Interest.