Populism reborn in American democracy. It all began with Andrew Jackson, the swaggering president who could be Donald’s Trump’s best antebellum chum.
And Bernie Sanders, you’re a ringer for William Jennings Bryan, the famed prairie populist of the 1890s. The “Cross of Gold” speech electrified the nation.
Many seek an explanation for what’s going on in the rough and tumble of 2016, with the startling rise of Trump and Sanders as leading presidential contenders.
Every so often, a populist rises — to the surprise of elites. So far, the case is textbook. The American body politic still has a populist streak, especially in trying times for the working and farming class.
Trump and Sanders have constituencies with one thing in common: marginalization, with the work they do. That’s the writing on their walls.
But never have two populists emerged as perfect opposites, Trump on the right and Sanders on the left. Call it an extraordinary eclipse of our political sun. Speaking to a force field of voter fury out there, Trump and Sanders are both capitalizing on that frustration, amassing fierce followings of which other candidates can only dream.
The trouble for Hillary Clinton in this small-craft-warning weather is that she can’t even pretend to be a populist. With all her establishment credentials, such as her eastern education at Wellesley and Yale, and her recent fancy Wall Street speeches, the lady’s an elitist. Despite her claims, she is an insider, not an outsider.
The former first lady, senator and secretary of state has a plum resume to beat all, but she’s not winning new hearts and minds — not among young women who can’t remember the women’s movement. That’s too bad.
Let’s go back to Jacksonian democracy, a darling of historians. Yes, they adore the seventh president, whose first act in office was to open up the white mansion to unruly masses for a party. The Boston Brahmin sixth president, John Quincy Adams, who had just lost to Jackson, had hurried home to Massachusetts.
In 1829, it was a new day in the capital, from the first day. It was not unlike a reality show that just came to town from Tennessee. The star was “Andy” Jackson, the general who whipped the British at the Battle of New Orleans — after the war of 1812 was done.
Jackson, fierce in word and deed, silenced questions with a glare. A slaveholder of 100 enslaved people, he was ruthless when it came to the status of slaves and American Indians. The abolitionist movement began on his watch, in 1833. His presence was as aggressive and intimidating in person as Trump’s in debates and speeches.
Like Trump, Jackson was a stubborn man of a few fixed ideas. One gem was “Indian removal” — have you heard of the Trail of Tears? — and the other was closing the Bank of the United States.
Just as Trump wants to displace and remove thousands of immigrant people and build a wall to keep the Texas-Mexico border “safe” from fleeing people, Jackson removed a whole people — the Cherokee tribe — from their homeland in the Southeast. Thousands were sent on a forced march to the barren Oklahoma territory.
Closing the Bank of the United States, a Philadelphia institution that Jackson considered the hub of Eastern elites, didn’t work out so well. The economy soon spun into the “Panic of 1837,” the depression that broke out the year the old warrior left office.
Clearly, the tattered nation was worse off than Jackson found it. The General, as he liked to be called, went home to the Hermitage, his plantation near Nashville. A dangerously simple man.
Trump, despite his massive wealth, hits populist chords when he attacks globalization and the resulting American job loss at home. He incites resentment against immigrants in a mean-spirited way Jackson would envy for his hateful anti-Indian campaign.
Senator Sanders is in Congress, so he is not an outsider. But he is a populist in his relentless pursuit against Wall Street “rigging” the financial system. In his call for fairness, he’d find a soul mate in Bryan, who once declared, “What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand, as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of organized wealth.”
There you have it. Populism comes round again.
To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit Creators.com.
Andrew Jackson portrait by Thomas Sully, 1824, via Senate.gov.