The 2016 presidential campaign: echoes of 1828?

I’ve been watching the unfolding of this year’s presidential campaign with great interest, not because I find any of the candidates particularly convincing, but because so many oxen are being gored, boats rocked and apple-carts upset.  I wrote about one aspect of that – the nature of the political “establishment” and opposition to it – a few days ago.

I’m seeing a number of parallels between events this year and those of 1828, when Andrew Jackson was elected President of the United States.  That year saw his ‘insurgent candidacy’ arrayed against intense opposition from the political establishment.  Former President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter in 1825 to William B. Giles, in which he discussed that establishment and its control of the federal government.  The letter was subsequently used to influence the 1828 elections.  Here are a few excerpts.

I see as you do, and with the deepest affliction, the rapid strides with which the federal branch of our government is advancing towards the usurpation of all the rights reserved to the states, and the consolidation in itself of all powers foreign and domestic, and that too by constructions which, if legitimate, leave no limits to their power. Take together the decisions of the federal court, the doctrines of the President, and the misconstructions of the constitutional compact acted on by the legislature of the federal bench, and it is but too evident, that the three ruling branches of that department are in combination to strip their colleagues, the State authorities, of the powers reserved by them, and to exercise themselves all functions foreign and domestic. Under the power to regulate commerce they assume indefinitely that also over agriculture and manufactures, and to take the earnings of one of these branches of industry, and that too the most depressed and put them into the pockets of the other, the most flourishing of all.

. . .

… they claim … aided by a little sophistry on the words ‘general welfare’ a right to do, not only the acts to effect that which are specifically enumerated and permitted, but whatsoever they shall think, or pretend will be for the general welfare, and what is our resource for the preservation of the constitution, reason and argument? You might as well reason and argue with the marble columns encircling them. The Representatives chosen by ourselves are joined in the combination, some from incorrect views of government, some from corrupt ones, sufficient, voting together, to out-number the sound parts; and, with majorities of only 1, 2 or 3, bold enough to go forward, in defiance.

. . .

… this opens with a vast accession of strength from their younger recruits, who, having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of ’76, now look to a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed incorporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures, commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry. This will be to them a next best blessing to the Monarchy of their first aim, and perhaps the surest stepping stone to it.

There’s more at the link.

When you read Jefferson’s words from 190 years ago, isn’t there an awful lot of similarity to what many of us care about today?  I think the parallels are obvious.

Those issues are driving many voters today – and in response, those voters are supporting anti-establishment candidates.  That’s why Donald Trump is doing so well, and (taken in conjunction with other populist and ‘insurgent’ candidates like Ted Cruz or Ben Carson) is shutting out those of a more mainstream, ‘establishment’ bent.  That’s also why many Democrat voters appear to be abandoning their own party, with its more rigidly controlling establishment, and are crossing party lines to support Trump – to such an extent that Democrats are seriously concerned that he might win some of their traditionally ‘solid’ states.

There are those who claim that Trump would be an authoritarian president.  Take, for example, the Telegraph’s view:

Matthew MacWilliams … has been testing the factors that turn voters into Trump supporters.

His surveys found the key wasn’t race, age, income, church attendance, ideology or education: it was attitudes to authoritarianism.

Donald Trump’s supporters are looking for a strongman.

Using that criterion, Mr MacWilliams polled Republican voters in South Carolina last month and predicted that Mr Trump would win with 33 per cent of the vote. Ten days ago he won with 32.5 per cent. Not a bad indicator then.

Understand this, and the Trump message – strong versus weak, winners and losers, nativism, fear of the other – makes sense.

It is an attractive message in 2016 America. Nothing characterises this election better than a creeping sense of insecurity: from jihadists launching lone wolf attacks in San Bernardino and Chattanooga to China’s expansionist position on the other side of the globe.

America is no longer the world’s lone economic and military superpower. Beyond the liberal salons of New York and Washington lies a country wondering what happened to the American dream. The old deal – work hard and you will succeed – was shattered by the global economic collapse of 2009.

So when Mr Trump talks of his admiration for Vladimir Putin, plenty of voters see not a gaffe but a reminder that a strong leader restored pride to a broken country.

Again, more at the link.

Such views might be persuasive, were it not for the fact that similar allegations were made against Ronald Reagan in the run-up to the 1980 Presidential election.  It’s a tactic long on rhetoric but short on facts.

Simply put, I think the federal government is widely perceived to have grown too big for its boots.  It’s become Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ – and voters are sick of it.  I don’t know whether Mr. Trump can halt or reverse that trend, but he’s widely perceived as being the only candidate willing to do so.  Whether or not he’ll actually prove to be that in practice is as yet unknown.  Nevertheless, in many ways Donald Trump presents himself as, or is perceived to be, a modern version of Andrew Jackson.  That’s why he’s winning . . . at least, so far.



  1. I will be honest, Trump worries me. If we end up with a choice between the lying female head of an on-going criminal enterprise and shirker of National Security, and a lying fast-talking con-man of a used car salesman, what choice IS THERE? I've been voting since '74, and I'm scared for the nation like I've never been before. I truly fear for the Republic, and Liberty dying the the "sound of thunderous applause"…. (Sigh)

  2. I agree that Trump is getting a lot of votes due to his demagoguery, but I think a lot of the people considering him are not doing their research. I think he's just doing what he's often advocated before – saying whatever he needs to say to win. He's been consistently liberal over his lifetime, and it's only now that he's running for the stupid party presidential ticket that he's espousing conservative views. I think it's a sham, and he's saying what he thinks the conservatives want to hear to get their votes. Sadly, it's working.

    Oddly enough, a person running for office saying one thing and then doing something entirely different is what has most of us so frustrated with the Republican party now. I don't understand why so many people don't apply that same examination to Trump to see what they are getting. Just because he's not a career politician doesn't mean he isn't cut from the same cloth.

  3. I'd say the 1828 comparison breaks down once you get to personalities. Jackson was a populist but not a statist (even though the word really isn't appropriate to use when discussing that time period). The sense I get of Trump is of someone who, when cornered and forced to act, is a statist, just with his own corporate interests as his goal rather than glorifying the State qua the State (he ain't Mussolini, at least not as far as I've seen.) Crony semi-socialist perhaps, with (supposedly) protectionist and probably isolationist foreign policy leanings? I'm not quite certain how to pin down his ideas, based on what I've heard.


  4. The difference is Reagan could talk knowledgably and with belief about freedom, free markets and free peooples. Trump, when pushed past his bumper-sticker make-america-great-again pablum only falls back on the proglodyte clichés and Democrat tropes that are he hears in the circles he travels.

    Trump will govern as a proglodyte because he has no idea what else to do.

  5. What I find interesting/frightening/maddening is that the GOP talks about stopping Trump. Note that they don't talk about investigating the issues that are fueling his popularity because that's not important. The important thing is stopping him from upending their nicely ordered apple cart; the issues themselves are irrelevant.

  6. I'm not sure what Trump will do once he's President (and I don't see how he doesn't win). I'm watching to see who he puts in positions of power in his Administration. Rumor has it that he's looking to Newt for Chief of Staff – I blow hot and cold on Newt but not about his political ideas or instincts. It would be a serious appointment.

    We shall see, I guess.

  7. I'm convinced he's wind up like Schwarzenegger and Ventura if elected. Lots of sound and fury going in, and pretty much a squish once in office.

  8. My favorite part of the quote from Jefferson was the bit where he mentions how the federal government uses "authority over commerce" to expand their power seemingly without any limitations whatsoever. The same with the bit about "general welfare". He could've written that today and it would have been perfectly relevant. God help us…

  9. Borepatch, above, touches on an important point: whom Trump selects for the operating positions will be critical.

    Back in a previous life, when i worked for (company name redacted), the corporation's operating methodology was similar to that of The Borg, which to anti-authoritarian types constituted an advantage: There was ample room in the policy gaps to manage quite effectively if one knew how to manipulate the bureaucracy. My guiding principle was "it is my job to help my people make me look good" because the more effective they were the higher the regard for my department, which enabled me to garner promotions and opportunities for them which would have been otherwise unavailable. It also allowed for my department to establish performance standards against which other departments in the division had to compete, a poor man's version of the boats and tide scenario.

    I'm not aware that Trump subscribes to that philosophy, but I'm quite sure Clinton, Sanders, Rubio, and Kasich do not. Certainly, the establishment core of both parties do not. Cruz, I don't know about. But, and it's a big "but," Trump may be the prime contender in a position to adopt it if he hasn't already; a very strong staff will be imperative to a successful Trump presidency, and without it The Donald – and the rest of us – would suffer greatly.

    I suspect Trump may be the only one of the bunch who would assign a highly competent manager to an extra-constitutional agency, such as Education or HUD, with the mission of gently, politely and firmly shutting it down. The rest of the herd, with the possible exception of Cruz, would expect it to be "run effectively," allowing it to continue metasticizing in perpetuity.

    Criticisms of Trump abound, many valid; there are just as many criticisms of every other candidate, presented more gently because they're regarded not as radical exceptions but merely variances from what's considered the political norm.

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