Andrew Jackson had good reason to believe that his first presidential election, of 1824, had been rigged. He had won the popular vote but not an Electoral College majority. Jackson was hated by elite political players. The Tennessean’s crass demeanor, uneducated manner, and disconnection from the dominant elite strongholds of Massachusetts and Virginia—all previous presidents had hailed from one place or the other—made him anathema to the gentry who had run the country since its founding a half century earlier. The House of Representatives denied Jackson the presidency and elevated John Quincy Adams instead, a man who, as the son of a former president and heir to an elite political legacy, represented just what Jackson was fighting against.
Four years later Jackson would reap his revenge, running a starkly populist campaign. He would mobilize twice as many voters as had ever gone to the polls in the brief history of the young republic, silencing the power of the elites with the voices of the people. Today we look back and view this popular mobilization as breaking the aristocratic elite’s domination of American politics, shepherding in the first modern American president, and auguring a newly democratic sensibility in the rapidly growing country.
Jackson’s ascension to power represented a fundamental challenge to the republic. Our political institutions were designed to be insulated from popular democracy. The Electoral College ensured that the president would not be directly elected. The Supreme Court has never been elected by the populace. Senators only began being directly elected after the passage of the 17th Amendment, in 1913. American democracy had a core principle: keep the important parts away from the meddling influence of relatively unenlightened citizens. Let the competent elites do their job.
While Jackson’s populism helped break elite control of democratic institutions, it was built, as most populisms are, on a narrowly circumscribed definition of “the people.” Ethnic whites supported Jackson in no small part because of his ethnic cleansing of the nation. Commenting on the horrors unleashed against Native Americans by Jackson, Alexis de Tocqueville, who watched as the defeated tribal members were force-marched through Memphis, would write in his diary, “In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. ‘To be free,’ he answered …”
Jackson’s populism blended contempt for East Coast elites—those aloof, Enlightenment-era scholar-politicians whose worldview was shaped in colonial-era America—with a concerted effort to define and to limit who belonged in the United States: who held the keys to liberty, and who, through racial and other exclusions, would have to leave our nation if they wanted to be free.
Our political institutions were designed to be insulated from popular democracy.
There is a core tension within our nation between the elitist structures of our institutions and the increasingly democratic sentiments of the country’s culture. Sometimes, the democratic pull has resulted both in more participation and in more of an informed citizenry. At other times, however, it has slid into the exclusionary populism that Jackson embodied. Reformers have thus been obliged to navigate our politics between the Scylla of elite dominance and the Charybdis of populist exclusion.
Donald Trump’s administration is a strange hybrid, somehow managing to crash our nation into this twin set of perils. On the one hand, Trump likes to fashion himself as a Jacksonian populist, a defender of white, male, red-blooded American-ness. On the other hand, his Administration is peopled by plutocratic elites. It has proven to be a peculiarly ugly and incompetent combination. These titans of industry and billionaire “winners,” few of whom have political experience, are the least competent and most corrupt group of political leaders that America has had in generations. And yet for much of Trump’s base, animated more by a desire for the restoration of racial privilege than by a craving for competent governance, the failings are more than made up for by Trump’s clear sympathies for White nationalism.
Some critics decry the Trump presidency as being “un-American.” But in actuality it is part of a long political tradition, beginning before Jackson, that was fully embodied by the slave-owning founders of the country, who used the genteel language of liberalism and the Enlightenment to craft a political system based on racial slavery, gendered exclusions, and class hierarchies.
While ethnic exclusion is at the heart of Trumpian populism, it was not the only source of his appeal during the 2016 election. He also attacked a small cosmopolitan elite, exemplified, in his rhetoric, by Hillary Clinton and by out-of-touch mainstream journalists, who, he suggested, were more interested in looking across oceans than into their own land, seeing themselves as citizens of a global world rather than an American nation.
Trump appealed to the left-behind “real Americans”—those who feel they are the true inheritors of our nation, and who believe that “outsiders” have been unfairly prioritized and pandered to in recent decades. The solution Trump sold them was to take back the nation and expel, imprison, or marginalize the others who benefited from a rotten alliance that threatened to change the exceptional ethno-cultural identity of this country.
Populism, Right and Left
While much as been written about the ethnic elements of Trump’s appeal, less has been said about his cultural appeal. The intelligentsia’s contempt toward him is based in no small part on his lack of “class,” or, in more academic terms, “cultural capital.” We revel in images of his coarseness—his tacky, gilded homes, the fact that he eats his steaks well-done and doused in ketchup, his loud, brash demeanor, the architectural disasters that are his branded buildings, to say nothing of his owning a gaudy casino. As the joke goes, Donald Trump is what poor people would do if they had money. But as Bourdieu helped us understand, money is but one part of the social organization of hierarchical relations. Trump revels in his boorishness, in his being culturally more in tune with “ordinary” Americans than with those elites who have but a fraction of his proclaimed wealth.
Ethnic whites, particularly men, are not wrong in thinking that they’ve lost their relative economic standing and their cultural dominance. In the last 40 years, wages for women and minorities have markedly increased. Whites and men are still better off than almost all other groups, but the gap has closed considerably. In that same 40 years, elites have almost completely captured the economic rewards of our increased productivity. They have increased their control of capital through stock ownership. The richest 300,000 Americans have seen their incomes increase almost five hundred percent while the average American is stuck in place.
These two simultaneous processes—the elite seizure of economic growth and the relative advancement of women and nonwhites—provided a critical opportunity for a demagogue such as Trump. Seizing on the sentiment of relative deprivation, Trump suggested that a subgroup of elites had advantaged both themselves and an illegitimate set of Americans. This ruse capitalized on white men’s sense that an unholy alliance of elites, women, and nonwhites had taken the economic rewards and displaced white men from their traditional social, cultural, and economic pride of place.
Make no mistake: Trump’s was not a working-class movement. Two thirds of Trump voters made more than the median national income. Economic anxiety alone does little to explain the likelihood of a person voting for Trump. But throw into the mix racial and cultural animus, and you have a toxic electoral coalition that propelled him to the White House.
Donald Trump’s administration is a strange hybrid of elite dominance and populist exclusion.
The Trump movement builds on an old form of populism, one that emphasizes those “left behind” by cultural and economic changes, focusing on the rights, position, and power of a specific group who are advantaged, but losing their relative position. This is a particular kind of democracy, where economic differences are bridged through ethno-cultural alliances. The rights of others, or of those who are not “the people,” should be limited in order to maintain the dominance of that narrowly circumscribed group of “real Americans” who must be protected from the perils of a more tumultuous, more multiethnic and multilingual democracy.
Some, like Arlie Hochschild, have argued that the solution to our problems is to be more attentive to working-class white people, and empathize more with their plight. Such an approach misguidedly puts a premium on “whiteness,” asking nonwhites to compromise their struggles and pander to this wounded lion. Others, like Mark Lilla, suggest that solutions like Hochschild’s would only represent a continuation of racial politics, and argue that what we need to do is rekindle a more “colorblind” and universalist liberal tradition. Yet this approach ignores the racial and gendered bases of liberalism, where white men happily occupy the unmarked position—those without race or gender—and thereby are privileged in their capacity to suggest that their positions are not based in some “identity politics.” Still others have suggested that what we need is to find a unifying umbrella under which to consolidate our movements; for many on the left, that umbrella is “class.” Yet class-based movements have often been predicated on exclusion and the dismissal of non-class-based concerns.
There are three lessons I draw from this meditation on “the big picture,” one year after Trump’s electoral win. The first is that we can’t play a one-dimensional game in a multidimensional world. The idea that we can just singularly emphasize class, or race, or gender is as politically naive as it is ineffective. Trump was able to create cross-class alliances through critiques of elite culture; he was able, despite the allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against him, to use racial politics to mobilize a majority of white women to vote for him. Any political solution requires alliances across a wide range of dimensions—economic, religious, racial, gender, and culture—to be successful.
The second is that, if Trump has shown anything, it is that elites are not a monolith. Many among “the elite” clearly find his politics and policies, as well as his persona, distasteful, even grotesque. This opens up space for alliance building in opposition to the culture and the political movement that Trump is busy consolidating. There is currently no single American elite. Rather there are competing elites, with different interests and bases of their social power. Political movements for durable change will require alliances with some of these elites. Mobilizing their resources—their ties to one another, their knowledge of institutions, their money, and their influence—will be crucial to the resistance. Elites will be necessary players in blocking Trump’s excesses and minimizing the damage that his toxic racial and religious populism is unleashing on this complex, diverse, and geographically vast country.
Finally, inegalitarianism is a robust American political tradition. The present is not so much an aberration as a continuation of normal politics in America. Thus, as we look for effective routes of opposition we ought to consider leaning on organizing tools that have, in other chapters of the American story, worked to bend the arc of history in the direction of a more inclusive union.
We have long-established political traditions of dissent and of resistance. Black politics should be our guide, in no small part because of its association with the concept of “linked fate.” How might we create cross-class, cross-culture, cross-gender alliances? The black political community’s capacity to do this over a period of decades is perhaps unrivaled. This means spending less time thinking about how we can pander to the white vote, and more time looking to black political communities for guidance in the politics of solidary across dimensions of difference.
Voters were right in sensing the building of an unholy alliance. But that alliance is not, as Trump suggested, between elite culture and a more diverse citizenry; it is, as Trump represents, between elite interests and white nationalist sentiments. We must pivot elites away from the politics of interest, and whites away from racial domination. A countermovement can appeal to both groups through morally grounded visions of equality and solidarity.