Trump’s cult of personality is like nothing else in our country’s history

Trump’s cult of personality is like nothing else in our country’s history

Donald Trump really likes Andrew Jackson. “I’m a fan. I’m a big fan,” he declared about the seventh president at a 2017 event commemorating Jackson’s 250th birthday. Trump added that Jackson’s portrait “hangs proudly” up on the wall in the Oval Office—a place it had not been seen for quite some time until he put it there. Two weeks after Election Day in 2016, Trump’s campaign manager and out-and-out white nationalist Steve Bannon likened his boss’s politics to “Jackson’s populism.” After President Obama had set in motion a plan to have Jackson replaced by Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, The Man Who Lost An Election And Tried To Steal It nixed the effort, although President Biden has since revived it.

The tumultuous events surrounding Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney’s recent removal from the House Republican leadership provide an opportunity to compare and contrast Trump and Jackson in a very specific way—namely their influence on our system of political parties.

For better or worse—okay, in Trump’s case, there’s no question which one—both have had an overall impact on American politics exceeded by a very small number of presidents. Jackson cleaved his party in two on the basis of both ideology and support for his candidacy, while his latter-day counterpart turned his into a body defined by little other than personal loyalty to the leader—in other words, just another Trump Organization.

There are certainly strong parallels between the two—and that’s without even going into each one’s racism. (In addition to Jackson’s well-known and despicable anti-American Indian policies, he was also a virulent supporter of slavery who, as per historian Daniel Walker Howe, “expressed his loathing for the abolitionists vehemently, both in public and in private.”) In big picture terms, both were incredibly divisive personalities who defined an era—Jackson starting with his unsuccessful campaign of 1824 through 1837 when he left the White House after two terms, and Trump certainly since 2016—and who fundamentally transformed the party through which he became a national political figure.

In the 1824 presidential election, Jackson came in first in the Electoral College (and won the popular vote by about 10%), but could not garner an electoral majority as four different candidates won states. John Quincy Adams came in second, but won the support of the fourth place candidate, Henry Clay, and ultimately triumphed in the contingent election held in the House of Representatives. Adams, after being inaugurated, appointed Clay as his secretary of state—each of the last four presidents, including Adams, had served in that position. Jackson accused Adams and Clay of having conspired in a “corrupt bargain,” and slammed Clay in biblical terms: “The Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver. His end will be the same.”

Trump, on the other hand, claimed even before the 2016 election that put him in the White House despite losing the popular vote that it would be “rigged.” More recently, he has been promulgating The Big Lie about the 2020 election ever since last November. However, although both men challenged their defeats, Trump’s claims differ from those of Jackson, in that the former and his supporters literally made up wild and crazy events relating to a supposedly fraudulent voting process. One other difference: only one of them incited an insurrection to prevent the actual winner from becoming president.

The election of 1824, and Jackson’s reaction afterward, led to a fundamental shift in our country’s partisan alignment. By 1820, the so-called First Party System—in which the Democratic-Republicans and Federalists competed for power—had basically come to an end with the demise of the latter. President James Monroe ran unopposed in 1820, as the Federalists failed to put up a candidate, and these years were known as The Era of Good Feelings. All four of the major candidates in 1824 were Democratic-Republicans. After that year’s controversial election, Andrew Jackson led his followers into a new organization, which became known as the Democratic Party.

Although Jackson’s personality mattered greatly in this endeavor, there were also ideological grounds on which the old Democratic-Republicans split. He embraced the basic approach held by traditionalists within the older party, namely the Jeffersonian concept of small government that favored agrarian interests. Given the whole Liz Cheney debacle—which we’ll get to, don’t you worry—a real ideological difference seems sort of quaint, no?

The Adams-Clay alliance organized itself not just in opposition to Jackson as a person, but around their shared vision of a more active government—especially at the federal level—that aided the growth of industry and trade. They supported federal tariffs to protect domestic industries, as well as the aggressive building of canals and roads along with the continuation of the National Bank and other measures to promote economic growth—all of which Jacksonian Democrats opposed. The opponents of Jackson were briefly known as the National Republicans and then, after 1832, the Whigs, and their plan was embodied in Clay’s “American System.”

The point here is that the pro-Jackson and anti-Jackson factions developed into different parties built around real policy differences—separate from Old Hickory himself—that defined the Second Party System. Likewise, the next major realignment in the U.S. occurred when the Whigs broke apart in the years after 1850, which created the Third Party System. That shift was motivated by ideology and policy as well. It occurred largely because anti-slavery Whigs refused to stay together with pro-slavery Southern Whigs in a single party, and left in large numbers after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The anti-slavery forces came together in the new Republican Party.

We don’t yet know what the long-term impact of Donald Trump will be on our political parties and our democracy. Right now, however, there is clearly a divide—as seen in what happened with Liz Cheney. Whatever the final results of that divide turn out to be, recent events bear little resemblance to the divides either of the 1820s or the 1850s.

Rep. Cheney was drummed out of the Republican leadership for one reason, and one reason only: she continued to publicly rebuke Trump’s Big Lie—a lie that has now become a purity test for members of what can realistically be called the Trump Republican Party. There are no ideological or policy grounds that define or separate the pro- and anti-Trump factions among Republicans.

The fact that Cheney has been replaced as the House Republican Conference Chair by New York Rep. Elise Stefanik—whose voting record is significantly less supportive of Trump’s legislative agenda than Cheney’s—makes clear that this is in no way about policy. Cheney remains a hard-right conservative, as her remarks just before the vote on May 12 to remove her make clear: “After today, I will be leading the fight to restore our party and our nation to conservative principles, to defeating socialism.” Cheney may be toeing the fictitious party line about Joe Biden and socialism, but what matters here is that Stefanik supports The Big Lie, and that’s all that matters to the Party of Trump.

Elise Stefanik had a chance to avoid Four Pinocchios. All she had to do was admit she was wrong. instead she doubled down, even after we showed her false claim — 140,000 suspect votes in Fulton County — was based on a misreading of a Trump lawsuit. https://t.co/Ghu1XTBN7U

— Glenn Kessler (@GlennKesslerWP) May 7, 2021

Even when, at the last minute, Texas Rep. Chip Roy threw his ten-gallon hat into the ring to challenge Stefanik, it didn’t matter that he had voted for all the right conservative legislation and she hadn’t. Stefanik trounced him anyway: 134 votes to 46. Again, policy and ideology mattered not one iota. Only one issue did.

Key: Chip Roy, with a wildly conservative voting record, can’t beat Elise Stefanik, with her comparatively moderate voting record because of one wrong vote. He didn’t vote to overturn the 2020 election. IOW, core GOP ideology is The Big Lie. https://t.co/LvsDKsQ61W via @TPM

— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) May 14, 2021

The twice-impeached former president made clear after Jan. 6 that he was going to demand absolute obedience not to any particular set of policies but instead to him as an individual. Republicans made their choice. They could either give it to him or he was going to take his ball and go home. Their decision was purely about what conservatives thought would help them win, nothing else.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham—one of the most notorious flip-floppers on Trump’s fitness to serve—did tell the truth when he admitted why his party continues to bend the knee to the Orange Julius Caesar: “If you tried to run him out of the party, you’d take half the party with him.” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, one of the most prominent anti-Trump Republicans, summed up his feelings by comparing Trump to a North Korean dictator: “It just bothers me that you have to swear fealty to the Dear Leader or you get kicked out of the party.”

To demonstrate the ideological hypocrisy of Cheney’s replacing even further, we now know that the House Republicans—whose conservatism supposedly requires them to reject such concepts as representation—mandated that a woman replace Cheney. As Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post commented, they are doing so “because the party—though it supposedly abhors identity politics—needs a skirt to hide behind as it jettisons a strong, independent-minded female colleague.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put out a satirical ad from the House GOP leadership under the heading: “Help Wanted – Non-Threatening Female”

A few right-wing ideologues raised objections regarding this many-layered hypocrisy, but to no avail.

Word is, congressional Republicans are pushing amnesty-shill Elise Stefanik because they want a WOMAN in leadership. Sh!t-for-brains Republicans: NO GOP WOMAN CARES ABOUT IDENTITY POLITICS!

— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) May 12, 2021

Although Cheney has by far received the harshest punishment, the other nine House Republicans who voted to impeach the Insurrectionist-in-Chief for his crimes against our Constitution relating to the attempted coup of Jan. 6 have also been targeted by Trump partisans. They have faced censure votes and, in some cases, will likely draw primary opponents specifically running as more loyal to Trump.

Is the Republican Party going to split in two the way the Democratic-Republicans did after 1824 or the Whigs did after 1854? That’s not happening right now, although in the wake of the Cheney vote 150 prominent Republicans signed on to a “manifesto” titled “A call for American renewal.” The signatories include four former governors—ranging in ideology from tea party favorite Mark Sanford of South Carolina to centrist Bill Weld of Massachusetts—along with a former senator, 27 former House members, a former chair of the Republican National Committee, as well as some relatively high-ranking members of the Trump administration. Daily Kos’ Kerry Eleveld analyzed the statement in some depth here.

This group does not plan to form a new party yet, but rather, in the words of prominent Never Trumper George Conway, sees itself as “a coalition. …There is a need for people who have a conservative to moderate point-of-view and want to believe in the rule of law and … need a place to go and a place where they can organize and support candidates that are consistent with that.” In other words, they are looking to create an organized anti-Trump faction within the Republican Party that can, eventually, take control of it. Good luck with that.

On a related note, a very recent study found that learning that Republicans were fighting amongst themselves over the legitimacy of Biden’s 2020 victory had a significant impact among those who identify with the Republican Party, but not strongly. The favorability rating of the party expressed by such so-called “weak Republicans” fell by approximately 6% compared to that of a control group who were not given information about intra-Republican squabbling, as well as compared to another group that had been told of strife between Republicans and Democrats. Those weak Republicans’ impression of the Democratic Party improved by about the same amount. That’s even better than if they had become interested in a third party, in terms of improving Democrats’ chances of winning elections.

Republican President Ulysses S. Grant, after the disputed 1876 election that would elect his successor, proclaimed: “No man worthy of the office of President should be willing to hold it … placed there by fraud. Either party can afford to be disappointed by the result, but the country cannot afford to have the result tainted by suspicion of illegal or false returns.” Today’s head of the Republican Party clearly disagrees.

Trump is creating more of a naked cult of personality even than Jackson did. This is not to suggest that Jackson is “better” in some way than Trump. Rather, the contrast is that Jackson’s cult of personality was connected to policy differences and a substantive disagreement over a vision for the country, while Trump’s is essentially divorced from ideology, and based at this point on little other than fealty to The Big Lie. Likewise, Anti-Trumpists range from true moderates like Hogan and Weld to archconservatives like Cheney and Sanford, and harbor significant political disagreements. 

What Trump has wrought since the election, and especially since Jan. 6, bears little resemblance to previous political realignments or really anything that’s happened before. This kind of purely personality-driven divide is unprecedented in our country’s history.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of  The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)

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