Whiggery in the White House

Since the day it became clear Donald Trump was a serious contender for the presidency, political pundits of all stripes have tried to put a name to the movement he leads: Trumpism. Liberals and conservatives alike have called him a neoconservative, a traditionalist, a nationalist, a crypto-fascist, and a populist, or have simply written him off as a political iconoclast. Among the more popular of the theories to explain him, however, is the notion that Trump is somehow at the front of some Jacksonian style revolt.

But let’s get one thing straight: although there are some Jacksonian elements to Donald J. Trump, he is not really a Jacksonian. If anything, you could say he more closely resembles an old-style Whig.

Nineteenth-century Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats agreed and disagreed on many things, but whereas the Whigs created a systematic worldview that survived the death of their party, Jacksonianism largely died out with the rise of European progressivism within the Democratic Party.

Those Whiggish and Jacksonian elements of America are reunited in Trump’s Republican Party under the maxim “America First.” It’s a phrase which speaks to the nationalist spirit found in Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 Report on Manufactures, and the Whig Henry Clay’s famous American System. Taken together, Hamilton and Clay remind us that the United States was not formed by lower-case “c” conservatives, but instead by revolutionaries. Those revolutionaries were American nationalists who directed their nationalism toward one overarching goal: American Independence. Once achieved in reality, it was not an idea then to be abandoned. It had also to be preserved.

That spirit of independence—a word lacking the modern baggage of “nationalism”—was diffused in both the 19th-century Whig and Democratic parties, though it manifested in different ways.

Both espoused economic protectionism and popular (“common man”) republicanism, to name just a couple of its broader principles. Likewise, both parties shared the philosophy of American exceptionalism under God. A young John C. Calhoun—the man who would later preach the nullification doctrine—was mentored by a Federalist and Congregationalist minister named Timothy Dwight, whose 1776 “Valedictory Address” to the graduates of Yale College identified Americans as a new “people, who have the same religion, the same manners, the same interests, the same language, and the same essential forms and principles of civic government.” Dwight’s belief was common “that a vast continent . . . inhabited by a people, in all respects one, is indeed a novelty on earth.”

Jacksonian Democrats, however, never succeeded in codifying their views into a lasting political philosophy. There was never a Democratic alternative to Clay’s American System, only reactionaries who increasingly came to rely on Southern tradition and patriotism to justify slavery.

But in foreign policy Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats often differed most intensely, with Whigs usually seeking national glory through economic development and modernization, and Democrats generally favoring rural growth and territorial expansion through war. This thirst for conquest, driven in no small part by the politics and economics of chattel slavery, began the Democratic Party’s slow abandonment of the Independent spirit—until it vanished altogether under Woodrow Wilson’s reign. By the time America entered World War I, the Democratic Party had ceased to be philosophically American, and the Jacksonians were left in the cold.

Trump’s presidency marks a return to the party of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, the son of a Democrat, in his early career called himself “an old Henry Clay-Tariff Whig.” The young Illinois congressman who saw in the Declaration of Independence “a rebuke and stumbling-block to tyranny and oppression” was joined by former Whigs and anti-slavery Free Soil Democrats, who saw in the newly founded Republican Party the Union’s last best hope.

Like Trump’s GOP, the early Republicans wed Jacksonianism and Whiggery—farmers and merchants, trade and tariffs, infrastructure investment and limited government—in a grand coalition with one aim: preserving Independence. And like Trump’s GOP, the early Republican Party was fraught with disagreement. In those years the disagreements revolved around slavery and the best ways to keep that institution from infecting the independent spirit of the nation.

Today we fight over building a wall on the southern border and overhauling immigration in order to keep America independent of the impulses of exploitation and dependence. We fight unrestricted and unassimilated immigration today for reasons similar to why early Republicans fought over slavery. Slavery was wrong in itself but it also had a bad effect on our political order and independence. And whatever their motivation, all Republicans then agreed slavery needed to end.

Nevertheless, with the benefit of hindsight we see that far more things united Republicans in the 1860s than divided them. Trump’s economic ideas ring true with the vast majority of Republicans because they’re essentially Whig ideas—built on a new American System that refutes our role as “Globocop.”

Like the men who fought to save the Union in the Civil War, ignoring the pleas of those who would “compromise” with the slave power, Trump Republicans prioritize independence from Europe, China, and the rest of the world over GDP growth. His party combines the Jacksonian ideal of the people’s sovereignty with the Whig devotion to the rule of law, opposing tyranny and plutocracy. And it sees an unchanging Constitution as the key to winning that struggle.

It recognizes a uniquely American culture—not global citizenship—as worth defending. “Because of our people,” the president said in his December national security speech, “America has been among the greatest forces for peace and justice in the history of the world.”  

It’s also pragmatic. The Trump Doctrine abroad rests on prudence; if we don’t break it, we don’t have to buy it. Unlike many of his predecessors who have invoked Woodrow Wilson’s high-flown idealism, Trump sees America’s ability to remake the world as limited. His national security strategy doesn’t aim to spread American-like democracies to other nations. Neither does it seek open-ended, utopian missions in distant countries. Like his Whig predecessors, Trump believes that Americans should only venture into foreign affairs with clear, defined objectives, not lofty maxims. In this, he channels John Quincy Adams in an 1821 speech:

And now, friends and countrymen, [what] if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world . . . should find their hearts disposed to enquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind? Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government.

“America,” Adams famously warned, “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” There is a subtle warning to tyrants in his phrase—what we call “peace through strength”—and it forms the final pillar of the Trump Doctrine. America, Adams said, “has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace.

May it ever remain so in Trump’s Republican Party.

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