When America killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani earlier this month, many observers dubbed the airstrike a “Jacksonian” move.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat said Trump’s airstrike made him “Andrew Jackson of the Persian Gulf” and “this was exactly what a certain kind of Trump supporter voted for.” Douthat’s column expressed cautious sympathy for Jacksonian foreign policy.
The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart did not: “Jacksonianism is less a doctrine than a set of impulses and instincts. And Trump embodies them far better than any other contemporary American politician.” Beinart went on to insinuate Jacksonianism is racist and shows zero understanding of non-Western nations.
Many Trump supporters happily described themselves as Jacksonians after the airstrike and touted its superiority over liberal humanitarianism and neoconservatism. While it is certainly better than those visions, Jacksonianism is prone to exploitation for other than nationalist ends. There is a peril in relying entirely on instincts—no matter how sound, generally, they are—to dictate American foreign policy.
Jacksonianism, as it is most often understood today, is a term coined by Hudson Institute scholar Walter Russell Mead in the late 1990s. Mead outlined four tendencies in American foreign policy: Hamiltonianism, Wilsonianism, Jeffersonianism, and Jacksonianism. Hamiltonians focus on business interests and power politics; Wilsonians are idealists who want America to advance her values all over the world; Jeffersonians want American values to stay at home and they strongly oppose foreign interventions; Jacksonians’ primary concern is upholding American security and honor.
This typology is not without drawbacks, but it does simplify our foreign policy debates to a system that any layman can understand. Trump supporters will likely find Jacksonianism the most appealing of the four.
Mead writes in his 2001 book, Special Providence:
For Jacksonians, the prime goal of the American people is not the commercial and industrial policy sought by Hamiltonians, nor the administrative excellence in support of moral values that Wilsonians seek, nor Jeffersonian liberty. Jacksonians believe that the government should do everything in its power to promote the well-being—political, moral, economic—of the folk community. Any means are permissible in the service of this end, as long as they do not violate the moral feelings or infringe on the freedoms that Jacksonians believe are essential in their daily lives.
Unlike the globalist Hamiltonians and meddling Wilsonians, Jacksonians want America’s leaders to put America first. Jacksonians don’t see our country as a mere marketplace or an abstract idea, it’s a living, breathing folk community. Jacksonians are not naïve about the world and believe only brute strength can dissuade potential threats. They don’t care for nation-building or imagine that the whole world can be like America. Jacksonians are skeptical of internationalist bodies and international agreements; they think Americans can look after themselves just fine. The values espoused by Jacksonians—courage, honor, and thrift—resonate with millions of Middle Americans.
While Jacksonians, for the most part, are instinctually non-interventionist, they easily can be goaded into supporting disastrous interventions if the pitch is right. Mead writes that “honor, concern for reputation, and faith in military institutions play a much greater role” in Jacksonian foreign policy. These are all noble traits that can be exploited to advance Hamiltonian or Wilsonian ends.
A great example is how the Bush Administration sold the Iraq War. The goal was to build a democracy in the Middle East, but most of the propaganda centered around the threat Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. It was a smart play to gin up Jacksonian support for the war. A common line in 2003 was: “We have to fight them over there so we don’t fight them here,” which is pure Jacksonianism. That line turned out to be completely bogus, however. Saddam was not going to invade the homeland, had no real ties to terrorist groups, and did not have weapons of mass destruction.
Jacksonianism is rooted in the right instincts, but those instincts require the proper direction. Trump in the 2016 campaign presented Jacksonianism at its best.
Millions of middle Americans were convinced the war was about preserving American security and honor. It’s why the Dixie Chicks faced a severe backlash from their Jacksonian fanbase and french fries were renamed “Freedom fries” to spite the disloyal frogs.
When the Iraqi war turned sour, war advocates continued to appeal to America’s honor and reputation for keeping troops there. “These colors don’t run” was a common phrase in the mid-2000s, reflecting Jacksonian support for the war.
But the war had little to do with American honor or security. It was all a hare-brained attempt at nation-building, and it failed miserably.
The Soleimani strike is a testament to that failure. America killed the Iranian general because of his influence over Shia militias that control parts of Iraq. The Iraq we built is a close ally of Iran’s and there’s zero chance we will ever sever that relationship. This is not the democracy promised by war proponents.
The Iraq war also exacerbated terrorism, in spite of its purpose to defeat terrorism. It’s unclear how the war bolstered American honor, either.
The Soleimani strike was also justified with Jacksonian arguments. We had to kill the Quds Force commander because he had a hand in the deaths of American soldiers and was plotting to kill more Americans. It was a strong response that supposedly bolstered respect for American power. As I wrote in a previous column, however, this reasoning is questionable at best and his death creates more chaos in the Middle East.
It is curious that Mead considers John McCain a Jacksonian in his book. McCain despised nationalism and thought America’s sole purpose was to advance liberal values throughout the world. Besides his odes to honor and duty, there was nothing Jacksonian about the late senator. McCain was a Wilsonian willing to milk Jacksonian sentiments for globalist ends.
Jacksonianism is rooted in the right instincts, but those instincts require the proper direction. Trump in the 2016 campaign presented Jacksonianism at its best. America would put itself first and we would end the era of nation-building. We would work with not-so-good states against far worse threats. We would end the forever wars and deploy our troops to guard the border.
His foreign policy promises were a breath of fresh air amid a GOP field that wanted to resurrect the George W. Bush era. Trump’s presidency has mostly stayed true to this vision, in spite of its mistakes and stalled plans. But there are times, such as the Soleimani strike and attacks against the Assad regime in Syria, that show the president possibly succumbing to Jacksonian arguments for Wilsonian ends.
Mead writes that Jacksonianism is built on instinct, not ideology. Trump is very much the same way—but there’s always the peril that sensible instincts will fall prey to cunning manipulation.