Timely Lessons from Old Hickory

The first great American populist, Andrew Jackson, is Donald Trump’s political hero. The president has Jackson’s portrait hanging in the Oval Office and he readily dispersed the mob gathered to topple his statue in Lafayette Park. The time may now have arrived for President Trump to take some lessons from the way the legendary general dealt with defeat. Or, more accurately, how he snatched enduring victory from it.

In 1824, Jackson finished first in America’s 10th presidential election, winning more popular votes, and carrying more states, than any other candidate. But because he fell short of an electoral majority, the final choice fell to the House of Representatives. After Henry Clay threw his support to runner-up John Quincy Adams,  the House chose Adams over Jackson. Adams then appointed Clay as his secretary of state and putative successor. Denouncing a “corrupt bargain,” Jackson took his case to the people.

With canny assistance from Martin Van Buren, Jackson was transformed from one presidential candidate among many into the leader of a grassroots movement the likes of which America had never before seen. When the dust finally settled, America’s first age of political elitism had come to a crashing close. Today we call this movement’s transmogrified successor the Democratic Party. How its Jacksonian founders would weep.

We don’t yet know this election’s outcome. Even so President Trump might want to begin considering the Jacksonian precedent not only to avenge a rigged campaign, but also to demolish the oligarchy responsible for it. 

His first expedient should be to apply Jackson’s formula of mass mobilization to defeat the frauds perpetrated during the vote count. But even if he’s ultimately declared to have lost—perhaps particularly in that case—he’d be ideally positioned to continue to deploy Jackson’s strategy over the longer term.   

Unlike that of the Jacksonian era, today’s oligarchy isn’t crumbling. It’s rapidly ascending, with nearly all the nation’s cultural heights under its control. It’s an oligarchy that has many progenitors, but the principal cause of its rise lies in the long-term leftward shift among America’s (and the West’s) intellectual class. Having captured our universities during the 1970s and 1980s, this class, student cohort by student cohort, has radicalized virtually all our other institutions. As a result, we now live under the rule of a smugly entitled, ideologically deluded, and utterly venal semi-literati which, with its brainwashed or opportunistic enablers in politics and business, views trashing America’s ideals and institutions as its great redemptive mission. 

Apart from various websites, podcasts, talk radio and a handful of wavering news outlets, what remains to the rest of us? As seen with the many 2020 Republican down-ballot victories, the GOP probably still has a slim majority of the American people. Unfortunately, America’s miseducators are steadily rasping that remnant away. Thus, whatever this election’s official outcome, we need to fully mobilize what’s left of middle America while a civic recovery is still possible. That will require a leader.  

If our oligarchy finally casts Donald Trump from the White House, he should, like Jackson, return to the people and rouse them to a full-pitched counteroffensive. This means the kind of mass politics and protest America hasn’t experienced since the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. 

It means fostering a movement that regularly takes to the streets, rallies, marches, aggressively shames, is robustly and continually active, and never ceases to remind us of our forebears’ resistance to arbitrary rule. In short, something that while lawful, is publicly pervasive, non-violently militant, and capable of repeatedly turning up the political heat. 

It must not be more politics and talk as usual. It must be a discomforting and unsettling presence, a giant, angry elephant just outside the inner sanctum’s door.   

Building and leading this type of robust organization is something for which Donald Trump, despite his various shortcomings (which Jackson had, too), has uniquely qualified himself by virtue of his presidential status, rousing charisma, and the oligarchical chicanery that leaves him an electoral martyr. The Tea Party rose and fell for want of such a singular personality. In Donald Trump, a new grassroots upsurge would find one. 

President Trump has already demonstrated that the materials for such a movement exist. In rally after rally, Trump dismayed his foes by turning out astounding crowds of ecstatic supporters. If amalgamated into one electrified body, they could put his opponents to rout. 

To smother doubts about the election’s probity, our oligarchs are now hurrying to close ranks around the fiction of a clean Biden win. By this they hope to intimidate the courts, state legislatures and the Congress from performing due constitutional oversight. 

The Trump forces must come up with indisputable evidence of large-scale fraud to prevail against them, as they likely will. But this must be coupled with large-scale popular protests repeatedly filling America’s streets in a way the media can’t ignore or downplay. Remember how Andrew Jackson shook up Washington by bringing to his inauguration hordes of humble outlanders. Trump must do the same before his second inauguration—if he is to have one.         

But even if it’s Biden who takes the oath in January, the process of mobilization mustn’t falter. Donald Trump will be indispensable to leading it, but it must be as thickly organized and participatory as was the one Van Buren put together after 1824. A truly democratic movement needs echelons of leaders and distributed decision making, something Jackson and Van Buren fully understood in their day. 

Other Republican officeholders and perhaps a few Democrats will have to be part of it. Obviously, these haven’t constituted an overwhelming portion of the president’s fan base to date. But many at the local level, more than a few at the state level, and some at the national, have bravely backed him. Trump’s new patriot alliance would need to knit them all together, within states and across state lines, creating a countrywide vehicle for coordinated fightback employing a spectrum of high-energy strategies—with any governors who can be recruited especially vital. 

In its inevitable guise as a shadow party, such an organization would give the too-numerous placemen in the GOP a spirit-instilling, self-preservative jolt. It would also be the natural vehicle for a Trump reclamation of the White House in 2024.

And what if the president finally wins this tarnished, tangled election? In that case he should follow the very same course, this time with the White House as the movement’s headquarters. Given the trendlines, one more presidential victory won’t by itself save America. At this stage in our history only a well-organized and disruptive infusion of high-powered middle-American energy into our politics can salvage constitutional democracy. Andrew Jackson built just such a middle-American crusade during the third decade of the 19th century. Donald Trump in defeat—or in victory—might accomplish the same in the third decade of our own.      

About Stephen Balch

Steve Balch was the founding president of the National Association of Scholars and, from 2012 to 2020, director of the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization at Texas Tech University.

Photo: Kean Collection/Getty Images

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.