The advent of Trump outraged many citizens and observers, and required students from all perspectives to work hard over the last months in order to keep up with events, as it remains unclear what direction Trump’s government might take – despite we saw a process of normalisation as I explained in another post on this blog.
One of the angles that were overlooked is that the phenomenon of Trump reminded of how peculiar remains the history of parties and ideologies in the United States.
Trump, for his symbiotic relation with the character of Andrew Jackson, could easily be a Democratic candidate if he was born in late 18th century. At the dawn of the market revolution in the United States, when in the second decade of the 19th century capitalism was attempting to make it through slavery, barter, craftsmanship and old forms of production it was Andrew Jackson to put at the centre of the agenda of the recently born Democratic Party the opposition to finance. Jackson attempted to oppose the spread of paper currency which was perceived as socially dangerous in a context where “producer were vulnerable and “moneyed men” powerful” (Hahn, 2016, p. 99; A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910, New York: Viking).
Jackson saw a “massive concentration of power “in the hands of a few […] Monied Capitalists” who could “oppress” the people” (ibid.). Not too differently from Trump’s “draining the swamp” Jackson stated that “the bank is trying to kill me, but I will kill it” (ibid.). In fairness, as Hahn explains – and much like Trump – in Jackson’s discourse the economic threat intersected with all sorts of social and political discontent of lower classes whose status was being disrupted by the new economy. Economic issues became the basis for what nowadays would be seen as a populist argument against “aristocratic and unjust” elites (p. 100). This front gathered together all the people that felt threatened by rising capitalism and it was a heterogeneous group going from “yeoman farmers” to “slaveholders planters” (ibid.). In Jackson’s Democratic Party the sentiment against crony capitalism intersected with civil and social conservatism and a small state approach.
This was just the first ideological realignment in US history. Later there was the realignment of the 1850s-60s triggered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed states to vote on slavery. But the most important realignments were those of the 20th century. The first started in the 1930s and was led by Roosevelt’s New Deal plan. This produced urbanisation in the US and stimulated blacks to migrate North. Later, this was followed by the most famous “racial realignment” which was unleashed by the Civil Rights Act and which saw a broad reshuffling of voters between the main parties.
All this well known history and the importance of looking at Andrew Jackson’s experience is very telling of how Trump may be at the verge of a process which has brought to a new realignment of the electorate. Eventually this process started in the late 1980s with Ronald Reagan and the acceptance by Republican of globalism and multiculturalism. The most striking evidence of this realignment is symbolised by the electoral shift in Rust Belt states from red to blue during the last election. In a time of economic crisis, when capitalism is believed to be delivering more troubles than benefits, changes in electoral choices can be explored through a historical perspective on American politics.