Teddy Roosevelt famously described the American presidency as a “bully pulpit,” a platform that his successors have had mixed success in using. The two Roosevelts and Ronald Reagan were probably best at it. Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama preached well to their own choirs. Bush I and II couldn’t preach to save their lives. Richard Nixon was so transparently sleazy that his attempts to preach seemed phony.
But what we now seem to have with Donald Trump is less a conventional preacher than a demagogue whose principal tool is not the set-piece speech, but the tweet. In 140 characters delivered spontaneously he is able to shape his followers’ evaluation of ongoing events, whatever the “facts” may be. Trump, bully that he is, owns “the bully’s twitpit.”
Donald Trump is less a conventional preacher than a demagogue whose principal tool is not the set-piece speech, but the tweet.
It is tempting to say that the Trump phenomenon is unprecedented, and certainly it is so in terms of his effective use of contemporary social media, especially Twitter. We have seen no president remotely like him in the whole duration of the modern party system (since 1860). We might imagine that William Jennings Bryan could have been the kind of unconventional, iconoclastic president that we are likely to see with Trump, but Bryan lost.
We have to go back even further to find an analogy: Andrew Jackson. When Jackson was first elected in 1828, he defeated a quintessentially Establishment president, John Quincy Adams. He did it with support from poor farmers and frontiersmen, North as well as South. A slaveowner and planter from central Tennessee, he parlayed his military successes in the Battle of New Orleans and in wars against the native Americans of the Southeast to become the tribune of the common people.
Old Washington hands were scandalized when he opened the White House to all comers at his inauguration. Uncouth backwoodsmen literally trashed the draperies and furniture of the Executive Mansion, spilling out onto the lawns in drunken disregard of civilized decorum. Jackson, although quite refined in his personal habits, gloried in this open display of the support of the common man for his presidency.
Jackson is commonly recognized by scholars as one of our most consequential presidents. He never hesitated to use his power to the hilt and to put his political rivals on the defensive. The old Indian fighter was an unfailing advocate of Indian removal to territories west of the Mississippi: he presided over the Cherokee Trail of Tears, for example. When Chief Justice John Marshall (another old Establishment figure) led the Supreme Court to block some of his anti-Indian policies, Jackson said, “Mr. Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”
Jackson, the slaveholder, also showed a sure grasp of power when he faced down his own Vice President, the South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, over the passage by that state of legislation asserting the right to nullify federal laws that South Carolina found to be unconstitutional. Defying his own class, Jackson did not hesitate to move troops in order to make sure that the nullification statute was not enforced.
In short, Jackson was a bully. He wanted power for the sake of power and he would roll over anyone who got in his way. He broke the genteel mold of early American politics and substituted a plebeian order that was the foundation for modern mass democracy. He is justly viewed as the founder of the modern Democratic Party, which would dominate the country until the Civil War, then would be the major alternative to Republican rule thereafter.
Is Trump really like Jackson? That remains to be seen. His time in office could turn out to be a short episode of political fever from which the body politic will recover with a new immunity to any future such outbreaks. Alternatively, he could become a full-blown fascist, sweeping away the whole democratic system in his lust for domination.
The Jackson option lies between these extremes. A key difference is that even though Jackson was viewed by his followers as extraordinary, charismatic (like Trump), Jackson also understood the need to build a durable party organization. Though Trump has been willing to take over the Republican Party (Reince Priebus, bend over!), he hasn’t shown much interest in building it up. Rather, he cultivates his direct, quasi-personal relation with his followers through Twitter. Like other mass opposition movements all over the world, contemporary social media are essential to mass mobilization. Maybe a traditional party organization isn’t as important as it once was, in the era of the Bully’s Twitpit.
There is a chance that Trump will be enough like Jackson to wreak the sort of major transformation that Jackson wrought. Jackson was a deeply flawed figure who nonetheless changed the country’s direction. And Trump? There may be no better answer than Yeats’ query from a century ago:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?