In last week’s post I suggested that—especially as intellectual historians—we prioritize the content of Trump’s campaign rhetoric over culling statistical data as a means of understanding Trumpism. Of course there is need for both, but it seems that pundits have become far too reliant on quantitative data and to a large degree regard the vocabulary of Trumpism as mere epiphenomena. I also argued that the only class related orientation that seems to hold water with regard to Trumpism is that most of his followers identify themselves in opposition to the construct of liberal coastal elites. In other words, they view themselves as representatives of the common American man—the sympathetic little guy for which America supposedly stands (as will be made clear, they view that ideal type as male and white). In this post I will examine the meaning of the signature slogan of Trump’s campaign, “Make America Great Again,” by locating it in the long history of American nationalism.
It is not surprising that the slogan “Make America Great Again” elicits the most enthusiastic responses from white men who do not view themselves as part of the country’s refined elites: it is an appeal to reclaim something real that was lost over these last few decades. White men have lost their ability to traverse the American landscape with impunity as though it was their amusement park. Worse yet, the coastal elites want to clamp down ever further on their “freedoms”: from shaming them for telling sexist and racist jokes, to forcing them to drive with seat belts, to the prospect of taking away their guns.
What makes the slogan so compelling is that it targets that exact pool of supporters without overtly brandishing itself as the motto of the white common man, and it promises them to reclaim that lost condition without clearly articulating it. Nevertheless, it invokes American nationalism as it was designed to be from quite early on. This nationalist tradition dates back about 200 years to the War of 1812, when common white men launched a nationalist persuasion in their own image and usurped the older colonial and revolutionary commitment to urbane and refined gentility of the country’s patrician elites. In the process, they forged a nationalist ideology that championed democracy and freedom, yet held oppressive consequences for those who did not enjoy the quintessential American bounties of whiteness and manhood. That is how freedom and oppression became different sides of the same American coin.
Commentators today often compare Trump with Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, or even Father Coughlin. It seems clear to many that our country had it coming, as it were; Trump is no aberration. Indeed, If we put Trump’s coded and populist presidential campaign into historical context in search for its origins, we can trace it even further back—well into the first half of the nineteenth century. Two successful presidential campaigns in particular come to mind: Andrew Jackson’s 1828 presidential run and William Henry Harrison’s 1840 campaign for the presidency on behalf of the Whig ticket. Both serve as suggestive markers for the changing of the historical watersheds—when Americans chose to put their faith in champions of common white men instead of refined and polite gentlemen of a bygone era. As with their twentieth century equivalents, such as Coughlin or Trump, Jackson and Harrison’s antiauthoritarian stance also hinged on commitments to visiting violence and subjugation upon so many others.
In 1828, although Andrew Jackson won by invoking populist language and casting his opponent, John Quincy Adams, as an urbane aristocrat, many still saw in Jackson himself a controversial figure. By 1836, however, the Whig party—that had once cast Jackson as a militant populist demagogue—ran with Harrison for his ability to invoke similar populist appeal as a western war hero. And despite losing the 1836 election to Martin Van Buren, the Whigs chose to nominate Harrison yet again as their presidential candidate in 1840—against the very same Democratic candidate. This time a much more energetic campaign flipped the script on the Democrats with great success. Employing populism with even more flair than the Democrats, they convinced Americans that Harrison, not Van Buren, was the true inheritor to Andrew Jackson. Thus, what in 1828 was still controversial became normative by 1840, when Harrison won the presidency for the supposedly more elitist party, the Whigs. From here on out in the United States claiming common, even crude, origins and demeanor would be far more effective in luring votes on a national scale.
As indicated earlier however, this story begins with the War of 1812, when a Virginian gentlemen, James Madison, was still president. For it was in that war that both Andrew Jackson and William Harrison became national heroes and Americans laid the foundations for the changing of the guards. It was also when Americans embarked on a nationalist project of expansion waged to this day. Curiously, the War of 1812 was not supposed to turn the gaze of Americans west, but rather east and north. The United States invaded Canada in the summer of 1812, hoping to expand their country northward. More importantly perhaps, war hawks hoped to apply pressure on and retaliate against the eastern empire, Britain, for harassing American ships at sea and impressing United States citizens into their navy. While in the minds of Americans they intended to liberate Canadians from the yoke of British tyranny, many Canadians did not see things in quite the same light. The war too did not fare well for the United States, failing in its primary objective of conquering Canada.
It was during that war, nonetheless, that a secondary effort to the west, primarily oriented around confronting militant Indians, turned the attention of Americans to the west and—despite numerous failures and glaring mismanagement—proved capable of convincing them that the war was in fact a heroic episode in American history. Not incidentally, the two men most associated with the western theater were Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison, the men who would become the first populist presidents in American history.
While Jackson emerged as the ultimate hero of the war, it was Harrison who first engaged Indians on the battle field in what turned out to be a preamble to the War of 1812. Waged in the fall of 1811 as war with the British was on the horizon, the Battle of Tippecanoe, for which Harrison gained his nickname years later as ‘Tippecanoe’ or ‘Old Tip,’ was in fact a bungled affair. While at the time some questioned Harrison’s decision making and leadership, by the end of the war Americans had transformed the memory of the battle into a glorious affair. It sufficed that Americans could remember it as a victory over Indians. Furthermore, once the Battle of Tippecanoe joined the memory of the Battle of the Thames (October, 1813), also under Harrison’s command, in which Tecumseh was killed, Harrison could emerge as a bonafide Indian fighter.
Ever impatient to see battle, Andrew Jackson had to wait his turn a while longer—though not for lack of trying. As the general of the Tennessee militia he tried to offer his support to Harrison’s campaign before the Battle of Tippecanoe. “Should the aid of part of my division, be necessary… I will with pleasure march with five hundred or one thousand brave Tennesseeans. The blood of our murdered Countrymen must be revenged—That banditti, ought to be swept from the face of the earth,” he wrote in a letter to Harrison with typical genocidal gusto.
However, it was not until a civil war broke out between the anti-assimilationist and accommodationist factions of the Creek Confederacy that Andrew Jackson and other western war hawks were able to contrive a casus belli for their agenda of western expansion. In a grueling campaign under the command of Jackson, Tennessee militia with the support of Indian allies defeated the militant Creeks, who mounted a last ditch effort to defend the region from the tidal wave of white settlers. The campaign came to a head in the Battle of Horse Shoe Bend in March of 1814, when the forces under Jackson’s command slaughtered more than 800 Creek Indians, thereby crushing the resistance. Jackson then strong-armed the Creeks to cede much of their territory to the United States. This land grab in time became the state of Alabama and the very heart of the deep south.
Though some claim it did little to change the terms of the peace treaty that was signed between the U.S. and Britain before the battle was underway, to dismiss the Battle of New Orleans is to miss the point of a war waged primarily for nationalist regeneration. And in that regard it proved crucial. It also made Andrew Jackson a house-hold name across the United States and launched his presidential aspirations. Fought early in 1815, Jackson led a multi-ethnic and multi-racial ragtag army to deliver a devastating defeat to self-assured British forces on their way to sack New Orleans. Jackson’s forces consisted of many of the region’s Creoles and even a French pirate crew, as well as Tennessee and Kentucky militia troops (Jackson himself commended the fighting spirit of the black troops under his command). By far and away the greatest military victory of the war, the Battle of New Orleans cast a glorious halo on what otherwise was a clumsily-run war. Thus Americans could fancy themselves the winners of what came to be known as the War of 1812.
Many often regard the war that ended the nineteenth century, the Spanish-American war of 1898, as the quintessential jingoistic war for nationalist regeneration. During the war that opened the nineteenth century, however, Americans first experienced the highs of what Richard Slotkin has famously regarded as “regeneration through violence.” Thus Americans were one of the first modern societies—what we usually call ‘nations’—to develop that particular type of militant nationalism. The War of 1812 was the first in a long tradition of ‘wars of choice’ cast as ‘wars of necessity’. It also marks the commitment to western expansion and empire as the corner stone of American ideology and as part of a supposedly providential design, what would later become known as ‘Manifest Destiny’.
The project of fabrication after the Battle of New Orleans would be of lasting significance to American nationalism. What otherwise could have been a story of inclusion in the face of racial and ethnic divides turned within weeks into an account of how virile western militiamen laid to waist the best army in the world. In a further twist, Americans chose to forget that black troops fought on both sides of the divide and emphasized the role of run-away slaves, who were supposedly lured to the British cause with promises of rapine and plunder at New Orleans. Thus, during the period that Americans were still vying over what exactly the Constitution meant when it invoked the phrase “we the people,” Americans cultivated imagery of virile western frontiersmen coming to the rescue of white femininity in the face of Black and Indian terror. In the years to come it became “self evident” that white common men, and especially white frontiersmen, were the truest embodiment of the American nation.
Written several years later and performed in frontiersmen garb across the country to great applause, the song “The Hunters of Kentucky” captured the heritage of the Battle of New Orleans, as Americans turned their gaze west for good. The song drew a picture of the battle as waged by a “hardy, free born race” of “Kentucky boys” who ensured that “lead” would be the only “booty” the British took at New Orleans. “The Hunters of Kentucky,” so the song went, were then left with “all the beauty.” Though Andrew Jackson was quite critical of the performance of the Kentucky militia in the battle itself, he and his advisers were savvy enough to employ the song as the anthem of Jackson’s 1828 presidential run, riding it all the way to the White House. Americans had long gazed west, but until those years they never fully shook off their self-conscious inclination to compare themselves, often unfavorably, with Europe. The Hunters of Kentucky and its many echoes in future years urged Americans to shake off their eastern yearnings and revel in their American exceptionalism.
Twelve years later Whigs nominated William Henry Harrison for a second consecutive time to lead their presidential ticket for his ability to invoke similar sentiments. Conversely, it was a derogatory remark in a Democratic paper—casting Harrison as fit only to retire in a frontier log cabin with a steady supply of hard cider—that became the motto for Harrison’s “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign. Jumping on the opportunity to play their common-man and frontiersman credentials to their fullest, Harrison—whose father was a former governor of Virginia and signatory of the
Constitution Declaration of Independence—became president only once his campaigners cast him as a crude frontier yokel who spent his days in a log cabin drinking hard cider. To be sure, Whigs would have probably won anyway given recent economic panics, but Whig strategy and decision making throughout the campaign are a testament to the spirit of the times. Here, then, was the first precedent for posing the question: which candidate would you rather drink your booze with? No less importantly, Harrison was also a decorated Indian killer, who much like Andrew Jackson stood for western expansion, primarily for the benefit of white men.
Whether or not Trumpism is the swan song of the white patriarchy or its resurgence, let us not forget that Trump’s campaign fits quite neatly within a long arch of white male nationalism that shaped the United States in its own image. Who ever tagged along for the ride, the energy of Trump’s campaign hinged on invoking that “Great American” tradition.
In my next post I will offer an even longer historical arch for Trumpism. For the historical figure that might prove more suggestive than any other for illuminating his success was Nathaniel Bacon.