Historical Parallels

To judge from Amazon sales, America’s coastal chattering classes are running to George Orwell and Hannah Arendt for guidance and titivation in these disconcerting times.

There is also renewed interest in Huey Long, the demagogic Louisiana governor who, had he not been assassinated, might have unseated President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936; and in President Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh chief executive, who ran on a distinctly populist, America First-ish platform and was roundly reviled by the establishment he defeated in 1828 as uncouth and illegitimate.

So a seemingly dyslexic President Trump is getting people thinking and reading. Who can complain about him on that score? But to see parallels with 1984 is unnecessarily alarmist. Trump’s America is not Oceania. Indeed, his supporters would exercise their Second Amendment rights to shoot Thought Police on sight.

Besides, to the extent Trump has any truly totalitarian tendencies, he will quickly find himself checked and balanced. Indeed the courts have already stymied his cack handed executive order to close the border to various, mainly Muslim, immigrants.

With Jackson and Long the echoes are stronger. Long campaigned as champion of the “forgotten man”, put his name on a lot of new infrastructure and rode rough shod over anyone who got in his way. Unlike child-of-privilege Trump, he clawed his way up from hardscrabble poverty and had a genuine affection for his base.

Willie Stark, the protagonist of Robert Penn Warren’s novel “All the King’s Men”, is an extreme version of Long. In the 1949 film, there is an exchange that resonates today. It is between Jack Burden, a character analogous to SA-born Joel Pollak, the Breitbart editor mentioned as Trump’s pick for ambassador to Pretoria, and Adam Stanton, a doctor Stark wants to run his shiny new state hospital but who is appalled by Stark’s thuggery.

Burden: I really believe that Stark wants to do good. You do too. It’s a matter of method. Many times out of evil comes good. Pain is evil. As a doctor you should know that.

Stanton: Pain is an evil. It is not evil in itself. Stark is evil.

Burden: The people of this state don’t think so.

Stanton: How would they know? The first thing Stark did was to take over the newspapers and the radio stations. Why be so afraid of criticism? If Stark is interested in doing good he should also be interested in the truth. I don’t see how you can separate the two.

Trump’s people don’t think their man is evil either, even though he has a relationship with the truth as strained as Stark’s and no less acute a fear of criticism. Would Trump like to take over the media? He often tweets as if he’d love to see new owners at the New York Times. But that is bluster and he knows it. He’s throwing red meat to his base which loathes, but does not consume, “elite” media.

Trump’s own preference is to be set alongside Jackson whose portrait he has had hung in the Oval Office.

Both extremely colourful in their own way, the two men are hard to compare as individuals. Jackson grew up poor and anything but pampered. He lost both parents early and, as a teenager, experienced the full brutality of British arms in the War of Independence. By the time he reached the White House, he had served in both the House if Representatives and Senate, won acclaim for his generalship in slaughtering Indians and British redcoats, and had killed a man (and taken a bullet) in a duel to defend the honour of his wife. Though fallists would denounce him as genocidal, he was as much man of substance in his time as Trump is not in ours.

Still, both won by appealing to a similar nexus of beliefs and fears. Trump voters, argues scholar Walter Russell Mead in the current Foreign Affairs, pulled off a “Jacksonian Revolt”.

“For Jacksonians — who formed the core of Trump’s passionately supportive base — the United States…is the nation-state of the American people…The role of the US government, (they) believe, is to fulfill the country’s destiny by looking after the physical security and economic well-being of the American people in their national home…while interfering as little as possible with the individual freedom that makes the country unique…

“As for immigration…most non-Jacksonians misread the source and nature of Jacksonian concern. There has been much discussion about the impact of immigration on the wages of low-skilled workers and some talk about xenophobia and Islamophobia. But Jacksonians in 2016 saw immigration as part of a deliberate and conscious attempt to marginalize them in their own country…They see an elite out to banish them from power — politically, culturally, demographically.”

This rings true. What does it mean for where America is headed over the next four years? Very hard to say. But it would make more sense to engage with the discontents who gave us Trump than to sit around swapping quotes from Orwell and Arendt.

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