Roughly five minutes into his interview on Wednesday night with Fox’s Megyn Kelly, Donald Trump said something that’s crucial to understanding his political success. Kelly asked him about being a bully. Trump responded that, “I’m a counterpuncher, you understand. I’m responding. I respond by maybe, times 10. I don’t know. I respond pretty strongly. But in just about all cases I’ve been responding to what they did to me.”
It’s a claim Trump has made before. In his mind, he’s the reluctant tough guy. He minds his own business until someone else launches a dastardly attack. Then, once provoked, he shows no mercy. To many Republicans, it’s a tremendously appealing self-self-depiction. Why? Because it’s the way they depict the United States.
Walter Russell Mead begins his indispensable 1999 essay, “The Jacksonian Tradition” by describing American savagery in war. “In the last five months of World War II, American bombing raids claimed the lives of 900,000 Japanese civilians.” America killed roughly one million North Korean civilians between 1950 and 1953. “The United States dropped almost three times as much explosive tonnage in the Vietnam War as was used in the Second World War.”
Mead goes on to explain the political tradition that underlies this ferocity, which he names after President Andrew Jackson. Jacksonians, Mead argues, view America as a country that just wants to be left alone. They have little interest in the “Hamiltonian” project of prying other countries open to American commerce or the “Wilsonian” project of spreading democracy and liberty across the globe. But when attacked, especially by what they consider dishonorable foes, Jacksonians believe that “wars must be fought with all available force. The use of limited force is deeply repugnant.”