'It’s Easy to Imagine a Trumpian Trail of Tears'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One of the strangest things about the Trump phenomenon is that, for something so unprecedented, he’s best understood through the lens of history.

He’s also best misunderstood through that lens. One of the most common historical looks at Trump this year is comparing him to Hitler. (Here’s the most thoughtful and understated effort.) The commonness of this overreach may be the best case for bothering to be precise about what sort of character the Republican nominee is. The problem with the “Trump = Hitler” thesis, after all, is not that it is too difficult to sustain, but too easy; it fails by a long way to take a full measure of the German tyrant. But the reason the argument seems so low-hanging is that Trump has, probably half-unwittingly, turned the demagogy textbook into an instruction manual. Hitler may as well have been offering advice, for example, when he said that “the effectiveness of the truly national leader consists in preventing his people from dividing their attention, and keeping it fixed on a common enemy.” (Update on 10/25: My colleague Uri ably analyzes such Hitler comparisons.)

Some readers thought my note on Trump being an “Ur-Fascist” made a similar error, trying to shoehorn a word where it doesn’t belong. The word “fascism,” after all, recalls a specifically European past, and Trump, certainly as he conceives of himself, is American first. So one reader, Kevin, proposes a term that might be a fit better than “Ur-Fascist”:

I may be getting overly formal here, but fascism was a political movement with very definite philosophical underpinnings, most of them failing to resemble any philosophy that Trump and his followers may hold dear. One may say that Mussolini and the other fascist leaders of the 20th century often ignored them, but what actual political leaders of any movement have always kept faith with their philosopher predecessors?

Real fascisms had definite clerical and royalist associations. They attempted, with various degrees of commitment and success, to implement something like Catholic corporatism as a basis for social organization and the economy. It is no accident that actual fascisms were confined almost entirely to Catholic majority countries, most of them Iberian, Mediterranean, or Latin American. (Needless to say, this is one of the many reasons that National Socialism was not a fascist movement.)

All of these tenets, in addition to the obvious absence of any Trump squadristi, argue powerfully that Trump is no fascist—merely an American authoritarian.

It is in fact entirely misleading to turn to any foreign political model to explain Trump when there is a model in U.S. politics, of nearly two centuries' duration, that applies dead on. It is called Jacksonianism, and Trump is the Andrew Jackson of his day.

Jackson’s movement, like Trump’s, arose in reaction to perceived wrenching social and and economic changes in 1820s and 1830s America. Its adherents were the white yeomen who felt left out of the power structure, as opposed to the propertied elites who in many states had a monopoly on the franchise. The other burning issues that concerned the Jacksonians bore a distinct resemblance to those that concern Trump’s followers today—industrialization and international trade; concentration of wealth in the hands of the old Bourbon planters and the budding Northern industrialists; the control of Congress by such elite professional politicians as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C Calhoun. Add to this President John Quincy Adams, whose 1824 election in the House of Representatives over Andrew Jackson, the leader in popular vote, led to cries of a “corrupt bargain”—that is, a rigged election. Sound familiar?

And, of course, there was race. Not only did the Jacksonian multitudes fear competition from black slave labor (even though they were dead set against manumission). They were also both fearful and envious of the native population, whose land they coveted. It’s easy to imagine a Trumpian Trail of Tears, this time victimizing Latino immigrants and noncitizen Muslims rather than the Cherokee. Enforcing their expulsions would require a large militarized police force uprooting, dividing, and exiling families, all for the perceived benefit of nativist whites.

Like very many Trumpians, the Jacksonians did not fit neatly along the right-left axis as we understand it today. They were all for expanded government, as long as it benefited them and not the moneyed elites, new capitalists, and nonwhites. While claiming to eschew foreign policy interventionism, they were militaristic and better described as unilateralist than isolationist. For instance, they were gung-ho about invading and annexing adjacent territory that belonged to other nations. President James Knox Polk, who pursued the Mexican War, was a Jacksonian nonpareil.

So perhaps Orwell was more correct than you allow. “Fascist” has for nearly a century been a term of opprobrium hurled indiscriminately by certain leftists to attack any person or idea they find uncongenial. More recently, the word has been adopted by the right, with at least as much imprecision—a sure sign it has jumped the shark.

There is a bit of a contradiction here about whether Trump would or would not have thugs at his disposal, but nonetheless this is a strong case that Jacksonianism is the ism that fits better than fascism.

The age of Jackson, like today, produced a vulgar, furiously clannish outsider railing against a dynastic presidential opponent, upending the political categories that had calcified among elites in the ’90s (in this case, the 1790s). Jackson went much further than Trump’s mere quipping that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” and still not lose voters; Jackson, known for dueling, killed at least one opponent, who had already shot him in the chest.

Jacksonianism did not die with its namesake, not by any means. It has been an important part of American political culture since, acting as a sort of raw animal nature that rises up when it senses attack and lashes out without regard for the sort of moral or moralizing (depending on how you see it) principles that Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the like worked so hard to codify (if not always live by). The immediate aftermath of 9/11, for example, was a moment of Jacksonian ascendancy.

But if the major factor preventing Trump from being rightfully described as a fascist is that he is American, it begs a question: Without going all HUAC, or all Birther, how American is Trump? More than he resembles Hitler or Mussolini or Franco or even Berlusconi, Trump is of a piece with Eastern European rulers like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—an opportunistic autocrat with an animating anti-immigrant agenda.

Another reader points out that for practical purposes, we may be being too stingy, rather than too loose, with the word “fascism”:

The only elements missing from the fascist classification is efficacy. If a fascist can only be recognized after they’ve successfully attained power, it truly is a meaningless term.

Part of why Trump is shunned by his fellow members of the Western billionaire class is that he is not, like them, a plutocrat. He’s an aspiring oligarch. Moreover:

  • Trump demonstrates no interest in what the written Constitution says, let alone much knowledge of it.
  • Talking about how he would pursue trade negotiations, Trump has made clear that he sees the full faith and credit of the United States as a chip to be bargained away at the earliest opportunity.
  • And he interprets acts of violence against Americans as personal vindication to be used for political gain.

The word for all this is cynical, which happens to be the catchword that Eastern Europeans in Russia’s orbit use for the flavor of politics that has taken over since the pollyannaish early ’90s.

Another reader, Brian, writes in about why it makes sense to define the word “fascism” expansively in the modern day:

I think that it is easy to put too fine a point on the definition of fascism. For one thing, while it was a recognizable and fairly uniform political movement in early part of the 20th century, it was also driven by authoritarian and charismatic leaders and those leaders’ preoccupations, insecurities and bêtes noires affected its political content in the various countries.

There is also the fact that we are looking at fascism today after 80
years of study, discussion, and historical analysis, and the U.S. in
2016 is very different politically and economically from Italy or
Germany in the ’20s and ’30s.

But I would argue that if, say, Konrad Adenauer could have read
today’s U.S. press from prison after the Night of the Long Knives, or in
his house in Roendorf, he would find much of what he read about Trump chilling and all too recognizable—perhaps more in the Mussolini vein, but frightening all the same.

Just because a term has been overused—and “fascist” is no doubt pretty threadbare—does not mean the patterns in the carpet can no longer be made out.

One point that should not be so absent from this whole discussion: America matters more to the world today than even Germany did in the middle of the 20th century, specifically because it is so powerful. Just American inaction today can wreak more havoc than many countries’ worst intentional mischief.

Academics, history buffs, literary types, and other nerds could probably discuss ad infinitum what words and trends best fit Trump (and let’s! Write to us). But in truth, Trump is likely some combination: a Jacksonian with Ur-Fascist qualities, or vice versa, or something. He’s a little of this scary and a little of that scary.

James Joyce, being a tad simplistic but touching on an important idea, wrote that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Trump, meanwhile, is behind the lectern every night, singing his virulent lullabies.