John Quincy Adams, quintessential Boston Brahman and archenemy of a General and bumpkin-turned-president Andrew Jackson, had a plan.
Rumors circulated that Jackson was illiterate (Adams had called him “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name”) and Adams amused himself with the thought of giving Jackson an honorary Harvard degree, the speech for which was traditionally given in Latin. So Adams arranged to have the backwoods president invited and assumed the illiterate Jackson would decline.
On graduation day, the erudite Cambridge crowd swelled with Western Massachusetts farmers. Adams and the Harvard trustees sat in the front very assured that Jackson would make a total jackass out of himself. The president took the stage, removed a dollar bill from his pocket, and read the words E pluribus Unum from the back. The crowd went wild with glee. Jackson went further: E pluribus Unum, my friends. Sine qua non. The speech was over, and Jackson had won. Again.
Whether the story is totally true or not doesn’t matter. Jackson was the first celebrity President since George Washington because he knew how to best men like Adams. And Jackson knew Adams and the New England East Coast establishment thought he’d act like a jackass, and that’s why Jackson made it the symbol of the new party he founded. What is less known is that Jackson the populist was also the champion of institutions and sound government.
Populists seek a protector of the faith, and the cornerstone of that faith is the American experiment.
Thus, populists seek those who share identification with institutions and a commitment to defend those institutions. Jackson’s populist vision was founded on a strong nation wherein the primacy of institutions was all the detailed policy his constituents required of him.
The populism that Jackson tapped into would make him the first president elected inland from the eastern seaboard, and, in the minds of his constituents, the first president not elected by big cities and big plantations. For many, it heralded a fulfillment of the anti-elite republicanism on which they believed the country had itself been founded in its colonial revolt against unfair taxation without representation.
The salient combination of anti-elitism, continental nationalism, and Lord Protector of institutions has been revived at times, most recently by Donald Trump.
That he is wealthy is irrelevant—many populists, from Jackson to progressive James Weaver—were wealthy. The key feature of these populists is that they appear concerned with America and not politics, which many cynical rural voters believe to be mutually exclusive. They are as populists, in many ways, anti-political.
This Jacksonian concern for America is a kind of nationalism and it was widely viewed as the antidote to the sectionalism that had pervaded presidential elections up until then.
Similarly, Trump’s nationalism can be seen as a rebuke of Obama’s tribalism, just as Jackson’s election was a rebuke to Adams’ and later Calhoun’s sectionalism. And Trump’s popularity is an affirmation that many believe that the country is stronger and better off with a decisive, unapologetically nationalist President.
Like Jackson, Trump is reflexively dismissive of overly detailed policy positions, which to populists are but smoke signals to the tribe that dissipate into thin air once the candidate is elected. Bernie Sanders is currently the tribesman most obviously consumed with sending up signals to call the progressive tribe together. But it is the bought-and-paid-for Hillary and the ideologically zealous who are the most devious tribalists in this race.
Populist nationalists wisely dismiss their smoke signals as political inventions that have no relationship to the reality of governing. These patriots see theirs as an establishment game not worth playing. For them the stakes are much higher—they are about America First.
It would be a mistake to project identity politics onto populists—as farmers or rednecks or nativists or immigrant factory workers or, as we hear it said today, angry white Americans.
Andrew Jackson’s E pluribus Unum moment has become populist lore, but it summarizes his entire platform: a strong, unified, republican America—which is a kind of country nationalism that Jefferson feared would be crushed by the disproportionate power of cities and their urban cabals.
Donald Trump recently said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose voters. He could have claimed that he could give a Harvard speech in three words—E pluribus Unum—and he would gain voters. And like Jackson, the establishment (even in his own party) would label him a jackass, and Trump would wear it as a badge of honor and win another election.
After E pluribus Unum, Andrew Jackson won 77 percent of the electoral votes in his bid for a second term in 1832. And in Jackson’s farewell speech he delivered a lengthy, impassioned warning to the regular, everyday Americans—“the planter, the farmer, the mechanic, and the laborer”—that the establishment would use money and the media to undo his many accomplishments.
Trump has animated the nationalist spirit of Jackson from a glass and gold-plated Manhattan skyscraper, his own national Tower, and like a good populist, he probably doesn’t even know it. Or does he?
Nathan Allen is a graduate of Yale, an independent scholar and writer who lives in Connecticut.
Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, teaches at Oxford University and his memoir is: DAVOS, ASPEN & YALE: My Life Behind the Elite Curtain as a Global Sherpa, 2016.