Whatever happens next, Donald Trump has already made political history. He has restored the most powerful political coalition in the annals of US elections—namely, the cross-regional, strange-bedfellows alliance of North and South.
Yes, Trump has revived the coalition that, across the centuries, has lined up behind such disparate figures as Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.
Perhaps I should explain. Indeed, we should analyze this phenomenon in two parts: First, what the coalition was, and what it is today. Second, why it came into existence in the first place, and why it has re-emerged.
I. The North-South Jacksonian Alliance
To get a grasp on this coalition, we must consider the map of past electoral-college results.
Let’s start with the 1828 presidential election, making Andrew Jackson the seventh president. As we will see, Jackson, from Tennessee, won every region of both South and North, except for New England. Earlier presidents had won big victories, too, but in those previous elections, the franchise had been severely limited, and only a tiny percentage of American men could vote.
After losing the previous 1824 election, Jackson set about changing that; as a hero of the War of 1812, a former US Senator, and now a prominent private citizen, he barnstormed the country, pressuring the various state legislatures into expanding voting rights.
So in 1828, he was ready. Jackson is remembered for leading the “revolt of the rustics”—that is, unleashing the power of the newly enfranchised Protestant white farmers of the South and West; the West of that era, we might note, was such states as Illinois and Missouri.
Yet in addition, Jackson carried the Catholic vote in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. Irish-Americans, for example, were a rapidly growing force, building political machines in cities such as New York and Philadelphia; Hibernians jumped at the chance to vote for Jackson, the Democrat, and thus stick it to the WASP Yankees, led by John Quincy Adams, leader of the National Republicans. (In the 19th century, the Adams forces were first Federalists, then National Republicans, then Whigs, and then, just Republicans—all the while retaining their upper-crust aura as Boston Brahmins).
Jackson’s achievement in coalition politics—pulling together Northern whites, heavily Catholic, and Southern whites, almost entirely Protestant—should not be underestimated. As everyone knows, Catholics and Protestants had gone to war with each other during the European Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, fighting battles and inflicting massacres that rivaled, or even exceeded, World War Two in their intensity and lethality. And even as deadly passions cooled on the Continent, they were still white-hot in Ireland, where the Catholic Irish squared off against the Protestant Ulstermen.
So naturally, these deep enmities carried over to the New World, albeit with less murderous fervor. Yet Jackson, great war hero that he was, and his wily political lieutenant, Martin Van Buren, was able to unite these hostile tribes into the same political army.
We might observe that, in 1828, it wasn’t that Northern Catholics suddenly felt affection for Southern white Protestants. Rather, Northern Catholics knew exactly whom they did not like: namely, their rich bosses in their own towns and cities, who were typically Whigs.
So the Irish, being practical-minded politicos, simply looked around the country for potential allies: If the Protestant in the mansion at the top of Beacon Hill was the arch enemy, then the Protestant 500 miles away in Nashville, if not beloved, could at least be a party-mate and comrade.
Meanwhile, for their part, Southern white Protestants were not overly fond of “Papists,’ and yet they recognized that elite Northern Protestants, opposing slavery and supporting the tariff—both positions being anathema to the cotton-growing, cotton-exporting South—were the greater enemy than Northern Catholics.
We might further observe that the Jacksonian Alliance did not include every American, not by a long shot: Northern Protestants were mostly left out; they were, after all, mostly Whigs, the party of rich owners. Southern blacks, too, were left out: most were slaves and thus couldn’t vote. And it must be said that even free blacks, though few in number, were not popular; racial prejudice aside, economic concerns loomed large: Working-class whites feared blacks’ willingness to work cheaper.
So we can see that the Jacksonian Alliance was defined mainly by hostility, not affection. As has been said, politics is but organized hatred, war by another means.
In any case, the Jacksonian coalition, and thus the Democrats, dominated American politics for decades to come, up until the Civil War.
Now let’s fast-forward a century and look at the 1932 presidential election, ushering in FDR as the thirty-second president. Once again, as in 1828, the Democratic candidate won both North and South. Once again, only New England was the outlier—it stuck with the Republicans.
So thus we see two Democratic presidents, in two different centuries, carrying the same big regions by the same big margins.
So is the Jacksonian Alliance just another way of saying “Democratic Party”? Not quite. In fact, not at all.
Okay, so now let’s look at the 1972 presidential election, which saw the re-election of Richard Nixon, a Republican, as the thirty-seventh president. Here again, we see that North and South were united behind the same candidate, with New England, again—this time, reduced just to Massachusetts—as the outlier.
(As an aside, we might add that there seems to be something peculiar about Boston and its environs. That city, which delights in dubbing itself “The Hub,” possesses traits which seemingly repulse the rest of the country; for centuries, Boston has been producing an affluent, activist caste of high-minded, or high-handed, meddlers, forever eager to solve the world’s problems—their way. Sometimes, we can stipulate their cause as noble, such as Abolitionism in the 19th century. Other times, their cause has been less noble, as with Prohibition in the 20th century. And yet at other times, their cause has been downright ignoble, as in the current crusade against “climate change” in the 21st century. I mean, who wants to be lectured to by John Kerry?)
Returning to the 1972 election results, we can see that the Jacksonian Alliance was intact—but the partisan result was exactly flipped: Nixon won the Jackson/FDR states, and yet he was, of course, a Republican.
Thus we can see that the North and the South, each with its own distinct values and interests, can, under certain circumstances, be aligned together. We can further see that those values and interests have been more important to Northern and Southern voters than any mere partisan label. Yes, as we have seen, both regions are ancestrally Democratic, and yet, with sufficient prodding—with, for example, enough George McGovern and Walter Mondale—both regions can be persuaded to switch parties and vote the same way, for the Republicans.
Continuing with our historical survey, if we skip ahead a few more years, we can see that Ronald Reagan’s landslide victories, in1980, and 1984, weren’t much different from Nixon’s.
In other words, by the 1980s, it was obvious that the Jacksonian Alliance was no longer a Democratic bulwark; it was now a Republican bulwark.
In fact, as a revealing cultural signpost of that era, we might recall the hit 1985 song from the country group Alabama, “Forty Hour Week.” In it, the group, formed in Fort Payne, down in DeKalb County, deep in the heart of Dixie, begins with this earnest tribute to working folks:
There are people in this country
Who work hard every day
Not for fame or fortune do they strive
But the fruits of their labor
Are worth more than their pay
And it’s time a few of them were recognized.
Then the song singles out for praise praise the blue collars of Detroit and Pittsburgh—“Let me thank you for your time/ You work a forty hour week for a livin’/ Just to send it on down the line.”
So here, in the late 20th century, we can see a genuine spirit of working-class solidarity, nationwide. Whereas the earlier North-South political teamings had been marked by stubborn cultural splits—over such issues as slavery, parochial schools, and temperance—by the late 20th century, those divisions were mostly forgotten. Both Northern Catholics and Southern Evangelicals, for example, could be on the same side of such issues as abortion and gun control.
Okay, now one last look down history lane, just to remind us that nothing in politics is permanent: In the 1992 and 1996presidential elections, Bill Clinton proved that the Democrats could yet again reclaim, at least partially, the Jacksonian Alliance. Whereas Jackson, Roosevelt, and Nixon all won in double-digit landslides, Clinton’s victories were narrower, while still comfortable. Yet if we look at the electoral maps, we can see that in both of his campaigns, Clinton won four of the 11 states of the Old Confederacy, even as he won hugely in the North.
But then, in the 2000 presidential election, the old North-South coalition broke down completely—the North went one way, and the South went the other.
George W. Bush won that year, barely, with little of the North and all of the South. In other words, the North was blue and the South was red. And as for the much-less-populous West, it was a split: Bush won the more Southern-influenced Western states, such as Arizona and Idaho, while Al Gore carried the Yankee-er states along the Pacific coast.
We can further observe that the national elections of 2004, 2008, and 2012 were much the same: For the Democrats, it was a mostly solid North, plus most of the West, while for Republicans, it was a solid South.
Yet just at the point when election analysts might have concluded that the Jackson-Roosevelt-Nixon-Reagan-Clinton North-South coalition was gone—now, suddenly, it has reappeared.
And the reason, of course, is Trump: A look at the map of his victories in 2016 shows that the mogul has won New Hampshire andArkansas, Vermont and South Carolina. And yes, he even won Massachusetts, one of the most Catholic states in the country, along with Georgia, one of the most Protestant.
We can footnote, to be sure, that Trump’s results are only for the primaries, as opposed to the general election. Yet still, even at this early stage, we can marvel at Trump’s achievement: He offers the promise, at least, of bringing the GOP back to a political fortune that it hasn’t seen since the 1980s, building upon a time-tested alliance that dates back nearly two centuries.
So how has Trump done it? How has he united Northern Catholics and Southern white Protestants? How has he revived the Jacksonian Alliance? The answer, in large part, is that he has used that most reliable tactic, namely, uniting different kinds of folks against a common political foe.
II. The Common Enemy
As we think about the Jacksonian North-South coalition, and what it takes to unite it, we can begin with this thesis statement: The party identified with the coastal, urban rich will be repellent to the bulk of Northerners and Southerners.
We have earlier observed that the Jacksonians were often defined by what they didn’t like—okay, by whom they hated. And that’s all true. But now we can add an economic dimension—or, if one prefers, a class-struggle argument—to the mix.
So let’s put things even more simply: When the fatcats go one way, the bulk of the voters go the other way.
Such an action-reaction sequence, of course, is the essence of populism: the masses on one side, and the elite on the other. And this dynamic is full of implications for the “donor class,” and those politicians who become associated with donors. And thus we can see how, once again, the old North-South coalition is recreated—because of a shared hostility to the overclass.
A wise friend calls this the “hot potato” theory: As in, the fatcats—the overclass donors—are the hot potato that nobody wants to hold.
But of course, politicians do want to gain a close hold on the donors, or at least their money.
And if such donations cost the pols votes? Or even cause them to lose the next election? Well, the money is still hard to turn down: In this world, the ecstasy of short-term temptation oftentimes gets the better of sober long-term calculation. So perhaps it’s more apt to refer to the take-the-money-now-repent-later syndrome as the “poisoned chalice,” or even, the “Faustian bargain.”
One observer who sees this double-edged nature of donations is the pundit David Frum. On Tuesday night, as Marco Rubio was coming in third or fourth everywhere, Frum tweeted out:
Rule seems to be holding: the more Republican donors like you, the less Republican voters do.
In another tweet, Frum added,
GOP voters looking to GOP donors to signal: which candidate should we brutally reject next?
As of today, the victims of the current populist backlash seem to be Republican Rubio and Democrat Hillary “Goldman Sachs” Clinton.
Observers have noted that Rubio, darling of the donor class, has won just two of 24 contests this year. And as for Clinton, well, she might be the frontrunner, but she wasn’t supposed to lose Michigan to Bernie Sanders—and yet she did. Thus the Faustian Chalice.
Indeed we can see this Faustian Chalice pattern all through US history:
Back in the early 19th century, the populist Jacksonians arrayed themselves mostly against the aristocratic Whigs. We might note that the Jacksonians were not all plebs; Jackson himself was wealthy, and his coalition included Southern planters (plantation owners) as well as poorer farmers, artisans, and laborers. Yet if politics is organized hatred, well, the Jacksonians were effective haters.
Then, in 1860, the Lincoln Republicans confronted the Jacksonians—and won. The insurgent Republicans convinced Midwestern Jacksonian Democrats that the “aristocratic” planters—boosted by King Cotton, the planters, as a group, were the richest people in America back then—wanted to extend slavery, and thus cheaper slave labor as well, into the free states, all the way to California. Thus it was a political battle between independent yeomen vs. the plantation grandees, and that political struggle, of course, soon escalated into outright conflict.
After the Civil War, the Jacksonian coalition went into deep eclipse. The South bore the stigma of secession and the bloodshed that followed. For the rest of the 19th century, “vote as you shot” was the common political admonition, and the memory of Antietam and Fredericksburg was enough to keep many Northern Catholics in the Republican column, even if their economic interests gave them more in common with their fellow proletarians in the South. Thus the North voted mostly Republican, while the South, still bitter over defeat in the Civil War, tightly embraced the Democrats.
Yet the North, its population bulged up by immigrants working in the new factories, became politically preeminent. From 1860 to 1932, the Northern Republicans won the White House in 14 of 18 elections. And yet because the Republicans of that era had so little appeal in the South, most of those presidential elections were close.
Moreover, the Democrats did fairly well in Congress; whereas the Donkey Party held the White House for just 16 years in that era, it controlled the House for a total of 26 years.
Indeed, the Jacksonian Alliance was always latent. It was revived in anger in the 1884 presidential election, for example, when a New York-based Protestant cleric, a Rev. Burchard, loudly derided the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” That is, the Democrats were the “wet” party of anti-prohibition, of the Catholic Church, and, of course, the Confederacy. All three statements were, strictly speaking, true, but in his breezy and contemptuous alliteration, Burchard’s words managed to inflame Democratic voters—inflame them to the polls in huge numbers. And so Grover Cleveland won the White House that year, the first Democrat to win since 1856—and the only Democrat to win until Woodrow Wilson in 1912.
Yet as we have seen, the Democrats were strong enough to keep most elections close, and so they had considerable influence on national policy: It was standard for Democrats to attack rich railroads, engorged trusts, and the gold standard. Indeed, in 1896, Democrat William Jennings Bryan electrified his party with his legendary “cross of gold” speech.
Mindful of these tricky political waters, many Republicans, too, kept their distance from Big Business. We might recall that the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 was sponsored by a Republican senator and signed by a Republican president, Benjamin Harrison.
After Harrison, the next Republican president, William McKinley, winner of the 1896 and 1900 elections, possessed considerable working-man cred. McKinley was a college dropout who had worked as a postal clerk and schoolteacher before enlisting in the Army in 1861 as a private; after four years of heavy combat, he was a major. In other words, while McKinley was no populist, he was completely in tune with the battle-scarred, cloth-coat Lincoln Republicanism of the Midwest.
Moreover, back in those days, most American manufacturing was actually in America, so McKinley’s hawkishness on trade—he was a strong supporter of the tariff—endeared him to not only to factory owners, but also to factory workers. (Things are different now, at least for the owners—who own mostly in Mexico or China.)
McKinley’s Republican successor, Theodore Roosevelt, was another war hero, also pro-tariff. Admittedly, TR was a to-the-manor-born Harvard graduate, but even so, he was something of a populist. It was he who publicly decried “malefactors of great wealth” and signed regulatory legislation into law. So as we can see, the Republicans, too, could be fatcat-bashers.
Three decades later, TR’s Democratic cousin Franklin, another genteel Harvard man, was finally able to revive Jackson’s North-South coupling, bringing the Democratic Party to a level of power not seen in nearly a hundred years.
This was the Depression decade, of course, and the country, blaming Republican Herbert Hoover and Wall Street speculators for the Crash, ate it up when the second Roosevelt lashed out against “money changers in the temple.” As FDR said in his 1932 Chicago convention acceptance speech,
This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.
Yes, FDR knew how to pick his enemies. Some find it ironic that the patrician New Yorker would have such appeal to the horny-handed sons of toil, but he did; the ’32 election results—in which the rich Democrat carried 42 of 48 states—are proof.
Four years later, in his 1936 re-election campaign, FDR convoked the same North-South coalition, once again blasting the plutocrats, and notably reveling in their counter-attacks on him. Speaking of those he dubbed “economic royalists,” Roosevelt declared,
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.
And then he added these ringing words:
I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.
In the ’36 election FDR did even better than he had before: He won 46 of 48 states.
Okay, that was the old Democrats; at their peak, in the 75th Congress, donkeys numbered 75 in the Senate and 334 in the House.
Then things started to change. We can trace the beginnings of this change to the presidential candidacies of Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. A graduate of Choate and Princeton, Stevenson was, not to put too fine a point on it, a snob. To be sure, many prominent Democrats of the past had also been cultured Ivy Leaguers, but for Stevenson, superiority was central to his identity—he kept a copy of the Social Register, bluebook for bluebloods, at his bedside.
Revealingly, once in the 50s, a supporter called out, “Governor Stevenson, all thinking people are for you!” To which Stevenson answered, “That’s not enough. I need a majority.” Thus it was that Republican Dwight Eisenhower—who might have been capable of a thought, even if elite Democrats were loath to admit it—trounced Stevenson twice.
Yet in the decades that followed, other Democratic leaders continued the Stevensonian shift in the Party, from Jacksonianism to what’s known today as neoliberalism. John Kennedy, George McGovern, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, and Barack Obama all did their part to displace the old Jacksonian Alliance with a new team of technocrats and plutocrats—that is, Ivy League eggheads plus Wall Street financialists.
In fact, the Democrats, as a matter of slow but steady devolution, became exactly what the old Jacksonian Alliance had opposed. Whereas the old Whigs had been clustered in Boston and Manhattan, the McGovernized Democrats were centered in the same two cities—little blue dots of rich progressives, surrounded by poor, often dependent, minorities.
Reacting to this emergent George Soros/Al Sharpton coalition of Democrats, it became possible for the Republicans, once again, to reassemble the old Jacksonian Alliance along GOP lines.
To be sure, the new-style Soros-Sharpton Democrats were not without resources: Clinton and Obama had the fiscalist elixir of Rubinism, as in Robert Rubin, secretary of the treasury in the 90s and arguably the most influential Democrat of the last quarter-century. It was Rubin, formerly of Goldman Sachs and now ensconced at Citigroup, who pioneered the globalist vision of free immigration, free trade—plus, of course, the occasional Wall Street bailout—which has worked, if nothing else, to goose the stock market.
In this neoliberalized environment, the wages of working- and middle-class people began to decline; fortunately for the Democrats, it took awhile for the voters to notice.
But now they have noticed, that’s for sure—and both the Trump and Sanders campaigns have thus been energized.
Today, the top-down trickle-down of the neo-Whigs—oops, the neoliberals—has became an easy target.
Of course, the political impact of this middle-class outrage was muddied for a while, because many Republicans, of the Jeb Bush persuasion, agreed with much of Rubinomics, from open borders to open outsourcing. Thus, top Republicans, as well as top Democrats, were joined together in what Ted Cruz likes to call the “Washington Cartel.”
Yet Trump was never part of any such Beltway combine. Trump has charted his own course and, as we have seen, has revived the Jacksonian Alliance—Catholics and Baptists, together again.
So how, precisely, did Trump do it? The answer: He capitalized on the noxious nature of his enemies—he took the fight right to the fatcats.
In December, Trump drew gasps and splutters when he told the Republican Jewish Coalition,
You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine . . . I do want your support, but I don’t want your money.
It’s hard to think of another time in recent history that a presidential candidate was so dismissive of donors—some even accused Trump of anti-Semitism.
But Trump soon made it clear that his donor-disdain was entirely ecumenical—he didn’t like any of them.
On February 6, confronted with boos from the live audience at the New Hampshire debate, Trump struck back: The crowd was stacked against him, he said. Zeroing in on the alleged economic status of the donors in the room, Trump went on link them to Jeb Bush, for whom Trump had shown nothing but contempt. As the magnate put it, waving his hand dismissively, “That’s all of his donors and special interests out there.”
Trump was just warming up. Looking out at the well-dressed and well-coiffed audience, he continued,
You know who has the tickets . . . Donors, special interests, the people that are putting up the money. That’s who it is.
Then he added this further bit of Trumpian defiance:
I don’t want their money. I’m going to do the right thing for the American public. I don’t want, I don’t need their money. And I’m the only one up here that can say that.
Andy Jackson would have loved it.
On March 8, after his victories in Michigan and Mississippi, Trump quipped, “I want to thank the special interests and the lobbyists.”
Yes, it might seem strange that a plutocrat could be so effective at attacking other plutocrats, but then, as we have seen, both TR and FDR were born wealthy, and Jackson and Reagan, although born poor, also became wealthy.
Trump’s genius, of course, has been in stigmatizing the fatcats, turning them into millstones around the necks of his rivals.
Indeed, we can observe that the very emergence of the phrase “donor class” in recent years has been devastating to the interests of the elite. That is, once the big political givers are labeled as the “donor class,” they are nailed—the Jacksonians know who to hate. So goodbye, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and, soon enough, Marco Rubio. Indeed, we can further note the increasing usage of the phrase, “ruling class”—that has to be even worse news for the plutocracy.
How much worse? How bad is it getting now for the rich and the candidates they shower cash on? As political analyst Amy Walter notes, the four most recent primary contests show that the surviving establishment candidates, Rubio and John Kasich, earned no more than 38 percent of the vote, total, and as little as 17 percent.
With that in mind, there’s little reason to think that the latest donor onslaught will help the establishment’s presidential favorite. As Politico reports,
Rubio is getting an incredible assist on the Florida airwaves, with $10 million in negative attacks hitting Trump from various groups and Rubio’s own super PAC adding $5 million to its already substantial buy on late Tuesday—an incredible sum to spend in one week.
Yet in fact, as Breitbart’sJohn Hayward has observed, the donors’ stop-Trump effort has been backlashing. Such spending, Hayward added,
. . . is exactly what Trump voters are rebelling against… they hate this idea that this oligarchy run the country, that the Democrats and a big chunk of Republicans are in league with each other, that there’s a continuum now between the left and the right in this business class, and they’re going to protect their interests above all else.
And of course, Trump has his populist antidote to massive amounts of money—that is, massive amounts of votes. On March 8, he savored his achievement:
I think it’s actually the single-biggest story in politics today, what’s happening at the booth, the tremendous number of people who are coming out to vote. Some of the states are getting—in fact, one has 102 percent increase over four years ago. It’s amazing: 102 percent… You’re talking about millions and millions of people.
Continuing, Trump noted that the Democratic turnout was down by a third or more. And then he added this Jacksonian appeal, combined, perhaps, with a little bit of threat: “I hope that the Republicans will embrace it”—that is, the big new bloc of Trump voters.
Yet as we know, elite Republicans, at least, are implacably hostile. A March 9 headline in Breitbart reads, “54 Private Jets at Meeting to Stop Trump.”
Indeed, more mortal political combat is inevitable, because Trump is not just attacking the donors for their donations, he is also attacking the elite right where they live—on issues such as trade, immigration, and, to a lesser extent, foreign policy.
Today, the smart money, having steadily underestimated Trump, has a new fallback position: Okay, maybe he’ll win the GOP nomination, but he can’t possibly win a general election.
The future, of course, is hard to predict. Yet if Trump can continue to hold together his Jacksonian Alliance, he can make Republicans this offer: The same North-South coalition that smashed Bush and Rubio could also smash Hillary.
And who knows: Trump the GOP nominee might even find common cause with some Sanders voters. Certainly Clinton makes for a fat target—with her speeches to, and contributions from, Goldman Sachs being just the beginning.
Here’s one of a thousand Hillary threads to tug on: The left-wing muckrakers at The Intercept recently headlined a story, “Larry Fink and His BlackRock Team Poised to Take Over Hillary Clinton’s Treasury Department.”
That would be Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the multi-trillion dollar—yes, you read that right, “trillion” with a “t”—investment firm. It seems that Fink has hired up so many ex-Clinton and Obama aides that he already has a government-in-waiting. One such Clintonian, we might add, is Cheryl Mills, Hillary’s chief of staff at the State Department—and she is, of course, deeply implicated in the scandal of “Servergate.”
So can Donald Trump, this century’s answer to Andrew Jackson, go all the way? Can he make 2016 into another 1828? It’s too soon to tell, but the indicators are favorable: The Jacksonian Alliance is now on the march, heading toward Washington.