Virgil: The Age of the Lion — Donald Trump Meets Andrew Jackson

Second of Two Parts…

In Part One of this series, Virgil compared President Donald Trump to a lion, observing, “A lion isn’t always beloved, but it is always respected, even feared.”

The idea that it’s better to be feared than loved, of course, comes from Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), who also wrote about lions: the political kind of lion.  In Machiavelli’s telling, the two-legged lion dominates other men for the same reason that the four-legged lion dominates other beasts—because he’s strong and fearless.  And so the lion shakes things up, causing major change. 

Yet at the same time, Machiavelli continued, the lion is not invincible; it can be snared in a trap.  So the lion needs the help of a lesser beast, the fox. The fox, while lacking in courage, is nonetheless wily; it is good at spotting traps—or, of course, luring the lion into a trap, and so the lion must be careful in choosing the right fox.  So the ideal leader, Machiavelli concluded, is a combination of both the lion and the fox—brave and clever, both. 

And that’s why Machiavelli is so valuable, even to this day.  Although he wrote fluently about the politics of his own time, he dealt in archetypes—that is, in timeless expressions of certain human characteristics.  Whether in politics or not, we’ve all known lions, and we’ve all known foxes. 

So now, if we think about US history, we realize that the same lion-fox duality applies.  Among US presidents, for example, we can identify a few obvious lions, and we can also see many foxes.  For more than two centuries, the lions have boldly disrupted the system, while the foxes have slinkily operated within the system. 

The first lion of US history, of course, was George Washington, as a revolutionary general, then as our first president.  When he was elected in 1789 (it was not until the 1792 election that we got going on the even-year quadrennial cycle), Washington established the basic rules of how an American president should behave—that’s leonine behavior of the highest rank. 

Since then, historians and political scientists have generally agreed that only a few other presidents have been true lions; that is, they truly changed the direction of the country.  These decisive presidents were Thomas Jefferson, first elected in 1800; Andrew Jackson, first elected in 1828; Abraham Lincoln, first elected in 1860; Franklin D. Roosevelt, first elected in 1932; and Ronald Reagan, first elected in 1980.

The common thread among these presidents is that they were re-elected to a second term (although FDR was actually elected a total of four times), which means that the American people approved of the changes they were making.  And not only that, in each case, the two-term president was followed by another president of his party.  That’s the real test: Has the presidential lion who made change also made it enduringly popular?  In a democracy, that’s the proof that a new order has begun. 

We can recall that all the presidents since Reagan have failed the lion-test.  Even if they were re-elected, they couldn’t extend their rule past their eight years; that is, they couldn’t pass the baton to a like-minded successor.  And so these various presidencies faded into the oblivion of ordinariness, as the next president then pursued different policies.  Thus Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama will be remembered as mere foxes, not as great lions.  

Okay, so where does Trump fit in?  After all, it’s been four decades since the last lion president, Ronald Reagan; the cycles of history tell us that we’re due for another one.   

Of course, it’s too early to know what will become of the Trump presidency, and yet we can already gain some clues as to where its leader is heading. 

And we can start by hitting the rewind button on that litany of lions, because one of those leaders, the seventh president, Andrew Jackson, is very much a model for the 45th president.

On January 20, not long after Trump’s inaugural address, Stephen K. Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart, now Senior Counselor to the President, told reporters that the speech was “Jacksonian”: 

It was an unvarnished declaration of the basic principles of his populist . . . nationalist movement. It was given, I think, in a very powerful way.  I don’t think we’ve had a speech like that since Andrew Jackson came to the White House.  It’s got a deep, deep root of patriotism.

To underscore these points about populist nationalism, Bannon urged his listeners to contrast Trump’s inaugural address to the January 17 speech of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  As Bannon put it:

I think it’d be good if people compare Xi’s speech at Davos and President Trump’s speech in his inaugural.  You’ll see two different world views.

The comparison that Bannon is driving at, of course, is nationalism vs. globalism.  In his January 20 address, Trump the nationalist was not only true to his campaign promises, but also blunt and to the point: “America First. . . Hire American, Buy American.” 

By contrast, in his speech at Davos, three days previously, Xi declared himself to be a committed globalist; as he said, “China will keep its door wide open, and not close it.” 

So we can see: Xi is seeking to rally the globalists, worldwide, while Trump is seeking to rally the nationalists, countrywide.  

To be sure, many would say that the actions of Xi’s country are at variance with his words.  That is, the real China is plenty nationalistic; the globalist talk is just a cover for national self-interest.  In recent years, for example, China has muscled—or pushed out entirely—US companies seeking to sell into the Chinese market; these companies include Apple, Facebook, Qualcomm, and Uber.  

Indeed, last year the American Chamber of Commerce in China surveyed its members and concluded, “More than three-quarters of respondents feel that foreign businesses are less welcome than before in China.” In other words, their honeyed words notwithstanding, the Chinese have been aggressively nationalistic all along.  So now, finally, will an American president get tough in response?  Let’s hope so.  

Indeed, there’s already evidence that Trump has the destiny of a lion.  In the past, Virgil and many others have cited Trump’s pro-jobs activism, engaging directly with US corporations.  That’s a big departure from the past few decades of bipartisan orthodoxy, which held that global market forces must be allowed to do as they will, no matter what.  As Trump said on Friday:

We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.  One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind.  The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.

Okay, so globalism is one huge issue where Trump parts company with his predecessors.  

Now we can cite another.  Also in his speech on Friday, Trump broke with the habitual bipartisan policy of global intervention, to be followed, of course, by costly efforts at nation-building: 

We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world—but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.  We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.

In so saying, Trump repudiated not only the 44th president’s interventionist-internationalist policies, but also the 43rd president’s interventionist-internationalist policies.  Indeed, it was just a dozen years ago that a newly re-elected George W. Bush declared in his 2005 inaugural:

It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary.

In other words, Bush was making an open-ended commitment to using American power, including military might, to bring democracy everywhere.  How this was actually going to happen was never explained.  After all, the US experience of nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t exactly fill anyone with confidence—except, evidently, Bush—that any of grandiose democratizing was even remotely possible.  

Soon thereafter, the American people rendered their judgment on Bush’s woozy globalism; in the next election, 2006, the Republicans were removed from power in Congress, and in 2008, with the landslide defeat of John McCain, from the White House.  Thus ended any hope Bush 43 might have had for reaching lion status.  And as we have seen, Obama’s hopes, too, were snuffed out in 2016.

So again the question: Will Trump prove to be a lion, alongside, among others, Andrew Jackson? The auguries are promising, but we won’t know for sure for years to come.  Trump must have a successful presidency, and then, in addition, a successfully re-elected Trump must hand off power to a like-minded successor, pledged to pursue the same policies. 

As Machiavelli would say, that would be the way of the lion. 


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