From Jackson to Trump, American conservatism is animated by a paternalistic logic.
From the perspective of political stagecraft, the 2016 Republican National Convention was a catastrophe. The presumptive nominee was the subject of continuing opposition from party officials and luminaries, including the sitting governor of the state in which the convention was held. In spite of the nominee’s boasts that the event would feature high-wattage star power, the best that he could offer audiences was the endorsement of an aged thespian best known for portraying a male nanny on a decades-old sitcom. Worst of all, his fiercest rival for the party’s nomination was given a prime-time speaking slot—and then not only refused to endorse the nominee but intimated that American conservatives would do well to withhold their support as well. By contrast, his opponent’s nominating convention the next week was a masterclass in political messaging.
But in hindsight it is clear that the Republican National Convention accomplished for its nominee precisely what it intended. For the point of the event was not to display Donald Trump’s devotion to conservative principle but instead to envelop the candidate in the particulars of conservative identity. The goal, after all, was to portray Donald Trump as a great biological and national father—a singular figure who would rescue the nation from what is, for a great many Americans, the nightmare of multicultural politics. And, at that, the convention was a manifest success.
Modern American conservatism is obsessed with the influence of American fathers past and present.
Indeed, modern American conservatism is obsessed with the influence of American fathers past and present, with the legacies of both the nation’s historical “founding fathers” and its actual, biological fathers. As Raised Right argues, this obsession manifests, in practice, as a paternal rights discourse that emphasizes that American democracy exists for “good” American citizens, who can be trusted to exercise their rights to self-governance and autonomy in responsible ways. Conversely, those Americans who, lacking the influence of paternal authority (whether biological or historical) never learned self-discipline and cannot be trusted to exercise their rights in mature ways. Thus does modern American conservatism employ the standard of paternal authority to cast citizens as either virtuous and worthy of governmental support or vicious and worthy of governmental discipline, of law and order. And, apropos for a multicultural nation, these categories of virtuous and vicious tend to be inflected with gender and race-based dynamics.
And, so, after his adult children had testified to Trump’s biological paternal bona fides, the candidate used his acceptance speech to make the case for himself as a great American father. Portraying the nation, and especially its communities of color, as awash in crime, disorder, and despair, Trump announced that he “alone” could protect the nation from depravities both domestic and international in origin. Long-time Republican Party strategist Mike Murphy ridiculed the speech as dystopian fantasy and heard in it the stuff of contemporary popular culture; Murphy hadn’t realized that “we were in Gotham City—[with] roving gangs and a billionaire vigilante.” But media provocateur and future Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, along with tens of millions of Americans, heard something else entirely: the candidate, Bannon proclaimed, was channeling the American populism of Andrew Jackson himself, that original American “Great Father” and champion of the “common man.”
As it did for Jackson, Trump’s path to paternal authority involved attacking multicultural politics.
Unsurprising, then, that now in office, the President has followed Bannon’s advice on multiple fronts. Seeking to shock and awe his political opponents, Trump issued an early surfeit of controversial executive orders. These unilateral actions dominated headlines and sucked up political oxygen, but very few of them accomplished much in the way of policy change; Bannon thought that the image, rather than the reality, of a vigorous presidency was what was vital for energizing supporters and demoralizing opponents. Indeed, so disinterested was Trump in the mechanics of government that he refused even to do the work necessary to staff the multitude of executive agencies under his command with loyalists. Bored by governance, the President instead sought to fulfill another of Bannon’s prophecies: following Andrew Jackson’s lead in becoming the nation’s new Great Father.
And, as it did for Jackson, Trump’s path to paternal authority involved attacking multicultural politics. The signature act of Trump’s first months in office (one of the few of his executive orders that did affect a major policy change)—the travel ban on people entering the nation from 7 (and then 6) seemingly randomly chosen countries whose citizens have almost no history of terrorist attacks in the United States and are linked to one another only by their overwhelmingly Muslim majority populations—was repeatedly justified in the name of national security, as an act that was vital for keeping the American homeland safe. Ignoring the already cumbersome and thorough vetting procedures in place for international visitors, the President and his supporters insisted that the nation’s borders were “open” and, without evidence, that “jihadists” disguised as refugees were “pouring in” to the American nation. After its enforcement was blocked by a federal judge, who understood the ban in the way that candidate Trump had described it (as a “Muslim ban”) and accordingly concluded that it likely violated First Amendment protections of religious liberty, the President tweeted his outrage: “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” “THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!” he tweeted a few days later. And, then, when his administration’s revised travel ban was similarly blocked by federal courts, Trump could only conclude that the nation was witnessing “unprecedented judicial overreach.”
The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 4, 2017
SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
This was not, of course, the first time that an American President who fancied himself as the nation’s great father was stymied by unsympathetic court decisions. Former Arkansas Governor and multiple-time Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee undoubtedly endeared himself to the administration when he tweeted his own suggestion for moving forward. When Andrew Jackson, Trump’s apparent political hero, was confronted with a hostile United States Supreme Court in the 1832 case of Worcester v. Georgia, Jackson, touted as being “tough as old hickory,” defied the Court’s opinion and continued on with plans for the removal of the Cherokee Nation from its Georgia homeland. Huckabee suggested that Trump follow Jackson’s lead and ignore the courts. It was surely a tempting thought.
Andrew Jackson proclaimed that he was the “father” of the United States and so too of the Cherokee people. Forcing his “red children” to leave the fertile soil of the deep South and march the “Trail of Tears” to barren Oklahoma, Jackson ignored a valid treaty that carried Constitutional force as the “supreme law of the land.” Substituting paternal will for national law, Old Hickory cleared the fertile American landscape of people of color so that white speculators could exercise their rights to pursue economic gain unfettered by multicultural reality.
At the same time that the Trump administration was pursuing a travel ban of Muslim people from Africa and the Middle East, the President was demanding more than $4 billion from Congress in order to build the wall along the nation’s southern border that he had promised during the campaign. This “big, beautiful wall,” claimed Trump, would protect the nation from “illegal” immigrants from Latin America who allegedly steal American jobs and menace American bodies. No matter that the most reliable evidence indicates that undocumented migrants work in low-demand occupations under dangerous conditions and with low pay or that undocumented migrants commit violent crimes at barely half the rate of American-born citizens; the wall would keep out “bad hombres” just as the travel ban would keep out “terrorists.”
Thus have the early days of the Trump administration revived the paternal spirit of “the people’s president,” even as they have updated the “Great Father’s” racial politics for contemporary times. For, even though the fates of each of the Trump administration’s signature plans for protecting the American homeland remain uncertain, the directions in which they point are clear. They gesture, on one hand, to Bannon’s frequently-noted, if murky, connections to white nationalist doctrine, and, on the other, to his and the President’s increasingly obvious desires to channel the paternal authority of Old Hickory himself.
And, so, as if to give thanks, or perhaps to pay tribute, Donald Trump recently attended a celebration of Andrew Jackson’s 250th birthday at his Tennessee plantation, the Hermitage. Memorializing his devotion to Old Hickory—that “amazing figure in American history”—the President placed a wreath at the foot of Jackson’s tomb.