Trump’s recent wistful remark that if Andrew Jackson had “been a little bit later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War” offered yet further proof of how strongly contemporary white nationalist narratives continue to shape the president’s views of the world.
A favorite of white nationalist web forums like Stormfront and 4chan’s /pol/, Andrew Jackson is described in these fora as a thrilling military victor of the white race. Jackson set up a legacy for the expansion of the US and the slave-owning South. He stopped nullification by threatening to hang anyone in South Carolina who organized in support of it, and he left a precarious economy that bottomed out two months after his successor, Martin Van Buren, took office. When Van Buren rejected Texas’s admission to the Union to avoid upsetting the balance between slave states and non-slave states, Jackson withdrew his support for Van Buren in favor of James Polk, a slave-holding president whose support for the annexation of Texas strengthened the hand of slaveholding states in the South. The continued expansion of the slave-holding territories in subsequent presidencies would set the stage for the Civil War.
One white nationalist 4chan contributor glowingly describes Polk as “one of Andrew Jackson’s closest supporters” who “cucked Henry Clay out of the Presidency.”
Meanwhile, the Trump-supporting anti-immigrant website VDARE inducts its $20 per month donors into the Andrew Jackson Donor Circle, and the “alt-right” podcast, “The Right Stuff,” which supported Trump’s candidacy, insisted last year that replacing Jackson’s face on the twenty-dollar bill with that of Harriet Tubman “is the replacement of White America with the multiracial America that has been forced upon us.”
In accordance with this broader white nationalist reverence for Jackson, Trump has always sought to present himself as a kind of visionary Jacksonian. He even made a show of visiting Jackson’s grave and hanging a portrait of “Old Hickory” (one of Jackson’s nicknames) in the White House.
Many of Trump’s actions as president also betray a resonance with the actions of Jackson. Jackson was infamous for his backhanded words regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to defend the Cherokee’s right of place: Saying “let them enforce it,” Jackson used the powers of the executive to contravene the checks and balances of the constitutional system and displace the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee and Seminole. The ensuing “Trail of Tears” that decimated the population of the Cherokee by upward of a third came to mark the policy of “Indian Removal” and Jackson’s presidency. Trump has echoed this sort of unilateral provocation in his own immigration policy proposals and more recently in his May 2 tweet stating “our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”
A Second Civil War?
The fact that Trump’s comments about Andrew Jackson stopping the Civil War came at a time when his supporters started declaring a “second Civil War” amid violent confrontations with antifascist protestors is crucial. Few things evoke more sentiment for the neo-Confederates, pan-secessionists and ethno-separatists of the far right than the notion of a “second Civil War.”
The notorious fascist William Pierce was the first to openly call for a “second Civil War” with the aim of re-establishing a “white nation.” This aspiration is embraced by much of the “alt-right” and is apparent in tweets such as these:
Or a second Civil War. That’s what Dr. Pierce recommended, anyway. https://t.co/Tv5CIZQFJJ
— ShadilayForever ?? (@ShadilayForever) April 25, 2017
— Netizen Nickster (@NetizenNickster) April 27, 2017
Members of the “alt-right” frequently promote the notion of a second Civil War. Many, for example, tweeted out an article by conservative columnist Dennis Prager that was reposted on the website of American Renaissance, a white nationalist group. The article envisions a civil war between the left and the rest of the US over freedom of speech.
Trump supporters have been quick to follow the lead of the “alt-right,” suggesting that the second Civil War is already here:
The Second Civil War has begun. They couldn’t take away our guns , so they are attempting to take away our voices. Stand up, not shut up!
— R. Wolfe (@WhoWolfe) April 28, 2017
The second civil war might be brief. pic.twitter.com/2yEZdWd0I1
— Educating Liberals (@Education4Libs) May 1, 2017
Even the Huffington Post has joined the conspiracy-addled fringes in forecasting the “Coming of America’s Second Civil War.” In this tense climate, it matters that Trump’s understanding of Jackson potentially saving the Union is antithetical to the reality of the situation: In truth, Jackson stoked the tensions that led to the Civil War, and his legacy lives on in the glorification of the Confederacy and the white nationalist narrative of the persecuted white race.
Jackson’s Fascist Legacy
Fascists in the US have long identified Jackson’s legacy with their identity as a defeated and subjugated group. Jackson serves as the driving figure of US history for fascists like post-war US organizer Francis Parker Yockey, who identifies Jackson with the beginning of “the great epoch of the history of practice of government in America,” and claims that his “Spirit still lives.” Right-wing propagandist and proud Yockeyist Willis Carto described Andrew Jackson as embodying populism and “America First” politics through his views on race and capital.
The battle over the legacy of the Civil War and Andrew Jackson is currently taking place in New Orleans, where fascist Trump supporter and former founding leader of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke has taken it upon himself to defend historical monuments to the legacy of the Confederacy — including a statue of Andrew Jackson. Duke’s successful manipulation of populist politics, which earned him a seat in the Louisiana House, has been likened to Trump’s own appeals to the white working class.
Today Jackson represents the fulfillment of many of the most violent fantasies underpinning US independence — particularly the white nationalist fantasy of removing all people of color from North America (a mission Jackson hoped to accomplish by serving as an officer in the American Colonization Society). For this reason, as well as on account of Jackson’s unilateral approach to sovereignty, white nationalist Trump booster Jared Taylor has described Trump as a “kindred spirit” of Jackson’s.
This comparison of Trump to Jackson has always been bizarre and somewhat forced. While Jackson melded the brash pose of the militarist with the Southern charms of a backwoods country boy, Trump slouches into his role as commander in chief without spending a day in military service. Yet somehow, Trump has credibly appropriated the identity of Jackson — the grand patriarch of the Democratic Party who earned his reputation as the “Napoleon of the woods” by defeating British forces during the Battle of New Orleans.
Comparisons to Napoleon
Jackson never met Napoleon Bonaparte, but he idealized him, and the two shared much in common: They gained the support of the conservative countryside and the petite-bourgeois through militant nationalism. The Jacksonian legacy is one of a jingoism similar to that of the Bonapartists who supported the Confederacy in the Civil War, and its xenophobic manifestations gained parallels with Bonapartists who supported the radical-right populism of the 19th century French politician Georges Boulanger. Jackson’s populist disdain for the National Bank was also reflected in the Bonapartist anti-Semitism of the fin-de-siècle.
It is no surprise, then, that Trump has drawn comparisons to Bonaparte from outlets like Newsweek, Huffington Post, The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Times of India. Shortly before the US presidential election, “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer called Trump “the Napoleon of the current year.” Spencer, who celebrated Trump’s election with the cry, “Hail Victory,” understands the caesarist aspirations of sovereignty written into the fascist mythos that has come alive during the so-called “populist wave.”
Fascism maintains a close relationship to Bonapartist history and ideology. German Communist Party dissident August Thalheimer identified fascism as a kind of Bonapartism that united shopkeepers and the ruling class in an anti-proletarian alliance. Trotsky contributed shortly thereafter to this ideation of fascism as a right-wing populist force that made overtures to the working poor and middle classes in order to combat the rise of the autonomous self-organization of the proletariat. French Resistance figure Raymond Aron followed up, identifying Bonapartism as “the anticipation and the French version of fascism.”
What binds Caesar, Napoleon and Jackson runs deeper than a tacit class alliance and something so simple as Napoleon’s evocation of Caesar and Jackson’s support for Napoleon — or modern commentators like Spencer and Kingston comparing Trump to Bonaparte or Jackson to Caesar. It strikes to the core of sovereignty and how it is used. A true sovereign requires not just an “other” that can constitute the political “outside,” but the potential brought about through a suspension of the political order itself.
The sovereignty desired by the far right would use the specter of the “outsider” as leverage to supersede checks and balances on executive authority and perpetuate its power through aggressive manipulations of nationalist sentiment in the interests of “rebirth” and “rejuvenation.” In Italy and in Germany, those on the left who fought the rise of fascism became the first victims of its totalitarian impulse toward unbridled violence. As Trump’s most avid far-right supporters move toward creating a violent, autonomous base of power amid what they identify as a “Civil War,” his quest for unchecked sovereignty furthers their unrestrained efforts to liquidate the left in the name of anti-antifascism.
While Trump’s egomania may preclude the formulation of a set ideological system composed of loyalties and political positions, Trumpism’s invocation of Jackson and Bonaparte evidences Trump’s tacit proximity to fascist narratives both in the US and abroad. At the same time, the president’s own quaint regard for a slavery-supporting perpetrator of genocide who set the stage for the Civil War reveals how deeply white nationalism is engrained within the social and historical fabric of the US — and how violently it is defended.