Op-ed: The perils of Jacksonian governance

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, March 12, 2017 9:39pm
  • Opinion

Upon taking office, President Donald Trump dusted off a portrait of Andrew Jackson and hung it above his desk in the Oval Office. He chose better than he knew.

The most jaw-dropping furor of the early Trump administration — the Obama wiretapping allegation — was presaged in broad outline almost 200 years ago during Jackson’s presidency. Trump is Jacksonian not just in political sensibility but also in temperament, and that ultimately could determine the fate of his presidency.

Trump’s tweets created a sense of crisis in his own government, sent his aides scrambling to find some justification and could yet have momentous consequences if, say, FBI Director James Comey quits in the fallout.

This is a lot of work for a Saturday morning tweetstorm arising, as far as we can tell, from a fit of pique.

Still, it doesn’t have anything on the Peggy Eaton affair. On the surface, the affair involved the picayune question of how a wife of one Cabinet member was treated by the wives of other Cabinet members. Yet it blighted the beginning of Jackson’s presidency, remade his Cabinet and affected subsequent presidential politics.

Peggy Eaton was married to Jackson’s secretary of war, John Eaton. She was beautiful, impetuous and not popular with the other women in Washington society, who considered her of low character.

The attacks on Peggy reminded Jackson of abuse directed at his late wife, Rachel, and he devoted himself entirely to her cause. In the ensuing contention, invitations to parties, gossip and petty snubs took on the highest political significance.

Imagine “The Real Housewives of D.C.” — except with the president of the United States intimately involved in every brawl. Secretary of State Martin Van Buren deftly worked the politics of the affair to become a favorite of Jackson and set himself up to get elected as his successor, while Vice President John Calhoun — whose wife, Floride, was a Peggy antagonist — fell from favor.

Jackson and Trump share qualities that invited their respective blowups.

There’s the moodiness. Jackson biographer Jon Meacham describes him at one point as “grumpy and wounded, sensitive and wary of conspiracy.” Surely, that captures Trump’s mood when tweeting last Saturday morning, furious at the latest eruption of the Russian controversy.

There’s the oppositional mindset. “Jackson believed,” Meacham writes, “the country was being controlled by a kind of congressional-financial-bureaucratic complex in which the needs and concerns of the unconnected were secondary to those who were on the inside.” This is a fair approximation of the “deep state” that Trump and his supporters believe is out to sabotage him.

There’s the combativeness. Jackson viewed all conflict in military terms, and Trump is ever the “counterpuncher.”

There’s the emphasis on loyalty. In the Eaton affair, Jackson couldn’t abide contradiction. Trump aides must defend the indefensible when the president goes off half-cocked, knowing every controversy is a loyalty test.

There’s the backdrop of hostile polite opinion. Jackson’s critics considered him “unbalanced and dictatorial,” as Meacham puts it. Sound familiar?

Finally, both Jackson and Trump viewed the controversies as a test of their legitimacy. Jackson saw the attacks on Peggy Eaton as a way to undermine his authority to pick whomever he pleased for his Cabinet. Trump considers the Russia story an attempt to undermine his November victory.

Jackson eventually found his way out of the Eaton affair, not through continued internal warfare but by deftly negotiating a turnover of his Cabinet. Similarly, Trump won’t punch his way out of the Russia story with wild allegations of his own, but by focusing on matters of greater public import.

Jackson won two terms, and for all his faults demonstrated a deep love of country. The test for Trump is whether he can rein in his Jacksonian temperament enough to get out of his own way.

In the meantime, just like the first time around, political observers will be agog. As John Quincy Adams noted when Jackson’s Cabinet turned over, “people stare — and laugh — and say, what next?”

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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