Trump and the Constitution: populism

I’m teaching a seminar called “Trump and the Constitution.” You can find the current version (of the ever-changing) syllabus here: Trump syllabus. Our first class looked at the history of populism.

Class 1. Populism in the United States

Remini, Andrew Jackson, chs. 1, 5-8

Goebel, The Political Economy of American Populism from Jackson to the New Deal, 11 Stud. in Amer. Pol. Dev. 109 (1997)

Sanson, “What He Did and What He Promised to Do…”: Huey Long and the Horizons of Louisiana Politics, Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association (2006)

Bannon, Comments at Vatican Conference (2014)

Trump, Inaugural Address (2017)

We also watched a video of Trump’s visit to the Hermitage, and the famous “hick” speech from All the King’s Men.

Bannon claims the populist mantle for Trump. Is he right to do so?

Trump certainly mouthed populist themes on the campaign trail. He railed against the “elites,” the corruption of Washington, and the party establishment. He purported to act on behalf of working men and women. He appealed to people who felt left out.

Still, Trump is no Jackson. Jackson was an experienced office-holder, a professional politician. Read Jackson’s inaugural address: it could hardly be more tame. Long was also an experienced, professional politician. Both Jackson and Long were considerably more politically knowledgeable than Trump is. They seem a lot more intelligent, or at least, sophisticated about politics. Watch this video of Long.

Both Jackson and Long had strong ideological commitments, which they pursued relentlessly. The question arose in class whether Trump does as well. One view is that the does not—he is an authoritarian without a cause. The other view is that he does—he is an economic nationalist above all. We will see.

Both Jackson and Long are remembered for paying scant heed to checks and balances. But while Long is frequently condemned (possibly unfairly) as a kind of proto-fascist, historians admire Jackson for strengthening the presidency at a time when it may have been too weak. At the same time, he did not always use his powers to advance the public interest—the destruction of the Second Bank of the United States comes to mind. And whatever Jackson’s intentions, he fell prey to an inherent logic of politics—throwing out the old elites, but replacing them with another set of elites, his wealthy supporters, rather than the “people.” There is not much in this history to make us optimistic about Trump except that we survived it.

Is a system of checks and balances compatible with populism, authentically pursued? Or does one or the other have to give?

We will revisit the relationship between populism and separation powers later this week, when we take a look at “competitive authoritarianism” in the Latin American presidential systems.