by Joshua Alvarez
Conservative writer Matthew Continetti recently provided a somewhat useful, if verbose, guide to four strains of conservatism currently competing for intellectual and political power: the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals. One of those strains–the Jacksonians–is of particular interest.
The group takes Andrew Jackson, whose portrait currently hangs in the Oval Office, as their avatar. (Continneti identifies himself as one.) This school of thought, Continetti writes, is “individualist, suspicious of federal power, distrustful of foreign entanglement, opposed to taxation but supportive of government spending on the middle class, devoted to the Second Amendment, desire recognition, valorize military service, and believe in the hero who shapes his own destiny.”
Continetti sees Trump “through the lens of Jacksonian politics” and believes the tradition could serve as a “possible guide to incorporating populism and conservatism.” No ideology is without contradictions, but Jacksonianism is particularly conflicted in a way that seems to fundamentally corrupt its own aspirations. The late neoconservative writer Irving Kristol described it as an “an upsurge of revolt against the moneyed interests, an upsurge led by real estate speculators, investors, and mercantile adventurers, which spoke as the voice of the People while never getting much more than half the vote, and which gave a sharp momentum to the development of capitalism, urbanism, and industrialism while celebrating the glories of the backwoodsman.” Familiar, wouldn’t you say?
Irving’s prescient description leaves out one key element: the intellectuals who ascribe intellectualism to the “real estate speculators, investors, and mercantile adventurers” who, really, are catching a historical wave they don’t really understand but intuitively ride toward self-aggrandizement (and, often, self-enrichment). Intellectuals, by their nature, are prone to seeing ideas as the prime mover of events. But one doesn’t need to have read much to see that adding an intellectual gloss to today’s real estate huckster president is folly.
Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.