- Many presidents cite past presidents they admire. Few choose Andrew Jackson.
I'm writing this week from North Carolina, the state that may be the center of our current illiberal, anti-democratic and yet ostensibly populist politics. It's the place that should be called North Coup-d'état-arolina after the Republican legislature tried to disempower the democratically elected Democratic governor in a session from which they expelled the press and the public. It's also the place whose racially gerrymandered congressional districts the U.S. Supreme Court just ruled unconstitutional, causing — in what may almost constitute a miracle — Justice Clarence Thomas to side with the court's more liberal justices.
More specifically, I am in the town of Waxhaw, which claims, although it's disputed, to be the birthplace of Andrew Jackson, seemingly the only one of his predecessors that President Donald Trump admires. The town is named after the indigenous people who were wiped out during the Yamasee War, which ended 300 years ago this year, in 1717.
The Museum of the Waxhaws has a particularly noxious sign featuring a picture of Jackson, probably the president most responsible for the genocide of Native Americans (and that's some stiff competition). When the Supreme Court ruled in 1832 that native lands were sovereign, in Worcester v. Georgia, Jackson proclaimed "the decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that they cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate."
The court-hating Trump may present himself as a Jacksonian in hopes of at some point employing this line, or more likely the apocryphal version, in which Jackson said Chief Justice "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!"
The case addressed the forcible removal of the Cherokee, a horrendously shameful event in our nation's history, and one that inspired not only Trump but also Adolf Hitler.
I thought of this a couple weeks ago when I talked to Kathleen B. Jones, a scholar who studies the work of the political theorist and Holocaust refugee Hannah Arendt, whose The Origins of Totalitarianism became a surprise best-seller after the election. I called Jones because I wanted to talk about Trump's claim that he was "a nationalist and a globalist." Trump's nationalist supporters saw this claim as a betrayal — and yet many of these same people praise Putin and used their dank memes for French far-right politician Marine Le Pen.
Arendt wrote about the ways that initially nationalist movements like fascism ultimately embrace globalism as they move toward full-blown totalitarianism and seek to politically remake the world. I thought that might help me understand what was going on with this international movement of nationalists interfering in each other's elections around the world.
"If you add the adjective... 'white' in front of the word 'nationalist,' a 'white nationalist' and a 'globalist,' there isn't really much of a contradiction between those two tendencies," Jones said when we talked on the phone. "It's interesting because when Hitler was formulating his program of land conquest ... he writes about this in Mein Kampf, he turned to the United States as an illustration of the strategy to be pursued in order to advance the interests of a people across the scope of an entire territorial area," she said. "He was thinking of Manifest Destiny. And he was thinking of the decimation of the American Indian population."
There we were, back at Jackson — via Hitler, who wasn't inspired by our genocide of Native Americans and conquest of the continent alone. James Q. Whitman's new book, Hitler's American Model, shows to what extent Nazi race laws were inspired by Jim Crow laws in the American South from the period MAGA-ists seem to want to return to. Many Nazis even thought our race laws were too extreme.
Jones says that Trump's "restrictive immigration policies" and his "draconian economic policies," which will disproportionately affect communities of color, amount to a kind of recolonization of America and have parallels with what happened in Germany and Russia between the two world wars.
"It's the transformation of people from all of the residents, all of the inhabitants of a country, into a racialized, ethnicized concept of the people that, simultaneously, basically deterritorialized the concept of nation," she said.
Adding, "When you look at what Marine Le Pen is doing, France should become French again, you know who the targets are. She isn't shy at all about naming them. When you look at what's going on in the Netherlands, in Hungary, in Poland, in Greece, these are all places where far-right nationalists' parties, ethno-nationalist parties have gained footing in ways we haven't seen since the between-the-wars period."
This is particularly troubling for us, of course, in the context of Trump, who has consistently acted as if he is the leader, not of the whole country, but of his supporters. He sees the press as the "enemy of the people" and finds less commonality with Democrats than he does with foreign nationalist authoritarians like Putin, Erdogan or Rodrigo Duterte, whose murderous drug war Trump praised in the same conversation in which he gave the dictator the position of U.S. nuclear subs.
As with Manifest Destiny, many white Christians believe Trump's election was the will of God. "He offended gays. He offended women. He offended the military. He offended black people. He offended the Hispanic people. He offended everybody! And he became president of the United States. Only God could do that," evangelist Franklin Graham recently told the Atlantic.
I'm not saying there are no differences between Jackson and Hitler and Trump. Two of the three are guilty of genocide. But neither Jackson nor Hitler actually had the capacity — in the form of nuclear weapons — to destroy the entire world. Trump does.
Arendt's Origins is not about finding exact parallels, Jones said, but it is "a warning of what will happen if we don't pay attention" when people try to create dictatorships or power without limits.