The Power of Symbolism

In the past few weeks, in the flurry and frenzy of the new Trump Administration, a smaller news story emerged from The Hill that was ignored by most of the media. This story probably tells more about the new president and his thinking than the combined actions he has taken so far.

Upon taking office, every president discovers that they can borrow works of art or other national treasures from landmarks such as the National Gallery of Art to adorn the Oval Office or Cabinet Room. Some presidents use this to choose portraits or busts of figures they admire; Gerald Ford adorned his Cabinet Room with a painting of Eisenhower and Truman, Reagan chose Calvin Coolidge, and George W. Bush chose Winston Churchill’s bust for his Oval Office. President Trump, of all the figures he had available to him, chose a portrait of Andrew Jackson, our seventh president and the first populist.

In a way, this makes sense. If you read our history around the time of Jackson, his election was considered a sea change in U.S. politics and fundamentally altered our country in both good and bad ways. His election was the first in which a widespread voting franchise had been extended to all free males. Before, it had been restricted to those who owned property. His was the first presidency to eschew tradition. Consider a few things from his presidency for which he is known:

  1. He ignored the precedent set by all of his predecessors when it came to appointing people to office. It was said of his philosophy: “to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy,” giving rise to the infamous Spoils System. He tended to appoint his supporters to office over qualified applicants, and it led to a vast turnover in federal personnel whenever a new administration took office.
  2. He was the first president to use the veto as a political weapon. His twelve vetoes, while considered few in number compared to modern presidents, was more than any of the presidents before him combined. Before Jackson, the veto was considered as a last resort to stop laws the president felt were unconstitutional, such as Madison’s veto of internal improvements because he felt the constitution did not give Congress such power. Jackson used the veto to shape policy and insert the president as a key player in forming legislation.
  3. He famously battled the Supreme Court over the removal of the Cherokee People from Georgia to the West in what we know of as The Trail of Tears. SCOTUS – led by the legendary John Marshall – declared this action by the Jackson Administration to be illegal. Jackson flouted the political nicety of honoring a Supreme Court decision by retorting, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”
  4. He famously hated and killed the Bank of the United States, which acted as a moderating and stabilizing force to the U.S. economy and for the issuance of currency. Its existence was anathema to Western interests, as it restricted easy money and credit some felt was needed to expand the country. Jackson vetoed the reauthorization charter for the bank. Later, because too much credit and easy money was in circulation, Jackson issued an executive order known as The Specie Circular which restricted all sales of public lands to those who only held gold in payment. As you can imagine, the demand for gold skyrocketed but banks only had limited supply to exchange for bank notes. The law of supply and demand caught up with the economically-illiterate Jackson, and caused the Panic of 1837.
  5. Although Jackson was for state’s rights, he also recognized the need for the federal government to assert itself in its constitutional powers. During the Nullification Crisis when South Carolina threatened to secede over a high tariff, Jackson went to Congress and asked for unprecedented power to “force” collection of tariffs by sending in the U.S. Army, if needed. While the constitution – and the subsequent Militia Act of 1792 – allows for military action to enforce the law, Jackson threatened martial law on South Carolina to assert federal authority.

Already, there are parallels between what the new Trump Administration has done that has precedent in the Jackson Administration. Like Jackson, he has instituted a form of a “spoils system” where political appointees who have no idea how to run a government agency, or have had any experience in government, are running federal departments. Like Jackson’s removal of the Cherokee, Trump has issued an order to stop refugees from the Middle East because of their religion. Like Jackson, I can imagine his reaction when the Supreme Court or any other federal court declares his actions to be unconstitutional will be to dare them to enforce it. Like Jackson, he wants to upend an economic order that has worked for the most Americans by disrupting the Bretton Woods system and imposing tariffs once again. Like Jackson battled the elites that had controlled the presidency and the government before him, Trump claims to be the champion of the “forgotten man” over the elites.

The symbolism is uncanny, and could add to a bit of angst as we see the opening act of a new, populist era. Symbols matter, and this is a symbol that should inform and alarm Americans. It could also add clarity moving forward.

Matthew Hines

Pushing Forward

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