Vail Daily column: Populists who ‘shake things up’ get votes
May 6, 2017
Populist politicians offer easy answers to complicated questions. That's appealing when your job is threatened or wages shrink. Let's say you worked for Eastman Kodak making film for Polaroid cameras in the 1960s. Your head tells you that's a dead market. At the bottom of your heart, however, you vote for a politician who promises to restore your job at Kodak.
Desperate feelings force some voters to endorse populist leaders who promise to resurrect dying "Polaroid camera" industries, such as coal or steel and shake up Washington elites who favor robots over hand-labor and replace them with populist magicians whose bags of tricks miraculously deliver jobs.
The seventh president, Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) talked bluntly. A self-made man with minimal formal education, Jackson unleashed a verbal storm that battered the establishment. He closed Philadelphia's Second Bank of the United States. Jackson accused this bank of investing too much of the common people's money under federal control. He railed against federal employees who hung on to "cushy" jobs. He vilified monied speculators who benefited from bank insiders' tips. Jackson identified ordinary Americans as "the planter, the farmer, the mechanic and the laborer" — his people.
Sounding like a Greek god on Mount Olympus, Jackson thundered, "Vote for me!" Americans, convinced that he guaranteed their future prosperity, did. Jackson gave easy answers to complex problems. He used slogans to simplify what's sublime. Supporters applauded his blunt speech that shook things up. Voters commended Jackson for seldom equivocating. They endorsed his no-nonsense plans.
Jackson's portrait hangs alongside President Donald Trump's desk in the Oval Office. Trump attracted white blue-collar workers by mimicking Jackson, making ribald vices attractive to voters. Presidents Trump and Jackson share traits: neither read books, both showed limited interest in history and each was impulsive, trusting intuition.
Trump is finding out that campaigning with a swagger is easier than leading our nation. He promises to build a wall bordering states that lack any GOP congressional Representatives who support its erection. They tell constituents it costs less to hire more border patrol, install more electronic surveillance and erect a fence, where needed, to block illegal immigration.
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Although Jackson and Trump share populist identity, their vocational backgrounds sharply differ. Trump succeeded in real estate and charmed viewers as a reality TV star. Governing isn't on his resume until now. In contrast, Jackson had governing experience before being elected president. "For all his bombast," writes Pulitzer-prize winning biographer Jon Meacham, "Jackson was an experienced public figure — he had served as judge, a Senator and a general — who understood his weaknesses and took care to compensate for them.
Scripture warns us to reject loveless rants that sound like a "noisy gong or a clanging symbol." (I Corinthians 13:1). Populists often confuse moderate speech with weakness. They consider tough talk supporting militant foreign policy as heroic.
Former President Thomas Jefferson warned against Jackson. Wise citizens heed his caution as populism sweeps our country. "(Jackson's) passions are terrible," Jefferson said. "When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings. … His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; he has been much tried since I knew him, but he is a dangerous man."
Does populism breed today's dangerous leaders?
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations and makes God's history come alive.
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