As Frank Rich pointed out in his recent meditation on the political phenomenon of Trump, political observers and pundits have struggled to identify historical precedents. The most popular, according to Rich, have ranged “from the third-party run of the cranky billionaire Ross Perot back to Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin, the radio-savvy populist demagogues of the Great Depression.” He also fingers Joseph McCarthy, Hugo Chávez, George Wallace, and his favorite, the fictional, comedic “unhinged charlatans” of Mark Twain. For Rich, Trump is the real-life embodiment of the fictional political con-men of American cinema, characters who though their sheer outrageousness call into question the legitimacy and sanity of the political system as a whole. Rich foresees some potentially salubrious effects of Trump’s brazen act of real-life political satire, because his performance will lay bare precisely how naked the emperor really is, thus necessitating reform. I think that’s exuberantly optimistic, to the point of naiveté, although he gets points from me for trying to find a silver lining the dark cloud of Trumpism. But I’d like to suggest another older and more jarring precedent for Trump: the “Founding Fathers” themselves.
By “Founding Fathers,” I mean the small-‘r’ republicans of the pre-Jacksonian era. As J. G. A. Pocock, Bernard Bailyn, and Gordon Wood have argued, late eighteenth-century American politicians were strongly influenced by British republican thought, which stressed “virtue” and “duty” as the only bulwarks against “corruption.” For these British political thinkers and their American readers, “corruption” was an expansive term that described any way in which the mechanisms of government were turned to private benefit rather than the “common good.” In their analysis, government failed in its most important goal of protecting the liberties of its subjects when leaders allowed their personal ambitions to override their commitment to the broader public welfare. Good leaders transcended (or sublimated?) their private desires in order to perceive the “common good” and move towards it. Such gentlemanly leaders were said to have “virtue” and to be serving out of a sense of “duty.” This theory of government was compelling for the revolutionary generation, in that it shaped both the move towards independence and the successive designs for the government of the United States. But it eventually foundered on some of its own internal vagaries and contradictions, most obviously the idea that there was a single “common good” that represented the best possible outcome for all citizens. The “common good” seemed clear enough when republicanism was a theoretical system elaborated by members of the eighteenth-century British opposition, but when the Americans attempted to put it into practice after 1781 such convenient theoretical fictions quickly dissolved in practice. With the rise of Andrew Jackson in the 1820s, the reality of conflicting interests led to the emergence of more explicitly liberal political thought, which attempted to control and harness inevitable conflict in order to produce acceptable political outcomes. And ever since Andrew Jackson, the United States has rarely returned to its founding small-‘r’ republicanism, except rhetorically.
The small-‘r’ republicans’ relationship to personal wealth is fascinating and somewhat counterintuitive. Post-Jackson American politicians have generally played up their humble origins and downplayed their personal wealth, because if the job of the liberal state is the balance the inherently conflicting interests of the different members of society, wildly unequal wealth can do nothing but distort that process. But pre-Jackson politicians were much less reticent about their personal wealth, because their “virtue” depended on them overcoming their personal interests in order to pursue the “common good.” Many politicians (and presumably, many voters) assumed that leaders who already possessed personal wealth, whose personal needs were already sufficiently looked after, would be better able to transcend those needs while in office. Poor men were needy men, and needy men were easily corrupted. Rich men had everything they needed, and thus they wouldn’t be tempted to corrupt the government for their own private gain. The argument was sufficiently counterintuitive even then that it was generally made implicitly rather than explicitly, but it was still powerful enough that four of the first five presidents were well known to be wealthy slaveowning Virginia planters.
What’s interesting about Trump is that he is essentially reprising this ancient theory about virtue in government. As Rich points out, “Trump is using [his wealth] as a club to bludgeon Republicans. ‘I’m using my own money,’ he said when announcing his candidacy. ‘I’m not using lobbyists, I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.'” Now, Trump certainly isn’t promising to pursue the “common good,” whatever that is … even if his “policies,” such as they are, are relatively populist within the Republican primary field. But he is essentially promising to remain uncorrupted in office because his wealth ensures that his own needs are met and as a result he can retain his independent judgment about what is best for the nation. He is more qualified than less wealthy candidates precisely because their personal need for money forces them to consider the opinions of the wealthy above everyone else’s. Trump’s gilt skyscrapers have replaced the plantations and slaves of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, but the political theory behind the argument is the same. And it still feels counterintuitive, at best.
So maybe the actual truth is something too surreal for Frank Rich to contemplate: Trump’s real historical antecedents are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Whether that ennobles Trump or denigrates our secular national saints is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder.