Donald Trump isn’t a Jacksonian, but he plays one on TV. In a running satire of military potency, Trump has proposed a series of illegal acts to weaken America’s enemies. With his trademark vagueness, the founder of Trump University proposes to “go tougher than waterboarding” against captured terrorists, leaving unsaid what kinds of torture he would actually implement. And he insists on the propriety of killing the families of terrorists, deliberately targeting non-combatants for death.
Endlessly confident in the power of his mere personality, Trump insists he’ll have no trouble making the American military obey orders to nakedly torture its prisoners and deliberately kill people who are not armed and in the fight. He’s a leader, he says, and people follow him. “If I say do it, they’re going to do it,” Trump said in the Thursday evening Republican debate. “That’s what leadership is all about.”
It’s not, and Trump backpedaled furiously right after the debate, but Trump still got applause from the debate audience. In a dangerous vacuum of leadership, we’ve mistaken an assault on American military values for the embrace of victory. We’ve turned Elmer Gantry into Andrew Jackson.
There’s Good Reason to Hate the Status Quo
After seven years of relentless foreign policy fecklessness, Americans feel the impotence of their national leadership with painful clarity. We’ve been at war in Afghanistan for 15 years, with no sign of an endgame or a strategy. Syria remains locked in a vicious civil war, long after a hapless American president declared its leader had to go.
Now, Russia and Iran intervene in a war that American policymakers proposed to settle, feeling no apparent concern about the American response. Libya, recklessly shorn of its leadership, is plagued by warlordism and Islamist mayhem. ISIS is on the march in the Middle East and in Paris, met with an American policy of James Taylor songs and bombing restrained by concerns about pollution.
So we yearn—and it is, palpably, yearning—for a Jackson, an unyielding warrior who intends nothing but the absolute defeat of the nation’s enemies. (We also yearn for a Jacksonian domestic policy, restraining big institutions and their implied cronyism, but that’s a story for another day.) We’re going to be disappointed. Our desire to have a Jacksonian figure hasn’t given birth to one.
Americans Can Stand Some Rule-Breaking
To be sure, Jackson’s example shows that Americans have always had a great deal of patience for warrior-leaders who go beyond the laws and customs of war. Defending New Orleans in the War of 1812, Jackson summarily imprisoned local citizens of doubtful loyalty, listing them in daily detainee reports as “citizens without charges.” A state senator criticized him in print; Jackson promptly ordered his arrest, then ordered the arrest of the judge who issued a writ of habeas corpus.
After the war, Jackson strode into the courtroom to pay a fine for illegally detaining the judge, proud and confident. The audience assembled for the confrontation burst into applause at the fine sight of the general’s entrance. Congress later voted to return the fine to Jackson—with interest.
Three years later, leading troops in the First Seminole War, Jackson ordered the courts-martial of two British citizens who had been trading with the Seminoles and offering them encouragement in their war with the Americans. A military commander acting without orders or approval from his civilian chain of command, the general was risking international outrage on authority he didn’t possess.
Jackson didn’t care: He had both men executed. Outraged and horrified, Congress and the War Department launched investigations—that gradually faded into silence. No one in Washington was willing to deliver a substantial rebuke to the nation’s preeminent war hero.
Jackson isn’t alone in our history; similarly outrageous acts have met comparable kinds of qualified approval. In 1902, at war in the Philippines, Marine Corps officer Littleton Waller ordered the summary execution of 11 Filipino porters who had mutinied against the Marines they served during a tough march across the island of Samar. He was charged 11 eleven counts of murder—and his court-martial acquitted him. A major in the Philippines, Waller went on to retire as a major general.
American Tolerance Has Its Limits, However
But the first key to the history of our patience with extralegal military action is that Americans are usually forgiving of warriors who act in moments of personal danger and the real threat of defeat. Jackson saved New Orleans against a powerful British attacking force, assembling an army as if by miracle. His artillerymen were pirates, freed from the local jails on the condition that they would fight. Americans admired Jackson’s audacity, and they respected his improbable success.
The second American tradition with military excess is that we expect our transgressive leaders to know when to stop. In New Orleans, recognizing no authority higher than himself, Jackson ordered the immediate release of all his prisoners at the very moment he learned of a peace treaty. In the Philippines, Waller had his disloyal porters shot, but resisted the orders of Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith to make Samar a “howling wilderness,” killing “everyone over the age of ten.” They were men who went beyond the rules, but were still anchored to them.
We love military genius. Our history is full of warriors who pushed against rules and restraints: Jackson, Sherman, Patton. We are more forgiving of the man on horseback than we probably should be. But our first expectation is that the man on horseback has to be a man on horseback. Since George Washington, Americans have loved commanders who rode straight into the enemy ranks alongside their men, sword drawn to fight. The pattern goes in this order: Danger, victory, forgiveness.
Donald Trump has risked nothing, fought nowhere, led no troops, and won no victories. He displays no apparent strategic knowledge or instinct—shrugging, for a good recent example, at questions about all this nuclear triad stuff. He betrays no sense of a link between his proposed military actions and an intended outcome, connecting our challenges to a path that he thinks leads to victory: 1. Be real tough; 2. ???; 3. Enemies vanquished.
He is not a warrior of any kind, and it’s a sign of our desperation that he’s been allowed to play at being one.